David Gray is an internationally acclaimed singer/songwriter whose unique combination of lyrics and music produce emotional, soul-searching songs that have changed the face of popular music. His album, White Ladder, was released in 1998 and propelled him onto the global stage, becoming the tenth best-selling album in the twenty-first century. His most recent album, Skellig, is a meditation on what it is to be human in a complex modern world.
David’s love of nature is deep, abiding, and dynamic. He is involved with a number of conservation projects across the UK, from Norfolk beaches to the island of Skomer off the coast of Wales, as well as protecting the endangered Curlew. The natural world features throughout his work in various guises and is only ever a heartbeat away.
In my interview with David, he spoke about the role of natural imagery in song-writing, his reimagination of time in music and the natural world, and what Skellig means. We also spoke about some of his new tracks in depth, what he is working on now, and some of his visions for the future, including a curlew-inspired tour idea.
It is a snapshot of the conversation he will have with curlew conservationist and writer Mary Colwell for Nature Matters’ special evening event this year (Saturday 20th November, 20:00-21:30). This will be David’s first live event since before the pandemic, and during the conversation he will play a number of songs including the premiere of his new track ‘The Arc’.
Your most recent album, Skellig, is musically stripped back – you have spoken about it trying to get away from the noise of humanity. How much is nature entwined through the foundations of this album?
Nature imagery runs throughout my records to some extent, but it is easier to sense it from Skellig’s musical simplicity. The album is all about slowing down. Not all the songs are directly related to nature, but the imagery is never far away; it’s what I reach for.
The ocean-like lull and openness of the first song, the title track of Skellig, encapsulates the spirit of the record. It starts with an image that evokes whales: ‘Oh, that the song I’m singing was an ocean wide’. I must have registered at some point the theory that whale song can stretch almost as wide as an ocean, but the ocean in this song is perhaps a human ocean: one that lies between life and death.
Another track, ‘The White Owl’ came from the magical experience of seeing barn owls where I am in Norfolk. The owls became a symbol of this place for me. I began to realise I was marking my time here by my viewings of the barn owl: I was either seeing an owl or waiting to see another one. They have suffered such horrible declines that I rarely see one now; I used to see one every time I came here – now, I’m lucky if I see one in every ten visits.
The track uses this idea of the owl as a spirit bird that inhabits the place. I bound the mystery of my friend passing away to the bird, which is a very old shamanistic concept. These creatures and places have a strong power over me. A walk where I hear the wing beats of a thousand starlings passing over head would be the most important part of a day for me and puts me in my right place. The dynamo that powers the soul is shackled to this natural imagery, which also powers many of my songs.
In terms of the album broadly, it mattered a lot to me to know the precise details about the monks living on the Irish island Skellig, from which this record gets its name.
I learned about them living on top of those rocks for hundreds of years, exposed to Atlantic gales and surrounded by massive colonies of seabirds making cacophonous sounds. They were not only there for a life of contemplation, but also to save the word – the poem that was Christianity in its early stages – as elsewhere the books were being burned and people were being killed. The idea of nature in its purest and most overpowering form was central to these people devoting their lives by living in this almost inhospitable place.
I like to drink nature in as greedily and as often as I can, but the austerity and the power of the monks’ experience sent my mind spiralling dizzily up into how difficult it must have actually been. I was struck by the idea of what that commitment entailed: to feel something that strongly that you would flee to live in a sparse population in darkness. I realised that my own innermost yearning is similar and that song is that rock for me – I will crawl up on my hands and knees to get that feeling.
The idea of harmony is key to core conservation principles and the laws of the natural world. Do you see the same kind of collaboration – joining with other people in song – as integral to your music?
The massing of human voices is so moving. To intone a certain line alone is one thing, but the choral aspect of Skellig – having six fellow singers sing the same words to carry the whole song from beginning to end – makes it something completely different.
Skellig is far from a solo project. The fact that we are sharing the words – the innermost sanctum of the music – and having to hold those words and sing them softly, loudly, forcefully or quietly is such an intimacy. Making the record was an incredible experience: it was like discovering a new substance in the universe when we were singing these songs together and being wrapped up in the vocals.
Adding our voices together to help things is definitely a metaphor for conservation issues – we have to bind together. Especially with the current weaponizing of state machinery to make every form of protest illegal.
With the messiness and nonsense of our current situation, and the meaninglessness of political talk, I recently found myself wondering what I actually believe in. I worked out that it is music, people, and places. So, I thought I would put those three together and start from there, and had a vision of myself walking Skellig through the country (almost like a songline). The idea would be to make it a group singing tour where we would go from place to place with no plan. Even though I am not sure how feasible this is as a tour, I have still thought of just doing it myself and walking with the songs and trying to connect people.
I don’t believe in the culture of competition spurred on by the media. I believe in something quieter – but maybe it is too late for that. I’m at a point in my life where I feel something has to happen. For me, that involves being versed in the situation with the curlews as I am now. By talking to Mary Colwell at Curlew Action and being involved in curlew events, I have learned the mosaic of interests and problems that surround the bird. It is such a symbolic species that is part of the poetry and mystery of our island, but it is going down in large parts of the country. This generates an incredible sense of desperation in me – and then I start thinking mad thoughts about walking through the rain with a guitar until someone arrests me! But that’s how I feel – I want to do something beyond expressing concern.
The songs themselves on Skellig are very peaceful and meditative: what is the role of that calmness now? How can we take time out of the chaos for ourselves, for others, and for the natural world?
