Before David Gray became one of the world's biggest adult-alternative pop stars, the English singer-songwriter was making far-from-mainstream folk records. Toiling in obscurity during the early 1990s, Gray released three albums of spiritual, naked roots music where he sang like a wild-eyed poet. He abandoned the style on 1998's White Ladder, which included the acoustic electro hit "Babylon" and catapulted him to fame. Gray has made massive pop records ever since (with sales nearing 12 million), but secretly he'd been yearning to revisit his love for the quiet, emotive folk music of his past.
He finally recorded that nostalgic dream album, Foundling, last year. And he was certain the 11-song set (his ninth overall) would bomb, just like his old folk records. "I said the record wasn't going to sell very many copies because of the kind of record it is," says Gray. "I made a record purely for myself without a thought for the market or all that other bullshit that can enter your head. It's just for me. It's something I've been longing to do."
Gray ended up eating his words. When Foundling was released last August, it debuted at No. 9 on Billboard's Top 200 Albums chart — the highest position of Gray's nearly 20-year career. That success is in stark contrast to the underwhelming appreciation for his first three folk albums, 1993's A Century Ends, 1994's Flesh, and 1996's Sell, Sell, Sell. The roots revival has given Gray the opportunity to not only make music differently, but play it differently too. He's launched a series of intimate acoustic shows called "Lost and Found," which focus on the songs of Foundling. But he's also reinterpreting his entire catalog in concert, with a spotlight on his older, folkier tunes.
Gray and his band are playing old-school instruments onstage — double bass, piano, cello, harmonium — which takes everything "down by about 25 percent," he says. "Sometimes when you play a song gently with a couple of instruments, it just sounds massive. You focus on getting the beautiful sounds out of things — the real sounds, instead of a synthetic equivalent. You cluster everyone onstage so you can dovetail and move gracefully from song to song, like birds flying in formation through the sky."
Foundling has reawakened Gray's muse. Surrounded by pizzicato guitars, lonely pianos, tribal percussion, and astral atmospherics, his voice howls and whispers. Each song sounds like a sonnet, eulogizing birth, abandonment, and the resurrection of love scored to brooding, sweet, and intimate soul music. The title track starts as a solemn death march before erupting with electric guitar, horns, and metaphysical phantasms.
"There are themes of getting old and being born," says Gray. "[And] vulnerability — vulnerability to experience, nakedness in the world. We shroud ourselves in cynicism, in all sorts of spiritual clothes to defend ourselves on a movement-by-moment, day-by-day basis. But really we're just lambs to the slaughter when it comes to the bigger picture."
It can be complicated material for fans, especially casual ones who know Gray from only "Babylon." Songs like "Forgetting" and "When I Was in Your Heart" take patience and a studious ear. But, not so surprisingly, most of the tracks are constructed with gentle grooves, summer production, clever lyrics, and great vocals ("Only the Wine" and "Gossamer Thread" are two of his best).
The new songs were actually written at the same time as 2009's Draw the Line, a lush and loud rock record that is the polar opposite of Foundling's haunting, old beauty. "If you want to look at an album as a form of punctuation," says Gray, "it felt like Foundling for a while would be a full stop and I was going to have to begin an entirely new sentence.
"For me, there's something definitive about this record, but I don't know if I can carry on and make a similar record. I think the best thing I can do is something rather different. What form will that take? I don't know. I'll just have to see when I get there."