The dramatic trajectory of the Manchester-born singer's fourth album, White Ladder, has become a bit of a phenomenon. Self-funded, recorded in his North London living room and released on his own IHT label, the album has caught the imagination of a whole new generation of fans of beautifully crafted, bittersweet songwriting. The remixes have reeled in the clubbers, too. The major labels, EastWest in the U.K. and RCA/ATO in the U.S., are on board with licensing deals (strictly on Gray's terms), but the number of units shifted owes as much to word of mouth as to radio play and marketing strategies.
But the now-vindicated Gray has no recriminations for those who lost faith in his music. He is a man who is enjoying his newfound success and who sees his past run-ins with the majors as all leading up to this point in his life, in some weird, fateful way.
"I didn't ever seriously entertain giving it up," he said. "But I did feel that I had to look a little more closely at what I was trying to achieve ... it didn't seem to be working and maybe it was to do with me and the music."
This was the low point in 1997, when he'd been dropped by Hut and EMI. But he decided that becoming bitter and twisted was not an option. "I wanted to involve some other people and make it fun again. I started to try and enjoy what I was doing and forget about radio stations and SoundScan."
White Ladder was released first in November 1998 in Ireland, where Gray's hardcore fanbase had kept him going through those darker days.
"At first, all the fans bought it, but then this incredible word of mouth thing took over," remembered Gray. "A couple of daytime DJs started to play tracks off the album every day and it went right up the charts and suddenly, everyone latched onto it. ... I think the record has a sort of charm and a power of its own."
The David Gray phenomenon reached dizzying heights in Ireland when he supported Robbie Williams at Slane Castle in August 1999 and played to an audience of 40,000. The personal high point for Gray was the concert at The Point in Dublin at the end of last year.
"Some gigs you just walk out and from the first chord, you're in the gig and you don't have to think about it. It was one of those. And then there was this weird sort of hush after we came offstage. Everyone was just blown away ... ."
In fact, he became so big in Ireland that when the buzz on Gray kicked off in the U.K. this spring, all the early reviews had him pigeonholed as an Irish singer/songwriter. But what happened for Gray in Ireland seems to be happening everywhere else now. In the U.K., the album is on course to sell a million copies by Christmas. In the U.S., it's only just beginning; recent exuberant sellout shows at the Fillmore and Roseland can only hint at greater things still to come.