David Gray talks about his favorite and least favorite songs

If you've walked the aisles of a TJ Maxx (or any department store) in the past decade or so, you've heard it. Even if many may not recognize his name at first, you're sure to have heard the mainstream, feel-good, chase-after-your-dreams hit song, "Babylon."

The year 1998 and every year before that was what David Gray will now know as the simplest times of his career. Originating in England as an underground folk singer-songwriter; David Gray didn't receive much praise from his earlier efforts. Then, with the success of White Ladder and the aforementioned "Babylon," a transformation occurred.

Now, with nine albums under his belt and what seems to be constant touring schedule, David Gray is solo artist unlike many among the circuit. His latest release, 2009's Draw the Line, put him at the forefront of success again for the first time in quite a few years with songs like "Fugitive" and "Nemesis." His recent tour this past summer had him scaling the globe with Ray Lamontagne as a co-headlining act.

He's back again, but this time he's made his way to the Twin Cities, and even made time for a little chat with Gimme Noise prior to his performance at the State Theater this Monday night.

Gimme Noise: What is your favorite song to play live?

David Gray: Pick one? Well, I guess in recent years, I think that "Nemesis" has got to be the thing that I've gotten the most of a thrill playing night by night. Because God knows every now and then I kind of write a song that's sort of open-ended, I can go off at the end, and exercise it. I can do new lyrics, and melodies, and literally go-off. There seems to be something about that song, there's just this aching sort of thing that opens up at the end and it's like a flower, it just seems to call upon me to find new images to put it too. That would be the one I would have to pick.

Do you have trouble playing a song or an album that you recorded that may not have any relevance in your life anymore? Like it may bring up a time in your life that you have passed, or don't wish to remember anymore?

If it just doesn't fit with me anymore, I wouldn't play it. Some of the songs just seem to elasticate, and even though there's an attitude of the song, to put yourself so many years ago... There must be something at the heart of it that doesn't speak to you; you might as well just put a cardboard cut-out up on the stage; it just doesn't come to life. If you can't feel it, then don't sing it. Some of the old songs they seem to quaint in a way.

Is there any song in particular you just can't play anymore?

Oh there are tons of them, not just one, there are reams of them. But that's just the way of it, hopefully with every record you're going to get a track that's going to stand by you. I'm always trying to reinterpret old songs, change them, and express them differently. I'm always looking back and changing; I don't try and do a carbon copy of what it used to be like. You have to water them, you have to get them out there, otherwise they'll go out there and they'll die. It takes work.

Is that possibly what you did with "Babylon" and then "Babylon II"?

"Babylon" was a bit of a challenge, I think mostly just because it was this overkill nature of the amount I had to play it, during several years. I just couldn't feel the song anymore. It belonged to everybody in the crowd. So I stopped playing it for a while, and a few years went by, and I found a different way of playing it. And now it really blooms now, it's a different situation. I can see why it's such a successful song, but for a while I just couldn't connect with it. I think it was just overkill; it's an incredibly repetitive business.

Do you feel that an artist's only hope now-a-days is to continue touring, given the current critical state of the music industry with illegal music downloads?

Well it just depends on what your notion of survival is. Once you get used to the good-life, and your notion of experience - there is no going back I don't think. Anyway I can keep things rolling at any kind of serious rate is playing live. I mean I love that part anyway, I don't see any way else to do it. Everything else is sort of ground into a halt. There are all kinds of incredible musicians out there making great records, and God knows where they get the money. I mean obviously, they must pirate the software and their making half of the things on computers, and doing it for next to nothing. They've got sort of a guerrilla style-approach to the whole thing, the whole other culture that's fascinating, and of this brilliant work. These people don't seem to need all this finance to sustain. I think that if you're looking for long-term; you want to keep doing this; you need a little bit of investment. I mean things cost money; if you want to put some strings on a track, or whatever you're thinking. It depends on what you want out of the thing, and what you want from it. People manage to do it for practically nothing these days.

I've been operating at a certain level for a certain amount of time, and I want to keep that going. I've got a brilliant team of people around me; it allows you to focus on what you do with so much more intensity. You've got the support of a brilliant sound crew, and road crew, and brilliant group of musicians. Obviously these things all cost money, so you've got to put a certain amount of work in to keep these things.

And how do you feel about illegal music downloads?

I don't know it's a bit like garbage. It's like saying "what do you think about the first shot that started the war?" It doesn't make any difference, the games over. I have varied feelings of disgust, I feel like someone's broken into my house inside. It's just the way it is, I mean we all made tapes for each other when we were kids. At least that's what I used to do, that was illegal. These days it's just so phenomenally easy, things will never be the same again. I don't know what I think. It's going to get more extreme between the few people, and the few things that control the whole industry. It's just this sort of advent of streaming, and this whole skull-jugglery that goes into the incompatibility of one computer with one system. I mean Apple cornering the market in one sense; I mean God knows what's around the corner, but it ain't gonna pay too well. Money is everything, like they say. So I don't really think about it, I just got lucky. I'm in a position where I can go out and work. I make music, I'm just concentrating on that.

