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When Quitting Pays Off: David Gray Talks Leaving His Music Behind to Build Up Shawn Mendes, DNCE & Other Hitmakers

It's actually an advantage that David Gray (not to be confused with the British singer-songwriter of the same name) played in a power-pop band from the early 1990s called Idle Wilds (not to be…

It’s actually an advantage that David Gray (not to be confused with the British singer-songwriter of the same name) played in a power-pop band from the early 1990s called Idle Wilds (not to be confused with the Scottish indie band Idlewild).

“If an artist is having a tough time, I can outdo them with even worse stories,” says Gray, 53, a married-with-two-kids upstate New York native who is now executive vp and head of West Coast A&R for Universal Music Publishing Group. “Those experiences have given me great empathy for artists and writers.”

After abandoning his career as an artist and songwriter, Gray landed at Zomba Music Publishing in 2001 at the peak of its success, where he worked with such hitmakers as Max Martin, Robert John “Mutt” Lange and R. Kelly. He then joined current Island Records CEO David Massey at Sony and, later, Simon Cowell at Syco’s pop-star-minting machine. In 2013, Gray came to UMPG, where chairman/CEO Jody Gerson recently promoted him to executive vp. His signings include Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, DNCE and an artist whom Gray signed as a 16-year-old: Shawn Mendes.

What has been your role in Mendes’ new album, Illuminate?
We helped with guiding co-write ideas, feedback on songs, producers and obviously with our synch department, which gets highly involved. On the last record, Shawn wrote “Something Big,” which was a bit of a synch monster. It was on a promo for Breaking Bad, which was an interesting combination.

How did you get into publishing?
Our band lost our deal [with RCA Records] while we were on the road, and I went to New York and started working as a songwriter. I was signed to MCA Publishing by Patty Donahue, the [former] lead singer in The Waitresses [later an A&R rep at MCA, who died of cancer in 1996], from whom I learned a lot about how to deal with artists and writers.

David Gray
An enlarged promo photo of actor Harry Shearer in This Is Spinal Tap as character Derek Smalls, a gift from (and signed by) co-workers at Syco — Cowell joked that Gray looked just like Smalls.  Brian Guido

Did you get any songs placed?
Not many. I loved songwriting and the creative side of it, but I didn’t think I could compete anymore. What’s that line, “Those who can’t do, teach”? I ended up getting a job at Zomba Publishing during its heyday: Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, Britney Spears.

What have been the biggest “Hell yeah!” moments in your career?
One of the recent ones was with DNCE and “Cake by the Ocean.” I had a history with the Jonas Brothers — David Massey signed them [to Sony] and we’ve known the whole gang for a long time. When we heard “Cake by the Ocean,” that was a “Hell yeah!” moment, but it wasn’t obvious looking back on it; nothing that was out there sounded like it.

Do you have moments in A&R meetings where it’s like, “Sign that person right now!” 
Yeah, we’ve had those moments, where it’s like “That’s it.” The great news is that oftentimes our head of business affairs is there, so that can happen pretty quickly. 

When has that happened?
When I heard the Nick Jonas song “Jealous.” 

David Gray
A handcrafted kaleidoscope, a gift from UMPG writer Carly Rae Jepsen. Brian Guido

What are some big releases do you have coming up? 
From our roster we have the Shawn Mendes record coming out, Imagine Dragons probably next year, Maroon 5, Nicki Minaj — those are some of the bigger ones. We also have Prince Charlez, who wrote “Needed Me,” the Rihanna hit, he just signed to Republic as an artist. We have the established writers Jeff Bhasker, Emile Haynie and James Fauntleroy and we are also loving Metro Boomin, Tobias Jesso, Sebastian Kole and Ido Zmishlany. 

Are there any artists you wished you had given a second look?
When One Direction came up on the U.K. X Factor, I thought they would be big, but I didn’t know they’d be that big.

One of many people’s biggest fears would be a job interview with Simon Cowell. What was that like?
It’s not what you would think. It was not a high-pressure moment at all. We just talked about music and things we had done. His personality as an executive and as a company leader is very different than what you see on TV. He expects a lot, the bar is high, but he really values his employees. I didn’t have to sing “Unchained Melody!”

A version of this article was originally published in the Sept. 24 issue of Billboard.