Tuesday, 21 May 2013

WAY TO BLUE: The Songs of Nick Drake

WAY TO BLUE: The Songs of Nick Drake

Nick Drake was always destined to be a cult artist. With his introverted Folk based acoustic songs, doe eyes and an untimely death in 1974 at only 26 years old he was invariably going to find a home within the growing singer songwriter influx of the later 60’s and early 70’s rather than the Top 10 or on the burgeoning Blues Rock scene that were coming to fruition towards the end of the decade. A true album based artist that wrote personal melancholy songs that strayed away from the politics of the protest movement of the New York acts and instead chose to create very English sounding records without ever trying to disguise his clipped upper middle class accent or Cambridge reference points. Generations since have discovered the eloquent beauty within his catalogue and very soon with the release of tribute album ‘Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake’ a new audience will be presented with an window into one of the most interesting characters in U.K music who even after nearly 44 years remains as mysterious and curious as he did in 1969 upon the release of his debut album ‘Five Leaves Left’.

The ‘Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake’ album (released April 16th) has been curated by former Nick Drake producer and friend Joe Boyd and will feature Drake’s songs covered by a variety of artists such as Robyn Hitchcock, Scott Matthews, Luluc as well as one time collaborator and Bass player extraordinaire Danny Thompson. Joe Boyd himself is an already celebrated producer working with acts such as Pink Floyd, Nico and Toots & The Maytals as well as finding time to write one of the definitive books on the 1960’s ‘White Bicycles’ which diarises Boyd’s own experiences and ultimate assimilation into the music industry throughout one of the most exciting periods of Rock music. There will also be a celebratory evening to launch the release of the CD which will feature a Q&A with Boyd as well as footage and live performances from the original ‘Way to Blue’ concerts at The Barbican back in January 2010. The Q&A will be interesting for all fans of Nick Drake as well as the whole U.K Folk scene of the 60’s and 70’s as Boyd has always had a way of cutting through the myths and legends surrounding Nick Drake and his contemporaries and instead giving a balanced opinion of the music, artists and legacies.

I was lucky enough to speak to Joe Boyd about the upcoming night of music as well as his own personal and working relationship with Nick Drake over the first two albums. Below he discusses the recording sessions, musicians involved as well as the uphill battle to try and get Drake on the road and into the world of the underground Folk circuit.

Interview with Joe Boyd

Q) What inspired you to curate the up-coming Nick Drake celebration concert?

A) It’s really for the upcoming release of the ‘Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake’ record and a celebration of that really. I don't want people to think it's a concert like the original 'Way To Blue' shows at Barbican but a few people are going to sing and we'll show some clips from the Barbican event. I'll then talk about working with Nick and they'll be some other bits and pieces and it should be a fun evening.

Q) How did you originally meet Nick and then go on to produce what would become the debut ‘Five Leaves Left’ LP?

A) Well Ashley Hutchings who was the bass player in Fairport Convention had heard Nick play and got his phone number before telling me "you better call this guy, he's very, very good", he had a demo tape that I listened to and almost straight away said "lets make a record".

Q) What was your first impression of the music and songs on the demo tape?

A) Well the very first song that was on the demo tape was 'Magic' which is probably my least favourite Nick Drake song (laughs), but it was my first Nick Drake song that I’d heard and I loved it. The next tracks were 'Time has told Me' and 'Thoughts of Mary Jane' and so really just from that I knew that this guy was amazing and all it took was about 15 seconds of the first song to make that very clear to me.

Q) Robert Kirby contributed the majority of the string arrangements on Nick Drake’s albums, who’s idea was it to bring in Harry Robinson for the ‘River Man’ sessions?

A) Well what happened was that Robert was close friends with Nick and he'd tried to write an arrangement for 'River Man'… and actually something that I didn't know until much recently when I worked on the 'Way To Blue' concerts with Robert was that it wasn't the harmonics or the ambition of the song or even Nick's ideas that he'd felt un-equal to, it was the 5/4 time signature and the fact that he hadn't gotten to the 5/4 lessons at music school yet! (Laughs) he said that he didn't feel confident writing in 5/4 time. He then basically said that "look I don't think I can do 'River Man'" and John Wood (the sound engineer on the session) asked Nick what he wanted and Nick said "I kinda want it to sound like Frederick Delius" and John said "well, get Harry Robinson he can mimic anyone (laughs) . Harry was one of the original members of Lord Rockingham's XI (British group of session musicians that appeared on POP T.V show 'Oh Boy' as the house band) and he also did the film scores for the Hammer Horror Movies. He was great, a real character and he was intrigued and loved doing it and loved the song.

