Jeff Gordinier
September 08, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

David Gray remembers being at war with a vacuum cleaner. He’d try to lay down a vocal track on White Ladder when khkhkhkh — the next-door neighbor would plug in that bloody screeching Hoover. His computer — the one storing all the album’s sonic data — tended to crash right in the middle of a song. One day a work crew started tearing up the pavement outside his London flat. ”We were trying to work,” says Gray, 32, marveling at the memory. ”We closed the curtains to shut out the noise, which was ridiculous, because there were bulldozers out there. It was mad.”

Still, nothing’s quite as mad as what would eventually happen to those tormented homegrown tracks. If anything qualifies as an ”unlikely hit,” it’s White Ladder: Low on cash, out of a record deal after three commercial flops, and battling to climb out of a psychic meltdown — a period Gray describes as ”self-destructive” and ”demented” — the English troubadour and his drummer, Clune, cut their labor of love in a bedroom. ”It sounded better than it ever had in a 24-track, 97-microphone mega-studio,” Gray says. They released Ladder on their own, mailing boxes of the disc to radio stations and tastemakers. To borrow from vice presidential candidate Joe Lieberman, miracles happen.

Fueled by the open-your-heart anthem ”Babylon,” Ladder sparked a mega-platinum wildfire in Europe. It got snatched up in the colonies by Dave Matthews’ new label, ATO. Now it’s selling around 6,500 copies a week in the U.S. ”It’s not a press creation, it’s not a marketing creation,” Gray says. ”It’s a word-of-mouth thing.” Newcomers are occasionally shocked to learn that Gray’s been around since 1993’s rousing folkie manifesto A Century Ends; ironically, a century had to end before the world took notice. ”Yeah, I just didn’t like the last century,” he declares with a hearty laugh. ”I like this one.”

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