David Gray doesn’t sound like himself on his new album ‘Gold In A Brass Age’. His eleventh record in a 26-year recording career, the challenge was to retain the same excitement for music whilst pushing himself into unfamiliar terrain. You’ll still recognise his gravelly rasp, but his singing is softer, sweeter, more intimate and occasionally falsetto. His lyrics have been transformed too, declamatory tales of love and loss replaced by couplets closer to poetry, and whilst his guitar and piano playing remain, the ushering in of electronica and the exploring of new textures and sound palettes alongside new production techniques has turned his approach to song-writing on its head.
By David’s own admission, he wasn’t clear how the songs on ‘Gold In A Brass Age’ would take shape. “With this album, my default position was to try and approach everything differently. I didn’t begin by thinking ‘this could be a good hook’ or ‘these lyrics might work for a chorus’, and I was keen to get away from a traditional storytelling style. Instead of fitting words to melodies, I looked for snippets and phrases with a natural cadence, and let the rhythm and melody stem from there. It was a case of reimagining where a song might spring from and what form it might take.”
‘Gold In A Brass Age’ was produced by Ben de Vries, the son of producer and soundtrack composer Marius, whom David had worked with on 2005’s double platinum selling ‘Life In Slow Motion’. Album tracks ‘Watching The Waves’ and ‘Hall Of Mirrors’ were the first to be created, as de Vries and Gray developed the arrangements to songs that give the album its atmospheric and experimental undertones.
Using electronics is nothing new for David – they were all over the era-defining, ten times platinum ‘White Ladder’ in the late ‘90s, and have featured on each of his albums since. But it was working with Lamb’s Andy Barlow on 2014’s acclaimed ‘Mutineers’ that opened his eyes to how they could transform not just his sound, but his song-writing.
“‘Mutineers’ played a key role in opening up a world of new sonic possibilities and in granting me the sense of creative freedom that I have now,” says David.
“Andy was very good at encouraging me to come at ideas from different angles and introduced a new, more open way of thinking that I was eager to explore more on this record. It’s easy to fall in to a rut and get encumbered by certain ways of working. Andy helped remind me that nothing is set in stone. I’ve never felt as undaunted by the creative process as I do now, knowing that a song can start anywhere, go anywhere.”
The result is a sensual, experimental, heavily atmospheric, largely electronic album in which tracks shapeshift, soaking in soulful grooves, modern R&B, blues and folk. The new sound also required a new way of singing, often in a higher register than felt comfortable. “The trickiest thing to get past is the sound of your own voice and mine is particularly powerful,” says David.
“I started singing more softly on ‘Mutineers’, but this time round there was even more powering down – fragile, gentle, intimate to the mic. I played the title track, unfinished, to a friend in the studio one day. He asked me who was singing. I said ‘It’s me, you idiot’. I hadn’t realised that using my voice in a different register might render it unrecognisable.”
The abstract lyrics Gray had collected in the months before, pickpocketing words “like a jay picking things out of a window” may not tell tales as such, but in hindsight, they were revelatory. “Time ticking by is a theme that recurs throughout the record,” says David. “Fragility, renewal, an ever-changing perspective. It’s not about a cup emptying, but one that’s still full to the brim, a life enriched by experience, the familiar seen in a completely different light.”
The striking album artwork features an Emperor Moth with the city of London captured in its wings courtesy of tattoo artist Londonboy Tattooer. “The idea of a moth on the cover was mine. They’re such strange and beguiling creatures and provide a snapshot of a world we otherwise wouldn’t see. As an indicative species they tell you a lot about what’s happening to both our climate and our planet. By monitoring their movements and studying them, a world of slowly changing patterns is revealed.”
Londonboy Tattooer’s illustrations continue through the album artwork, acknowledging the city’s impact on the making of the album.
“This feels like a London record, more than any I’ve made since ‘White Ladder’. The city has a staggering capacity to tear itself apart and rebuild at a rate that’s almost too much to take in. In its own small way this album is both a part of, and a tribute to, that relentless energy”.
Says Gray of ‘Gold In A Brass Age’, “I’ve been through a phenomenal amount of emotional upheaval in recent years. You can only process so much; you just have to push most of it away. In the heat of the creative moment the weight of buried feeling becomes bound to the spark of a new idea and is magically transformed and given form. This album’s style isn’t autobiographical, I’ve markedly avoided that path, yet when I pull back from the record – it’s a pure document of my life at this time.”