#Interviewed ::: Songwriter William Gray

When William Gray’s new album ‘Flounce’ was released back in March (2016), Chinese journalist Cherry Ni interviewed the Hangzhou-based singer/songwriter.We cover music from near and far but as all our writers are currently based in Zhejiang we think it’s important we prioritize music from this region and also China as a whole. We are thus ecstatic to have gotten our paws on the original questions that formed the basis of Cherry’s article. The final piece made its way around the Chinese blogosphere, and was also published by Lean In Shanghai 驻英特约撰稿 (http://goo.gl/ePHYJY). Without further ado, read the initial interview the final article was largely based on.

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CN: As with the rest of your work, I’ve really been enjoying your album. The front and back covers remind me of the “Toy” art exhibition I went to in London. I think your  album art evoked a similar feeling: a mixture of innocence, cynicism, and the attempt to dig deeper into the relationship between childhood and adulthood.

WG: Well thanks for taking the time. I went to an Ai Weiwei/Andy Warhol exhibition in Melbourne recently and it did occur to me perhaps the album artwork has a similar pop art feel to some of those artists’ works so I know what you mean. And there’s a certain mechanical undercurrent to the music as well which I think is very much of this time and perhaps evokes that whole pop art thing too. You’re right in terms of the themes as well yes, I think that a lot of people presume once someone settles into family life then their best art is behind them. I understand that time limitations are obviously a factor, but I also think raising a child is one of the most important events to happen in a person’s life so how couldn’t that inform someone’s art? You are also right about the childhood vs adulthood and innocence vs cynicism factors. I deliberately tried to keep the approach to this album simple, childlike even, but the cynical or adult part of me always inevitably comes into play.


CN: I’m wondering then whether it is your son Louis that inspires such thoughts? I can see that he appears in your songs again and again.

WG: Sometimes he appears literally – on this album if you listen really carefully you might be able to hear him wailing at one particular point. It’s very difficult to hear but he’s there if you know where to listen for him. I spend a lot of time with my son as a stay-at-home dad so it’s natural that comes out in my creative output. In particular, with the sounds and textures of ‘Child’s Play’, a childlike feel to the song is obvious, but also at the same time there’s a darker subtext to the lyrics, it’s about an adult wrestling with who they now are, questioning can they hold it together for the sake of the people who depend on him and who he in turn of course depends on himself.

CN: Last time we met I focused a lot on your family life so perhaps this time we should explore more your identity as a solo artist and music producer. With that in mind, can you tell me what inspired the creation of this album, perhaps with reference to particular songs?

WG: The thing that set it all off was actually the picture that is the front cover. I wasn’t planning on releasing an album at that particular time because it’s a lot to take on. Anyway, my son was poorly so we bought him a panda balloon to cheer him up. He was actually freaked out by it so that didn’t go according to plan but I happened to take a picture of it with a weird filter setting on my phone camera, just messing around, and it sparked something in me. I started thinking if this was an album cover, what would the songs sound like? And once I start thinking about how to make songs sound a certain way then I can’t stop. ‘Child’s Play’ was actually already partially recorded before this but it fit with the whole thrust of the album and was too interesting a song not to include. That song I was mucking about with my son’s toy Xi Yang Yang keyboard and the melody and basic structure just came to me.

For the rest of the songs because I was already very sure how I wanted the album to sound I just started recording guitar parts, deciding on song structure at the same time, and then I just let the lyrics come. For ‘Heather’ I wanted to write a pop song based around a female name because that just seems to be something lots of songwriters do – so it was like setting myself a little challenge. I can’t remember why precisely I chose that name. Perhaps I liked the rhyming possibilities. I chose to inject some weirdness and abstract humour into it rather than it just being your average boring love song. I once knew a girl called Heather at school. Her father was a vet and he had to amputate our dog’s leg because it was badly broken. So I threw that in there just because it seemed such a ridiculous thing to sing about and the notion of a pop song containing those lyrics made me chuckle.

‘Riddle Me Thistle’ is very abstract. I guess I was going for a Syd Barrett, early Pink Floyd, kind of approach but with some hidden meanings in there too. As the years have progressed, when I’m making music, I’ve become more and more fascinated by sound itself and that’s often what I want to explore as much as the song structure. ‘Suck It In Spit It Out’ is a good example of that. I deliberately sucked in my breath whilst singing the ‘suck it in’ lyrics and then exhaled for the ‘spit it out’ bit. So with this song the inspiration was literally coming up with that physical action represented simultaneously in the way the words are expressed, and then the question was simply how to build a whole song around it.

