David Gray’s Life in Slow Motion
It took David Gray ten years to achieve global success. It took him even longer to come to peace with it.
David Gray is a chart-topping singer-songwriter, best known for his hugely successful 1998 album White Ladder.
Gray was born in 1968 near Manchester, England, and raised in Pembrokeshire, Wales. After attending Liverpool School of Art, he began to release albums in his mid-20s, achieving a minor following in folk-rock circles. His fourth album, White Ladder, which combined folk sensibilities with electronic instrumentation, made little impact on its initial release. However, its indie label rerelease in 2000 sold over 3 million copies in the UK and stayed on the country’s charts for 176 weeks, also peaking in the U.S. Billboard top 40. It yielded four international hit singles, including the UK top 5 song “Babylon.”
In the early 2000s, Gray received nominations for four Brit Awards, a Grammy, and multiple other awards. His albums A New Day at Midnight (2002) and Life in Slow Motion (2005) were also number 1 in the UK and Ireland. He has continued touring and recording albums ever since. His twelfth LP, Skellig, came out in early 2021.
David Gray almost didn’t survive infancy. And though he was too young to remember, he’s never lost touch with his early struggles.
David Gray: I was starving for the first few weeks in my life. I think that this wailing, this noise I make is as a sort of comfort thing. I’m letting something out.
Gray was born with a condition called pyloric stenosis, which closed off his stomach from his small intestine, that made it virtually impossible to eat. He believes that the surgery and the isolation that followed were pivotal in forming his character.
Gray: I was one of the first babies in the UK to have the operation, so I’m lucky to be alive, number one. The operation was a success, they had a terrible mess of my body cause I was so small and there was no keyhole surgery, but anyway, for the next, however many weeks of my life, I would have then been in an incubator. And they say that this is the most important part of your life, yeah. So mine was pretty horrific, and I think my sort of, this is where I’m blaming my oversensitivity or, my dad used to think I was hilarious because if the wind blew too much, I would get upset, you know, oooh. So I was very finely tuned.
David Gray was born in the Manchester suburbs of northwestern England. When he was nine his family moved to Solva, a small fishing village in Wales. His parents founded an artisanal clothing company from what Gray has described as a tiny little cottage with this shanty bit on the side that was the kitchen. The countryside was a ripe setting for a child as curious as Gray, constantly seeking to make sense of the world. He recalls exploring the surrounding countryside and the sea.
Gray: Our neighbor was a fisherman called Buzz Blad, who had a trawler and he took this boat out with his kids on, and one morning I was, we hadn’t been there for more than six months, it was like May, June time. He came past our door and I was up, but it was 6:30 in the morning. And he asked if I wanted to come with them. And so I asked my parents and they said, yeah, but it was a full day trip. And we went out to Skomer Island, which is a nature reserve about 10 miles away from Solva, across St. Brides bay, picked up pots all the way, mackerel fished for our breakfast, which was cooked on the gas hob in the boat cabin with bread and butter, that was it, fresh mackerel, that was the best food I’ve ever eaten. And then we got there and it was just this cacophonous world of birds, and mind blowing. I met nature on a scale that I hadn’t even managed to start to imagine. And it was a transformative experience. And on another version of this journey, a few months or years later, we were going along and it was flat calm, we were picking up pots and just as he was about to pull the rope in, the buoy in, a salmon just came out of the water and it’s always just been frozen in midair for the rest of my life, just this miraculous thing.
These and other miraculous things in the natural world would become recurring themes in Gray’s music. His 2021 album Skellig is a homage to the islands that are some of the most westerly points of Ireland. The larger of the two, Skellig Michael, is a UNESCO world heritage site because of an unusually well-preserved sixth century Christian monastery, perched 500 feet above the waves. It is also, like Skomer Island, a great sanctuary for seabirds. The songs on Skellig were recorded in five days at another remote geographic extreme, Clashnarrow Studios near John O’Groats in Scotland, one of the most northerly points of great Britain.
Gray: We needed to be away from the world and, away from phones and away from domestic duties and business ideas and anything. And just cut off a bit like the monks on Skellig. We needed an atmosphere of remoteness and to be out of context somewhere and to be together and living communally and working communally. So it felt like, I mean, bottling something in a certain place at a certain time definitely gives it a frisson. It gives it a sort of identity.
