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David Gray’s Life in Slow Motion

It took David Gray ten years to achieve global success. It took him even longer to come to peace with it.

AIRED: December 03, 2021 | 0:12:17

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♪ Please forgive me if I act a little strange ♪

♪ For I know not what I do

♪ Feels like lightning running through my veins ♪

♪ Every time I look at you

♪ Every time I look at you

- [Narrator] David Gray almost didn't survive infancy.

And though he was too young to remember,

he's never lost touch with his early struggles.

- I was starving for the first few weeks in my life.

I think that this wailing,

this noise I made is as a sort of comfort thing.

I'm letting something out.

- [Narrator] Gray was born (gentle music)

with a condition called pyloric stenosis,

which closed off his stomach from his small intestine

that made it virtually impossible to eat.

He believes that the surgery and the isolation

that followed are pivotal in farming his character.

- I was one of the first babies

in the UK to have the operation, so I'm lucky to be alive,

number one, the operational success,

they had a terrible mess of my body cause I was

so small and there was no keyhole surgery, but anyway,

for the next, however many weeks

of my life, I would have then been in an incubator.

And they say that this is the most important part

of your life, yeah.

So mine was pretty horrific, and I think my sort of

this is where I'm blaming my over sensitivity or,

my dad used to think I was hilarious

because if the wind blew too much,

I would get upset, you know, oooh

So I was very finely tuned.

- [Narrator] David Gray was born in the Manchester

suburbs of Northwestern, England.

When he was nine his family moved to Salva,

a small fishing village in Wales.

His parents founded artismal clothing company from what Gray

has described as a tiny little cottage

with this shanty bit on the side, that was the kitchen.

The countryside was a ripe setting for a child as curious

as Gray, constantly seeking to make sense of the world.

He recalls exploring the surrounding countryside

and the sea.

- Our neighbor was a fishermen called Buzz Blad,

who had a trawler and he took this boat out

with his kids on, and one morning I was,

we hadn't been there for more than six months.

It was like May, June time.

He came past our door and I was up,

but it was 6:30 in the morning.

And he asked if I wanted to come with them, and so.

I asked my parents and they said, yeah,

but it was a full day trip.

And we went out to Skomer Island,

which is a nature reserve about 10 miles away

from Salva across the braids bay,

picked up pots all the way,

mackerel fished for our breakfast,

which was cooked on the gas hopped in the boat cabin

with bread and butter, that was it, fresh mackerel

that that's the best food I've ever eaten.

And then we got there and it was just this cacophonous world

of birds, and mind blowing.

I met nature on a scale that I haven't even managed

to start to imagine.

And it was a transformative experience

on another version of this journey, few months

or years later, we were going along and it was flat calm.

We were picking up pots and just as he was

about to pull the rope in the boy in a salmon just came out

of the water and it's always just been frozen in midair

for the rest of my life, just this miraculous thing.

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- These and other miraculous things in the natural world

will become recurring themes in Gray's music.

His 2021 album Skellig is a homage

to the islands that are some

of the most westerly points of Ireland.

The larger of the two Skellig Michael is a UNESCO world

heritage site because of an unusually well-preserved

sixth century Christian monastery,

perched 500 feet above the waves.

It is also like Skomer Island,

a great sanctuary for seabirds.

The songs on Skellig were recorded in five days

at another remote geographic extreme,

Clash Narrow Studios near John O'Groats in Scotland.

One of the most northerly points of great Britain.

- We needed to be away from the world

and, away from phones and away from domestic duties

and business ideas and anything.

And just cut off a bit like the monks on Skellig.

We needed an atmosphere of remoteness and to be out

of context somewhere and to be together

and living communally and working communally.

So it felt like, I mean,

bottling something in a certain place at a certain time

definitely gives it a Frisell.

It gives it a sort of identity.

♪ So with a taste like metal

♪ On through the fog of war

♪ So many hurts like nettles

♪ Growing up 'round my door

- [Narrator] But that journey from the wild Wesley shores

of Wales to those of Ireland,

was neither easy nor straightforward.

Gray's commitment to creativity came early

and faltered rarely.

- There's a cutoff point in developmental, you know,

lots of children put that to one side at certain times,

but for me, it just gathered pace in my teens.

- [Narrator] His early struggles and the sensitivity they

imbued in him allied with the natural beauty

of the welsh landscape led Gray

to take an interest in painting at an early age after

high school playing in local punk bands,

he spent a year studying at Carmarthenshire College

Of Art an hour from home before heading

to the university of Liverpool to focus on painting.

