As I step off the train in a semi-rural picturesque northern town on the outskirts of Manchester, my mood is heightened as the sound of Motown, (a frequent fixture on my MP3 Player), is making me feel vibrant and inspired. I love the honesty, the soul and well crafted songs of this iconic label, and since my discovery of the sound of young America as a teenager, it is a label
that I frequently return to, especially in the summer time. It just seems to go hand in hand with the occasional hot days we get in the UK. There is a feeling of optimism and self belief that comes from their early releases, be it When You're Young And In Love by The Marvelettes or Stoned Love by The Supremes. Not only does it make you feel good, but it also gets you thinking in a positive sense. Moreover like many artists of musical genre, the music has not dated, and keeps stimulating new generations.
Therefore when Steve White (The Style Council, Paul Weller and TrioValore) emailed me an MP3 of a song Brighter Day by a young singer/songwriter called Sam Gray, my immediate reaction was this is the sound of Motown for the Net Generation, as it ticks all the boxes. After two minutes I was interested, and straight away I knew I wanted to interview anyone who can pen a song so moving and energetic, and from researching his music, it was easy to hear that Sam Gray can write a ballad to a powerful quirky soul pop song. Hence my reason for travelling up north to meet the young man, in a quiet scenic pub away from the hustle and bustle of Manchester, where he now resides.
As we sipped mineral water, and tucked into some lovely fish and new potatoes, I hit my record button to discuss with Sam, his career, life, influences, having Steve White as his manager, his new single This Girl and much more....
ZANI - I liked your early release Brighter Day, but you're recent release This Girl, which came out 28th May 2012 that has a summer vibe?
Sam Gray - Yes it does have a summer vibe as well as funk and Northern Soul; Modern day Northern Soul.
ZANI – I do like my Northern Soul, are you calling your sound, Modern Northern Soul.
Sam Gray - Northern Northern Soul or Manc Northern Soul, it's a good tune.
ZANI – It certainly is. I take it you are into Northern Soul and Funk?
Sam Gray - I am into old school funk, things like Funkadelic and all that, James Brown. I was in a Soul cover's band, before I went solo. That is where I learnt my licks and developed my vocals style, and if you are into something like Northern Soul, Funk or Soul, it creeps into your songwriting style, and you write with influence from the music you grew up on. I love playing and jamming with that sort of music, been jamming today with Steve White, doing some Northern Soul, Funk and suchlike.
ZANI – What an excellent drummer to jam with, Steve White. Did your Soul and Funk influence come from your parents, older brother or sister?
Sam Gray - I sort of stumbled across it, my mum was into The Beatles and Bob Dylan, so I was listening to stuff like The White Album at an early age. I was brought up on good song writing by Mum's record collection, especially Lennon and McCartney, the legends. My Dad used to tinkle the ivories a bit on the piano we had indoors. I used to drift off to sleep with my dad playing the piano, sometimes it would be good and sometimes it would be shit, but it was music. So I was surrounded by music, and my sister used to sing, which was more classic. So I fell in love with music, picked up an instrument and wanted to learn it.
ZANI – Was your first instrument an acoustic guitar?
Sam Gray - No, it was a violin
ZANI – You started off on a violin?
Sam Gray - That was from school, a lot of kids started off playing violin, but gave it up by the time they had reached grade five, but I stuck with it, got some stick from the other kids, but I stood my ground. Cracked on, and got into the school orchestra, and from this, I met a lot of good school music teachers, like Paul Benson. He was into song writing, not just the structure of a song, but the feel and the vibe of music. He opened my mind to improvise, he used to put the Suzuki method in front of me, sounds a bit pretentious, and in a state school in Hull, that was unheard of, and all I knew were major chords like G, C, E,. He just said play what you feel, I did, and vibed off it. It was weird at first, but like I said it opened my mind, and helped me as a songwriter.
ZANI – Like it, and your song writing is getting noticed, not only in terms of a growing fan base and the media, but you've supported King Blues, who sadly split up, East 17 and such like.
