David Gray had been struggling on the margins of the music business for a decade, a lonely figure with an acoustic guitar swimming against the tide of Britpop, grunge and hip-hop. He hit rock bottom after three albums, in true Spinal Tap style, when he arrived at his own gig to find he was third on the bill, below beer and a barbecue.
Decades later, on a frosty day in London with a clear blue sky, Gray reveals the creative and personal breakthroughs that led from his soul-destroying barbecue billing to making one of the biggest albums of the 21st century, White Ladder.
An Exercise In Futility
While in a band at art school, Gray sold off some paintings to fund their first recordings. He then met his former manager Rob Holden and landed a publishing deal. He remembers the details with intense clarity, “The advance was something like ten thousand pounds, but my legal fees were around two and a half, AND I got a parking ticket when I was signing the deal. It was my first lesson in the music industry (laughs).”
“I was very naive,” he confesses, “I just wanted to write and sing and see where it took me, and where it took me was through three albums. But things just got steadily worse.” Gray was signed by aristocratic music business figure Jeremy Lascelles to his new label Offside, but the label folded when Lascelles moved to Chrysalis as CEO, and Gray moved to Dave Boyd’s Hut Records. He supported Radiohead and played his own shows, but reflects that the time was mostly “an exercise in futility.” Eventually, with three albums to his name, he arrived at one of his gigs and found himself listed third on the lineup below a barbecue.
In sharp contrast to what was happening in the U.K. Gray was building a loyal following in Ireland, largely thanks to the efforts of “two young lads” whom Gray remembers with enduring gratitude. “Donal Dineen and Donal Scannell put my video on TV and drummed up a following, and then arranged gigs in Dublin and Cork, which sold out! So that was the thing that kept me going really through thick and thin, and my love affair with Ireland began.”
Meanwhile, the record deals dwindled to zero, but Gray’s trusty drummer and collaborator Craig McClune remained close. “I had Clune by my side, who I had a very close musical relationship with, and he had a similar ‘do or die’ attitude. Beyond that, we were left with nothing.”
Building The White Ladder
In the bedroom of a tiny terraced house in Stoke Newington in London, Gray and Clune set to work on what was to become one of the biggest selling albums of the 21st century. The process was resolutely DIY. “We bought a few bits of equipment and we began to record at home. I was getting the hang of live performing, but the studio remained something of a mystery. There seemed to be a distance between the song in my head and the thing that got onto tape. Recording at home managed to shrink that distance. It was a much more intimate experience, a more unguarded open space in which to try things, experiment, maybe even relax!”
Gray’s brother in law, Phil Hartnoll from the band Orbital, donated some equipment, and also made a pivotal recommendation. “He told me to buy this Roland groove box, an MC 303, which had all the Roland drum machine sounds on. It cost £250 from Denmark Street, and it was a good starting point.” With the addition of more electronic elements a new sound started coming to life. “When I was messing with it for the very first time it became ‘Please Forgive Me,’ the starting pistol for the White Ladder album. Clune came in and added this crazy double-time beat with a drum machine. We realized we had finally done it. It was a eureka moment. We had broken free of folkiness, and we’d found a new space, something that felt more reflective of who we were and the time that we lived in.”
The duo was making significant breakthroughs, but Gray admits that they were “very ham-fisted in the production sense” until Iestyn Polson got involved to engineer the project. “It was that final missing piece, the right person in the right place at the right time. He was a young kid who was quite edgy and wild, but he had that ear and just knew how to work samplers and computers and effects. It was all natural to him, taking our ideas and making them suddenly sound believable. And that was the missing thing. And suddenly, within a few weeks once he settled in, the whole thing just crystallized. ‘Babylon’ was recorded, the title track came, ‘We’re Not Right’ was recorded, ‘My Oh My’ suddenly broke wide open, and we had this thing that started to sound like a record, and we could actually see it.”
Lost In the City
He explains that alongside the DIY production process of making the album at home, there was a profoundly personal side to the journey as well. “I don’t do things by halves; I’m an all or nothing kind of person. But the negative energy, the bad static that builds up from all the things that haven’t worked out, the shit reviews, the shit gigs, the sense of futility that was all-pervasive through many of those difficult years, particularly around 94, 95, 96, really you could be someone that blames the world and say, ‘The world’s piece of shit, they gave such and such a good review but my record is better than that.’ You can become that person, but it just wasn’t in me. And ultimately, White Ladder‘s emotional center is flipping all that bad energy into positive. It is like literally at the flick of a switch. I realized the only way out was to get over myself and just open up and give it even more. So I focused for the first time in my life. I decided I needed to give it everything and focused hard on writing songs and recording.”