But that journey from the wild westerly shores of Wales to those of Ireland was neither easy nor straightforward. Gray’s commitment to creativity came early and faltered rarely.
Gray: There’s a cutoff point in developmental, you know, lots of children put that to one side at certain times, but for me, it just gathered pace in my teens.
His early struggles and the sensitivity they imbued in him, allied with the natural beauty of the Welsh landscape, led Gray to take an interest in painting at an early age. After high school, while playing in local punk bands, he spent a year studying at Carmarthenshire College of Art an hour from home before heading to the University of Liverpool to focus on painting. When he eventually began selling some of his artwork, he used the proceeds to fund music demos. These eventually led to three albums on two different labels, but they attracted little attention from British music lovers, and Gray was often close to despair. But across the Irish Sea, something was brewing. And just as he was questioning whether his music would ever find an audience, the popular folk singer Mary Black recorded five of his songs for her 1997 bestselling Irish album Shine. Suddenly people wanted to know—who was this David Gray?
Gray: I remember that completely coming out of the blue, and that was a godsend but yeah, it was just, I wasn’t quite sure how things were supposed to work from that point on, but I had lit a fire in Ireland and that very much saw me through the whole thing.
And so Gray began regularly crossing the Irish Sea to perform. Small venues at first, but growing ever larger as word spread of this quirky Welsh singer-songwriter.
Gray: I was basically in the wilderness for a couple of years, and the touring in Ireland which was continuing to strengthen, that was what was keeping me going. So anyway, there was something there, and the fact I was trying to be poetic wasn’t seen as a bad thing, it was embraced.
And so without a label nor funds to rent a studio, he began writing and recording in his London flat. Gray’s own piano and guitar playing against a backdrop of live and machine drums and synths, juxtaposed with deeply heartfelt lyrics, stories of a young man struggling to find his place in the world, struggling to, so to speak, “let go of his heart, let go of his head.”
Gray: The songs are so openhearted and the melodies are so unapologetic. You know, it doesn’t try to be or posture as something. It just is happy to be what it is. And it’s quite a full-blooded euphoric kind of record, really, even with its sort of sonic limitations because the songs that’s the way that they are. And it was an all or nothing moment. There was nothing left behind in terms of the way we made the record or the emotion that was put into it.
Gray self-released White Ladder in 1998, and it immediately began selling in thousands in Ireland. It would take the rest of the world a couple of years to catch up, but eventually the record would become an enormous global smash. Gray still struggles to fully explain why the Irish took him to their hearts so readily.
Gray: Because I think that acoustic songwriting and the word, literary ideas, are still very alive in the culture. Whereas in the UK, it’s just so much more cynical and America’s just enormous, and you know, you kind of get just lost inside it. So it’s, it was so crucial to me. I don’t know exactly why.
In the 20 odd years since White Ladder, David Gray has released 8 albums. 2002’s New Day At Midnight and 2005’s Life In Slow Motion reached number one in the UK and Ireland, and most of his releases made the US Billboard Top 20 Albums. Gray has kept a large loyal fan base throughout the world, many of whom first discovered him through that first great flush of success. He says he has been constantly grateful that his audiences allowed him to grow, and grown with him.
Gray: It’s quite mind-boggling. So obviously you do recognize the person and yet the person that I am now is so markedly different, having been through everything that I’ve been through since writing White Ladder and recording it, you know, the entire arc of success and trying to reset your stool for the next period. I’ve always played a long game. So that’s what I believe in.
Today David Gray is a settled 50-something, living in what he’s called his mansion on the hill in leafy north London with wife Olivia and daughters Ivy and Florence. Long gone are the days of youthful angst that produced those early heart-wrenching songs, to be replaced by more mature, more contemplative work.
Gray: I don’t like narrative anymore. And if it starts to happen, I generally move away from it. Maybe I’m afraid of it, and maybe I’ll return to it. But the sort of what’s this about, I prefer to be taken by surprise by the imagery, which sometimes dredges really deeply personal feelings up. I basically have to write from imagination. My life isn’t being turned upside down in the way it was every couple of months when I was a sort of teenager, and in my early twenties, just throwing myself into relationships and whatever the chaos of it. It’s a fairly resolved thing.