David Gray knows that sometimes if it ain’t broke, you need to break it.
In the years that followed his breakthrough 1999 album, “White Ladder” — spawning hits like “Babylon” and “Please Forgive Me” — the Mancunian singer-songwriter built a sizable and devoted following for his ruminative tunes, expressive rasp, and blend of folk, rock, and, occasionally, electronic sounds on solid subsequent albums.
But, he says on the phone from a carpark in Italy — “There are lots of people around me gesticulating wildly, smoking lots of cigarettes, and talking in Italian,” he reports — it was time for a change, both musically and of heart.
That change is audible on Gray’s most recent release, “Mutineers,” a summer tour in support of which he kicks off at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Friday.
The album finds Gray changing up his vocal style, taking a fresh approach to production, and even sounding suspiciously happy, singing lyrics about letting go and living free.
“Yes, occasionally it happens to me — not even every blue moon, every purple moon,” says Gray with a laugh about the album’s brightness.
“There’s a regeneration going on, a rebirth, a plugging back into the moment, not worrying about the past and being right there in the here and now, and that’s what this record has,” says Gray in a rush of words. “It was hard won. There’s a sense of joy even in the melancholic moments. There’s a joyousness to the whole thing.”
While some of that buoyancy is borne out in the lyrics, it’s also evident in Gray’s vocals, in which he stretches out from his familiar, powerful middle register.
“I took my foot off the gas a little bit,” he says with another chuckle. “I was always looking for a new way of singing, because the repetitive nature of making record after record, one thing you can’t get away from, really, is the sound of your voice. It’s your greatest asset, but it’s also the very thing that gives everything the same quality. So I was just looking for ways to make it resonate differently: singing softer, deeper, looking for parts higher or lower, going slightly out of my range or under my range. Like the title track, ‘Mutineers,’ I’m crooning, really, because it’s low, but it brings you closer into the mike and creates a different kind of intimacy. There was a lot of experimentation; this was very much a deliberate thing.”
That deliberation required a co-conspirator, which is where Andy Barlow of the British electronica duo Lamb came into the picture, on the advice of Gray’s manager.
“I needed someone who was going to help me tear it apart and rebuild it,” says Gray, noting that Barlow, who has also worked with Damien Rice and Elbow among others, proved up to the task.
“He took me out of my comfort zone,” says Gray. “It sounds like a glib phrase, but it was uncomfortable and he didn’t just let me make the same tracks in the way I wanted to. I thought it was madness when there were so many songs already written that we could’ve been working on, but we went looking for something different and it was worth it. And when it came together I realized he was right. But it took a lot to win my trust.”
Indeed, reports Barlow, on the phone from England, he wasn’t so sure about the gig at first.
“He was kind of coming from [a place] of ‘We’ve really got to break our backs on it, and we’ve got to put the time in and knock it all down and it’s a long slog!’ ” he says with a laugh recalling Gray’s very solemn demeanor in early discussions.
“I was kind of like, Are you for real? And he said yes. And I said, ‘How about we enjoy it and have an adventure and learn new things and have a positive [outlook]?’ And he said, ‘Oh no, no.’ And for the first few weeks, whenever there was a waft of fun or enjoyment, it would be stamped out.”
The tide turned during work on the title track, when Barlow suggested chucking all of the song except for one small interlude. “He said, ‘So you want me to lose the verse, the chorus, the middle eight, the lyrics, and the melody. What does that leave me?’ ” Barlow relates. “I said, ‘I don’t know what that leaves you but I’ve just got this hunch.’” Barlow laughs again, recalling that Gray responded testily, “ ‘You’re ‘destroying my song for a [expletive] hunch?’
“It kind of got out of control and we went to our respective corners and got ready to put on the gloves again,” Barlow continues. “But it just broke open the writing process. And four hours later we’re in the middle of it, and he’s got a look on him like he’s found something that he’s lost — that’s the only way I can describe it. He’s just got this essence to him, and he’s smiling! And I said, ‘You’re smiling! You’re actually having fun!’ ”
And he was.
“What I’m always craving is creative furtherance — I want to taste it as sweetly as I did when I was making this record every time, but it’s not easy to do,” says Gray, likening the process to falling in love. “It was the end of an era and the whole start of another one, so I had to put a lot of things aside and break myself wide open. It’s scary, that vulnerability, that’s where the power comes from. You’ve got to do that if you want to keep moving on, and that’s as a person or as a musician. So that’s what’s there, just rediscovering the pure joy of being alive and not trapped in the past or the future, just being right there singing it. It took a bit of doing.”
And now that the doing is done, Gray can’t wait to kick off his tour Friday in Boston, a city that has historically been good to him, even before “White Ladder.”
“You’re feisty,” he says with a laugh of his Hub fanbase. “There’s a lot of passion — there’s a Boston roar. And we need the Boston jet engines underneath us to get us going.”