David Gray Draws the Line

Question: Are you excited to tour with Draw the Line’s more energetic songs?

David Gray: Yeah, because sometimes you offer the music out as some sort of fragile bloom into a hostile space and you’re like, “Please like me. Don’t heckle in the middle of this one.” It’s like church music in an inappropriate setting. Sometimes it is very sensitive, or there’s a lot of sort of emotion to it, and a couple of my recent records have been very emotional and sort of inward. And so it’s harder to take those songs out to the crowd in a way. You need them to be on your side because obviously it’s often a bit more challenging then that live.

These [new] songs are very outward. They are very direct; they’ve got a bit more pace and a bit more attitude. And it’s fantastic to have that in the engine room. All this different gearing. But it’s also the way that I’m feeling. I am looking the world squarely in the eye and I just can’t way to sing out all this stuff. And I’ve already seen it have an effect; we’ve done a few shows already. I can see the music registering. It’s very direct. So, yeah, that’s very exciting.

I’ve had a break as well. You know, I was a bit toured out. So, I am full of beans in that sense. I’m longing to play the shows. So, yeah, its great having this record and what it’s got on it.

Question: Lyrically, does Draw the Line better represent your personality than other albums?

David Gray: I think it shines a light on more facets of my writing and my head than previous records, which were pitched in a certain place. I’ve been in quite an inward zone while I was post-fame and post a few deaths, and the strain in my private life and the strain of just being away all the time and having young children and all this stuff going on and trying to work out how best to deal with it all. I’ve suddenly freed [myself] and it reminds me a bit of my first record. This record, it’s very divergent. There’s not one song that typifies it, there’s lots of different types of stuff. But in terms of the ideas that it presents and the wit of some of it, I think its far more reflective of me as a whole, because people talk to me sometimes and they—I don’t know what they’re expecting—can’t believe I’ve got ideas or I give a fuck, or I might punch someone in the face. It’s like, well of course, I’m a human. Are you offended? It’s like; life is hard to swallow, isn’t it most of the time? It’s like; you can’t move an inch without salesman pitching you on some fucking bullshit they’ve dreamt up. It’s like, it’s a constant struggle just to stand still and not be overcome by a sense of loathing. And yet it’s completely wonderful as well. I don’t know. So, I guess, yeah, I’m delighted with this record in that respect. I feel that it’s a work of greater maturity in terms of the writing and I do think there are songs on there that are very like things that I have written before. Like Jackdaw: ballads that people can probably latch onto immediately.

And all of the songs on there, I’ve written some things sort of similar-ish too, but it’s just better constructed. And then there are things like Nemesis on there, which I thinks sort of transcend anything I’ve managed to do so far. I think they are much more elegant constructs than what I’ve tried to say—[which is] the same thing, but I’ve not said it as well. That’s all we’re up to: saying the same thing in different ways.

Question: What are the plusses and minuses of working with a producer?

David Gray: Well, I’ve had a few records with producers and various entanglements with them. Working with Marius on Slow Motion was a very successful project and at that point, I just bought this big studio and I really needed a little help in learning how to use it or to think within the scope that it offered me because I had just basically been making records in a very sort of bedroom way. And that’s how I found my sound finally. Or learn to relax in the studio. A producer gives you objectivity. He’s not actually playing the music, he’s sitting their listening and obviously whenever you get someone like that, it can be very, very helpful in all things.

[Marius] supposedly helps people to express themselves or relax within the whole thing, or try something they wouldn’t have tried or has ideas. I mean, some artists are pretty clueless and they need somebody to do everything to do everything for them. And then you get – well I think pretty much all of the interesting artists will have very strong ideas about how it should be, but some people aren’t very practical or they’ve not got very good people skills, is a polite way of saying they’re rude fucking twats. And they need somebody who can sort of get everybody working together. So, they think that they are some sort of divine presence that’s going to come in and sort of create magic. So, it’s like, anyway, sometimes it feels like you need some external influence, some objectivity and a little bit of magic from somewhere, a little bit of guidance.

