David Gray’s 1998 album White Ladder – a whopping seven-million seller that features smash hits Babylon, Sail Away, and This Year’s Love – is Ireland’s best-selling record of all time, and given changes in the music industry, is likely to remain so for some time.
Gray is still profoundly grateful for Ireland’s role in his breakthrough, in fact.
“Ireland embraced me in such a big way before anyone else did,” he recalls. “It was unbelievable, really. Looking back, I still can’t quite take in what happened.
“It was an unforgettable time for me, and I’ll always love the Irish because of it.”
Naturally, though, the Cheshire-born folk-pop singer has long been ready to move past his major commercial breakthrough on that fourth album.
His eleventh studio album, Gold In A Brass Age, was released earlier this month, and offers something really quite different.
“I was never going to just keep remaking White Ladder; it’s important to experiment and stay interested,” Gray said of the new record, which is layered with some complex electronic aspects, producing an organic, delicate element.
It also sees Gray explore falsetto vocals across several tracks.
In many ways, Gold In A Brass Age is a stylistic throwback to Gray’s early, art-school days.
“I want to go back to making art at some point,” he says. “I like to go out to the countryside and switch off.
“It’s essential to me to have that time, and it would be perfect for painting.
“But to paint again, I’d want to really dedicate myself to it. It’ll happen at some point, just maybe not quite yet.”
The abstract, ‘painting’ – in the musical sense – on his new record certainly jumps out.
The singer very much goes for melody and song construction first this time around, with the lyrics, delivered in a voice barely recognisable as Gray, added later.
“I guess it’s a bit more abstract in the way it’s done,” he says. “It’s a kind of montage. I felt like moving away from telling a story too obviously.
“I wanted it to be a little more instinctive, and to move away from the idea of writing anything too directly about my life.
“I took some time away because you just can’t keep drawing from that same well for too long. I feel revitalised by it.
“The [recent] best-of album was really a business decision. People like to hear the hits, and I’m trying to operate a record label at a time when records don’t sell that well, so it made sense to do it.
“I have a lot of running costs, including staff to pay, and you have to think about that.”
As well as an assortment of electronic equipment that’s going to make Gray’s latest tour a step away from anything he’s done before, there’s a lot of interesting quirks to be found on the new record, such as the sampled recording of a slamming of a door in the studio.
Much of the musical side of the album will be reproduced using a computer live, with Gray’s voice straying outside of his instinctive range, and his style displaying something entirely new – though the old classics will be on display, too, naturally.
“It’ll be more like a live studio on stage,” he explains. “I won’t be bringing the big band I had on my last tour.
“It’ll be a slightly different experience, and more complicated to do in some ways. I’ve had to get used to playing these tracks.
“You have to give people what they want, too” he jokes, though not before confirming that he’ll be working hard on getting plenty of the new album into the live arena.
“Most of the tour sold out straight away, which is a great feeling when I’ve been away for a little while.”
As for the future? “I already have the material for another album that will come out after this one,” he laughs.
“It’s very different to this, more back to me and my guitar, but the contrast in writing them really kept things interesting.”
For all the wonderful, textured exploration on Gold In A Brass Age, perhaps that new Babylon moment is still only a record away.
Gold In A Brass Age is out now, and David Gray plays two nights at the Bord Gais Energy Theatre next month, April 5 and 6. Tickets start at €42.