I am actually a person who finds it quite hard to be calm – I have quite a manic energy and become agitated. (I blame genetics and the world we live in). But the wonderful thing about music and art generally is that it can be so many things. It can be a confrontational statement as well as the opposite, making you slow down and observe songs at the pace of flowers blooming. That is vital: it is the power of art. It’s a very subtle, nuanced power.
When we sang that opening track, ‘Skellig’, for the first time as a group, I realised I needed an entire album that fitted that mood with nothing that disrupted the tempo or the atmosphere. It needed to be something drifting and almost tempo-less where words and ideas can float and resonate in a way they can’t under the driving beat of a drummer: it is very much about the 6/8 drift. There is something very internal about a 6/8 time signature, which is part of folk music because it is so natural and has a lovely circularity to it.
I think it is really important to slow people down and slow yourself down. It is not an easy thing to do; time has its hooks in us and there are clocks everywhere. Time is all about the workplace and enclosing people’s minds and hours: it is part of the mechanism of consumer industry and I think it has a very controlling, corrosive influence on our thinking. So, to step outside time is vital.
When we are in love, making music, or having fun, we are free of the clock. Time itself becomes different. There are accounts from Indigenous tribes in the Amazon who recall that before the missionaries came in with calendars and clocks a year had seemed so much longer. Many Indigenous cultures think in timescales of seven generations: that idea that you don’t inherit the world from your parents, you borrow it from your children. Over here, we are controlled to work like shire horses so there is no vision of the future.
I am shackled like everybody else, but I see music as a vital part of the resistance. When music starts to flow and I start to write, I become engrossed and let go of those constraints; it is impossible to just be in the moment if you are watching the clock. It is also one of the wonderful things about being on stage; you don’t have your phone and you know that for the next few hours you can just be in the moment.
The quietness here in Norfolk is really interesting for my music. I was worried about polluting the purity of this space with my work, but actually there is this whole new language and sense of space and possibility here. The other day when the geese flew over, we recorded them and put the sound straight into the song I was working on. In terms of the Skellig idea of slowing down time, there is more of a sense here of what that means and how you could extend that idea to make a piece of music that intertwines like brambles.
What does this year’s Nature Matters theme (‘Local to Global’) mean to you?
It means everything. In this country so much land is privately owned; the extent of enclosure here means that only 3% of England’s navigable waterways are open to the public. Fixing biodiversity issues and fulfilling the needs of niche creatures will therefore come down to local people: individual landowners or corporations with a vested interest in the produce of an area.
I think it can be disempowering when everything is addressed from an enormous global perspective. I know it is important to see the bigger picture, but the solutions are going to come from big decisions made by local people. And when local people join together, it has an impact.
We are going to have to make lifestyle and other sacrifices if species are to stand a chance, and we have to view creatures, spaces, and possibilities in the natural world as having a value. Currently, they don’t have a value for most people, and we have to take baby steps to bridge the gaps between people and their local surroundings. I believe in small-scale change and individual change.
Our culture is technology-obsessed and thinks it is evolving towards something, at the cost of losing some of the riches we once owned. I don’t know what is going to happen to the curlew. With my own music, though, I was in a wilderness where no-one was interested in it and that changed. We reached a tipping point where suddenly it was a stupid idea not to listen to me, and then it became a success. It came from nothing: a few people in a room with a handful of equipment, with no finance behind us, with no record company – but that record went on to sell millions of copies. Miracles can happen!
I am not saying that is going to happen with the curlew. But what I do know is that it is creatures like the curlew that actually taught us to sing. We see them as decorous aspects of our experience, but that’s where language and music came from. That’s why when you hear their sound there is a sense of deep time interweaving so many threads. We have that sound within us.
I have written a song for the curlew, for an RSPB album fully comprised of curlew tracks organised by the anthropologist and musician Merlyn Driver. The song is called ‘Arc’, and it is about stepping into the sound that the curlew makes and feeling connected to all the other times you have heard it, the place you’re in, and the people you have been with. And then, beyond that, a sense of deep time: the sense that this is the sound of these lands, a sense of deep ancestral connection. It is the idea of a dreamlike circularity that exists inside the song and what happens to the human heart as that beam of sound hits it.
The album will be released next year, but I will be premiering ‘The Arc’ during my conversation with Mary at Nature Matters on the 20th of November. I will also be playing some of my other songs, including some from Skellig. It will be the first public event I have done since before the pandemic!
What is the role of songwriters and music making in the current moment?
Culture has a huge role to play. I feel my role is to make the natural elements of my songs tangible and real, to draw people in and make it an affair for their hearts as well as mine.
I find when music gets too preachy it just doesn’t work. That is not how my imagination wants to be engaged. Of course, I could counter that with many brilliant protest songs: ‘With God on Our Side’ by Bob Dylan or Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’, or Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’.
Generally, though, I believe in a more unconscious mind and drawing it in: making the world something tangible and magical which identifies with our experience. I believe in the state of mystery that you encounter something in. For example, in the wild, this is often a moment of surprise then a slowing down in wonder, or something fast like a sparrow chasing something in front of your eyes which is gone in a flash. Or you might notice something in the sand dunes like a mushroom or flower that you’ve never noticed before, and then you slow down and enter the dreamy zone of dune-time.
Music has become commercial – a pollutant that exists everywhere: in shops, on transport – but it still has a role to play. As a musician I think you need to pay attention to your heart, to those around you, and the world around you, and make the best music that you can make. I don’t think there is anything more important as a human culture than to have albums like Astral Weeks or Nevermind.
Art is a powerful thing but it can’t be shackled comfortably to ideas, because then it becomes preachy and telling. For me, it has to be a mysterious thing.
(All photographs taken by David Gray)