Interview: David Gray talks about his new 'Best Of' album and solo acoustic tour

Over the past 20 plus years, David Gray has become one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of his generation, while transforming his live shows into an intimate collective of hypnotic lyrics and transcending melodies. Now, this English artist looks inward at his body of songs, and at the same time explores imaginative frontiers of what he terms a new found “sonic space” of music in his recently released Best of David Gray album.

Always the expressive innovator, this new collection of tracks is more than a typical greatest hits retrospective. Instead Gray gives his fans a musical journey from his early songwriting success of “Babylon” through hits such as “Only the Wine,” and on to recent cuts off his last album Mutineers like “Snow in Vegas.” Gray even offers up an updated version of his fan favorite “Shine,” as well as two new songs, “Enter Lightly” and “Smoke Without Fire.”

Gray just wrapped up his first solo acoustic tour through the U.S. and Canada. Armed with only a guitar, a piano and a vast catalog of songs, the singer-songwriter gave fans an up-close peek into his musical abilities, while performing songs that he has not played live for a number years. Gray even opened his acoustic shows with a capella versions of deep cuts like 2003’s “The Light,” just as he did at his November show at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, utterly captivating his fans from the first note.

Before his show in Antwerp, Belgium, an upbeat and often funny Gray joined AXS by phone to chat about his new album, drinking champagne without his band, and his fervent love of Ska music as a young lad in England.

AXS: How did you decide on the solo acoustic concept of this current tour?

David Gray: It’s been something that’s been on my mind for a while. 25 years after recording my first single, now I’ve gone back to just me and a guitar. There’s no barrier between me and the fans for these shows. They get to know me a little more and see me work, as I create loops and music on stage. They get to see me work up close and I’m loving it.

AXS: Has it been an adjustment to play without your band?

DG: I’m loving playing the old stuff, because a lot of those songs I have not played in a long time, and that part is exciting. The only strange thing is going off stage after a set, and there’s nobody there besides me. (Laughs) It's almost like tumbleweeds blowing in the dressing room. It's something to get used to, like popping a bottle of champagne after a show and there's no band to share a drink.

AXS: Tell us about your new Best of David Gray album as a playlist on Spotify.

DG: They call it a dynamic playlist. It's something that the fans can reshape the actual content of the compilation by playing whichever songs they want to play. I think any means to get people more engaged in the music is a great thing. It's another way for people to listen and share the music. Which is the whole point.

AXS: How did the two new tracks on this album, “Smoke Without Fire” and “Enter Lightly” end up on this compilation?

DG: Andy Barlow made my last record, Mutineers. My intention after we came off the road from that tour was to go back into the studio and record the next record right away. We completed “Smoke Without Fire” and “Enter Lightly” before Andy got called away on another project. So, I started the next record with someone else. It made perfect sense to put these new tracks on the best of record because they really didn’t have a home.

AXS: What did you discover from your last release Mutineers in 2014 to the current album you are working on for 2017?

DG: We put a lot of work into that record Mutineers, it was a new voyage of discovery of new sounds and new ideas. It was a tough record to make in many ways, but it cracked the world of possibilities wide open in terms of the sonic space that music inhabits. Now, I’ve really run into that wide open space on the next record and went even further.

AXS: Your songwriting and song structure has such an epic quality, yet they all feel very personal. Is that intentional on your part?

DG: No, that's just how they come out, I consciously try to characterize them with my own style. They obviously have an intimacy to them; the lyric is extremely important to what I do. It's really from the heart; it's from the heart kind of music. In terms of building and constructing songs, I'm still learning and enjoying learning how to create a song. I don't know how it happens; I just feel it, and that's how it ends up coming out.

AXS: Do you know where you got your achy and unique voice?

DG: I don’t know where my voice comes from, I should probably give credit to my Mum, the credit in the genes. She was the person who sang a lot; she sang in the local choir, and she's very good.

AXS: Growing up as a young lad in England, what music drove you to become a singer-songwriter?

DG: The first things that I was affected by were Madness and the Specials, the whole Ska movement that was happening in like 1979, 1980, and I was crazy for that.

Beyond that, I love the Cure, the Smiths, and the Cramps. At the same time, I was diving into indie music of the time like the early 80s. I also discovered singer/songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Nick Drake. Later I found Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison. I really got into what Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin were doing. So, growing up it was an explosion of possibilities in music.

David Gray’s 2017 is looking like it may be even busier than this past year, with a new full album due out soon, as well as more live solo dates, along with a full tour with his band. Check out his 'Best of David Gray' album on Spotify, iTunes or find the deluxe vinyl version at your local record store.