David Gray – White Ladder: The 20th Anniversary Tour
White Ladder was one in a million. It was a game changer, a life changer, the people’s choice blockbuster that launched a thousand troubadours. It may be the greatest ever word-of-mouth success in the history of the music business.
Recorded for no budget in a Stoke Newington bedroom in 1998 by a down on his luck singer-songwriter and self-released on a kitchen sink label, White Ladder slowly (very, very slowly) found an audience. It took a year to creep into the lower reaches of the British charts, then worked its way all the way up to number one. White Ladder eventually spent 3 years (from May 2000 to March 2003) in the UK top 100, spawning classic hit singles ‘Babylon’, ‘Please Forgive Me’ and ‘Sail Away’. It went on to sell over 7 million copies worldwide. It remains in the top 30 best-selling British albums of all time and is the best-selling album ever in Ireland (a nation who know a good song when they hear it).
Celebrating its 20th anniversary with an expanded edition, it is interesting to consider the extraordinary aftermath of White Ladder. “Apparently I have become the object of some study in the music business,” David Gray bemusedly noted at the time. “They want to know how did this peculiar fellow with an acoustic guitar make it all the way to the sacred ground of Top of the Pops?” His phenomenal success spawned a new wave of singer-songwriters in an acoustic boom that resonates to this day, a soul-baring lineage that can be directly traced from David Gray to the all-conquering Ed Sheeran. Indeed, Ed is a self-declared fan, whose passionate live version of ‘This Year’s Love’ can bring tears to the eye. Fellow world beating British superstar Adele is also an admirer, citing ‘This Year’s Love’ as one of her all-time favourite break-up songs.
In the wake of White Ladder, every major record company began signing and developing guitar wielding troubadours. “It’s the pop industry, there’s a template for selling millions and White Ladder made everybody think, ‘Christ, we should have one of these guys. The record was made for nothing, look at the returns.” David Gray was followed into the UK charts by Damien Rice, KT Tunstall, Katie Melua, James Blunt, James Morrison, James Bay, Paolo Nutini, and, ultimately, Ed Sheeran and a whole new wave of guitar boys including George Ezra, Tom Walker, Tom Grennan, Lewis Capaldi. In the US (where White Ladder sold 2 million copies), Jack Johnson, John Mayer and Jazon Mraz were amongst the singer-songwriters whose careers received a significant commercial boost. White Ladder was a music industry game changer.
And yet White Ladder remains apart from everything that followed. While the new record company model involved putting young guitarist-singers into the studio with teams of established pop writers and producers, White Ladder was the work of a lone artist plumbing the depths of his soul.
White Ladder was born of difficult circumstances. David Gray had been struggling on the margins for a decade, a lonely figure with an acoustic guitar swimming against the tide of Britpop, grunge, hip hop and electro. With three albums to his name, he found himself on tour in the American Midwest advertised third on the bill to beer and a barbecue. “Futility was so thick on the ground it was utterly soul destroying.” He came close to quitting. But instead, he asked himself some difficult questions: “Can you make a better record? Can you write a better song? The decision was to open up and give it everything I’ve got. The open heartedness that White Ladder has at its very core is in direct relation to the sense of bitterness and defensiveness that prevailed upon me. It’s almost like White Ladder is the negative flipped into positive.”
He wrote and recorded in a tiny terraced house on Lordship Road in Stoke Newington. “Two up, two down, with a little extension for the kitchen.” He had to record during the day so as not to disturb the neighbours. “The windows were open because it was hot, and you can hear traffic noises very clearly. It’s the ultimate bedroom recording, actually made in my bedroom.” Lacking big studio facilities, Gray experimented with drum machines and synthesisers, partly influenced by a friendship with the Hartnoll Brothers of pioneering electronic dance duo Orbital. “My first ever gig in London had been supporting Orbital at the WAG club. Watching them at close quarters was fascinating because they went about creating music in a totally different way, generating samples and found sounds. That was a revelation.” Aided by drummer and programmer Craig McClune and engineer and producer Iestyn Polson, Gray was increasingly open to new approaches. “My music was always so sensitive and earnest, it was hard to get these quirky, cheeky elements in. But our home recordings seemed to have more space. I was going to raves in East London and it was starting to get into my blood stream.” This blend of acoustic and electronically processed elements (sometimes referred to as folktronica) has since become ubiquitous in modern pop. “We just thought of it as creating soundscapes for the song. ‘Please Forgive Me’ was a breakthrough in those terms. Paul Hartnoll even remixed it later.”
Gray recalls writing ‘Please Forgive Me’ whilst friends were downstairs drinking wine. “I couldn’t stop to join them because the chords were opening up, one of those moments that fall out of the sky. Forty minutes later it was done and the hairs were standing on the back of my neck.” ‘Babylon’ was another “eureka moment” when “all the looping and quirky beats came together. I had the window open and you can hear the city, that crazy theatrical entity that London is, and how it feels to be one person within it. To me, that’s the sound of the record, a massive urban metropolis with a warm beating heart.”
