Finding Shades of Gray With a hit album and adoring fans, the brooding British songwriter is now a pop star-and loving it

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David Gray was flying blind. the English singer-songwriter was on a plane last year, 10,000 m in the air, on his way to another gig in another city-part of a dizzying 12-month tour-when he realized that he had no idea, as he says now, "where the bloody hell I was or where I was going." He checked the time on his watch, but that was broken too. "I thought, ŚWell that's absolutely the way my bloody life is going.' One day I'm in Zimbabwe and the next I'm on the North Pole or something." All he knew as he stared out the window at that moment was that he was heading west again. "The sun was always there," he says. "It wasn't getting any lower in the sky."

That, too, sums up the way his bloody life is going. After years of dwelling in pop's dark obscurity, David Gray has at last discovered that the sun doesn't have to go down-and he's still basking in the glow. His album White Ladder, recorded in his living room and self-released in the U.K. in 1999, broke the U.S. Top 100 chart last October and is now pushing the top 30. In Ireland, on the strength of almost no promotional hype, White Ladder has been certified platinum 14 times over. "I don't know if there's anyone there left to buy it," Gray jokes.

All at once, Gray, an affable 32-year-old Manchester native who is married to a lawyer and openly admits "I'm not rock 'n' roll," has become an international pop star. His wide-eyed visage is plastered throughout London subway stations. He has appeared on flagship American television programs such as Saturday Night Live and the Late Show with David Letterman. He schmoozed with Prince Charles and Gwyneth Paltrow. ("I swore a lot when I met her," Gray says. "I'm a terrible swearer.") For a guy who not long ago had to insult audience members to get them to listen, this sudden stardom is both unfamiliar and intoxicating. "Everything has to change," he says. "I'm sure some fans will say, ŚWell, I used to like him when ...' But I'm bloody glad success has come, and in such a brilliant way so that I actually feel I deserve it. I mean, who would have thought it?"

Almost no one in the music industry did, which is why, when Gray began recording White Ladder in 1998, he had left one record label and been dropped by another in less than five years. His first album, A Century Ends, consisted mainly of Gray strumming and wailing acoustic folk anthems and Celtic ballads; it earned him a small following in Ireland and little else. His two subsequent efforts leaned toward more conventional electric-guitar rock but failed to gain attention. (Lost Songs 95-98, a collection of tracks recorded during his more fallow days, was recently re-released.) Distraught and teetering on "the shitty end of the rock 'n' roll spectrum," Gray nearly gave up before deciding to turn his life-and career-around. "It had become a little claustrophobic to sit there with a guitar with the weight of all my failings on me," he says. "I was sick of being the angsty singer-songwriter. I wanted to enjoy the music."

So Gray started experimenting with synthesizers and drum machines, working out catchy grooves and beats and then layering melodies over them. He and his bandmates made White Ladder over the course of four months in Gray's London apartment; it "cost nothing and was recorded on a couple of mikes and some dodgy equipment." The result bore some resemblance to Gray's brooding, languid early songs, but it also featured pulsating tracks, like Please Forgive Me, which melded folk, pop and dance styles. What catapulted Gray into the mainstream was the album's exuberant first single, Babylon, with its celebration of being cool, young and free: "Saturday, I'm running wild/ And all the lights are changing, red to green."

The song was a runaway hit in Britain last year, and from there Gray rode a wave of trans-Continental buzz. He is part of a generation of gifted young singer-songwriters (Elliott Smith, Badly Drawn Boy, Beth Orton) who have thrived by providing an alternative to the numbing, bubble-gum conformity of pop, and the hard, forbidding edge of rap and metal. "The people who have bought the record are people who haven't participated in a long time," Gray says, explaining White Ladder's appeal. "It's got melody and a strong spirit. I'm quite the opposite of cynical-the music is real, the emotion is real and the sentiments are heartfelt. When people come to see us they seem to bring a positive energy with them. Perhaps there aren't many other outlets for that right now."

Thanks to his unexpected reception in the U.S.-where White Ladder was the first release by a label founded by musician Dave Matthews-Gray has stayed on the road for more than a year, writing new songs in his head. He plans to go back to the studio in the next few months. "It will be difficult to recapture the spirit of spontaneity knowing there will be 5 million people waiting to listen to it," he says. "But I think I've got better records in me." Success has made him a happy man-you need only watch him bound onto stage to know that-but Gray says his songs will still probe darker themes. "The ordeal that is living is exactly the same. The entire weight of our suffering day to day, if you want to get involved in it, remains identical."

He assures devotees of Babylon that his next album will "have some bouncy numbers" and will dip further into electronica. "I'd really be up for experimenting, I know that," he says. "I'd like to take my music as far out as I can." Having come this far, Gray is not about to turn back. All the lights are changing, red to green.