Q) The closing track on ‘Five Leaves Left’ is ‘Saturday Sun’ and apart from being a beautiful piece of music it is also one of the very few tracks where Nick plays piano instead of guitar, who’s idea was that?

A) The piano was Nick's idea. He pretty much dictated what we did and he wanted it to be piano and then John Wood knew Tristan Fry and so we got him in to play vibes which gave it a jazzier vibe to it which slightly confused people at the time. In fact Melody Maker at the time reviewed 'Five Leaves Left' and said that it was "an awkward mixture of folk and cocktail jazz" and I think that it was maybe the vibes on 'Saturday Sun' that threw the Melody Maker (laughs)

Q) Who chose the musicians to accompany Nick on the recordings?

A) Well Nick would say what he wanted and I'd introduce him to various musicians who I thought would accompany his songs well. I was working with Paul Harris for example who'd been doing all the arrangements for John and Beverley Martyn for an album called 'Stormbringer!' at that time, so Paul had met Nick and heard him play and just loved what he was doing and so he played piano on 'Time Has Told Me' and 'Man In A Shed'. I then brought in Danny Thompson (double bass) and Rocky Dzidzornu the conga player who's on 'Cello Song' and 'Three Hours' so in terms of the musicians Nick was more "well we need a piano here…" you know? He'd brought Robert into the mix and then I brought people as and when they were needed. I brought in Richard (Thompson) to overdub the guitar solo on 'Time Has Told Me' and then again on the 'Bryter Layter' album he played live on 'Hazy Jane' and although I don't remember deciding that the second album ('Bryter Layter') would have drums and it was only later in retrospect that I realised that there was no drums except for the congas on 'Five Leaves Left' and that there was drums all over 'Bryter Layter'. I would just bring in people that I knew and had worked with like Dave Pegg (bass guitar), Dave Mattacks (drums) and Mike Kowalski (drums). People that were really good. There were also the 'wild cards' that I included, people like John Cale who was initially kind of an accident in the sense that I’d been recording the ‘Desertshore’ album for Nico (ex-Velvet Underground singer) with him and during the mixing session he had asked me to play some stuff I was working on and I played him a track of Nick’s and he just went crazy over it and said "I’ve got meet this guy" and from that went on to record two songs with him which became 'Fly' and 'Northern Sky'. A lot of the choices were just happenstance really where for example Chris McGregor was at a mixing session I was doing in the morning and it overlapped into the next session with Nick and he just stayed around and hung out and it was just coincidence that these were the sessions where Nick was doing 'Poor Boy' and just ended up playing piano on it.

Q) ‘Bryter Layter’ often gets described as Nick’s “city album”, was there an idea to make a more commercial sounding recording that may reach a wider market?

A) (laughs) well wider, there was really no market at the time for Nick's music. But as far as making anything more commercial, I don't think so. We didn't really make any decisions beforehand like "we're gonna use a drum kit", it was just the songs began to lead to that naturally. Once we'd tried a song with an electric bass and a drum kit instead of Danny Thompson and a conga drum, it sounded good and we just kept going in that vein. Robert had also begun writing with horns in mind instead of strings which gave things a little bit more of an edge to it. As far as the overall sound though there really wasn't a conscious decision to make a more commercial sounding record, in some ways it was less commercial than 'Five Leaves Left' as it was more confusing of an album genre wise. There had been acoustic albums with strings such as Leonard Cohen and you could say that 'Fiver Leaves Left' was in that category but 'Bryter Layter'? I don't know what category that was in.

Q) It’s been said Nick Drake only ever performed few gigs due to the various complex guitar tunings on each song which would leave frequent gaps of silence from the stage while the guitar was adjusted. Was this the case or was it more a mixture of reasons?

A) The guitar tunings live were definitely a problem for sure although it was a mixture of things. Nick didn't talk easily; he didn't have 'small-talk' or know what to say to people, particularly not an audience. He was a very quiet guy so although in hindsight it's easier to think about things you would have done differently at the time it wasn't thought about, nobody even thought it might be an idea to have another guitar in the wings in a different tuning. Although I don't think anybody even knew HOW to tune Nick's guitar except Nick as the tunings were pretty complicated.