‘Anyway’ was inspired by a film I was watching about country music and from there I just listed different occupations – songs like that seem to write themselves. For the title track ‘Flounce’ I’d always wanted to have an album with a title track that kind of ties everything together, so for that one it was very easy, I just adopted the mindset, OK I’m bringing the album to a close, time to say ‘bye’ and ‘flounce’ on out of here. Then I finished with ‘Regardless’ which is like an epilogue, a nice contrast to just be very literal at the end there and, after, all the concealment that has taken place, give the listener something they can absorb and understand easily, some kind of take home message.

Whilst with a record such as Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Carrie and Lowell’, you can say it’s inspired by a particular life event, the death of his mother, I’d say with this album really the overall inspiration is the medium itself that I’m working in and what can potentially be done with it. I’m simply excited by sound and what I can present to the listener through painting with sound, shaped around pop songs in the form of an album. If that make any sense whatsoever!      

CN: What do you think is the major difference between this album and your other releases?  What do you think are the major differences between the works created in China and the ones created in the UK?

WG: All my albums are different I think. This is probably the most punky or rawest one I’ve done I guess but also the most psychedelic at the same time. It’s arguably the most cohesive as well in terms of an overall sound and vision, the previous EP ‘Tish’ kind of laid the groundwork for that as that too had a very disciplined approach to writing and recording, or an overarching vision. I’m not sure if where I am geographically makes that much difference overall as I live in my own little world anyway. I think just the fact I am older makes more difference. The music industry doesn’t really give people time to develop. If you aren’t the finished article by the time you’re 20 or something then the industry doesn’t seem to want to know by and large.

When I was younger I was perhaps sometimes too distracted by what I thought others wanted or I was depressed about not ‘succeeding’ whatever ‘success’ actually means. And then there’s all the other stuff about being a young man too that informs one’s thinking – it can be depressing being a young person in today’s world, perhaps not knowing how to approach life and I think the loneliness and alienation I was feeling seeped into the music. Now I am a happier, more well-rounded person I am simply intent on having fun with the medium, rather than being driven to write because I need to bare my soul or whatever. I still love a lot of my old recordings, I think I did some great stuff which went largely unrecognized but there’s also a deep sadness to some of it which I don’t think I really have anymore.

In addition, I think I’m just better at looking at the tools I have at my disposal these days, picking a direction, thinking it through and going for it. More thought goes into the overall package. I don’t know if anyone notices that but I certainly find it more satisfying feeling like I’m more attuned to the process as a whole. That’s just learning your craft, the more you work at something, the better you become. Naturally being in China informs my work on some level, lyrically China sometimes finds its way in there and then there’s the sound of the Xi Yang Yang keyboard on ‘Child’s Play’ of course so it’s not like I’m completely isolated from the Chinese experience.

The electronic strand running through my latest music isn’t necessarily because I’m in a city where electronic music currently seems to be popular in terms of a subculture because the synthesizer and sampler I used on the album I have actually owned and used periodically for years. However, seeing more gigs featuring electronic artists at Lineout Stage in Hangzhou probably has had an effect in some shape or form, particularly choosing to do something with more minimal electronic beats rather than live style drums. People might not think of that potential influence as typically Chinese but I’d say welcome to modern China, it’s not all older people sat around with traditional instruments – as much as I love that too.

CN: What does music mean to you in your life? Is it something that helps you escape from the trivial or darker side of existence?

WG: Music is a really precious form of escapism. It’s a very pure, uplifting experience that feels completely natural, with no negative side effects health wise. I think when I was younger music was a means of channeling the despondency I was feeling, and there’s still an element of that in that it does help me vent my frustrations – I always feel better mentally after playing some music. Perhaps to some degree it’s a means of keeping something for myself because marriage and a child does mean that you are not just one person any longer.

My music is uniquely me and helps me retain a sense of who I am. And there’s obviously a certain monotony to daily existence, the routine of going to the supermarket, cooking and cleaning, paid work you do just to pay the bills – it’s good to break that up with some music. The wider world can also be depressing at times so perhaps it’s a way of shaking all that off and detaching from it. But I’m not battling the same level of personal demons I was when I was a younger man. For the most part I’m just trying to have fun.

CN: What has been the most amazing moment in your musical life and what has been the most depressing? And what kind of changes has music made to your existence?

