Three years on from his last album, the four times platinum A New Day At Midnight, David Gray presents Life In Slow Motion, recorded between autumn 2003 and spring 2005 and released through Atlantic/iht Records on September 12.
The title, says David, "brings all kinds of images to mind, time lapse photography or someone standing still. But the sentiments of that are that I think we're so impregnated with film and moving imagery that sometimes in your life when something happens like an accident, or someone dies, or someone's born-whatever it happens to be-time seems to play a trick on you and the whole thing just seems utterly unreal. You're so used to processing reality at a certain pace, as if it's some kind of edited TV programme. The shit that we've imbibed has obviously affected our minds and our perception. That's the starting point.
This record isn't autobiographical or so related to me in the storytelling and the narrative aspect as its predecessors. Where possible I've deviated from that, it's more abstract. It's much more eloquent musically, so I'm hanging images in the spaces and letting the sound do the talking. It's more like talking heads-not the band, the concept each song being from a different person's perspective with a bit of overlap and quite a lot of me thrown in. From 'Nos Da Cariad' to 'From Here You Can Almost See The Sea' to 'Alibi' they're obviously completely different people. That was a very deliberate thing, because I think that with A New Day At Midnight I'd taken the personal as far as I cared to go, and now I'm looking for all methods to get as much feeling out of the music but via different means."
After eight years of touring and recording his three previous albums, 1998s White Ladder (6 million worldwide sales) established David as one of the UK's leading artists both at home and overseas. In Ireland, White Ladder remains the best selling album of all time. His commercial success is backed up by a critical consensus that has seen him win two Ivor Novello awards for song writing, a Q award for best single, a GQ award for Best Solo Artist, two Brit nominations for Best Male, a Grammy Nomination for Best New Artist and been championed by The Sun newspaper as the "country's real pop star."
In a break with prior tradition Life In Slow Motion is the first of David's albums to be recorded in a 'full scale' studio environment as opposed to the "bedroom" sized facilities favoured in the past. This increased physical space is matched by an evolution in David's musical aspirations. Life In Slow Motion is the first of his recent albums on which David and his group have been abetted by an outside producer, Marius De Vries (Rufus Wainwright, David Bowie, Madonna, U2).
Of the change in his professional climate David says, "I don't think you can remain the underdog forever and work in that way. I really wanted to get away from that lo-fi bedroom, programming, Midi side of things. I really wanted to experiment, so a lot of the songs came out of playing as a band or messing around with sounds. A lot of them were just written in the standard way of me sitting at the piano or whatever. But it became far more about playing, and we realised this was our strong point, we can actually play!"
David began to look for a producer in the summer of 2004. "By then it was already sounding to me like some of the songs on the album could be really big, almost Phil Spector-ish. So I'd realised at that point that it was going to be a big affair. You know they fall into various categories, producers. You have the more technical ones who are very good in the studio and very good with sound, and then you get the more musical ones who like to play instruments and Marius very much fits into the latter category. It allowed me to think purely about the music, to have somebody to help me realise some things. He brought a lot more out of me."
With compositions dating back to David's work on the soundtrack for Amma Assante's film A Way Of Life (released in 2004 it received 7 BAFTA Cymru nominations as well as a BAFTA nomination for David as Best New British Composer) and others arriving by the day, the process of refining what would become Life In Slow Motion would go on to involve over 50 musicians as well as yielding David's longest (and perhaps most structurally ambitious) song to date, 'Now And Always'. "Making this album has given me the confidence to have these audacious thoughts about sonically where you can get to using choirs for instance, or creating your own choir, sampling yourself. It was so much fun doing the vocals on 'Now And Always'. It has the most ludicrously complicated vocal line that I've ever sung. Probably 20 seconds long, it nearly killed me! There's nothing more uplifting than the human voice and I was inspired when that Bjork record came out Medulla. I think it's got some great stuff on it."
"This time it's three or four times as big," says David. "You think the record is going to sound enormous, and it does in places, but you still have songs like 'From Here You Can Almost See the Sea' or even 'Ain't No Love', which has an orchestra on it, they sound very intimate, very low-key and they're easy for the ears to take on board. I don't know how I would describe the record in total but I think there's a good balance there. I've been a rather under-produced recording artist to say the very least. This is stopping that trend. I don't imagine it will be a problem because it seems to have a sort of intimacy too. As well as the big songs you have ones that really suck you in."
From the sparse, structured intro of its opener, 'Alibi', a song David describes as "like 'Babylon' Part 2 but more abstract. Catching up with the character from that song but a few years down the line when they're a bit worse for wear," via 'The One I Love', as beautiful a song about bleeding to death as you're ever likely to hear and the inspirational fire of 'Nos Da Cariad' (Welsh for 'Goodnight Sweetheart.') it's clear that Life In Slow Motion is not only a departure from his earlier work but a destination in itself. By its conclusion, the aforementioned epic 'Now and Always' and the astonishing counterpoints of 'Disappearing World' it has announced itself as an album built on artistic aspiration rather than commercial obligation. Which is not say that its narratives are divorced from everyday life. 'Hospital Food', says David, "is what we all eat every day. The nanny state, TV-gobbling idiocy that we call passing time is basically hospital food. You get a lot of shit thrown on your plate, and you eat it."
Changes in the commercial landscape of the industry were also a concern during the making of the record. "I'm aware that people don't consume music in the same way anymore," says David. "When you're choosing a track listing, it's almost like why bother? Just put the songs in bag and people can pick them out, a bit like the FA cup draw, I'll just put it on my iPod and press random. People can do that but I think you have to find some kind of order that defines the record, and once this gets going at the end you'll understand.
"All the records that have inspired me this time have been far more of a soundscape really. The Sigur Ros records, Sparklehorse's It's A Wonderful Life, Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears and albums like Deserter's Songs, where things are a bit more architectural, in that people don't just walk into songs and then the vocal starts. I wanted to go over a bridge, look at things from different angles. I was interested in things that were a bit more linear-where the music might develop a little differently. It's a bit like painters always using the same size canvas. Sometimes you need to change the scale of things. I really started to feel that very strongly."
Lyrically, David counts the songs on Life In Slow Motion as his best work. "That's especially true of 'From Here You Can Almost See The Sea' and 'Ain't No Love'. 'From Here You Can Almost See The Sea' I think is one of the best things I've ever written by a mile, lyrically. I feel like I've reached graduation day with that."
Life In Slow Motion is the deceptively consummate product of two years of near-constant evolution, described by David as "the tip of an iceberg" of new material generated along the way. "It was bloody hard work," he says. "Fear and doubt are huge obstacles. In terms of your own work you have to try to overcome them. It would have been so easy to get freaked out but I'm really delighted that I didn't. I did lose the plot at times in some ways, as you do when you're immersed in something and you're kind of craving it stopping, but you can't let go of it either. And this is a document of what happened."