‘Sail Away’ is another song that captures the tensions and contradictions of city life, stumbling streets awash with alcohol and hedonism, struggling to stay afloat, caught between a desire to escape and its inevitable aftermath. “I find life enough of a struggle as it is, just to keep my head above water in the constant assault of the world and then plunging off a chemical cliff after a two day bender, you can get into some pretty dark terrain. It’s a big old song.” He started writing it on a piano backstage at an arts festival in Ireland, when Nick Cave stuck his head around the door and declared “sounds good!” “So I got the nod from the headmaster, early on,” David laughs.
‘This Year’s Love’ was a stripped-down piano ballad of tentative love and longing that effectively rooted the narrative journey of the album. “It became the foundation for the whole record, it really earths all the emotion.” He recorded a version of Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ for the finale, transforming a brittle 80s synth pop ballad into a sinuous anthem of love and longing. It was already a showstopping part of his live sets. “Soft Cell’s Non Stop Erotic Cabaret was the first electronic record I ever fell in love with, partly because it described this weird, seedy, dank world I knew nothing about. I was 15 and living in a remote part of Wales and it really got into my bloodstream. At the time, to take an electronic song and play it on acoustic guitar seemed kind of daring, it revealed other dimensions and allowed it to breathe.”
David released White Ladder in Ireland on his own IHT label in November 1998. “We cobbled it together, got a distributor, pressed 5,000 copies and hoped for the best. We were selling so many copies on the merchandise stand, we had run out by the third show and had to press some more.” Signs of its future success became dramatically apparent during an appearance at Galway Arts Festival. “There was this crazy energy from the audience, 5,000 people singing along to ‘Sail Away’ and ‘Babylon’. The volume was outrageous.”
Released in the UK in March 1999, it reached number 69 in the charts. American jam rock superstar Dave Matthews was such a fan he personally licensed the album for his ATO label in the US. Meanwhile East West records, a division of Warner, took the reins in the UK, releasing ‘Babylon’ as a single in June 2000. After that, the floodgates opened. ‘Babylon’ became one of the hits of the summer, White Ladder became a multi-million global phenomenon, and David Gray jumped from playing pubs to theatres to arenas in the space of a few frenetic months. “It was nuts. We were just laughing all the time. It was like a slow explosion, with these moments of detonation that took it to another level. It was perfect in a way you could never design. It had to happen by accident, and when it unfolded it felt so human and genuine. It was a fairy tale and I’m still processing it now.”
White Ladder has become part of the fabric of the world. “A friend was in the Himalayas and Sail Away was playing at base camp. I’ve heard tell of my songs coming out of radios and stereos in the strangest places, from Tel Aviv to Timbuktu. We made the best record we could, and by some miracle it managed to charm its way across the threshold. It didn’t just open the door a crack, it kicked the fucking thing down. We came straight through. That was astonishing. You can make a great record but it is exceedingly rare that it will go on and become something bigger than itself. It was charged with all kinds of energies, the right thing in the right place at the right time, in this openhearted moment.”
White Ladder caught something of the mood at the end of the century and the start of a new one, the comedown from the pomp of the nineties mixed with nervous hope for the future. Gray’s music is both intimate and broad, intensely personal yet capable of speaking to the masses. “I don’t write behind some sort of cloak. I’m the opposite of an enigma, I am just heart on sleeve. I think your strength as a creative person is your vulnerability. If you’re not venturing anything you’re nowhere, there has to be something fragile and breakable being handed over. That was White Ladder. It is almost all I can say about it.”
Gray has continued to plough his own furrow, releasing 11 complex, ambitious, heartfelt albums across his career. The intense, introspective A New Day At Midnight (2002) and bold, anthemic Life In Slow Motion (2005) brought him further British and Irish number ones. Other critically acclaimed releases (including 2009’s Draw The Line and 2014’s Mutineers) have allowed the songwriter to investigate new compositional and production ideas. “It’s instinctive, you have to go where the music needs to go, otherwise the gleam, the sparkle will fall away.” At the heart of every album are songs of the highest lyrical and melodic quality, performed as if his life depends on them. Gray’s passionate, vocational approach has established an incredibly loyal audience prepared to follow him on every wild adventure.
“White Ladder was a moment in time. I didn’t design my life to create such a thing. But it happened, and on a scale that I could never have imagined. I’ve been happy after the event to get back to writing the music that I felt was in me and following my creative path. I don’t think the records I’ve made since have been worse or better. I just think what happened with White Ladder involved more than music. It was a sort of heart and soul moment of total surrender for everybody involved, for me and the audience. That was it. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Twenty years on, White Ladder remains an album of great depth and startling beauty, a superlative collection of emotional songs capturing a very special moment in time, as raw and immediate as when it was recorded.