David Gray will release his twelfth studio album, Skellig, via Laugh a Minute Records /AWAL Recordings on February 19, 2021 on digital formats, with CD & vinyl to follow in May. 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 with the atmospheric songs centring themselves around six-part vocals with Gray trading his signature gravel for a softer tone. The news follows the release of the first single to be lifted, the title, opening track and gateway song to the album’s theme, ‘Skellig’. Recorded prior to the pandemic, the album recording session took place at Edwyn Collins’ Helmsdale studio on the Sutherland coast, with De Vries and Gray finessing the mix throughout lockdown.
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:
“The more I contemplated the idea of a small group of people landing on those rocks and establishing a monastic life there, the more overpowered I became by a dizzying sense of awe. How close to God could you possibly wish to get? Life must have been unbelievably hard for them and trying to fathom the deep spiritual conviction that compelled them to escape the mediaeval world lead me to acknowledge my own deepest longings to be free of all the endless human noise that we now so readily accept as being such an inescapable part of our day to day lives. Dreams of revelation, dreams of a cleansing purity, dreams of escape. Ideas that I think almost any 21st century person shouldn’t find it too hard to relate to!”
The multi-vocal layering that weaves throughout Skellig came to Gray through the unfolding of 2013’s Sounding Out Tour, where he recruited members of his live band – including Caroline Dale, David Kitt and Rob Malone – to experiment on his back-catalogue alongside him. The symbiosis between the singers conjured a “communal spirituality” akin to the essence of Skellig, planting seeds for what would later take shape. Gathering up Dale, Kitt and Malone, and with the addition of Niamh Farrell, Mossy Noalan and de Vries, Gray ventured up to the coastal retreat of Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands to live out the creation of the record. Welcomed by the kindness and hospitality of Edwyn Collins, his wife and son, the small, intimate studio felt a fitting location for a record eager to celebrate its Celtic affinity.
Title track ‘Skellig’ rocks the album into motion, its “circular verses like the sea itself” carried by a singular baritone guitar. Gray, just distinguishable amongst the other voices – a pledge of what’s to come – following the ebb and flow of the chords as they rise and fade much like the lull of the waves. Skellig’s lyrical acknowledgement of nature’s humbling expanse is met in visual tandem with the album’s artwork. Lifted straight from the lyrics of the haunting ‘House With No Walls’, “a fish flashing silver jumping out of the lake” is depicted leaping across Skellig in its magical isolation, created by former art school graduate Gray himself.
Sibling song ‘Dún Laoghaire’ praises the wise endurance particular to the Irish and their ability to rise above upheaval. A symbolic traversing from most westerly Skellig over to the east, the track introduces the record’s affinity with the Celtic spirit (Gray himself grew up in Wales) from its choir-like vocal arrangements and back-to-basics instrumentation. Vivid images of Irish existence are brought to life in lyric form; “Rainy nights as black as Guinness / Apparitions lodged like splinters / So with thoughts all smudged and beery / Make my way down to Dún Laoghaire / Peek through windows fogged and teary / From the warmth inside.”
It’s also the first hint of a political undercurrent to the record. This becomes more advertent in ‘Accumulates’, a brooding, guitar-induced state of hypnosis which comments on the ease with which modern society can subvert once good intentions. Gray likening it to “a Chomsky-trope about how things just kind-of seep into you, and then the next thing you know, you’re making a decision that is abhorrent (or would have been). But under the current pretext seems a reasonably sane thing to do.” The haunting ‘House With No Walls’ considers nature’s unforgiving ability to destroy our constructed reality. “It’s only what you’re carrying with you and what you can give to the next person at any given moment. That’s all you’ve got.”
Songs 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 was the first to be written that places as much importance on creating space in-between as to what’s poured in. A fellow example lies in ‘No False Gods’, a brief yet intimate nod to the poem Real Presence by Scotland’s Nan Shepherd. Incorporating its parting line – “we are love’s body, or we are undone” – amongst Gray’s own lyrics, cradled only by a muted piano and Dale’s solo cello. Of the track, he notes; “I think that’s the least I’ve ever done to conjure a song. This is somewhere that I’m moving towards very slowly through all my work – I want to achieve more with less, rather than add more; I’m hoping that symphonic things can happen just from the nuances of just a few key elements, resonating in space.”
Gray continues; “There’s two ways forward in the sensual world. You either go for experience-over-everything. You say, “I’m going to be faithful only to my heart and to my senses, and I want to absorb as much experience as possible while I’m on planet earth. Or you fall in line with the limitations of some kind of accepted moral framework. It’s not so much of an either/or, but more a matter of where you merge those two ideas. Is denying yourself something a strength of will or moral weakness? Are you afraid of getting what you want? These are the choices that we make. Returning to the monks of Skellig
ORDER ‘SKELLIG’ (album) HERE
LISTEN TO ‘SKELLIG’ (single) HERE
WATCH ‘SKELLIG’ (single) OFFICIAL VIDEO HERE
LISTEN TO ‘HEART & SOUL’ HERE
WATCH ‘HEART & SOUL’ OFFICIAL VIDEO HERE