BY MELISSA RUGGIERI/AJC Music Scene
David Gray is on the phone from “a strange place called Brunswick, Georgia…it’s a swampland, a marshland,” he says, a bit of puzzlement in his voice.
Gray is stopped in the coastal Georgia town because his tour bus driver needed to “take a sleep” on the journey from North Carolina – where Gray performed the night before – to Florida, where he was set to play a couple of dates before heading north to Atlanta for a Saturday show at Chastain Park Amphitheatre.
But Gray has found something pleasant about his brief stopover: “We were able to find a salad – something that isn’t deep fried!”
The affable British singer-songwriter best known to American audiences for his 1999 strummer, “Babylon,” last year released “The Best of David Gray,” which included his other worldwide (except for the U.S.) hits “This Year’s Love” and “The One I Love,” among many others.
Though he’s putting the final touches on a new album for release in early 2018 and had no plans to tour outside of recent dates in the U.K., an opportunity to co-headline a few weeks of shows with country-bluegrass royalty Alison Krauss arrived, and musichound Gray couldn’t say no.
In a pleasant conversation occasionally interrupted by cell phone crackle as Gray sat outside on a bench, he chatted about his new material, our distracted lives and his love-hate relationship with Chastain.
Q: How did this pairing come about and how is it going so far?
A: I’ve enjoyed the gigs. It’s an interesting build because there’s a kinship in the music, it’s real. I come from the rootsier side of British music, and Alison is sort of a Nashville hero, an embodiment of the bluegrass/country style of perfection. She’s got an incredible, delicate style…(How the tour came about) remains something of a mystery. I don’t know from where it derives actually, but I thought it would be interesting and I was in the mood for a musical holiday. I played solo shows for the last year so I got my band and had a quick practice and we’re having a whale of a time. It just dropped on the table and I said, “I’m up for that.”
Q: Any plans to perform together?
A: Not just yet. We hit the ground running, and time seems to be a constant battle. I’m hoping that side of it comes together. I’ve basically agreed to start the show solo and after 30 minutes my band comes out. And then Alison comes on with her band and there’s a whole ton of them and they’re all humming and doing whatever they do and it’s a wonderful effect.
Q: You were here earlier this year at the Tabernacle. Has the South been good to you throughout your career?
A: I’ve got to say I do really love it. I’ve been all across America, but there’s something that happens in the South that’s a little different. Music is in the blood, like it is in Ireland. There’s something there that’s special, they’re not just listening to the song or the singer, they’re listening to the whole band. I thought the Tabernacle would be a difficult night because it was very loud. But I stepped up and did a song and thought, “This is going to have to quiet them down!”
Q: Well, speaking of noise…you played Chastain a few years ago and you’ll be back this weekend…
A: (Laughs) That’s a different kind of loud. That’s a loud of entitlement, of people who think they don’t need to shut up. It’s a tough little gig there. It’s a beautiful spot, but the first time I played there I was a bit shocked at how noisy people were. But the second time, a penny could have dropped. You have to work it up there; you have to find a way to make it work. Not every audience is going to give you their full, undivided attention, and that’s what I’ll be prepared for.
Q: Have you gotten used to audiences spending more time filming you or playing on their phones than listening?
A: It’s funny, I came downstairs (recently) and my daughter was watching “A Clockwork Orange” and I thought oh, that’s an intense film. And she was on the phone while she was watching and had the iPad next to her. That’s where we’ve ended up. I’m not on my phone all the time, but I’m on it too much. We’ve entered a very narcissistic age, and it’s probably unhealthy and less interesting…It is distracting when people are choosing to film you instead of just listening to you. I’m only going to be here once every couple of years! But this is all a part and parcel of the whole thing. I’ve got to keep my intensity and focus. If you strike up “Babylon,” the cameras come up – it’s like nothing is real unless you film it.
Q: Let’s talk about your new song, “Hole in the Weather” and your album. You spent a lot of time in the studio last year. What made that the right time?
A: I’m always in the studio when I’m not on the road. This time I’m really excited about what’s happened. My last record liberated me a little bit. I feel like I broke out of the straitjacket a little and now I’m in an open space. I think I’ll have the record finished by December. Everyone in the office thought “Hole” was too strong to sit on so we put it out there, and more new tracks will be emerging earlier in the new year. I’m hoping to go back into the studio for about five weeks at the end of the tour to get (the album) wrapped up.
Q: Tell me about working with (producer) Ben de Vries. How did you hook up?
A: I know his father, (producer) Marius. I was looking for something new and Ben came over and we hit it off. As soon as we really got down to work and established a creative trust - I could see how creative he was - we just cut loose on a whole new swathe of music, just starting from scratch. It was great fun. He’s completely ego-free, super, super creative. It’s like we could go anywhere and not be constricted by any kind of constraints. We just have a few more tracks to do. (The new material is) more electronic tinged. It will be something different.
Alison Krauss and David Gray
8 p.m. Saturday.
$45-$85. Chastain Park Amphitheatre, 4469 Stella Drive NW, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.