You were fortunate where your music came up in a time when this illegal downloading era wasn't a factor.

Exactly! No, I wasn't. There are worse times for sure. All the skeletons come bouncing out of the cupboards with the Middle East; I mean there are worse crimes out there than robbing somebody's music. In context, all the fucking brutal dictators out there. -- We're all turning a blind eye to everything else that's going on out there, and it's hard to get militant about who's ripping off our music. At the same time, I don't see how there is a workable model in the future, in terms of investing in artists, and real music. Outside of the underground, I mean the mainstream is a real hell-hole; who would want to be there!? That's my interpretation of it.

Do you wish you could go back to being more underground?

No, I just deal with where I am now; I love where I am now. There's this sort of credibility bull-shit that the world sort of buys into. Obscurity equals integrity; it's all just a projection. I never understood what people were on about when I was like this cool, young artist. People were projecting all of this stuff onto me. But their idea of what I might be, or what they needed me to be. And I would never call to it; I just sort of do my thing. I don't quite fit into any sort of part of it, I just do my thing. Try to make the most of it. I was just as comfortable being this Indie, underground, sort of cult -- than I wanted to be a mainstream star, I didn't buy into any of it really. Luckily there are enough people out there that see through the bull-shit and just love music for what it is, and don't believe the hype. But every situation has things you have to contend with. When you're coming up its hard, and then they say it's tough at the top. Well it's tough in the middle, I can tell you that! [Laughing]

Every time you make a record it takes it a phenomenal amount of will to put yourself out there again, and to get ready to take this sort of, the bad with the good. You don't often get given the benefit of the doubt in this game, you have to justify yourself again, and again. It takes a lot of will, and it takes a lot of heart to keep coming. And the reason you're doing it is because you're passionate about music. It just keeps coming to life in you, and then there's more, and you have to say it, and then you said it, and then you have to put it out there. You can't just talk to yourself, it needs a conversation it needs an ear. So then you go on, and that's the truth for as far as I can tell.

Do you think it was simpler in the beginning, or do you think its simpler now?

It's becoming simpler; it was definitely simpler in the beginning. I've got a lot of responsibility; the more people you've got working for you, the more you're expected to do. The beginning nobody knew who I was, I was just limping around the place having a whale of a time, wide-eyed. I'd never been to America, or all these places around the World. There were a couple things you had to do now and again, but it's not like what I've got now, nothing like a heavy schedule. Less for me to do then; life was simpler; I was a much more happy-go-lucky person. But the fact was, it didn't work out, at one point I had to get serious, or relinquish the whole thing. So that's when life got a bit more complicated. I just sort of had to put my head down really, I chopped off a few bits of my life and put the energy I saved from that, I put everything into my music. To the detriment of my state of mind, I put it all away. I needed to put more in, I didn't feel I was trying myself as completely as I could have been. That's when things began to change for me. The records began to break through, and they broke through in spectacular ways; and nothings been the same since.

Your song "Sail Away" - what is the story behind that song?

Well, I can't really remember. With the advent of White Ladder, a lot of the songs were sort of written in a pragmatic sort of way. By that I mean, I just sort of nailed that song together. Sort of parts of it were two-different things. The chorus and the instruments were sort of just found, and I bolted them together with some extra chords to make them sound interesting enough. I don't remember how the lyrics came about, I remember certain times when I wrote bits of it, but it was over several years too, it didn't happen all at once. There were a couple extra versus that I know never got used. I can't really remember. But that song has served me bloody well, I can tell you that much. That one has looked after me that one. [Laughing]

It's great because it's so slow, and when it hits, like when we get it right, when we really get it right, the groove is right. It's just so seductive.  

Who has been the most inspiring artist you've shared the stage with in all of your career?

Oh boy... All of them... Well I, probably, the one that I got the closest to, the one that shared the most lasting effect in terms of playing were probably Radiohead. We played a couple of shows in London in '94, they toured in '95 on The Bends, and then again at the end of '96 when they were just getting ready to record OK Computer. In that year I sort of saw them grow from these sort of nervous, rather faint, anxious little people into this blossoming thing. They had such an angle; they had so many little details taken care of. They had such an amazing... Not just musically, they were great as a whole. Their ideas, the way that everything from their light show, to the whole way that they were thinking about music. --They really had the whole thing mapped out. I mean I didn't have a plan, I wasn't thinking about furniture organized and all this shit. They had everything covered. They were totally well-read, well-connected, sized up on music and culture, politics and everything. They just seemed to be ahead of the game in the way they were thinking; watching them and then digesting really what they were doing. Which in its forming stages was the best; I think that at that time, during '95 and '96, it was great touring with them. That had a lasting effect.

DAVID GRAY plays with Lisa O'Neill tonight, MONDAY, FEBRUARY 28, at the STATE THEATRE. All Ages. $49.50. 7:30 p.m.

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