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Wednesday, May 28, 2003

A brighter shade of Gray

Special to The Japan Times

As far as major regional markets go, Japan would appear to be the last frontier for the English singer-songwriter David Gray, who is a star almost everywhere else in the world, including the United States, where his last two albums went multiplatinum.

News photo
Singer-songwriter David Gray

Over here, his latest collection, "A New Day at Midnight," has sold most modestly since being released domestically a few months ago, but if one took into account the audience reaction at his invitation-only showcase at Shibuya Club Quattro on May 19, Japan shouldn't be that tough a nut to crack.

The boisterous response at first seemed to be at odds with Gray's signature mood, which, like his name, conjures up images of urban solitude on a cold, overcast Sunday afternoon. However, his songs are primarily dramatic in that he uses quietude dynamically. What sounds thoughtful on record is often cathartic in concert.

"I didn't know what to expect last night," he said the next day -- cold and overcast, as it happened -- sitting in a room at the Capitol Tokyu Hotel in Akasaka. "I'd heard rumors that Japanese people are very polite, very reserved. Obviously, I was quite pleased. Yes, my songs do have their very quiet bits, but I think they also have the ability to lift everybody up. And with the band I've got there's a lot of energy. There's nothing soggy about it."

In conversation, Gray gives a different impression than he does when he's onstage. A powerful singer with a husky voice who wears his emotions on his sleeve when he performs, he talks in a voluble undertone that's perfectly suited to his slight frame and boyish tendency to grin at the drop of a non sequitur. He speaks guardedly and coherently about his music, having had lots of practice since 1999 when his fourth album, "White Ladder," became an unexpected smash in Great Britain. He had toiled for eight years before that and it was only when he'd given up trying to please others that he found he could connect with a larger audience.

Popping the question

Favorite record for an overcast Sunday afternoon.

At the moment I would listen to Sigur Ros or the new Lucinda Williams. In the past, probably Gillian Welch.

The album that changed your life:
Bob Dylan's "Greatest Hits." I was 13 when I heard it on a cassette in my dad's car. I was into all the music of the day, but from then on I was fascinated with that kind of music and it opened up the door to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen. I just loved the words and the way they left space for all this imagery.

A record or artist you first hated but now really like:
Maybe Stevie Wonder. When I first heard him I actually thought he was weird. But now I'm very impressed.

Favorite love song:
"Ballerina" by Van Morrison. "The light is on the left side of your head [shakes head in amazement]."

He started out playing "loud music" as a teenager in a band in Wales, but it wasn't until he started writing songs at Liverpool Art College that he discovered his "melancholic, acoustic" side.

"It wasn't a style that was exactly on the top of everyone's list," Gray says. "It was 1991. The charts were saturated with dance music and I was just strumming away in a kind of protest-singer vein. I was so out of sync it was almost hip."

His first album, the autumnal "A Century Ends," contained songs that he says were "vitriolic, with a lot of righteous rage," but explains the negativity is not so much a function of youthful angst but rather was the musical tenor of the times:

"The whole Nirvana thing happened and it was tempting to think, 'I've got a big voice and big lyrics, so I could beef my sound up in a more band type of way.' But it didn't really increase the impact of my music. It actually diminished it. It was more successful when I operated on a toned-down, personal level. Over the years, I worked it out, and 'White Ladder' marked a real change in my sound."

Part of the reason for the change may have been economic. Having been dropped from his second major label, Gray decided to record the album himself, using mostly his own acoustic guitar, the percussion abilities of his musical partner Clune and samples. The result was a very spare sound that brought out the best in Gray's voice and left the stark beauty of his melodies intact. Still, no record company wanted to buy it, so he put it out himself on his own label, iht.

"It's the word 'hit' cleverly jumbled up," he says about the label name. "At the beginning of my career, my manager used to share an office building with Dave Robinson of Stiff Records. He played him my first single, 'Bird Without Wings,' and Dave said, [thick accent] 'Tempo of doom, mate.' So I first thought of calling it t.o.d. records."

"White Ladder" hit first in Ireland, the only place where Gray previously had a solid following. "A video jockey started playing the video for 'Shine' [from the first album] and this drummed up a certain amount of interest in me. In England, I'd be lucky if I could get 50 paying customers to come to a concert, but in Ireland I'd have 250 people crammed into a club."

His obsession with Van Morrison, however, preceded Ireland's obsession with him. "I heard 'Astral Weeks' when I was about 20, and I didn't get it. Then I went out with a girl and she played 'Moondance' for me, and the opening song, 'It Stoned Me,' just blew me away. I went back and listened to 'Astral Weeks' with completely different ears, just tuned right into his frequency. I still carry that inspiration with me, that stream-of-consciousness, that fabric of accidental musical chaos."

Though Morrison's R&B doesn't figure much in Gray's songs, his penchant for sensation over experience is central to Gray's writing. There's immediacy in the orange glow of streetlights and the physical pain of loneliness that pop up in Gray's songs, which no amount of explication can re-create.

"It's crystallizing a momentary perception," he says. "A lot of songwriters write the lyrics first and add the music later, but I never work that way. I work from an atmosphere first and then I'll instinctively try to grab something that resembles that atmosphere in words."

It was this spirit of inhabiting the moment that reached the audience the night before, especially during the unscheduled encore. He and the band did a long, drawn-out version of Soft Cell's "Say Hello Wave Goodbye," which Gray augmented with lyrics from Morrison's "Madame George" and "Into the Mystic." Though he's recorded the song, it felt totally improvised.

"We don't do that one much anymore. You can't do that kind of free-form song all the time," Gray says. "You find yourself repeating yourself every time you improvise, and it can wear itself into a groove. But I really enjoyed it last night. It was the perfect place for it."

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