In an era of rampant record label mergers and media homogenization, the current grass-roots success of English troubadour David Gray is remarkable indeed. Having already released three albums to middling cult notoriety, the Manchester-born, London-based singer/songwriter/guitarist's platinum album White Ladder, released in the U.S. on longtime Gray fan Dave Matthews' ATO label, has become a surprise smash, establishing its creator as a late-blooming star.
Where his previous albums had stuck largely to a folky acoustic sound, White Ladder, originally released in the U.K. on Gray's own tiny IHT label, matches the artist's hauntingly melancholy songcraft with subtly deployed electronic beats. The hybrid sound proved to be a surprisingly effective vehicle for the artist's bitter-sweetly insightful lyrics and distinctively reedy vocals. Gray has even infiltrated MTV and VH-1 via his video for "Babylon."
ATO recently released Lost Songs 95-98, a collection of stripped-down acoustic recordings of previously unreleased songs written between Gray's third album, Sell, Sell, Sell, and White Ladder. The disc was originally issued in Ireland, where Gray has long maintained a loyal following; it debuted at number one there, and has since gone platinum nine times over. It's also risen as high as the number two slot on the English album charts.
Ironically, prior to White Ladder, Gray had become so discouraged with his lack of career progress that he'd considered retiring from music. Instead, he retreated to his home studio with drummer/co-producer Clune and worked on retooling his sound. The experimental impulse extended to Gray altering his writing methods. As he recently told Rolling Stone, "We made a decision: No more rock influences. We were starting with grooves, and I'd write a song from that. It was like letting oxygen into some claustrophobic room."
While his arrangements have grown more complex and adventurous, Gray feels that his songwriting has become simpler and more direct, stressing emotional honesty over lyrical detail. "I leaned that the more you have to say, perhaps the simpler you need to be saying it," he told Rolling Stone. "As life teaches you lessons, it strips away the fussy detail, and just suggesting things or leaving a space to let someone read between the lines is a very powerful tool."
Gray recently completed a major North American tour - his fourth U.S. visit since White Ladder's stateside release in March 2000 - that saw the artist and his three-man band headlining such prestigious venues as Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater and New York's Radio City Music Hall. Still, he maintains a healthy skepticism about the next-big-thing talk that's accompanied his success.
"I've had a bit of that before - the whole 'You're the next Bob Dylan' thing," he told USA Today. "Let's just wait and see what happens. I've made one record that's broken through, and I think I've only just begun musically. But I do feel like something's changed - like people want what I'm offering. And I'm ready to give it."