After David Gray's manager heard "Dead in the Water," the first song from the Welsh singer/songwriter's forthcoming album, he made a suggestion.
"He thought I should change it to 'In Bed With Your Daughter,' which he thought had more commercial potential," Gray said with a smirk. "But I knocked that on the head."
On A New Day at Midnight, due November 5, there's no getting around the somber tone of Gray's most introspective collection of songs yet.
His fifth studio album was written as White Ladder was selling millions of copies, but also while his father was dying of cancer.
"I was having these mad conversations," Gray said, rubbing his hand across the stubble on his face. "He was very sick, and you get into this strange thing of once cancer rears its ugly head, you never get a straight answer. [You hear,] 'The test results will be in next week,' and you're foolishly hoping it's going to be good news, but you never quite get ..."
Gray paused to collect his thoughts.
"Anyway, there was lots of that going on, while everything was going incredibly well in another way," he continued. "The songs I was writing back then, there's a lot of that emotion running through them. That's the core of this record, there's no point pretending otherwise. It's not quite as poppy on the whole as White Ladder was, [pop] by my standards. This has more depth and is a more personal statement. That's just the way it came out. I had a lot of stuff to deal with."
While A New Day at Midnight has its cheerful moments, like "Caroline" and "Real Love," most of the album is darker and quieter than his breakthrough single, "Babylon," which was the kind of infectious fare you would expect Dave Matthews to release on his label (see "David Gray: Say Hello").
The album opens with "Dead in the Water," a solemn tune on the surface but not one of the album's more personal numbers, according to Gray.
"I caught something that happens to songwriters — Elvis Costelloism," Gray explained. "That's where you have chord changes every few seconds. I got this chord sequence that was just never-ending. It was like major, minor, seventh, major, minor. I thought I'd turned into the Beatles or something. Normally I'm like, 'G, C, where should I go now?' This was sophisticated songwriting. On a technical level, that's what happened, so because of that, weaving the lyrics in was a bit more complicated. There's wasn't that much room."
Gray started singing the words "Dead in the water" and then simply added other ambiguous verses. "It's just sort of mish mash, not to demystify it too much," he said. "It's like my earlier albums in that it's slightly more aggressive, more controversial. I'm not really sure what it's about, but it's got an anti-religious bent to it. It seems to be critical. ... And I like starting the record with it, because it immediately is completely different from White Ladder."
A New Day at Midnight's first single is the album's closer, "The Other Side." The lyrics, like those of "Babylon," reflect on a shattered relationship, although given the context of the song, it clearly has a double meaning.
"The lyrics are suggesting that the person singing the song is singing it to someone else who he has been in a relationship with that's broken down," Gray explained. "It's like, 'Meet me on the other side of this' kind of thing. The other side of this turmoil and heartbreak. The power of the lyrics suggests, [however,] 'Meet me on the other side of death.' It's a bit of a call into the void. That's where the song gains its power. And that's what seems to have come out stronger than all the lyrics."
"The Other Side" was the last song Gray recorded for the album and was done much more quickly than the others were. His vocals on the album are actually from the first take of the song, when Gray was at his most revealing. "When you catch yourself off guard, you're really blown away," he said.
Gray recently shot a video for the single in London, where he invited thousands of fans onto the set. The clip begins with Gray singing straight into the camera in complete darkness, but when the drums kick in, lights beam out to reveal the many onlookers surrounding him.
"It's not like they're my audience, but thousands of souls," Gray explained. "It's just a simple idea. It's such a stark song. It's not something you can do a quick-cut, whistles-and-bells kind of video for. That would just be ridiculous. It had to be incredibly simple."
After hearing the song a few times, the audience began singing along, even adding a harmony part that isn't on the recording.
"It actually sounded really cool," Gray said. "But it might sound like crap in the post-production."