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Musician David Gray discovers the hard-won rewards of taking risks

Singer/songwriter David Gray
Singer/songwriter David Gray

When he started work on what would be his 10th studio album, David Gray had one thing in mind: taking a different approach to everything, from songwriting to production.

“I didn’t want to repeat myself,” he said. “I didn’t want to just set jaded observations to music. I wanted to find something else, a sense of epiphany.”

The results are the 11 songs that make up “Mutineers,” which was released in June. It was produced by Andy Barlow, one half of the electronic band Lamb.

To extract something fresh or epiphanic out of the large batch of songs Gray brought into the studio, Barlow imposed a process that Gray said was challenging but ultimately accomplished his goal: “I was thirsty to get new sounds involved. It was challenging at times, learning to trust the other person, but I was up for it.”

He’d imposed changes of his own long before he went into the studio, when he put the songwriting process in reverse.

“Normally, I write chords, then melodies, then lyrics,” he said. “This time I wrote words first, then the music. It was fascinating. It disabled my sense of taste. When I was writing songs like ‘Birds of the High Arctic’ and ‘Snow in Vegas,’ I wasn’t certain what I thought of them. I wasn’t certain the melody had any merit.

“But I worked in a more objective fashion in finishing them, and I later realized they were as good as any I’d done the other way.”

Gray, 46, is a native of Sale, England. As a youth, his musical influences included Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Van Morrison, John Martyn and Nick Drake. He has since become a fan of peers such as Will Oldham and Bill Callahan.

He has been a recording artist since 1993, when he released the acoustic-folk album “A Century Ends.” In 2000, ATO Records, co-founded by Dave Matthews, re-released Gray’s fourth album, “White Ladder,” which contained what would become his first and biggest hit, “Babylon.”

From 2002 to 2010, he released four full-length albums and a greatest-hits collection. Reviews ranged from glowing to lukewarm. The All Music Guide called “Draw the Line,” released in 2009, “essentially another cog in the folksy wheel he’s been spinning since ‘New Day at Midnight,’” released in 2002.

So when it came time to make “Mutineers,” Gray was adamant about not spinning his wheels or regurgitating words and music he’d already made, about exploring places he’d never seen. Barlow became the catalyst for getting him there. Gray estimated he brought about four dozen songs into the studio in varying stages of completion.

“Andy has a very good ear and decisive ear about the possibility in the music,” he said, “and he pushed me around to get me to crack the songs open. Occasionally, it was hard to take, having your most intimate work pulled apart in front of you.

“Instead of trying to do posher versions of demos, we tore them up and started again.”

Much of the record was created in the studio, Gray said, and those risks and that spontaneity give the album a different vibe.

“Half of the songs were built in the studio from new ideas or from dismantling ideas and adding something new,” he said. “Often what you hear is me seizing upon something for the very first time. Those more innocent and exploratory moments when you capture a thing for the first time have an extra power, a special quality. That’s the huge advantage of taking risks.”

Lyrically, “Mutineers” is more uplifting. And the music is more “celebratory,” as Gray put it. It has received some of the best reviews of his career.

This time, the All Music Guide was on board: “Barlow does paint ‘Mutineers’ with many appealingly muted colors, an approach that seems surprisingly bright after the off-white ‘Foundling.’ At its best, the production is so quietly textured it never draws attention to itself; instead, it enhances the songs themselves, letting them breathe and settle. ‘Mutineers’ makes a striking initial impact then seeps in deeply.”

Wednesday night, Gray will bring those songs to his headlining show at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City. To re-create the music of “Mutineers,” he has assembled a large band that includes a small chorus.

“The vocal parts are so developed we’ve got seven people singing,” he said. “It’s very chorale, a very orchestral affair. It’s a financial organizational nightmare putting a huge band together and dragging it around, but it was the only way I could see to do justice to what I’d done.”

That band also takes his older material into new terrain, something Gray does to keep things fresh.

“Whichever band I’m with, the older material passes through that filter and gets a different complexion,” he said. “We’ve reinvented a few older songs to tie them in with the new.”

And finding “the new” is what the process of making “Mutineers” was all about — emerging from a void he’d been suspended in, as he put it. Gray said the rewards were hard-won but invigorating.

“It’s a new sense of being alive musically,” he said, “all infused with renewed energy and a celebratory tone. But it wasn’t easy getting there.”

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter @kcstarrockville.


David Gray performs Wednesday at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. John Smith opens at 8 p.m. Tickets are $36.50 to $89.50 through Ticketmaster.