David Gray was worn out.
Understand, he'd been making fine folk-pop records before you discovered his "White Ladder" album 10 years ago and made the ruminative song "Babylon" into one of the 21st century's first one-hit wonders. After that, fickle Americans began drifting away again while his popularity remained high in Europe.
But a couple of years ago the hype machine finally had wound down, and Gray found himself without a record deal or a band. He wondered where things had gone missing -- the fanfare, his mates, even his inspiration.
"Where does anything go? When you turn the light off, where does it go? Stuff changes, people change, and it happens quickly when you're not looking," Gray says during a recent family vacation in central Italy. "What happened naturally and unconsciously, it's hard to repeat that. We had a rare old time making records and touring the world, and then not everybody had the desire to reinvent it and start all over again. Every time we make a record, it doesn't make a difference what we did last time. It's only a marker for you. You must start over again. That wears people out, and we began to repeat ourselves."
DAVID GRAY & RAY LAMONTANGE
6:15 p.m. Wednesday[8/25]
Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park
Tickets: Sold out (800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com)
So Gray, after several years of working with a tight group of players, found himself auditioning a new band. He wanted to christen the new collective by recording the next album live in the studio. This time, he was really starting over, and it spurred an "unprecedented fertile writing period," as well.
The result was last year's "Draw the Line," a spirited set of familiar but freshened folk-pop, featuring guest vocals from friends like Annie Lennox and Jolie Holland. The song "Fugitive" scored him another Top 40 hit in America.
But that fertile writing period turned out to be so rich it generated two albums. "Foundling" was released last week, not quite a year after "Draw the Line."
"We made both during the same recording period," Gray says. "At first, there's a deliberate point of departure. ... Halfway through the main session in the summer of 2008, I thought, 'Yeah, I can see this splitting two ways.' Some songs could have been on either record, but mostly it was clear."
Clearly down-shifted. "Foundling," he says, "doesn't even attempt to be up-tempo. The big ballads on 'Draw the Line,' the directness of 'Fugitive' -- it's not a confrontational quality, but a directness, a looking you straight in the eye. This record is far more contemplative. It makes its statement in a different way."
The quieter tone of "Foundling" he says, is the result of that calm between the storms, after the first band scattered and before the new one coalesced.
"A lot of these songs grew out of the enjoyment of not having other people around for a while," he says. "That total simplicity is made all the richer from the full-band sound of the other songs. When things go quiet, it's nice. In shows, I like the thunder and sweat and toil, but sometimes the pin-drop silence can be the height of the gig."