David Gray looks back at White Ladder – "The charm of it all changed my life forever"

It's one of the UK's biggest selling albums of all time, but how does David Gray feel about White Ladder 16 years on?

One of the great things about the Official Albums Chart is the sheer randomness of it all. Sure, artists on major labels start a campaign and aim to get as high up the chart as possible, but every now and again you encounter a true unexpected success story. They're albums that somehow perfectly capture the mood and vibe of a nation – or, if you're lucky, the world – and somehow find themselves a runaway hit.

One such success came for David Gray at the turn of the century. Thanks to the radio-friendly catchiness of a little song you may remember called Babylon, David saw his fourth album turn from a self-released pet project put together on a shoestring transform into nothing short of a global phenomenon.

To mark the 60th anniversary of the Official Albums Chart, we've been looking back at some of the biggest albums in UK chart history. White Ladder was at Number 1 for a mere two weeks in 2000, but it has more than earned its place in the lineup of biggest albums of all time, notching up 123 weeks in the Top 40, 40 of which were spent in the Top 10. It has sold over 3 million copies and is the 27th biggest selling album in the UK of all time.

What better way to celebrate the album's success and relive the defining moment of David Gray's career than to chat to the man himself? So we did!

Hi David! How does it feel knowing that one of your albums is one of the best-selling ever in UK history?

It’s remarkable – it’s a remarkable story. We never even dreamt it would be close to that when we were making it, we were in our own little world and hoped we were going to connect with people. We were just hoping to develop our fan base which was kind of minimal at that point. It would have been preposterous to even think about it entering the charts because I’d had a torturous journey through various record companies at that point.

I remember when we finished the album, we had a big party and a friend of ours who is a major fan came over from America to hear the record and he was like, ‘it’s gonna sell four million’. We were like, ‘will you shut up you American twit!’ But it actually sold more than that. It was an incredible journey. 

MORE: Look at all David Gray's hit singles and albums in his Official Chart archive

The album took a while to find its feet in the UK, first released on your own label in 1998, before being picked up by Warner and released again in 2000 to great success. What was that time like, just before everything went crazy?

The fact we started off putting it out on our own record label was the most exciting part – getting it through those early stages. We got the tremendous success in Ireland which provided a springboard for the rest of the world. We could feel that there was a magic there as we had seen it working elsewhere. That was a very romantic, wild west version of putting out a record.

There was a point just before Christmas when Rob Holden, my manager, his hall was completely full with CDs, thousands and thousands of them. I had to load up my Volkswagen Golf and take them to a freight airport to get them to Ireland for Christmas. My car was loaded with about 2,500 CDs; it was scraping along the ground! That added to the wonderful romance of the whole thing.

What was interesting was we were touring America when it started to bubble up the charts and when we got back from flying around the world with no money, we came back and we were booked as the first band on, on the first day on the main stage at T in the Park. We were used to the shitty end of the festival stick, hardened by years of disappointment, and we literally got off the plane, changed into some clobber and walked on stage… it was like a scene from Braveheart! Thousands of Scottish people running at us with banners who I thought would run straight past us to the bar, but they actually stopped and stayed. That was a defining moment where I thought, my god, this is actually happening.

MORE: These are officially the UK's 60 biggest selling albums ever

In the UK, it's the fifth biggest selling album of the Noughties, ninth biggest of the millennium so far, and the second biggest album by a UK male solo artist. Plus, it's the biggest selling album ever in Ireland – the stats speak for themselves, don't they? 

I still struggle to process that life can be like that, like a fairy story. We made an album mainly in my bedroom with zero cash and basically zero equipment and the charm of it all unlocked all this stuff and changed my life forever.

Babylon was the big single, but the Official Albums Chart is where you've found the most success, isn't it? 

I don’t construct my music around a catchy single. I’m not single driven and I’m not motivated by that. My heart and soul goes into the flow of the record. If there is a single, that makes a huge difference, but I think people who buy my music do so to listen to it in a broader way. 

My obsession is moving forward and keeping the connection alive, between me and my music and then hopefully have wonderful people to listen to the music – music means nothing unless you have people to listen to it! 

MORE: Look at the Official Albums Chart Top 100 the week White Ladder first went to Number 1

You have your own label that releases your music. Do you have any plans to sign other artists?

We haven’t really expanded it so that it puts other people’s music out. That seemed like an interesting route at one point, but it really just means that I own the rights to my music. I think I could bring a lot to someone else’s project but it’s just finding the time. I’m very much up for producing the right record. In terms of that creative equation, I could see how I could bring a lot of experience for younger artists. I’ve been a slow learner; in the language of sound, I’m not naturally linguistic. I’ve have to learn everything slowly and by trial and error. It’s been a slowly accrued knowledge by watching, listening and failing! It is something I would be very interested in, to collaborate on a production or creative level.

We’re celebrating 60 years of the Official Albums Chart this year. Do you have a favourite album of all time?

No record has given me more pleasure than Astral Weeks by Van Morrison. That’s a record that changed my life and made me listen to music in a different way. The abstractions that it contains, the jazz elements. It doesn’t tie together neatly; it’s like a different substance, like a fabric or a hedgerow. It is wild and exuberant and indescribable. It fascinates me still when I listen to it. 

Take a look at the best-selling album of every year since the Official Albums Chart began in 1956:

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The biggest selling album of every year since 1956

Main image: Alex Maguire/REX