Gray's cat hopped on the Akai sampler during a session, putting it out of commission.
These days, it's rare to find a recording on pop radio that doesn't sound like a million dollars — or at least a hundred thousand. Money is poured into top-of-the-line microphones, recording consoles and vintage gear, sounds are tweaked by sophisticated technology, and parts are layered and mixed to create a sound so compelling that it can sometimes blind a listener to a pop recording's musical shortcomings. So it is a refreshing change to see a quality home-recorded album like David Gray's White Ladder go Platinum in the States and abroad. Recorded for less than $5,000 in the UK singer-songwriter's London apartment, the album shot up the charts last year on the strength of its first single, “Babylon II.”
Released Stateside by Dave Matthews' ATO records (Matthews is a longtime Gray fan), White Ladder is a perfect blend of soulful folk songwriting and electronica-style backgrounds. Simple, effective arrangements of real and looped drums, samples and keyboards complement Gray's deeply felt vocals, lyrics and acoustic guitar. There is, in short, nothing fancy about this record, but plenty of emotional honesty — qualities that can be found in one of Gray's stronger musical influences, Van Morrison. And White Ladder is unique in that it achieves a feeling of warmth and intimacy from its electronic sounds, a fact that can be attributed both to Gray's songwriting and to the album's home-recording origins. (Since the success of White Ladder, a second acoustic album recorded around the same time, titled Lost Songs, has been released to capitalize on Gray's incredible career momentum.)
White Ladder's genesis can be found in a particularly dark period for Gray. In 1996, he found himself running out of patience and, as is unfortunately common for emerging artists, a disastrous run of luck with major record labels. He had released three albums in as many years, first with Caroline, then Virgin and finally EMI. Each received critical acclaim, but Gray still had no more than a devoted cult following, despite opening for big acts including Radiohead and Matthews. After EMI (then about to go belly up) bungled promotions for his album Sell Sell Sell, Gray decided he'd had enough. He broke his contract with EMI, despite being signed for an additional two albums. “There was a big advance waiting, but we just decided to get out, because it was just like death, basically,” he recalls. “I couldn't face going through anything like that anymore.”
The period that followed was one of personal and creative uncertainty for Gray. “At that point, I was really confused as to why I was doing it,” he says. “It wasn't as simple as getting up and playing music. I was not meeting any of the commercial criteria, obviously. So I had to go back to the drawing board.”
The “drawing board” consisted of Gray's electric and acoustic guitars (Martin, Lauden and Gibson), an Electro-Voice D257 microphone, a 4-track, an Akai S3000 sampler and a Roland Groovebox synth. (“About half the sounds on the album come from the Groovebox,” Gray explains.) Without a recording contract or a proper studio, Gray and his drummer and sometime bassist Clune began “messing around,” without any intention of making an album. “I was writing a lot of stuff, all kind of miserable, trying to get something going again, trying to find out what I was doing,” he says.
As they recorded, something began to change for Gray. Previously, he had always felt intimidated by the studio environment — mostly, he admits, because he knew nothing about the technical side of recording. But that changed as he learned the process at home. “I was absolutely free as a bird to twiddle anything… experiment in a very basic way,” he relates. “I got really excited about it all. It brought me closer to the character of what I was doing.”
In addition, Gray found a new relationship with Clune. “I got involved with Clune in a more sort of writing, collaborative way,” Gray says. “He plays very simply, but deceptively simply. There's a real musicality to the way he plays the drums. He's very respectful of the song at all times.” (For example, check out the album's opening track, “Please Forgive Me,” where Clune executes a stealthy, jungle-like groove.) As Gray listened more closely to Clune's musical ideas, he began writing pieces around Clune's rhythm tracks and bass lines, or sounds he found on the Groovebox, rather than the more conventional method of starting with a melody or chords. The result is striking: White Ladder's use of electronica has an organic feeling to it, extending the soulfulness of Gray's music, rather than sounding like an attempt to commercialize his style with trendy electronic sounds and beats.
After some time, Gray bought an ADAT to replace the 4-track. As they needed some more technical help on the project, Gray also brought in Iestyn Polson as producer. Polson, in turn, upgraded the duo to a Mac with a Logic MIDI sequencer to sync up the Groovebox and purchased an Audio-Technica 4033, bringing the mic count to a whopping two.
