English recording artist David Gray has too many hits to count — so he asked Spotify listeners to help narrow the numbers down. The dynamic digital edition of “The Best of David Gray Weekly” (which was formally and permanently released as a double-disc album in October) is rereleased every Monday on Spotify, recalibrating and reorganizing which tracks make the cut based on user plays.
The experience, says Gray from his home in London, is enlightening for an artist with as large a catalog as his (10 LPs make up Gray’s legacy as of 1993), and it’s been helpful for tightening a lengthy set list for his upcoming U.S. solo tour dates this fall.
“There are the songs that didn’t make it [to the “David Gray Weekly” playlist] and then there are the songs I forgot about, if I’m perfectly honest,” he explains. “The playlist just reflects the way people listen to music now. It’s gathering songs in an honest way, as done by someone who doesn’t have an intensive relationship with them. It’s a list made by that person, as opposed to the hardened fan who listened to all the tracks I ever did.”
Gray, who kicks off his tour Thursday in Boston, discusses the ongoing challenges of relearning a career’s worth catalog of songs and what really happened to the abstract art from his “Enter Lightly” music video.
What’s the planned format for the upcoming tour? Are you anxious to get on the road again?
I’ve been rehearsing like a demon. I have ambitious concept for the shows — I’m going through my entire catalog, a lot of the stuff I haven’t played in 20 years. I have a loose construct for the show. I’ll play an hour or so with a ranging sweep of songs. Then take a break, and pummel through the hits like a demented steam train. That’s the concept. I’m looking forward to the sweeping section when I don’t know where I’m going to go next — I’ll have a board of 80-or-so songs and just pick what I want.
That’s ambitious — also maybe terrifying?
I’m often guilty of having loads of ambitious plans. But it’s a good thing to strive. I’m putting myself under loads of pressure. [Laughs]
What’s it like revisiting songs from the early‘90s of your career? I imagine it’s like re-reading old books from your childhood, where everything means something different to you because you’ve gained so much perspective.
I’d say so. I’m not someone living in the past — religiously so. As a creative entity, I like to move forward, relentlessly. While I can be critical of the naivete of some of those early songs — I’m not a very subtle musician, so maybe the delivery is a little clunky — but the feelings are still right. You can always find something in them.
It’s amazing tasting that early self. I can almost feel the pant of all my emotions back then. They’re acute when you’re young — the melody is like alcohol, sexual yearning, the hopeless romantic playing on the road for audiences, hoping to get noticed. It’s all in the music and I can still taste it. It does feel like re-reading those books you’ve ever read. You might not notice all the nuances when you’re reading it with hungry youthful eyes, versus the wise mellow eyes of a person with difficult experiences. You have different perspectives.
Do you think you’re able to still emotionally connect those earlier songs?
I’m still learning them again — rehearsing and making them a part of me again. It’s like “Terminator 2” — putting all the joints together again. [Laughs] It’s really, really intense. I’ve gotten emotional a few times playing things because you end up face-to-face with the past. It’s strange listening to those older versions of yourself. Still, I’m looking for that ring of truth — that magical thing that lurks in music. If that still exists, a song can survive. I’ve managed to open many of my of my songs up so they sound fresh to me. I’ll be playing a massive variety of songs for people who don’t quite know what might happen next. That’s how much should feel at its finest.
Where did the idea to make art in the “Enter Lightly” video come from?
It was me. I’m not a big fan of making music videos. I had one idea that would have cost a lot of money, but no one wants to spend money anymore. So the second idea was, “Let’s make some art and you can film me doing it.” I couldn’t do a landscape or someone’s torso, so I thought I’d something in the style of Jackson Pollock. I bought industrial paints and a massive load of canvas, and probably killed myself with all the nasty solvent.
So where’s that art now?
It’s at the office, I think. It’s a very large painting. I did two. We filmed all day, and it was like, “Let’s stay a few hours, and do another one, and film that as well.” I don’t know what I think of the art. If I went back, I’d probably change it again, but I did the best I could. I think it’s good to have a part of a video feature you with your tongue hanging out because you’re concentrating so hard. It’s a good look. Madonna, take note.