Skellig the new album from David Gray is out now on digital formats via Laugh a Minute Records / AWAL Recordings, with a vinyl and CD release to follow on May 14, 2021. The second LP to be produced by Ben de Vries, the thirteen-track album departs from the shimmering electronics of 2019’s Gold In A Brass Age and embarks on a sparser, communal soundscape. Recorded at Edwyn Collins’ Helmsdale studio on the Sutherland coast (with artwork created by former art school graduate Gray himself), the atmospheric songs centre around six-part vocals with Gray trading his signature gravel for a softer tone.
The songs captured on Skellig are a blend of old and new. Laughing Gas found its home after Gray finally found a form that felt suited since its beginnings in 2003, a piano-led motif supported by the drone of a cello, brought to life by the tight-knit group harmonies. The track – which is today released alongside mesmeric NASA footage of earth filmed from space – was the first to be written that places as much importance on creating space in-between as to what’s poured in.
Skellig takes its name from a formation of precipitous rocky islands off the coast of Co. Kerry, the most westerly point in Ireland. Ravaged by the Atlantic, the seemingly un-inhabitable location of Skellig Michael became an unlikely site of pilgrimage in 600AD for a group of monks, who believed that leading such a merciful existence, they would leave the distraction of the human realm to be ultimately closer to God. Gray asks for no literal translation of the above, nor prescribes any religious allegiance – but the story, told to him by a friend, has haunted his imagination ever since. David Gray talks about the album with Hi Fi Way.
How do you get your head around where everything is at for musicians who need to tour given the pandemic?
I’m not agonising about it yet, financially it is difficult for everybody. I’m in a very lucky position, lots of the people who work with me and for me they aren’t so lucky. Crew, band members, the government are saying to retrain but that doesn’t work which just makes you want to punch them.
Skellig is a remarkable album, is the most satisfied you have been musically in your career?
I think you can hear that it is a labour of love and you can hear that there is something unique about it. I stepped away from the machinery if you like, this record is something quite different than the usual album material. It was all about the space, the simplicity, the lyrics and this communal singing, the stillness of this record and the power you can achieve when you are singing in to so much space. When you are pairing back the vocal, holding back the intensity of the delivery, it’s an exercise of reducing down to get more. I compiled these songs over nearly fifteen to twenty years and some of them date back to 2002 and 2003, they slowly bound themselves in to this group. I knew when this record was made it would be of all one mood where you could flow through from beginning to end. I couldn’t put Skellig and Dun Laoghaire with other things. When I have been talking about this I have been saying for example Nick Drake’s Pink Moon which just flows effortlessly from the first note to the last. A comparable album which is as equally brilliant would be Solid Air by John Martyn. On that record when I have the CD or the vinyl I would skip some of the bandy tracks, I just wanted to listen to the chilled stuff. His musical personality incorporated more 70s rocky ideas as well as this beautiful spacious acoustic music and he put it all on one album. People think that’s a classic album, it’s a totally classic album, a high watermark of British song writing but I don’t like the bandy tracks, they spoil the mood for me. This record I wanted it to flow through all the way.
How did you know it was the right time to pull this album together?
Ever since we sang together in 2013 and 2014 and we did the Sounding Out Tour which went to Ireland mainly then the UK. It was such a joyous thing that this had to be done as an album. I started to write a few more songs for it and it was about finding the space between other albums and other projects to do this justice. Obviously, this was recorded before lockdown in 2018, the live part, but I finished it and did the overdubs, edits and all the extra work you do to finish a record during lockdown. Lockdown afforded me the space to complete the record, I didn’t think I would get that chance until after the White Ladder tour which would have been at the end of last year. I thought I might have been doing that right now but it has been knocked out of sequence by larger events like the pandemic. I’m looking for the space and the reason I recorded it, it could have been recorded this year, there was a window of opportunity because I made Gold In A Brass Age and thought they would release it at the beginning of 2019. I realised I had six months, let’s get the rest of these songs knocked in to shape, book a recording studio to record the album.
Do you see that as a silver lining of sorts?
It’s a real weird mix on a creative level because when I came out of the rehearsal room we were just about to play our first show of the White Ladder tour at the beginning of lockdown. I was down at the studio just noodling, coming up with stuff, new ideas and got really in to it. It was a God send, then I did the usual thing, by the time we got to March/ April/ May, by the end of May I was turning in to pressure and thinking I’m going to make a new record this year, on my own, in the studio with no help whatsoever. At the same time I was trying to co-exist with my family for a period which is something I haven’t had to do in such an intense way. I thought this is ridiculous, relax for Christ sake, just exist and don’t starting turning music in to some high pressure gig. I took the summer off and came back to finish the Skellig album off. That’s what I choose to do, the perfect thing and was the perfect handrail because I thought it might be weird dropping back in to a recording session done in one place, at one time two years later but it was effortless. The music guided me and I just dropped back in to it. All the overdubs and bits and pieces I did fell in to place. It was weird, it was never an issue, you’re kind of superstitious about breaking sequence and messing with time when something is of a time. It didn’t feel like that. That was my way out through Skellig and now I am writing new material but without making it something of Earth shattering importance, I’m just getting on with it.
