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There are a handful of albums that can claim to be genuinely game-changing, where their release creates a long-lasting impact on the music industry and culture as a whole.
Released in 1998, David Gray‘s White Ladder is one of those records.
Written and recorded in a humble flat in the London suburb of Stoke Newington, the record became a surprise chart sensation three years after its original release, bolstered by a strong reception to the album in Ireland and singles such as Please Forgive Me, Babylon and Sail Away charting in the UK.
The album would go on to sell over 3 million copies in the UK and 1 million copies in the US, making Gray a household name throughout the world and elevating his career from playing as a support act to headlining arenas and festivals across the globe.
Perhaps White Ladder’s most enduring legacy is how it paved the way for a new wave of soul-bearing artists, who would use their music to tell stories without the large, over the top production often associated with artists of that time.
This presence can be felt strongly in the last decade with the arrival of artists such as George Ezra, Ed Sheeran, Lewis Capaldi and even the musician-of-the-moment Billie Eilish, all of whom have captured the world’s imagination with deeply personal songs that they’ve written and/or recorded in their bedroom.
Celebrating 20 years since the album irrevocably changed his life, David will release a special anniversary edition of White Ladder on Valentine’s Day 2020. Side two of the record contains a host of rarities and b-sides from the making of the LP, giving fans further insight into the creation of one of the most successful British albums of all time.
Shortly after the re-release, Gray heads out on tour where he’ll be performing the record live in its entirety, alongside some of his other hits from a stellar near-30 year career in music.
In the interview below, David reflects on the album, the forthcoming tour and what it all means to him 20 years on.
20 March 2020 – M&S Bank Arena, Liverpool
21 March 2020 – The SSE Hydro, Glasgow
22 March 2020 – Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff
24 March 2020 – Bournemouth International Centre
26 March 2020 – The O2, London
27 March 2020 – First Direct Arena, Leeds
28 March 2020 – Resorts World Arena, Leeds
31 March 2020 – The SSE Arena, Belfast
3 April 2020 – 3Arena, Dublin
4 April 2020 – 3Arena, Dublin
18 June 2020 – Nocturne Live at Woodstock, Blenheim Palace
20 June 2020 – Irish Independent Park, Cork
26 June 2020 – The Racebouxe, Cartmel
You’re heading on tour in March to play White Ladder in full. How excited are you about these upcoming shows?
I’m very excited. It’s looking like it’s going to be a sold-out tour pretty much and it’s been wonderful to see the enthusiasm. I feel like White Ladder is a people’s record and it’s not just about the music on there, it’s about the story of how its success is such an unlikely one. It came from nowhere, it wasn’t a big record company project. It was this self-released, self-funded thing that didn’t get permission to land and just started to do its own thing.
It was in Ireland first where we started to build a huge following. That made us start to believe that we could do it anywhere in the world. It made us believe that the music had magic and that provided us with this kind of invisible protective forcefield ’cause it ain’t easy to crack it in this business.
It was an amazing thing when it happened and I think on this tour we’ll be tapping back into that feeling, especially as none of us are getting any younger and I can’t see that happening again. This a celebratory event, that’s how I’m choosing to look at it, and it’s a time to be spent with the people who made the music.
I’ve never done a record in sequence before, but it should be an amazing thing.
What’s it been like to revisit and relearn how to play some of the lesser-known songs from the album?
Those are the songs that I’m most excited about. Technology has moved on so much since we made White Ladder. For example, a song like the title track, we used to just use a loop of the drums live because it was a sample drum sound. But now you’ve got pads, you’ve got Ableton, you’ve got all these means of actually producing and playing the sounds live rather than just playing the loop – which was fun – but it’s going to be much more fun to really play them live.
Stuff like that, I think it means we can do better versions of those songs on this tour than we did back when they were first released. So yeah, I’m really excited about taking the songs that haven’t been played live so much.
Also, I’ve been evolving the songs from White Ladder a lot over the years – songs like Babylon and Sail Away – performing them on my own, with a band, with samples, with real instruments, slowed down, sped up. They’ve been done multiple ways, but on this tour, we’re going to play them as they sound on the record. Back to that humble sound that White Ladder really has.
We recorded the record in my bedroom with no money. It pushed the songs and the vocals to the fore which is one of the reasons why the record is so powerful as it is. We couldn’t overdo it with ideas because we didn’t have the money to do so. It was about building as much creativity and character around the song as you can with very little equipment. We only had a sampler and a couple of other bits and pieces. We had to get very creative which I think gives the record its distinct sound.