When he eventually began selling some

of his artwork, he used the proceeds to fund music demos.

These eventually led to three albums

on two different labels, but they attracted little attention

for British music lovers and Gray was often close

to despair, but across the RC, something was brewing.

And just as he was questioning whether his music would ever

find an audience, the popular folk singer mary Black

recorded five of his songs

for her 1997, bestselling Irish album "Shine".

Suddenly people wanted to know who was this David Gray.

- I remember that can completely coming out of the blue.

And that was a Godsend but yeah, it was just,

I wasn't quite sure how things were supposed

to work from that point on,

but I had lit a fire in Ireland and that very much saw me

through the whole thing.

- [Narrator] And so Gray began regularly crossing the

Irish sea to perform, small venues at first, but growing,

ever larger as word spread

of this quirky welsh singer songwriter.

- I was based in the wilderness

for a couple of years and that the touring

in Ireland, which was continuing to strengthen

that was what was keeping me going,

so anyway, there was something there.

And the fact I was trying

to be poetic, wasn't seen as a bad thing, it was embraced.

- [Narrator] And so without a label nor funds

to rent a studio,

he began writing and recording in his London flat.

Gray's own piano and guitar playing against a backdrop

of live machine drums and synths

juxtaposed with deeply heartfelt lyrics,

stories of a young man's trumping to find his place

in the world, struggling to so to speak,

let go of his heart, let go of his head.

♪ The love that I was giving you was ♪

♪ Never in doubt

♪ Let go of your heart, let go of your head ♪

♪ And feel it now

♪ Let go of your heart, let go of your head ♪

♪ And feel it now

♪ Babylon

- The songs are so openhearted

and the melodies are so unapologetic.

You know, it doesn't try to be or posture as something.

It just is happy to be what it is.

And it's quite a full-blooded euphoric kind

of record, really,

or even with its sort of sonic limitations

because the songs that's the way that they are.

And it was an all or nothing moment.

There was nothing left behind in terms of the way we made

the record or the emotion that was put into.

- [Narrator] Gray shelf released "White Ladder" in 1998,

and then immediately began selling in thousands in Ireland.

It would take the rest of the world a couple

of years to catch up, but eventually the record

would become an enormous global smash.

Gray still struggles to fully explain

why the Irish took him to their hearts so readily.

- Because I think that acoustic songwriting and the word,

literary ideas are still very alive in the culture.

Whereas in the UK,

it's just so much more cynical and America's just enormous,

and you know, you kind of get just lost inside it.

So it's, it was so crucial to me.

I don't know exactly why.

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- [Narrator] In the 20 odd years since "White Ladder,

david Gray has released 8 albums,

2002's "New Day At Midnight" and 2005's,

"Life In Slow Motion reached number one in the UK and

Ireland, and most of his releases

made the US Billboard, Top 20 Albums.

Gray has kept a large loyal fan base throughout the world,

many of whom first discovered him

through that first great flush of success.

He says has been constantly grateful

that his audiences allowed him to grow and grown with him.

- It's quite mind-boggling.

So obviously you do recognize the person and yet the person

that I am now is so markedly different.

Having been through everything that I've been through since

writing "White Ladder" and recording it, you know,

the entire arc of success

and trying to reset your stool for the next period.

I've always played a long game.

So that's what I believe in.

- [Narrator] Today David Gray is a settled 50 something

living in what he's called his mansion on the hill

in leafy north London with wife, Olivia and daughters,

Ivy and Florence, long gone are the days of youthful angst

that produce those early heart-wrenching songs

to be replaced by more mature, more contemplative work.

- I don't like narrative anymore.

And if it starts to happen,

I generally move away from it, maybe I'm afraid of it.

And maybe I'll return to it

but the sort of what's this about,

I prefer to be taken by surprise by the imagery,

which sometimes dredges really deeply personal feelings up.

I basically have to write from imagination.

My life isn't being turned upside down in the way it was

every couple of months when I was a sort of teenager.

And in my early twenties,

just throwing myself into relationships and whatever the

chaos of it says it's a fairly resolved thing.

♪ Shining in my eyes like I'm three years old ♪

♪ Shining in my eyes like I'm three years old ♪

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] "Articulate With Jim Cotter" is made possible

with generous funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

(gentle music)


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