I tired to get him out on tour to promote the albums but it just didn't go very well and you have to realise that in the late 60’s early 70’s things were different. The folk circuit was mainly just rooms above pubs and they weren't interested in what Nick was doing as it wasn't traditional English folk music and although he did play at 'Les Cousins' (a folk and blues club in the basement of a Greek restaurant in Soho) a few times but he had trouble getting the attention of the audience who were all there for a drink and night out while on top of that you’d have the waitresses walking around chatting and taking orders and it really wasn't an atmosphere where people would sit quietly and listen unless you grabbed their attention and he just didn't in that surrounding.

Q) Do you think that Nick would have gained a wider audience and broken through bigger if he’d been taken to California on the back of the whole ‘Laurel Canyon’ scene like Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash crowd?

A) Yes definitely, and it was very frustrating because David Geffen really liked 'Five Leaves Left' and talked about putting it out in America, which would have been great. Although at the time he was just starting up his label (Asylum Records) and he just never came back to really close the deal. Island Records then did a deal with Capitol Records to have their own imprint in America and as Chris Blackwell (Island Records Owner) loved Nick he said that he'd put Nick out through Island, and that took a while to get started and releases arranged. Nick's first release in America wasn't until late 1971 and even then it was a compilation album of tracks from 'Five Leaves Left' and 'Bryter Layter'. It should have come out in 1969 on Asylum Records, which would have been a boost to get on FM radio in America.

Q) Nick’s final album ‘Pink Moon’ was produced by engineer John Wood (who’d worked on the previous two with you). Why did you decide not to produce the sessions?

A) I was moving to California as ‘Witchseason’ (Joe Boyd's production company) really wasn't selling enough records to keep afloat. The records were getting great reviews but weren't selling a lot. So I was working faster and harder to catch up and getting more anxious about all the debts mounting up and then I got this offer to go and work for Warner Bros and I just felt burnt out and in need of a change. Nick had announced that he wanted to do his next record with just guitar and voice which I thought was a very bad idea, Sandy Denny from Fairport Convention was arguing with me about 'Fairport' not being as interesting as before and forming Fotheringay, The Incredible String band had become Scientologists (laughs) and so it seemed to me that everywhere I looked the wheels were coming off and this move was an easy and elegant solution where I could move to California, Island Records had agreed to buy my company and pay off the debts.

Q) Your thoughts on ‘Pink Moon’?

A) I was horrified with the whole idea and thought that it wasn't a good move for him as he'd be turning his back on the possibility of any kind of success he'd built up on the back of the other releases. I don't know what I would have done if I'd been producing, maybe try and talk him into adding some more and putting some more things on the songs I guess, not too elaborate just something else instrumentally. But of course Nick as ever turned out to be right in the sense that today 'Pink Moon' sells by far the most out of the three records.

It's partially because of the Volkswagen commercial where 'Pink Moon' was used that a lot of people were first introduced to Nick's music and that’s great although because it is the most popular both I and the Nick Drake estate receive a steady trickle of emails requesting that the other two albums are re-released with just guitar and voice and without the overdubs and other added arrangements. I have to explain that Nick really worked on those arrangements and really wanted those arrangements it wasn't just me trying to be 'commercial' (laughs). To me the least interesting and corny part of 'Bryter Layter' were the instrumentals which open and close the album which I tried to talk Nick out of but who insisted on them anyway. They are also shocked when I explain that we couldn't do the 'naked' versions even if we wanted to because a lot of the tracks were cut live and recorded in the same room with Nick singing and playing live along with all the other instruments so you couldn't separate it all out.

Q) There is a fabled story among Nick Drake fans that Nick handed the finished master tapes into a secretary at Island Records only for her to put them in a drawer and forget about them. Do you think there is any truth in this?

A) I think there is definitely some truth to that story. I think it was really a case of Nick having finished the record came to Island Records imagining giving the tapes to Chris Blackwell (Island Records owner) and I can imagine him just shuffling up to the front desk and asking if Chris Blackwell was there and the receptionist saying "No" and him just mumbling "when so and so get's back can you give them this". You have to remember that a receptionist in 1971 would have been the same as any other person around that time; she would have never heard of Nick Drake or had any idea who this person was standing in front of her and just assumed it was another demo. It wasn't like he'd even been into Island Records more than once or twice ever and so by just dumping down this tapes and walking back out the door without explaining himself properly or having a real conversation with her stating that he was an Island artist and that this was an expected master tape he was handing in, is completely believable and typical of Nick.

Q) Do you listen to his music for pleasure?

A) Yes, 'Bryter Layter' is one of the albums that I really enjoy listening to out of the ones that I've produced.

‘Way To Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake’ is available now on StorySound Records

Many thanks to Joe Boyd and James Parrish at Prescription PR.


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