Thursday, April 26, 2007

Ed Gray: No Depression

Ed Gray rises above self-doubt, one step at a time...

Self-deprecation is a double-edged sword in the hands of a singer / songwriter. A healthy amount of insecurity draws out the most compelling qualities of a musician. But without a small dose of confidence, uncertainty can keep songs from seeing the light of day. Ed Gray has struggled with this imbalance for nearly two decades; a time that’s seen him lingering in obscurity while contemporaries, like Bright Eyes, William Elliot Whitmore and Simon Joyner have found varying degrees of success. To say that Ed Gray is his own worst critic makes light of the situation. He is his own jailer, who rarely lets his musical ideas come to fruition. But with the arrival of his latest full-length The Late Gray Ed Great, Gray shows signs of transcending his self-imposed embargo, one step at a time.

His career began in earnest when he bought a ukulele at a junk shop in Iowa City, IA circa 1991. He was drawn to the instrument because he’d heard it was what Lou Barlow of Sebadoh was playing. His first CD, titled Sore Eyes appeared in 1998 on Iowa City’s SKAM Records. The disc documents Gray’s distorted anti-folk dirges that plunge into the depths of caustic depression. In 2003 he released an LP, titled Fall Song that slows the pace to a hazy drone. Vocals morph from whispers into screams over drummer John Crawford’s slow motion tribal pounding.

Gray embraced the role of the emotionally damaged troubadour long before Bright Eyes and Cat power were performing on Letterman. Early on he had the reputation of the weird guy playing a funny little guitar through a small amp and screamed his words without a microphone, and it was still too loud for the uninitiated. He was even known to shed a few tears during particularly intense performances. The affect was a captivating part of his show, but a social killer. “People weren’t coming up and saying ‘wow cool,’ they just weren’t talking to me,” he chuckles.

Over time Gray’s songwriting evolved into a more stable form and he shed the ukulele for the nylon strings of a classical guitar. With The Late Gray Ed Great, he moves past the damaged sounds of his early recordings by leaning toward lumbering, country-tinged inflections that replace awkward indulgence with melancholy and symbolism.

In the summer of 2005 Gray was invited to Omaha by JagJaguawar recording artist, Simon Joyner and collaborator Chris Deden to record. Joyner was rehearsing material for his album, Skeleton Blues and planned to record Gray using the same players. The sessions were wrought with technical difficulties and Gray’s inability to communicate ideas became an obstacle. “There were times when I was beside myself, thinking this is going to be terrible, and I just sort of gave up,” Gray admits. “I was tired of trying to make people see what I wanted to happen.”

Joyner recalls how he intervened during the recording. “I had a plan because I didn’t think that Ed did,” he laughs. Joyner brought order to the process by organizing a full-band treatment of Gray’s songs.

“It turned out great, but when we sent him rough mixes he was full of doubt,” Joyner deflates. “There were e-mails where I just said ‘this is really good and you should be proud. Just put it out and stop worrying about it!”

Gray caved-in and released the songs on Hot Potato Records. An EP, called A Fresh Coat on the Powder Keg followed on Unread Records, incorporating many of the same musicians, and further refining the path Gray started under Joyner’s guidance. “He’s one of my favorite songwriters who is just kind of unsung and it’s a real crime,” Joyner adds. “But a lot of that has to do with Ed overcoming his own sense of doubt. He wouldn’t keep doing this if he didn’t think he was any good, and this record could do a lot for him. But at some point you have to drop the insecurities to reasonable level.”

--Chad Radford

Top photo by Chad Radford
Bottom photo by Jonathan Crawford