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Sam Gray: Dig The New Breed

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It's tough getting through the throng of women. It's Friday night and Sam Gray's set has just ended. Sweat is pearling on his brow. He bows and steps from the stage. The four other band members lay down their instruments and grin at each other.

'I'm doing it because I love it, because it's all I've ever known,' says Sam, as I catch up with him afterwards at the bar. 'Ever since I was a kid I've been drawn to music's sound. I got into music at school and I've kept on with writing and playing ever since. I'm unhappy without it.'

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Sam, 26, hails from Hull and possesses an easy charm that finds us continually interrupted by women who have to tell him how much they love his songs. I tell him he's taking it all in his stride. 'I'm trying to,' he says, affably. 'If I stop and think about what I'm doing now, I do get a bit fazed, but I just go with it. It's what I do.'

Sam has good people behind him, like his manager and legendary drummer Steve White [The Style Council, Paul Weller], and producer Brendan Lynch [Paul Weller, Ocean Colour Scene, The Young Disciples]. Songs like Brighter Day [from the Brighter Day album, 2011] and This Girl [2012] which both pick up airplay on BBC Radio 2, possess classic pop melodies tinged with Motown backbeats, and puts this reviewer in mind of The Kooks crossed with the blue-eyed soul of a young Steve Winwood.

Sam is signed to Transmissions Recordings, which is part of the Notting Hill Music Group, but a few years ago he was grafting on a very different circuit.

'I started off gigging around Hull, doing a lot of social clubs and getting booed off stage. I was 15 or 16 and was in a band and we used to do new year's eve gigs down Chalk Lane Club in one of the roughest estates in Hull, the kind of place where the crowd sits around with fags in their mouths and hands down their pants, shouting "Don't clap them, they're rubbish!" They were working men's clubs. We played Red Hot Chilli Pepper tunes which was what I was into at the time. These places wanted sparkly dresses and backing tracks, which is not what we gave them.

'I remember we did one gig and when we got to half time this guy with a funny eye came up and said "...Guys! You're rubbish! What're you doing? They want Margaret to sing some songs. There's your money, go away." Experiences like that were hilarious, but it served me well. I cut my teeth on that circuit.'

Did experiences like that dishearten him? 'Yeah, a bit. I was young, but now I can see the funny side. These were impossible audiences and quite scary, but it was a good blooding.'

Sam's a rhythm guitarist whose plan is to get as good as he can. 'I mainly compose on the guitar because you can play more chords on it. I picked up the guitar because I was given a free one from the Catholic church across the road from where we lived as a kid and I haven't looked back.

'I loved all those classic mid '90s tunes like You Do Something To Me. I just took to it. I think it's in my blood. My musical heroes are Paul Weller, Paul Simon, John Mayall and The Faces. Great songwriters, one and all.'

He tells me he always needs a guitar nearby. 'I get antsy if there isn't a guitar to hand. I play two to three hours a day. I'm always just noodling, walking around my flat, developing ideas. I've got two nice acoustic Taylor guitars, but I want to get towards the electric side of things now to beef up the sound a bit. Maybe get myself a Telecaster.'

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Did he find it easy to make the leap from playing in his bedroom to standing on a stage in front of a crowd? 'It was difficult at first. I always get nervous because, well, it's my music. I did a lot of weddings and covers gigs to start off with to ease myself into the routine of performing. That's how I built up my confidence. Singing your own music means you have nothing to hide behind. If I sang a Stevie Wonder or Otis Redding song, I could hide behind it because they're so well known, and if I sang averagely, it would always be well received. But with my music, to get people to respond to it, you have to work ten times harder.

'But ultimately, performing is just a matter of slinging yourself in front of the mic and just doing it,' he says.

'When I did bar work when I was young to earn some money, I wrote in a big room above the bar. I'd watch the traffic go by. I wrote All Of My Life and Brighter Day in that room. I was writing for myself, so it came easily.'

But then came a quirk of fate four years ago. 'With this bunch of 10 or 11 tunes, I went to a local management company in Stalybridge [near Manchester] which was running a studio where Steve [White] had his drum clinic. I walked there in the snow, arrived frozen, and started playing my tunes. They liked them, and through them I met Steve.

'Steve's humble, accessible and a fount knowledge. He knows the business inside out. He's been like a father to me on the road and I feel very lucky to have met him. I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him. We just cracked on with the music.'

On Steve's say-so, Sam adopted the same style of recording in the studio as practised by Weller. 'Steve'd set up his drum kit in one room and I would sing live through a mic in another. We did everything live. No frills or click tracks, and then we'd go back and change things if we needed to.

'With the first album we were looking for an organic sound. Now we've got a more professional sound with better players. This new album is produced by me and Steve and some other new producers.'

Sam is gaining greater exposure supporting Peter Andre on his UK tour, playing at venues like the Manchester O2 Apollo and the London O2 Arena, which is a far cry from Chalk Lane Club.

In these days of disposable pop, he displays a rare perfectionism. 'I'm intent on crafting each song, working on each one until they're ready. This is the career I've chosen and I love it.' His ambitions are rounded and farsighted. 'I want to see the world, I want to play Japan, play the sunset spot at Glastonbury, but I also want one day to have a family and settle down and write and produce music.

'I wake up every day and think "Yes, this where I want to be",' he says as a bevy of women begin accosting him, our interview at an end as he fields a very different set of questions.

But he's cool with it all. He's caught in the spotlight. And it's a very comfortable place.

© Jason Holmes 2012 / jantholmes@yahoo.co.uk / @JasonAHolmes

For more information on Sam's releases and tour dates visit www.samgray.co.uk

Video for This Girl: www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5cHFKrzRwI

Read more about Steve White: www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/jason-holmes/the-modfathers-blood-brot_b_1612706.html

Photographs courtesy of Transmissions Recordings