Gray’s voice is still full of genuine excitement, 20 years on, as he explains the alchemy between their new “folktronica” sound and the intimate subject matter of the album. “White Ladder does reveal a picture of the late twenties and being slightly lost in the city. The youthful momentum has gone, and now it’s a reckoning with life as to what to do with the rest of it. And there’s an emotional center of a relationship, and how difficult they are. I had been married for quite a few years by this point, so there’s a lot of doubt, but there’s this optimism, too. The lyrics and the emotion of White Ladder is this long, hard look, but ultimately with a positive melodic uplift that takes it out of maudlin navel-gazing, it becomes something more than that.”
A Kind Of Magic
The album was recorded on next to zero budget, thanks to the generosity of many old friends and supporters. “Dave Boyd from Hut contributed a grand, Boz Boorer lent us mics because Iestyn knew him and John Ross let us use his photography studio to record the drums. We decided to press it up, and Rob (Holden) put in a few thousand pounds and we pressed up 5,000 copies. It doesn’t sound like much, but it felt like a bloody big deal in 1998! We put it out in Ireland, which was the only place we had any chance of selling any copies, and we put a tour together. It started on November 27th, 1998, and ran for a couple of weeks, thirteen shows around Ireland. From the moment we started to play that tour, we realized, Jesus, this is some kind of magic here. We were worried we’re going to lose the audience that we had because this music was so different. But it didn’t work that way at all. You know, if we lost one person, we gained a hundred, it was crazy. And the songs were just so instant; ‘Sail Away,’, ‘Babylon,’ it was like, wow, the gigs were just soaring. It was an incredible feeling. A newfound confidence was being born. The music had a kind of magic. You didn’t have to work it too hard or flog it to death, you just had to let it do its thing, which was what the record was about too. It was just there.”
When Gray returned to London, there was not a second to lose to keep the momentum of the album going. “We got back off that tour, really hungover, and Rob, my manager, said, ‘Listen, I’m off on holiday tomorrow, but we have to get these records to the airport because they nearly sold out in Ireland. They’re in my hall, so you’ve got pick them up. There’s a plane leaving Luton at six o’clock tonight, and you’ve got to meet it baby!’ So we collapsed all the seats in my Golf and loaded up the records. I drove off very low to the ground to Luton freight department, and a guy on a forklift met me.”
As the cling filmed cargo went into into the loading bay, Gray enjoyed a rare pause, leaning against his much lighter car in the crisp December air. He took a moment to consider the implications of what was happening. “I remember seeing him drive off and thinking, this is mad, people are actually buying the record so fast that we’ve got to press some more.” The momentum of White Ladder was unstoppable. “That whole idea just built and built and built. And the next year, it just went from strength to strength. We started to get some proper radio play in Ireland, and then it just kicked in. That was how it began, and 2000 was the year that it broke out everywhere else.”
White Ladder went on to spend three years in the U.K. charts, making the number one position, and sold over 7 million copies worldwide. It was rated in the top 30 best-selling British albums of all time and is one of the ten best-selling albums of the 21st century to date.
The 20th Anniversary
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of White Ladder, the album was re-released on Valentine’s Day this year. The remastered version of the album came out on CD, digital and for the first time on vinyl, together with a deluxe edition with additional music and a companion book. This month Gray is embarking on a 12-date U.K. and European arena tour which will, of course, be revising the Emerald Isle, in many ways the heartland of the project. The original band members have been assembled to recreate White Ladder live in its entirety on the original equipment, a treat for many longtime fans. Gray felt the time was right to share the story of the album again. “It’s rare that a homemade self-marketed thing succeeds among the corporate power plays of the modern age. This is a heartwarming story. It still means a lot to us, and it still means a lot to the public, so I thought let’s do it while we still can. None of us are getting any younger.”
And there may be some surprise guests at some of the events, Gray reveals, although he won’t be drawn on specifics. “Ed Sheeran has done a beautiful video piece talking about White Ladder and what it means to him. It was a big record for Ed, so, you know, there’s talk that he might come along and something might happen. So watch this space.”
Twenty years on, it will be inspiring to witness the album that meant so much to so many people, and to see where the ladder might lead for a new generation of artists.
Originally published in Forbes.
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