by Ashleigh VanHouten
photography by Francis Hills
David Gray is an international singing sensation, a grounded family man, and a talented artist with proven longevity – and he’s damn funny. Half of our phone interview consisted of some decidedly unladylike snorting laughter. You would think a man who’s been touring and making music for over 17 years would let it go to his head, but Gray is a remarkably level-headed guy. With eight studio albums to his credit (his breakthrough album, White Ladder, released in 1999, is still Ireland’s biggest-selling album ever) and another on the way, Gray has none of the rushed, diva-esque qualities you might expect from a superstar of his caliber.
Complementary to his well-developed sense of humor, Gray doesn’t take himself too seriously, as proven by his recent experience performing at the NASCAR Spring Cup Awards. “I was asked to take part and, it wasn’t like anything I’ve ever done before. It was like entering another dimension, so it was irresistible; I was like, ‘yes, let’s do it, it sounds completely mental.’ They said they’d spin me around in a car at 200 miles an hour, which they duly did; I really liked that bit.”
Despite not wanting to be one of those celebrities who “tart themselves up, being all righteous” about their specific causes, Gray does get involved in fundraisers when there’s time, including volunteering his time with Cancer Research UK’s upcoming Sound and Vision Event. “All I have to do is go sing a few songs do and a couple of interviews and that’s my job done. It’s hardly like I’m going to break a sweat; it’s the least I can do,” he says, affably.
Between world tours and spending every spare moment with his wife and two daughters, Gray doesn’t have much time for the frivolities that the rest of us take for granted. “I go through periods of buying the paper, but I don’t watch the news, I don’t really watch telly, I don’t listen to the radio. I read quite a lot, listen to a bit of music… I used to think it was important – you’re sort of made to feel that it is – but I’m not sure.” He does have an iPhone, but says he’s doing a terrible job keeping up with technology. Gray isn’t necessarily against the texting revolution, but comments, “we’re all over-communicating as a result, aren’t we? And we’re not saying very much. My friend calls iPhones ‘digital worry beads’ and that’s basically what they are – people can’t leave them alone. They have to keep touching them, like ‘I just bought this application that makes it look like I’m drinking a pint of beer,’ and I’m like, ‘how fascinating! You twat, who gives a fuck!’”
While touring, Gray can go months without so much as a walk in the park (he admits he’s an amateur bird-watcher). “I think when you’re touring, there’s a sensory deprivation aspect. You’re constantly in different modes of transport, having your ass cheeks examined by some security guard at the airport. You end up in airports, in cars, in hotel lobbies, in these kind of hostile spaces, and I begin to absolutely burn with desire to run away, to just get out through the bus window and up into the mountains, or to the lake or something. I’ve got a little place up by the sea in Norfolk in England and that’s where I take my family when I have the chance. It’s lovely.”
Despite his incredible success – over 12 million albums sold worldwide – and an almost super-human energy and dedication to his craft, Gray is a real person. He talks about how he internalizes his stress. “I do have dreams about gigs. They don’t happen that often, but often they’re anxiety dreams… for example, I had one where I played with Radiohead, and suddenly I couldn’t remember how to play my guitar. And then one where I played and everyone just left and the place was completely empty and it was like, ‘oh my god, this is a disaster.’”
Gray made the decision in the early 2000’s to slow down his touring schedule and focus more on his young family. “I basically spent a lot of the previous six or seven years on the road and in the studio and I was a little bit burned-out by it. It gets that way, you know, and I wanted to make contact with my life and my family and spend some time in my studio developing my ideas. So that’s where I put my priorities for a while.”
It seems to have done him good, with the success of his recent album Draw the Line (2009) and an upcoming album with the working title The Foundling, which he plans to release sometime in 2010.
“[Foundling] is basically more material from the same session [as the last album]. Draw the Line has a sort of punchiness to it, and it’s done all right, in the States in particular. But this other record doesn’t have a hope in hell of getting on the radio. It’s much more sparse and quiet and slow, but I think it’s equally strong.
“I’m really pleased with it and proud of it… it’s going to be a record that fans buy and will be passed around in a different way, without the mass media so much; you know, you have to have faith that they’re going to go out there and last and seep out, and find people in a different way than through the most obvious route.”
It seems that time and experience have taught Gray a lot about what he wants in life and how he sees his future – including the possibility of slowing down again after his current world tour and once again spending more time at home. “You only get one shot at life; I’d like to go have some fun. I think that might be good.”