David Gray talks Mann Center Show, Career Beginnings, Philly, and more

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World-renowned singer/songwriter David Gray will be performing at The Mann Center on Friday, June 19th with Philly’s own Amos Lee. With a career spanning over 21 years, Gray has had three #1 albums including the massively successful, home recorded White Ladder. Rock On Philly got the chance to chat with the “Babylon” singer  in advance of the show about this upcoming tour, career beginnings, inspiration behind “This Year’s Love,” as well as his thoughts on the City of Brotherly Love.

Rock On Philly: David, thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us today. Where are you calling from?
David Gray: My pleasure, Jennifer. I am calling from London, a place I’ve lived for over twenty years now.

ROP: Very cool. London is a wonderful city. So are you looking forward to your Mann Center performance in Philadelphia on June 19th?
DG: Yes, very much so. I’m really looking forward to it. We changed the band around and looked into the back catalogue and included a few songs that haven’t been played in a while as well as adapted some of the new songs in new ways. It’s going to be a blast.

ROP: How do you like Philly?
DG: I think Philly is a great music town. I love the vibe there. It mixes the rough with the smooth. Even in the posh bit of town, real life comes knocking. It’s a vibey place with a big music history and has its own identity. Going back to the very beginning of my career I had so much support from Philly and WXPN with David Dye. I was supporting Maria McKee back then. It’s always been a great time in Philly.

ROP: How did you get together with Amos Lee?
DG: We were just looking for someone to go out with for the summer. I wasn’t familiar with him before but then I heard his stuff and really liked it; loved his voice. With these sorts of festival shows, you hope two and two make five. I went out with Ray LaMontagne in a similar fashion a few years back and it was great.

Amos Lee and David Gray

ROP: So different artists have different experiences being on tour. What are the pros and cons of touring for you?
DG: You get to see some amazing places and do some amazing things. We had a few days off recently in Australia and we went out onto the water, onto an island, and had a wave of a time. But the shows is what it’s all about. You make the record so you can go out and sing it to people. The tough part about touring is having to leave your family behind for an extended period of time.

ROP: So let’s bring it back to your career beginnings. When did you first discover your love for making music?
DG: When I was very young, my mom was a good singer and was in the choir. I would listen to her practice at home and I found that quite beguiling. I first started writing music at 14 and 15, when I picked up the guitar. As soon as I learned how to play a few tunes, I wanted to write a song straight away. I had a sort of precocious poet streak that needed to come out at the time. It’s its own little world when you’re writing songs.

ROP: What artists did you listen to growing up?
DG: Growing up in the late seventies and early eighties was kind of interesting. I didn’t have brothers or sisters and I was brought up in the middle of nowhere with not much radio reception. I found out about things from Top of the Pops, word of mouth and listening to other people’s records. Around 1978, we had a 2 Tone explosion in the UK that came after punk. I got really into bands like The Madness and The Specials. When the eighties began in earnest, bands like The Cure, The Smiths, Human League, and Duran Duran became favorites. At the same time, I was discovering Bob Dylan, Jonie Mitchell, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen. It was much more interesting back in the 80s, with music and with the style.

ROP: What do you think has changed in music since then?
DG: The music business is unrecognizable in a way. On the surface it would appear it’s just bland, manufactured pop. Putting your music in an advert is seen as a good thing now and I see it as selling out. Music has become a form of commerce. Music for me has always been about coming from a pure place. These days the big stars now are underground and the best music is being made there. There’s a wealth of great music out there but it’s a matter of knowing where to look for it. In the 80s you had a massive artist like Prince doing really interesting stuff and now we have Katy Perry doing stuff that’s not so interesting. A lot has changed.

Photo Credit: Sam Zabell

Photo Credit: Sam Zabell

ROP: Now let’s talk about your career beginnings and drive. You released your first studio album in 1993 but it took six years for you to achieve widespread success. What kept you going?
DG: It was tough at times. It was confusing. I never got into music with a sort of bullseye intent on commercial success in mind. I just wanted to get my stuff out there. I was very innocent about it all. It’s very dispiriting when you put your stuff out there into the world and it gets stamped out and ignored. Luckily, I built up a sort of cult following in Ireland. My gigs were good and strong and there was a community there that sustained me. This is where all of the success sprang from. The commercial breakthrough came in Ireland first and then it followed in the UK and then the US. People really believed in me there and made me think I wasn’t crazy for pursuing a music career.

ROP: Now as a songwriter myself, I have to ask this question because “This Year’s Love” is probably one of my favorite songs of all time. It’s so magical. How did it come to you? What inspired it?
DG: (laughs) That song is interesting because there was a film called This Year’s Love and the filmmaker asked me to be involved and write music for it. This is the first song I ever wrote to a brief and I questioned whether or not this was right, doing a song because someone asked me to. It was simple and I didn’t spend a lot of time on it. I knocked it out at my home studio, sent it in, and everyone loved it. My original take on artistic purity turned out to be a bunch of nonsense. I find it helpful now when someone gives me parameters on a creative project. Now I really like working with film and TV because you’re able to really focus and see something from a different perspective. With this particular song, the inspiration wasn’t a romantic epiphany, it was a song made to order.  It turned out well, though!

ROP: So I have time for one last question. There are tons of fantastic musicians in the Philly music community. What advice you have for up and coming artists aspiring to a career in music?
DG: You just have to follow your heart and be sure that this is what you want. These are tough times in the music business. I don’t believe in going back and changing things. To succeed you have to be audacious, you have to be bullet proof, and the best bit of advice I can say to anyone pursuing a career in music is, “good luck!”

If you’d like to purchase tickets to the upcoming David Gray and Amos Lee show at the Mann Center, click here.

For more info on David Gray, visit www.davidgray.com.

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