David Gray released White Ladder on this day in 1998. He tells Des O’Driscoll about the slow-burn success of the album that changed his life.
On this day in 1998, David Gray released an album named White Ladder on small independent label, IHT Records.
Initially, and to nobody’s great surprise, it failed to make much of an impact in the 30-year-old English singer’s homeland.
Through Ireland, however, it took a different route. A top 30 spot was ensured by a small-but-loyal fanbase in this country and its three-year climb from word-of-mouth slow-burner to international smash has become the stuff of music industry legend.
Fast-forward 21 years and seven million sales and Gray has come full circle. He’s back in Cork — one of the centres that adopted him early — to promote a summer outdoor gig as part of an ongoing anniversary tour for White Ladder.
Gray has warm memories of Leeside, with his gigs around 1993 at Triskel and Nancy Spains being an ‘I was there’ moment for the couple of dozen attendees who really were at the defunct Barrack Street venue.
“I remember a kind of wild, late-night atmosphere,” Gray recalls.
“I remember that people were out of their faces a little bit, thinking ‘Oh, there’s more than just Murphy’s going on in this town’. For an acoustic gig, when you go off on a groove for a very long time, people sort of get into it, so you start to play slightly differently.”
He admits nobody was more surprised than him at the success of the record. It was his fourth release, and while he was happy with the end-product, he didn’t expect much beyond the under-the-radar impact of previous albums.
“It was more coherent than any record since my first album,” he reflects.
“What we really tried to do was make a record that not only represented everywhere we were at as a sort of collaborative unit making sound and writing songs together, but that it flowed from note one to the last note.
“We were very proud of it, but it would have been preposterous to have been sheltering ideas about it being really successful based on what I had to go on up until that point.”
Gray has had a mixed relationship with his megaselling album over the years, at times looking uncomfortable with fame, and the ‘must-play’ obligations around some of the hits.
"As he reflects on going back to the record after all these years, he seems genuinely proud of what he achieved on a minimal budget, when his modest London flat doubled as the recording studio.
“The fanfare around White Ladder has become such a big thing, but it’s such a humble record. We made it with nothing. It’s not a big production — it’s the songs that counted. And we just used all the creativity that we had to put them forward into the world. But it’s really quite a small, intimate record.”
As the momentum for White Ladder gathered strength, Gray identifies a gig at the tent of theGalway Arts Festival in July 1999 when the penny dropped that he was really onto something.
“The atmosphere was so electric that it just blew us away. I didn’t know what to do with the energy I was being given as it was so high voltage.
"It wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. And a bit like the show in Cork last summer, everyone was singing and the noise was just incredible.
“It was beyond my reckoning at that time to try and process it. There were just three of us on the stage at the time but it changed us forever.”
David Gray plays Musgrave Park in Cork on June 20, 2020. Tickets on sale now, from €49.90 + booking fee. He also plays 3Arena, Dublin, April 2-4, 2020. (first two dates sold out).
Music you’re listening to at the moment
I’ve really been enjoying Big Thief [Brooklyn indie-folk quartet].
And Bill Callahan [American singer-songwriter] remains a favourite. Every time he puts a record out, that’s a major event for me.
How you listen on to that music:
Infrequently... usually through Spotify. Occasionally I listen to a record or CD. You can’t get everything on Spotify, so I’ll occasionally buy a record. It’s funny how it’s changed and that’s really eroded recently.
The problem is that my account is being used by my children — I can never get on the bloody thing!
Best film you’ve seen recently:
I watched Babette’s Fest the other day — it was a Christmas present somebody bought me on DVD.
What you watch on TV/Netflix:
I watch Spiral (pictured) the French crime thriller on BBC Four — it’s brilliant.
I’ve watched quite a few documentaries on the BBC iPlayer because they put old ones up. My wife and I have also been watching The Good Life, the Netflix comedy with Ted Danson.
But I’m not very good for keeping up with things — in general I prefer to be sort of miserable on my own, rather than tuning in to some good feeling everyone else is tapping in to (laughs).
Best gig you’ve seen recently:
I went to see Massive Attack’s anniversary gig for Mezzanine, which was really great. I also saw Big Thief at Bush Hall in London.
I was sort of hoisted by my own petard for that particular show as they only played one song from an existing record, and the other 15 songs were all new.
So I got to eat my words, as I was desperate for them to play more old stuff.
I’d waited two years to see them and they played one song I knew, which was my least favourite! But they’re really talented — the songwriting there is superb.
Your favourite track on White Ladder?
‘Please Forgive Me’ — that’s the song that arrived out of nowhere.
I’d been restless and looking for a new shape, for some space in my music, and when that song arrived in 45 minutes some night, the hairs on the back of my neck were standing up.
I played it to [musical collaborator] Klune, and he knew exactly what to do. He doubled up the time, so it was a fast song, and then he slowed the chord change.
Some magic got captured at that moment.
You’re a big Manchester United fan — what’s your take on where they are at at the moment?
It’s a complicated situation. We all love Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer] so much. He is playing young players — whether they’re the finished article or not — that’s the most important thing.
He’s given the club some of their identity back after Van Gaal and Mourinho... the whole carousel of big names.
I really don’t know what’s going to do it for United.
What’s painful is the success of Liverpool even more than the failure of United — because the Liverpudlian fans are so full of themselves. I was never like that when we were doing well!