Polson, who had worked in big studios before, liked the home recording process. For one thing, he could actually have a life during the recording process, rather than spend endless hours in the studio. For another, he felt that he could keep perspective on the recording, unlike the situation of being “locked up in the studio where you start to lose your objectivity on tracks.” Engineering for the project was Jon Bailey.
Without a proper studio, Gray, Polson, Bailey and the other musicians faced the pitfalls of home recording. There was the difficulty of ambient noise: For several weeks, they halted recording because the city council began tearing up the street outside the apartment. “There was drilling going on. It was unbelievable. It was character-building,” Polson laughs. At another point, Gray's cat hopped on the Akai sampler during a session, putting it out of commission. “[That cat] destroyed about three pieces of equipment in its short life,” Gray groans.
Drum recording was also less than optimal. As Gray's apartment was not sufficiently large, the crew had to record most of the drums in a photography studio belonging to a friend of Gray's manager. The photographer was gone that day, but his assistant had, unbeknownst to him, booked the room. “His assistant was in there taking photos,” Gray says. “In the end, we just got so bored we just went for it anyway. He was just taking photos of these people in the background, and we were actually getting a take. It ended up on the record.” The acoustics were also a problem, because it was a large, stone room. Polson confesses that they re-recorded the drum tracks for the album's singles.
The upside of the process, however, far outweighed the disadvantages. For Gray, home recording was liberating. “It was just mayhem, really,” he said. “But it was just brilliant being involved in something from its very first chords and first bit of singing right down to measuring the gaps in between the songs and mastering.”
The other great advantage of home recording, according to Polson, was that it gave them time. “When I'm making a record, I like to live with the tracks for a while,” Polson says. “If you can live with them for six or seven months, you don't make any rash decisions, which you may regret when you listen back to the record.” Without the rush of completing the project for a deadline — or paying a studio for the time — the group found themselves able to listen back to the recording at their leisure and find whether the song itself came through in the recording. White Ladder's arrangements — simple but not spare, its electronic grooves both emotional and tastefully restrained — show the care that Gray and company took to remain faithful to the songs.
Gray himself also learned the value of restraint in studio playing. “Understatement is your great standard, unless you're in Napalm Death,” he says. “It can be beefy as a motherf****er, but don't overplay. Keep it under wraps. There are moments to let it rip. If you let it rip every time you feel like, it doesn't stand up as well to the test of time.”
As for the technical limitations on the album's sound, Polson makes no apologies. “There's no point in taking the sort of music we were doing and dressing it up to sound like it was something else, because it wouldn't have worked in the setup that we had,” he says. “It's a bedroom record. It has got that home studio sound to it. I think that's why people like it. Most things these days are done on an SSL or a Neve. You use all the best gear, because that's what people use, and it always sounds the same. It doesn't always, but it's very rare that you have a record that has any recognizable tonal quality.”
Even after Polson joined the project, bringing professional know-how to the record, there was still no definite intention on Gray's part of making an album from the material. It took a little distance for him to realize what they had on their hands: “I went away and listened to it and thought, ‘Christ, this is a record. This is the best thing we've ever done!’ So we decided to continue and finish it at home.”
For the mixdown, Polson and mixer George Holt borrowed an older series Soundcraft board that had a “cheap but warm” sound he prefers to the comparable Mackie. The Soundcraft, however, was quickly nicknamed “The Grumbler” because of a buzzing noise it made every few minutes due to a problem with the power supply. During the mixing, Polson had to stop to brush the corrosion off the wires. So they ended up mixing the album in Gray's front room to a Tascam DA-20 between the buzzes. “That and the drilling,” Polson laughs.
Polson compressed each track using a humble Joe Meek Studio channel compressor. “We didn't have enough process power to compress it in the computer — we weren't running Pro Tools,” he says.
When all was said and done, White Ladder is an honest and unpretentious recording. It is what it is, and that is all it needs to be. Polson sums up the ethos of the project best: “Making a record is how you feel when it's being recorded. It emotionally conveys, and that's what counts, not the quality of the microphone. It's the emotion of the track and how it makes you feel.”