How did you feel after finishing Skellig?
I think you always feel very attached to the record and tried to determine that I had done everything I could to give the record every chance to do its job when peoples ears and hearts met the sounds and heard the words that they would be transported and changed by them. That’s all I was obsessed with trying to do, getting the sequencing right, it was a record when we were mixing it and sequence the record I found it very hard to listen to sections of the record to work out which song should come next. I had to listen to the whole thing and that tells a story about the fact it was conceived as a whole thing. It isn’t a concept album as such but at one point I was imagining weaving a weird radio static through the who album so that it fades in and out. We tried experimenting that kind of concept and it was too much and over egging the pudding. The whole record weaves in to itself all the way through and when I was sequencing the record it was tiring because I was changing each mix and the relationship between one song and the next. I was listen to an hour of music every time to see if what I was doing was right. By the time I got to the end you lose your ears when you’re listening very intently particularly when you had to stop and start again. This is what finishing the record felt like is a bit like being on the building site. We didn’t smash a champagne bottle in to the hull or high five each other. Quietly it sudden ended and then we were in the mastering suite and that was a long winded process as well. We got a special licence and we were the only people allowed in a year as we knew the people there to listen to the record one last time to make sure we got everything right. That was what it was like, attention to detail. There was an excitement that these songs were that long in the pipe line to have them, as a writer, which is a big part of what I do, it’s a special record, so lyric driven, it does feel unique.
Was it hard letting these songs go given how long they had been with you?
I’m not one of those people that find it hard to finish things because it isn’t my approach to life. Once it is done and I have given it my best shot, I don’t spend the next twenty years regretting that I didn’t do this, that or the other. There are plenty of things I have put out that I wish I hadn’t, plenty of things I’ve done in gigs where I made the wrong decision or lost the plot I don’t spend my life worrying about that, just get on with the next thing. When it is done there is a sense of release, relief, accomplishment and excitement that you’re sharing this. There’s been a heightened sense of emotional connection and these remote connections which is what music really is, until you go and play a show and see the audience in the flesh it is always a deferred pleasure that you have this sense that people are enjoying the music. It felt like that during lockdown, we only got to see our friends on Zoom, it’s a heightened sense of emotion. I knew I was putting something out that had so much of me in it, I was hoping it would really connect and do its job. It is commitment to the song, after making music for however long I have been doing it, I am very committed to the singing of things. In order to be as committed as I have been you have to really believe that it is a transformational thing, that it can affect people, it can have an affect. As Bill Shankly said about football, it isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that. That’s how I feel about music.
In a live show would Skellig need to be played start to end?
Let me just say that I think that the album itself needs to be of one piece. If I go in to play Skellig I don’t want to have people bellowing This Year’s Love or Babylon at me. If you’re going to see the Skellig show it is going to be about experiencing this music, this sound, free of those constraints and it won’t be a greatest hits show at any point. It’s going to be about listening to the Skellig album, and that will be very clear when we do the ticketing. I’ve got other songs from my past like from Mutineers for example there’s Gulls, The Incredible and various songs on there that have the same group vocal approach which will be entirely right to mingle with this. That’s all I know about the show and that it won’t be a greatest hits show. It will be a show entirely focused on these songs, I don’t think they need to be played in sequence but they need to all fit together and that’s what the audience will be hearing.
My favourites from the album are Heart and Soul and Can’t Hurt More Than This, absolute powerful moments.
It’s all aimed at the heart and trying to do as much damage as I can emotionally any time I get on the microphone.
Are you feeling more optimistic about the possibility of touring internationally?
They like to say we all interconnect but Australia seems to have its shit together. We can’t just tour in Australia because we can’t put all the money in to putting a tour together and just play in Australia and New Zealand then come home. It only makes sense if we can play everywhere because the overheads are huge when you put a big tour together. Until everywhere is working it doesn’t make a great deal of sense so until Europe and America are back on board and that’s for shows that are inside, no one has a crystal ball, they are vaccinating the shit out of it in the UK, US to but I think you need some clear air where there is a few months where you know you can spend the money in putting a tour together and doing all the stuff that goes with it, paying all those wages ahead of time, for production rehearsals, production, getting everything booked that it is going to happen. We’ve all had our fingers burnt a year ago losing a lot of money, we weren’t unique in my touring camp, it was everybody. It won’t be like that when there is that moment, we are constrained by reality not by being over cautious. It is hard to say, I’d like to say things will happen by the end of this year but at the moment it is too early to say. There’s so many different aspects to this, we’ll be dealing with this for the however many years. The vaccine doesn’t mean it’s just going to go away.
Interview By Rob Lyon
Purchase/ Access Skelling HERE