It's almost inconceivable that someone can produce a top Ibiza sound, a seven-times Platinum album, a popular film soundtrack and have a cult following in Ireland and North America, yet still remain largely unknown back home. But such is the dubious achievement of Manchester-born, Pembrokeshire-raised, London-based singer David Gray, who is hoping to make his mark on the British CD-buying public with the re-release next week of his fourth album, White Ladder.
Originally released as a self-financed album in Ireland 18 months ago, the record already has fans: Radio 1's Mark Radcliffe and music guru Jo Whiley have voiced their approval. And Orbital's Paul Hartnoll liked the track Please Forgive Me so much he remixed it, securing the Record of the Week slot on Pete Tong's Essential Selection show which in turn ensured massive exposure in Ibiza and on London's club scene.
It is not simply a great dance track, though. According to Gray, "people use the song to get over their break-ups: it's a reliable piece of emotion that you can touch base with. There's melancholy there but it's a comforting thing to have around, like talking to a friend. We've all been through stuff that's gone wrong."
Gray's certainly had his fair share of strife. His parents split up just after he got married and around that time his career "went completely pear-shaped". Songwriters are deft at turning bad experiences into great songs, however, and Gray is no exception. White Ladder, he confides, is a direct result of "coming out of that spectre of doubt towards hope." If that's sounding ponderous, Gray is refreshingly relaxed about the creative process itself.
Of the inspiration behind Please Forgive Me, he recalls: "It came from absolutely nowhere, just popped out of thin air. We had a party, we drank lots of wine and I was a bit pissed, but I sneaked off to my little home studio. I had this chord sequence straight away and this thing just happened with the drum machine. The lyrics just showered down." An emotional outpouring, clearly, but not one Gray feels unduly possessive of. "There's a feeling that informs [the song] which is bigger than I am", he demures. "It's ridiculous to claim authorship of these things. Anything that's worth anything in life is bigger than you."
Hartnoll has a slightly different take on what makes Gray's music special. "The emotional quality of what David does is the key element," he says.
"White Ladder has the ability to charm people," Gray concurs. It certainly seems to have charmed Robbie Williams who asked Gray to support him at his Slane Castle gig last summer, and it obviously won over the Irish who bought 100,000 copies of the album and kept it at Number One for six weeks.
"It's worked on a word of mouth basis," Gray explains. "You don't get enough of that in this world and I now get the distinct impression it's about to be shoved down people's throats." Gray is referring to the PR onslaught with which his new record company, East West, is about to hit America. A David Letterman interview is already lined up for June.
It's a far cry from Gray's earlier record deals which proved almost more trouble than they were worth. Signed to Virgin's subsidiary Hut label in 1992, Gray learnt the hard way. "I was only 23 and I don't think they knew how to present the two albums I made. But that was a breeze compared to what happened at EMI America. That was being mangled, the record didn't even come out properly as the label was imploding. After that, I was at a crossroads."
A total fluke led to Gray contributing to the soundtrack of the movie This Year's Love, the critically acclaimed but commercially low-key British romantic comedy. The money he earnt from that enabled him to make White Ladder without a record company (Gray's own label, IHT Records, originally produced the album).
He had begun embracing new ways of working. "Partly for practical reasons, we started using a drum machine," he says. "All these sounds had been knocking on my ears for so long but I realised the songs had to grow out of the samples. Technology and songwriting have grown apart and only Beth Orton and Beck have managed to bring them back together."
"That's why I find John Lennon and Bob Dylan so inspiring", he continues. "They're vulnerable, raw, naked. My favourite albums are Van Morrison's Astral Weeks and Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska, records that happened when no one was in control. I suppose that's my philosophy. When I was first in a band, it was just daft punk rubbish but as soon as I started to write, all this melancholy stuff came out."
It seems that mood is never far away. "Being a singer is not a job like a dentist," Gray asserts. "It's my lifeblood. I could have become a bitter cynical twisted fucker Ã la Nick Drake - who's marvellous but miserable - but I decided to give it everything."
"White Ladder" is released on East West on 1 May.Reuse content