Dave and Licia Radford, members of the indie duo The Gray Havens, seek to “awaken joy and wonder” with every song they write—and I daresay they succeed.
Throughout The Gray Havens’ three studio albums, toe-tapping folk numbers mingle with cinematic anthems as the couple weaves narratives and allegories that make the world come alive.
We recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dave about The Gray Havens’ music and his experiences as a songwriter. Enjoy!
Ethan Weitz: How did you get started wiring and performing music?
Dave Radford: I actually started performing earlier than I started writing. I got my feet wet in middle school band. I had this image in my head of playing jazz music, because that’s what my grandpa liked, so I opted for the trumpet. And that kind of pushed me into the world of symphonic band.
Once I got to high school—full disclosure—I thought the choir teacher was attractive. She had just graduated from high school, and all the boys were joining her men’s choir. And so I kind of hopped on the bandwagon. And in that first semester of choir, I got a solo part. And I had never had a vocal solo before. I grew up in a very musical home, but I just sang along with folks playing. So I got that taste for performing, and I never looked back. I got into musical theater and all types of choirs.
After graduating high school, though, I had not yet written a song. And a friend of mine had a band, and one day he said, “Hey, do you want to hang out with me tonight? There’s a song I’ve been working on.” So we got together and wrote a song; I forget what it was about. After that, I ended up just kind of diving in head first into playing what little guitar I knew while trying to write these melodies and words that, looking back, were horrible. But once I got a taste for it, I really could never not be writing.
Emily Cardé: Who or what have been some of your biggest musical inspirations?
Dave: Yeah, so I’m the kind of person that if I tell you a name right now, that means that I have worn down their CDs, you know? My tastes do range, but I tend to stick with what I like. And so going back maybe by decade, starting with the crooners—Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald—that whole era was hugely shaping for me. And related to that, musical theater, too. I grew up being a part of those plays, so that kind of singing style is very influential to me.
And then as far as songwriters go, it was Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens. I listened to those guys over and over again, and that’s kind of where I found my storyteller form of writing. So then traveling into the 80s a little bit, I totally had a Queen phase. The flair, the complexity, the brilliance of the writing—it’s all there. And then, more from a popular standpoint, I got really into Coldplay, Mumford and Sons, and Fleet Foxes.
So my roots are kind of old crooner style, morphing into storyteller, morphing to alternative pop/folk.
Ethan: On your website, you describe your sound in a very unique way—you call it narrative pop-folk. Can you explain that?
Dave: So that question is the opposite of why I came up with that term. We kept getting asked, “What do you sound like?” And I’d launch into this two or three paragraph description. People would be like, “No, just boil it down for me. What do you like?” And so I had to come up with some kind of catch phrase, something very get-it-right-away.
Pop-folk is the style of music. Our last record drifted a little bit away from the pop-folk and had some cinematic, orchestral elements to it. But on those first few records, pop-folk was the musical style.
And then narrative descriptor word was trying to get at the lyric style. Because pop/folk doesn’t really tell you what they’re singing about, or how they’re saying things. And so narrative, even though it’s not appropriate for every song, was kind of my way of labeling that. And the narrative that just comes across in the music is a lot of illustration and metaphor and picture-painting, instead of that journal-entry style of writing songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that style; it just doesn’t come naturally to me.
Ethan: What’s your process with coming up with lyrics, and where do you draw inspiration for that narrative style?
Dave: Inspiration from a lyric standpoint probably comes most from different stories that I’ve read, and good sermon illustrations that I’ve heard. You could say theology and sermons taught me what to say, and good stories like The Chronicles of Narnia taught me how to say it.
What gets to my heart easiest isn’t always the straight-ahead approach of just dogmatically laying things out, black and white. It needs to be spun in a way that can create what C.S. Lewis called the “willing suspension of disbelief.” The guards of Criticism and Scrutiny stand at the door of your heart and filter everything from coming in. But they go on break when it’s story time, because the content isn’t being framed as dogma, so the heart is easier to get to.
We say that with our music we are trying to “awaken wonder and joy for the Lord and His glory through song,” because that has been the most impacting element for us.
Emily: That’s really neat. So where did the name “The Gray Havens” come from?
Dave: We needed to put a name on our first record, and we were striking out with names. At one point, we called ourselves “Subjects & Heralds.” We knew it was a failure when we announced it from stage and people cheered, and then after the concert people were coming up and asking us what it was again, and we couldn’t even remember.
So we knew we were in trouble at that point. We were on deadline to print a CD and we didn’t have a band name. So we reached out to our fans for suggestions, and “The Gray Havens” came back. We had passed over it before; it’s actually from the last chapter of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. So the very last chapter the story is called “The Gray Havens,” which is the harbor from which the main characters leave to the Undying Lands. So we thought, “Well, you know, with our music we want to take people somewhere.” And so there it is.
