Interview: David Gray on songwriting

"Try and make the simplest elements as powerful as possible," says David Gray.
"Try and make the simplest elements as powerful as possible," says David Gray. (Image credit: Rahav Segev /Retna Ltd./Corbis)

Doyen of the impeccably crafted acoustic torch song, David Gray is widely regarded as one of the UK's finest singer-songwriters.

He took a break from writing tracks for his next album to chat to us.

Do you have any tools you need around you when you're writing songs?

"Just a guitar or piano. I generally write the rhythm and the chords first, then find the melody, then the lyrics - I write in that order 90% of the time. The music is generally first, then I have to find the lyrics to fit."

Do you draft and redraft, or do the songs come out fully formed?

" Each song is different. The lyric-writing is usually the exhaustive part for me, but it's not always that way - sometimes it could be the production, sometimes the arrangement if you can't quite get it right.

"Some songs you go back to again and again - you know that there's something there. As my songwriting has developed I have sometimes written around a sound or things that have happened in the studio, where a sound might be very integral to the song, or the song might be born entirely of it.

"Some songs are written easily, but you never know when the spanner is going to fall into the works. Sometimes the spanner never arrives, but even some of the best, most successful songs can have a difficult birth.

"I haven't done a great deal of collaborating, but it can definitely yield some interesting results."

"I'd say it's usually the lyric-writing that I dread - it can feel like being given extra homework! That's especially true if you really want to say something; if I write a song and it doesn't hold the meaning well enough for me, it'll just fall off my map and will stop being something I ever play or sing.

"I've got numerous tracks like that scattered across various albums - songs that, for whatever reason, didn't have enough going for them. So the lyric has to be good - things that are too brittle or twee tend not to last. It's worth the extra effort if you have a tune that you think adds up to something to try and get the best possible lyric to fit."

Most people see you in a traditional singer-songwriter role - does it take a lot of work to marry the lyrics and music?

"That's my default setting - basically, the songwriting has to stand out. That's what I think about music production too - the song has to sound big on just the basic rhythm instruments and the voice, so you don't feel you have to throw lots of crap at it to make it sound convincing.

"If it sounds big just with the basics, everything else you add - the beat, the bassline, the piano, whatever - will make it sound huge. That's all you need.

"When I listen to the early Dylan records, he's so beguiling and the ideas and play of words are so interesting that it just pulls me in like a magnet. It doesn't want for anything."

Having collaborated with people like Orbital in the past, is that a writing avenue that interests you, when a new element is added to your songwriting?

"It can be very interesting because unexpected things happen. Anything that breaks the monotony of staring at a blank piece of paper and at yourself, anything that might make something happen that you wouldn't have predicted, is at least to be tried. But of course, these experiments tend to work with varying levels of success.

"Paul Hartnoll did a brilliant job remixing Please Forgive Me, then when I sang on the Orbital track, the track was already done and I had to sing over the top of it - it wasn't like I could work any new ideas into the music.

"I haven't done a great deal of collaborating, but it can definitely yield some interesting results. Now that I'm staring at making a 10th studio album, maybe I've got more of an eye for something that might change the formula and allow something different to happen.

Could you give us an insight into how your hit song Babylon was written?

"It started off with the guitar figure that you hear at the beginning, which was originally more complicated than what you hear now. I'd got a certain distance with it - I think I'd written the first line and a bit of the chorus, then I put the song to one side.

"It began to click when I simplified the chorus and it became what it is now, with the little bridge just before the chorus and the actual 'Let go your heart, let go your head' lyric. As a result of that minor victory of the arrangement I thought that I might as well try and write the rest of the song.

"The point where it really turned into something was when the production kicked in. Iestyn Polson, who worked on the record with me and Clune, had started to work with vocoders and different weird little samples of things.

"Straight away, from the very first sample we were playing along to, we had this weird clicky beat that Iestyn ReCycled and filtered - along with a vocoded piano and the acoustic guitar, it immediately had this really strong identity.

"I feel like I need to do something differently to shake the whole thing up."

"I hadn't really taken the song seriously until then, and that's when we put the guitar parts down over the fairly bare backing track and recorded the vocals. As I say, I hadn't thought too much of Babylon up to that point - unlike a song like Please Forgive Me, which arrived in about an hour and where I realised something important was happening because it doesn't happen like that very often.

"I generally write more verses than I need, so with Babylon, I trimmed it down and threw a couple of the verses out. Sometimes that process feels quite hard at the time if you love a particular line or phrase, but if it works out afterwards, you get over it pretty quickly."

Would you say that your writing methodology has changed much since you recorded White Ladder?

"With the new stuff, I'm staring hard at the whole thing at the moment - maybe more than is healthy, because I feel like I need to do something differently to shake the whole thing up. I don't know what that is yet, though, and the problem is that the answer doesn't come to you while you're sitting on your arse - you've got to be actually doing it! If you basically just keep 'doing', small ideas will come up that suggest another way which you might try following.

"I'm just writing at the moment, and I've got a huge pile of things that I've got to write lyrics for. One thing I've been trying to do this time is to write a lyric first and then fit the music around it, which is like feeling my way in from the other side - just to see what happens, really. I've had some good results with it, so I'll persevere."

Any other songwriting tips you can share?

"Understatement. We live in a world of ludicrously high drama verging on hysteria. There's so much over-writing, over-singing and over-producing. As is proved by Adele's success, it doesn't have to be that way.

"Try and make the simplest elements as powerful as possible rather than looking for a gimmick. Don't try and 'fix it in the mix', writing-wise - just try and get it right without over-writing. And keep at it - the more writing you do, the more good stuff you'll do."

David Gray's songwriting talents can be sampled on his recent album, Foundling, available on IHT/Polydor Records.

For all the advice that the recording singer-songwriter needs in 2012, check out Computer Music Special 52 - the Singer-Songwriter Production Guide.