Sam Gray - They were all cool support slots, I've been fortunate enough to play with different people and learn something from it. The King Blues gig in Amsterdam, pure Punk with great riffs and hooks, and their audience were good. Great bunch of lads, with great songs, shame they have spilt up. East 17 were a lovely bunch of fellas, our first gig was with them, in Brighton, and Tony Mortimer made us feel very welcome on that day.
ZANI – Always liked East 17, out of the boy bands of the nineties, there was an edge to them. Tony Mortimer is a great songwriter, Stay Another Day, is a beautiful song and all about his brother's suicide. One the best Christmas's No. 1's ever.
Sam Gray - Wonderful song, not just the content, but the arrangement, and the tubular bells at the end. A lot of people knock East 17, but they can knock out a decent tune.
ZANI - I understand Caffé Nero were supportive to you, as you toured their coffee shops across the UK, doing acoustic gigs. Like Dylan did in the sixties.
Sam Gray – Following in great footsteps. Yea, that came about because of a gig I did outside the old BBC building in London. Our record label managed to get some people over for that gig, and one of them being Pablo, the head musical co-ordinator for Caffé Nero. I didn't think much of it at the time, I thought we might be able to play a few stores, but he said he wanted to put my music into all 400 of their stores in UK. So Caffé Nero would play seven of my tracks in the stores, between 14.00 to 14.30 every day. Then they wanted to put a face to the music, so I toured some of the stores, not all 400, it was a gruelling tour, and I got addicted to coffee
ZANI – As you know there are worst things you can get addicted to on tours. So your Caffé Nero tour was your equivalent to The Beatles and The Star Club in Hamburg.
Sam Gray - Definitely, it helped to break us into the live scene. It was good, because it was intermediate, face to face, and they are the most difficult gigs to pull off. You have got to really connect with the audience, because they are not there to see you, they are there, to drink coffee. We did win a lot of people over, and I was dead chuffed about that.
ZANI – You also played at the Kensington Roof Garden, bet that must have been a nice place to play.
Sam Gray - It was a bit posh and the drinks were a bit expensive, but on the positive side it was a great venue, with some great bands, and the guy that organised it asked us back as we got a great response, so we have played there twice. A lot of gigs we have done we have had a great response, yet to hear one bad one. But obviously there is a lot of shit in the industry, a lot of the promoters can be strange, but we've been lucky so far because everyone we have worked with has been supportive and professional.
ZANI – Well you give off a good positive attitude, and at the same time you seem that you handle yourself, which is a good way to be in the music industry, as there are a lot of sharks out there. And if you are a seasoned musician, that has seen it all, be it Paul Weller or standing in for Oasis, with Steve White, as your manager, you know that you are in safe hands.
How did he become your manager?
Sam Gray - A couple of my mates were recording in a studio just outside Manchester, in a place called Stalybridge. It was an old factory, now kitted out into a studio and Steve White uses it as base when he teaches drums in the North, so he is around there a lot.
But I didn't know this and I was invited to a local management company, who run the studio, they were looking for new talent. So I thought it might be a good way to get my tunes out, and at the time, I was working in a vodka bar, Revolution in Oxford Road, Manchester and the manager there, Marky B, gave me my first slot on a Sunday night.
From that, I starting getting my tunes together, and polishing them off, and get myself out there. After that small gig, I had got the zest for it. Before that, I went through the stage of not knowing what I wanted to do, tried a couple of teaching jobs and things like that. My mates put me onto this place, and I met a guy called Den Davids, who runs the studio at Stalybridge who introduced me to Steve White.
We met in a rehearsal room, and hit it off straight away, he was very respectful to my music, he didn't give me any of this shit, "I am Steve White", a top fella which is a rarity in the music industry, and he wanted to help me out. We worked on and produced four tracks together, which Steve presented to Andy McQueen of Notting Hill Music. Andy loved the tunes and asked us to do some more, thinking they might take me on, I was over the moon and from that Steve wanted to be my manager.
ZANI – Steve White is a nice fella, and you are in good hands, and he also looks after Abi Phillips AKA Liberty Savage from Hollyoaks.
Sam Gray - I have done some song writing and I suppose some mentoring with Abi. When I met her she was just a young girl doing music. But Steve and I directed her into writing some dance music as well country music, quite diverse I know. At the moment we are producing some of her stuff, and seeing what her best direction is, and what the public would like. The country stuff sounds good.