I’d heard that Marius had made lots of interesting records and quite grand. He was obviously quite baroque in his sort of soundscapes, and that was completely running contrary to the way that I would normally do things. So it made for an interesting combination. But this time around, I think if the magic is happening in the band then that's what you're looking for the producer to create, and that I knew exactly what to do with this and it was right up my alley. Fun, you know. My music. But I mean, it was, you didn't have to do much with it because we were getting a live tape, which has a certain sort of thing to it. Everything glues together in a certain way when you record like that. And you don't need to [add] loads of stuff on it to make it sound convincing. It is convincing; it's the real thing. It sounds good just as the naked truth of what is. So [with] overdubs and all that, it was obvious when the big gestures needed to be made production-wise.

But I guess I gained a lot of confidence slowly over the years about my own opinion and being able to express it. I think the big problems I had in the studio when I was younger was I couldn’t really articulate what I wanted. I couldn’t speak drummer language, or engineer language; I didn’t know what all the knobs did on the desk, or whatever. But slowly I’ve gleaned little bits of important information and terminology down the years, and I can just about express myself without pissing everybody off. So, it’s often people would get pissed of when you’re not trying to piss them off, you’re just trying to explain what it is you want. All they know is you don’t like what they’re doing right now. It might be that they’re only seven inches away from the thing you actually do want. And you can’t quite get them there.

Question: Are you thinking about ideas for future work at this point?

David Gray: Yeah, but I’m wary of these phantom thoughts because really I know I’m not going to get a chance to do anything for a while. So, you think, wouldn’t it be good if, or I’ve got all that stuff going on all the time. I sort of take notes and usually I stop writing completely when I’m on the road but for some reason I haven’t this time—the writing, the words part of my brain hasn’t turned off, so I’ve got a couple of songs I’m sort of finishing. So I guess there’s quite a lot of stuff left over from this mammoth recording session we did over the last few years. And a few unresolved things too. And I’m trying to resolve some of those. So, it’s always ongoing and I think that seems to be the way that it is. It just keeps coming.

Recorded on:  September 21, 2009

David Gray’s new album, "Draw the Line" strikes a more energetic and upfront tone than any of his previous work. He told Big Think why he’s excited about the album, how it represents his personally better than earlier work, and why his new ideas won’t stop coming.

Global climate strike: Scenes from the #ClimateMarch protests

The week-long global protest, which is calling for an end to the age of fossil fuels, is taking place in more than 160 countries today.

SOPA Images
/ Contributor / Getty
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Millions of people around the world are taking to the streets to demand more urgent action on climate change.
  • The protests come just days ahead of the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit.
  • Although it's unclear exactly how many people are participating, it's likely to be the largest climate protest ever.
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How do 80-year-old 'super-agers' have the brains of 20-somethings?

Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.

Mind & Brain
  • "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
  • New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
  • It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.

At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.

As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.

But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.

Just as sharp as the whippersnappers

To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.

First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.

The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.

The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.

Default Mode Network

Wikimedia Commons

An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.

How to ensure brain health in old age

While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."

To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.

Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.

For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.

Millennials and the rise of tiny homes

Are tiny homes just a trend for wealthy minimalists or an economic necessity for the growing poor?

Photo credit: Cyrus McCrimmon / The Denver Post via Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • The tiny home movement has been popular on social media sites, often portraying an idyllic lifestyle that's cheaper and better for the environment without sacrificing aesthetics.
  • But tiny homes may become the answer to a growing population and growing inequality.
  • As the movement continues to build up steam, one has to wonder whether it's a housing crisis solution with a new coat of paint.

Tiny homes. They're the watchword of the Home & Garden network, at once an Instagrammable, envy-inducing lifestyle and an unfortunate necessity for a generation struck by a recession, historically high inequality, and loans taken out for an ostensibly necessary education that's failed to really net any benefits.

But the question is, which are they? A symbol of a smarter, more environmentally-conscious, humbler generation — or a symbol of one that's had to make do with less than its predecessors? (See: "Millennials buy the things their parents did — but they're much poorer.")