Ethan: How do you think your sound or lyrical content has developed or changed since you started recording music?
Dave: That’s a good question. I think I’m still trying to figure it out. Each album is hopefully a step up in the process of figuring out how to craft a song that says something worth saying in a way worth listening to. I think I’m becoming better at more quickly filtering out what chord progression or melody isn’t going to do that. You have to spend some time with a song while you’re finishing it, but if there’s not that moment where you get chills and get that feeling of wonder—if that doesn’t happen for you, then it’s probably not going to happen for everybody else.
“The guards of Criticism and Scrutiny stand at the door of your heart and filter everything from coming in. But they go on break when it’s story time, because the content isn’t being framed as dogma, so the heart is easier to get to.”
I’m also learning that once you put out a record, you’re kind of married to that record for a couple of years. You have to play those songs every night. And so that just means I’m harder on my song selection. I think that’s meant better lyrics over the course of the three records—learning to say things a little bit more concisely. Especially in the first record, there’s just a ton of words in every song.
The sound on this last record, “Ghost of a King,” was our best fit as far as working with a producer. Ben Shive did a phenomenal job, and I think that bigger, more cinematic sound that we went for is telling of where we’re heading in the future. But who knows? Knowing how good I am at predicting things, our next record will probably be an acoustic-only, stripped-down thing.
Emily: Can you tell us a little bit more about the story and process behind “Ghost of a King”?
Dave: So the story of the title comes from a cold and snowy night two-and-a-half years ago. I wrote this guitar riff that became the intro to the title song. And I just sang the words “I met a ghost of a king” in that same melody, and then jibberish after that. I saved a voice memo and forgot about it for two years.
When the deadline for new songs came along, I remembered that voice memo. I had been cataloguing these songs all along the way. And that one had stuck with me for some reason.
To go into the process of writing, we simply knew that we needed to put out a record, and I had a period of 3–4 months to write all the songs, so it was very condensed. I’m not one of those writers that gets up in the morning, drinks a glass of water, and writes music for six hours. It comes and goes, and there will be seasons of it. So it was a very deliberate, intentional effort toward writing specifically for a record.
Ethan: Going back a little bit further to some of your older music, one of my favorite songs of yours is “Far Kingdom.” What was the inspiration for that song?
Dave: Yeah, so that is one of the few songs that I’ve actually kind of gone into with the intention of writing about a specific theme. Most of the time, I don’t really know what a song going to be about, and I’m just playing with the word flow, trying different words, until some sort of direction for the song comes along. For me, there’s a sort of threshold for inspiration that I can only reach by a putting in certain amount of time. And I just have to pay that tax in order to get into the land of flow or inspiration.
But for “Far Kingdom,” I knew that I wanted to write a song about heaven, and I had read a lot to “study up.” I heard this sermon called “Joy’s Eternal Increase.” It was basically about Jonathan Edward’s theology of heaven, from Edwards’ sermon called “Heaven, a World of Love.” That song is basically that sermon, but way less information. I opened a Word document (which I never do), put all these quotes on it, and narrowed it all down, trying to form it all into a three-and-a-half-minute song.
Emily: What has been the most meaningful song that you have written, and why?
Dave: For whatever reason—it might be because we always play it last at our concerts—“Train Station” still has that magic for me. I just find it fun and interesting to play every time. I don’t know if that means it’s the most meaningful, but it’s definitely special.
Ethan: That’s actually the first song of yours that I heard! It’s a really fun one. So what does touring and performing look like for you guys?
Dave: I don’t know, man. The touring is becoming more and more part of our lives. Last August, we jumped full into “this is a career” mode. So we left everything else and started doing this. This coming fall, we’ll be doing something like 30 or 40 shows. We’re doing an orchestra tour in the fall at colleges, where we’ll come and recruit about 10 players or so from the college and bring like 6 players with us, and have this 15-person band on stage and play through our new record. That’s really exciting, but planning for it all takes up a lot of time.
So it’s good, man. It’s really fun. It’s hard in a lot of ways, but it’s very rewarding at the same time, especially interacting with listeners after shows. Making it work with a 1-year-old is sometimes exhausting, too, but again, it’s really worth it.
Emily: What is your favorite type of show to play?
Dave: We like playing colleges, honestly. Those are usually our favorite places to play. We’ve also played at one or two theaters, and those have been really fun as well. But all of those audiences—most of them, anyway, were college-age crowds. Those seem to be the folks that are most into the music right now. They’re excited about everything, it seems like, and enthusiastic about listening to new music. It’s kind of an infectiously encouraging and enthusiastic audience to play for.
To find out more about The Gray Havens, visit their website.
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Featured photo courtesy of Dave Radford.