ZANI – That is an interesting take, nobody has pushed country music to the forefront for a long time.
Sam Gray - I agree, she's a young girl, she needs a cool image, and we trying to keep it stylish. At the same time, there's some pop elements to it, but I think it's important to have true grains in the music.
ZANI – Yea, you've got to have that honesty,
Sam Gray - Sing with a passion, and lyrics that are quite deep.
ZANI – Sound slike you are already getting into management and song writing for other people at an early age, you seem to have a good career ahead. Even though you started off on a violin, the guitar is now your instrument of choice, and you have a good infiltration with Taylor Guitars.
Sam Gray - There is a guy at Taylor Guitars, in Holland, who was approached by Steve and Notting Hill Music, and they told him that I liked playing their guitars. So they got a little plug on the album, I love the sound of their guitars, which is rich and warm, that matches my voice. Before that I had a cheap Washburn Guitar, but when you start playing the shows that really matter, and you are playing across the spectrum from slow to heavy songs, Taylor Guitars are perfect for me.
I bought my own Taylor, but they gave me an upgrade to that model, I am lucky to have an infiltration with them.
ZANI – Nice one, as mentioned at the start, I liked your single Brighter Day, it was a hit wasn't it?
Sam Gray - Number 5 in the singer/songwriter chart ITunes, Radio Two played it and it received national and regional coverage. I couldn't be happier with the way things are going, small stepping stones and you appreciate it more when you get there.
ZANI – I take it you would like to get to Number One?
Sam Gray – Of course I would, Top Ten would be great, I would be happy to be in Top Forty. The crossover to pop is important to me, to get the balance between pop and real music, which is what I have always been trying to find, and I think I am getting close to it with This Girl.
ZANI – It seems you are doing what all great bands and artists do, and grow with your music in public, pushing for perfection with a next single or album.
Sam Gray - It's a natural progression, like you mentioned The Beatles and Hamburg, it helped them to grow into what they became,The Beatles. You are bound to make mistakes and learn from them. Bands manufactured to perfection produce shit music.
ZANI – True. I know you grew up in Hull and you moved to Manchester, have you moved down to London, or are you still based in Manchester.
Sam Gray - I thought once or twice about moving down to London, but I am happy in Manchester, I have a lot of good friends round here, and that affects my songwriting.
ZANI – Do you support Hull City, Man Utd or Man City?
Sam Gray - Hull City. Steve is a massive Charlton Athletic fan, they've just been promoted to the championships, so we will be playing them next season. I also go to the Rugby with Dad in Hull, to see Hull FC. I do like Hull there are some good lads and a few lads that gave me grief for playing the violin. I think it's hard no matter where you are, to be what you want to be. But I look like a rugby player myself and not the sort of kid that picked up the violin.
ZANI – Did you go through any bad phases, were you in trouble or you wanted to give up music?
Sam Gray - I went to a rough school in Hull, went through some rough patches, hung about with the wrong crowd, got into a few fights, but that is what you do when you are a kid. But being in a wrong crowd in a way worked for me, because I didn't get the grief from them which I would have done if I had been a do-gooder or a swat.
ZANI – Got any tours coming up?
Sam Gray - Things are in the pipeline, which I can't say at the moment, but there will be a tour coming up. I've got the F1 coming up and the Secret Gala Festival, few other gigs around London as well; people can get my website to see the dates.
ZANI - I will certainly come to one of your shows, and final question, what would be your dream venue to play at?
Sam Gray - Madison Square Gardens, I suppose. I would love to play there, and I would love to play at the Manchester Apollo, loved the vibe there. The nights I have been there were brilliant.
Well Sam Gray certainly has a vision and with the guidance of musical veteran Steve White, they are crossing off things to achieve on a daily basis. As well as a master plan and a good management team, Sam Gray has got the talent and certainly the drive, he is charismatic, good looking, articulate and has an excellent understanding of how to pen a good song, all the correct credentials to be a true star across the globe.
He is a tough kid from a tough town, his robustness has already taken him this far, therefore it is not wishful thinking that he wants to perform at Madison Square Gardens or Manchester Apollo. The way things are going that dream might just come true.