Downsizing housing and hubris

Image source: Mike Morgan / For The Washington Post via Getty Images

Will tiny homes look like this in the future -- smaller and more efficient but still beautiful?

In the U.S., things are just bigger, and houses are no exception. The median size of a single-family home in the U.S. peaked in 2015 at 2,467 square feet. Compared to other parts of the world — particularly Europe — this is a massive figure. There's a variety of reasons for this; one, for example, is that Americans began driving early and often, which transformed the design of their cities and suburbs. Developers could build outside of urban centers where the land was cheaper and more plentiful, enabling bigger houses to be bought.

In addition, the idea of having a lot of space seems to be an appealing one to the former European colonies — where Europeans have often lived in more cramped, repurposed older buildings, Australians, Canadians, and Americans had the opportunity to seize land (despite it already being occupied) and build new, sprawling settlements throughout it. The prosperity that the America saw in the 20th century didn't hurt, either; why not build big if you've got the money to spare?

But a considerable amount of this space is wasted. A UCLA study found that the majority of people spend their time in the kitchen or around the television and very rarely use the living room or porch. As a result of these extra, unused spaces, more resources are wasted on construction, and energy consumption is double what a family would need if their house only had the rooms that they actually use.

Smaller, more energy-efficient houses are appealing to a growing population of minimalists and resource-conscious individuals. In 2017 alone, the sales of tiny homes increased by 67 percent. Coming in at under 400 square feet on average, these houses are also understandably cheap — for tiny homes on wheels, the average cost is $46,300, while those with a foundation cost on average $119,000. As a result, 68 percent of tiny homeowners don't even have a mortgage.

Downsizing out of necessity

Tiny homes

Image source: George Rose/Getty Images

A community of tiny homes for homeless people known as "Nickelsville" in Seattle.

On the other hand, the group of people drawn to tiny homes isn't just homogenously composed of wealthy minimalists looking to reduce their consumption while still appearing trendy. In 70 percent of the U.S., the average worker can't afford a home, one-third of adults are a $400 bill away from financial difficulty, and a quarter have no retirement savings whatsoever.

Under these conditions, downsizing may be the only viable method to survive. Consider, for instance, how cities such as Seattle, Detroit, and Denver are constructing tiny homes as emergency shelters or transitional housing for the homeless. There are also the many retirees that had their savings wiped out by the Great Recession who now live nomadically in RVs and modified vans. This tiny-living trend also has its Instagram cheerleaders, but the reality of it is less idyllic. Journalist Jessica Bruder and author of Nomadland related an anecdote to MarketWatch illustrating the nature of nomadic tiny living:

"I talked to one couple, Barb and Chuck. He had been head of product development at McDonald's before he retired. He lost his nest egg in the 2008 crash and Barb did, too. One time, Barb and Chuck were standing at the gas station to get $175 worth of gas and the horror hit them that their account had $6 in it. The gas station gentleman said 'Give me your name and driver's license and if you write a check, I will wait to cash it.' He waited two whole weeks before he deposited it."

This might become a reality for more people in the future as well. Inequality widens when the rate at which wealth grows — say, your stocks or the price of your house — grows faster than the rate at which wages do. Research suggests that wealth is growing at a breakneck pace, keeping in line with economist Thomas Picketty's prediction of a dramatically inequal future.

Solutions for this will need to be found, and many municipalities or private individuals may find such a solution in constructing tiny homes. Homelessness is a powerful, self-perpetuating force, and having shelter is an obviously necessary step to escape poverty.

Regrettably, if tiny homes are being driven primarily by resource-conscious but fundamentally economically secure individuals, we can expect the trend to remain just that; a trend. In a few years, fewer and fewer tiny houses will be constructed and sold, and eventually there will just be a small contingent of diehard proponents of the lifestyle. If, however, the tiny home trend is being driven primarily by economic inequality, then we can expect it to stick around for a while.