We’ll be replicating those sounds on this tour which I’m really looking forward to. We’ve had a few rehearsals and it’s mad, the flashbacks you get when you play something exactly how it was. It’s quite weird and I think it will be for the audience as well.
You’re taking this show around the world. Are there any towns or cities that you’re particularly looking forward to visiting on tour?
To be honest, I’m looking forward to them all. They should all be great.
We’ve had amazing gigs in Glasgow and Dublin down the years. Looking at America as well, there’s Red Rocks, which anybody who has ever played there will tell you, you never forget it. I’ve been lucky enough play there a few times and it’s always special. Headlining there, in July, is going to be absolutely incredible.
There’s big gigs in Boston, three nights in Dublin, The O2 in London, Liverpool… they’re all going to be amazing. The last show I performed in Birmingham was one of my favourite gigs of last year.
There’s also going to be some outdoor shows in the summer which should be really special.
What was touring like for you before White Ladder?
When the album first came out every night was a “drink the rider” night, you know? It wasn’t easy. It was a very no-frills situation. I went through a few label changes at the beginning of my career and there wasn’t much structure. Everything dissolved into a mess, including touring, so it was very hard.
There were some highlights though. I went on tour supporting Radiohead, and crucially in Ireland, I started to build a little following of my own which was really what kept me going through those lean years.
Touring was rough and ready and basic. When I was on the Sell, Sell, Sell tour in America in the summer of 1996, that was truly abysmal. We did virtually every form of s**t gig known to man. We didn’t do the airbase like in Spinal Tap, but we did basically everything else.
We played a show in Toledo, Ohio where we watched the support band perform to about 200 people thinking, “this is all right.” Then we went to the dressing room, changed and walked on stage to find no one left in the venue. They’d all left to go to the club next door.
How much have you enjoyed the process of putting the anniversary package of the album together?
The book, in particular, took a lot of effort. I thought if I was going to do this thing it had to have a lot of personal investment. I don’t want it to be a completely commercial enterprise.
It’s one of the only records in the top-whatever-of-all-time that is self-funded and self-released. It’s on its own with all these huge major label projects. So I wanted it to have this very personal feel, as it’s a really personal story.
The book has about 16 or 17 chapters, detailing some of the people involved, what happened, what it felt like to be a part of. It took a long time. I was writing that on planes travelling around on my tour last year. It took a bit of effort but it was a wonderful thing to do actually. Just writing it all down, it reminds you how extraordinary it was and that it all actually happened.
Are there any moments from that time which you look back on and think, I can’t believe that happened?
If I had to pick one it would be Glastonbury in 2000. We played on The Other Stage on the slot before Coldplay, the same week as their single Yellow came out. We went off and got hammered after the show and we woke up the next morning and my manager Rob Holden came up to me and said: “We’ve just had the festival on the phone, Burt Bacharach has cancelled his Sunday night main stage slot, they want to know if you’ll fill in for him”?
We played on the Pyramid Stage at about 17:00 on Sunday, then we came off the stage to listen to the chart run down and got the news that Babylon had just gone into the charts at No.5, so we were all on cloud nine.
It felt like I was letting down the armour that I’d built up, ’cause the world can be a pretty s****y place at times, and suddenly something incredible was happening. There was tears, laughter, it was everything. And then we noticed David Bowie standing there watching all on his own, and my dad, who turned up, said: “I think I’m going to go and talk to David Bowie now”.
I said “You can’t do that”, and my dad just walked through security and we all just ended up just standing there chatting to David Bowie for an hour. It was amazing. An unforgettable day. Then we found out we had to go and film Top Of The Pops on Tuesday night!
That was the day I realised we were gonna crack it in the UK. I think this is the hardest country to break, especially if you’re doing something really honest.
After that day I was getting record company executives coming up to me and telling me that the album was better than the demos I’d sent them, and I was like, “it’s the same record mate”!
People have played your tracks at weddings… they have your lyrics tattooed on them… How does it feel to know that your songs, especially from White Ladder, mean so much to people?
It’s very hard to process all that stuff. I could give you a stock answer and say it’s amazing and it’s great, but the truth is I find it hard to get my head around things like, for example, when people tell me they’ve played one of my songs at their dad’s funeral or someone who died was a fan and their friends and family all get together and listen to that album.
People have told me that my music has saved them. I get people coming up to me, crying, telling me this stuff and that is truly astonishing.
You load the music with all you’ve got and that’s what I did with White Ladder. I gave everything. I didn’t hide at all when writing any of those songs. But you just don’t understand when making it what power they can have, and what people will latch on to.
Like everything in life, it’s more wonderful because it was unexpected.
Tickets to see David Gray live on tour are available now through Ticketmaster.co.uk