WG: I could refer to things such as my old band The Smokestacks splitting up. That was emotionally draining because we put so much hard work into it and I still have regrets because I think we had a lot of unfulfilled potential. But the upside was I could focus on releasing music myself so I try and focus on the positives. The best thing my music brought me was my wife and then in turn my little boy. I was a solo artist by the time I met her. I don’t know if I would have met her if I’d still been in the band. Probably not. I met my wife at a gig. I had already played my set and she walked into the bar. Basically I think with music it’s very up and down. First of all a lot of artists are sensitive types so they can be emotionally very changeable.

So one moment you’re happy and the next moment you’re sad, no matter whether to an outsider your situation appears to be good or bad. You’re facing the same basic challenges throughout your life, one moment you’re happy because you’re creatively fulfilled, the next minute you’re agonizing about the fact the music isn’t reaching enough people or it’s not paying the bills or whatever. People say things like, ‘You played in a venue Amy Winehouse was in one night – cool!’ or ‘Wow you played the Cavern Club in Liverpool, the place The Beatles used to play at’ or ‘Your music was played on the radio/You were interviewed and did live sessions at the BBC’ but actually the thing that is most important or enjoyable is just that feeling of getting lost in the moment and believing that you are really connecting with an audience or communicating what you want through a recording.

You’re always searching for that feeling of euphoria or creative satisfaction. So Jingdezhen in China for example. I played a solo gig there last year and although it was very well attended, it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. One girl was in tears because she felt so moved by the music! That’s priceless. You work at it your whole life just to experience fleeting moments like that – the satisfaction that what you are doing is really hitting home. More recently I played with a guy called Jon Gomm who has become quite well known now internationally. That was an important gig for me because I know Jon a tiny bit from home and in fact years ago we played at the same places. It was amazing to suddenly be playing on the same bill again after all this time, but in China. Who would have thought that could have happened all those years ago? I don’t think I’d even heard of Hangzhou back then.

It was important to me to put on a good show in front of what is now my home audience. I was really buzzing that gig went well performance wise and that I got a good reaction, especially because it’s no easy task playing on the same bill as a virtuoso – there’s not many people in the world who can play the guitar as well as Jon, and that is by no means an exaggeration. So yeah, I was pretty happy after that, particularly as I’d dropped my guitar, split the neck and had to play a replacement guitar at the last minute without time for a decent soundcheck – what a rollercoaster of emotions that evening was (laughs).    

CN: As a self-produced artist, what do you think has proven the most difficult part of your career path and are you in fact happy referring to it as a career path? Would it be any different in the UK?

WG: I think you can call it a career path because anyone who devotes so much time to doing something they love would generally want to be doing it full-time and getting paid well for it. But you have to be realistic about the state of the music industry today. More and more artists aren’t able to make a living just from music and that’s just the way it is. I don’t actually think it’s a bad thing in itself to do other things to bring money in as long as you still have time to do what you love. Musically I don’t find anything too difficult at the moment, for example, I found this album and the previous EP very straightforward to make and I’ve also rounded off another EP which will be released in the autumn. The ideas have just flowed and I feel satisfied with the job I’ve done recording them.

The hardest part arguably is settling on final mixes but because I’m an independent musician or part of a small label there’s not really much pressure on that score – I can take all the time I want and when it’s ready I discuss with John at Medic when the best time is to release the material I’m working on. What is difficult I guess is the time issue. When you simply don’t feel you have the time to devote to music that can be a worry. And that’s where the difficulties arise regarding music not paying enough to do it fulltime. That means you have to spend your time earning money in other ways and that may leave you too tired or with not enough time to commit to your creative aspirations.

That’s a constant battle I think for creative people, wherever they reside in the world. In China, and in partnership with my wife, I’ve actually found it much better because the cost of living is cheap compared to the UK. That means I can bring up my little boy whilst my wife works fulltime, which she is happy doing because she is very career-minded, and I can work part-time and also work at my music whenever possible. In the UK I think we’d both have to work fulltime. In a sense I do work fulltime because I’m juggling all these different things but I prefer it this way to having to work 40 hours a week doing the same office job. We have to remember really artists have always been poor. Many never receive any real recognition during their lives. We do it because we are driven to do it and it’s an end in itself.     

Using the above interview and other conversations with William as inspiration Cherry Ni wrote a piece which you can read here: http://goo.gl/dZw26R

Follow more music from William Gray – http://www.williamgray.bandcamp.com

Follow Cherry Ni on WeChat/Weixin



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