Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Nick Drake

Artists can become so onmi-present in our lives and psyche that it is impossible to imagine the world without their music. When this happens for me, it is difficult to get perspective on reality - for instance, in my head Damien Jurado is as famous as Tom Cruise and Bert Jansch as popular as Michael Jackson. I get surprised if I receive blank stares when I talk to people about Little Wings or Bill Fay. Most surprising however, was a conversation I had last week which elicited the response "who is Nick Drake?". Ok, my grip on reality might not be completely solid, but I thought Nick Drake was someone who most 'music fans' had at least a passing knowledge of. Well... on the off chance that my recent conversation was not a one off, I figured i'd do a post on Nick Drake.

Largely under appreciated during his lifetime (none of his three studio albums sold more than 5,000 copies upon release), Nick Drake is one of the most influential singer-songwriters of the last 50 years.

Encourage by his mother, Drake took up music at a young age, initially learning to play the piano before getting his first acoustic guitar in 1965. It was around this time that Drake discovered the burgeoning British and American folk music scenes and was influences by musicians such as Bob Dylan, Jackson C. Frank and Bert Jansch.

He began performing in coffee houses and folk clubs around London, and in early 1968, while supporting Country Joe and the Fish in London, he came to the attention of Fairport Convention bass player Ashley Hutchings who was so impressed by Drake he introduced him to American producer Joe Boyd, owner of the production and management company Witchseason Productions, the man who had discovered Fairport Convention and the man responsible for introducing artists such as John Martyn and The Incredible String Band to a wider audience.

Drake and Boyd formed an immediate bond, and a four track demo, recorded in Drake's college room in early 1968, led Boyd to offer a management, publishing and production contract to the 20-year old Drake and to initiate work on a debut album. So with Boyd taking the role of producer, Nick Drake began recording his debut album 'Five Leaves Left'. Inspired by John Simon's production of Leonard Cohen's first album, Boyd was keen to record Drake's voice in a similar, intimate style, as well as to incorporate the kind of understated, complimentary string arrangements that had been executed so successfully by Simon. Frustrating and irregular recording sessions followed by post-production difficulties led to the release of the album being delayed by several months and the album was poorly marketed and supported when it finally came out. Although, Drake was reportedly unhappy with the final versions and felt the album to be somewhat unfinished, 'Five Leaves Left' is a stunning debut and possibly Drake's most positive sounding record.

Although the publicity and attention generated by 'Five Leaves Left' was minor, Boyd was keen to build on what momentum there was and work began on a follow up. 'Bryter Layter' (1970) saw Drake move away from the pastoral sound of his debut with the inclusion of bass and drum tracks on the recordings, along with more up-tempo, jazzy arrangements. The album featured musicians from Fairport Convention, as well as contributions from John Cale on two songs: "Northern Sky" and "Fly". Despite high expectations, 'Bryter Layter', like it predecessor, failed to have much commercial impact upon release. The disappointment of the lack of success with his records, couple with his mentor and friend Joe Boyd selling Witchseason to Island Records and moving to Los Angeles led Drake to retreat into depression and isolation. He was unhappy living alone, and had become visibly nervous and uncomfortable performing live.

Island Records were keen that Drake promote 'Bryter Layter' through press interviews, radio sessions and live appearances, however Drake, who was by this time smoking large amounts of cannabis and spiraling rapidly deeper into depression, flatly refused. By winter 1970, Drake is said to have completely isolated himself in London, rarely leaving his flat and withdrawing from both family and friends.

Although Island Records neither expected, nor particularly wanted a third album from the artist, Drake began work in October 1971 on what would be the last album he would finish in his lifetime. The sessions took place over two nights, with only Drake and his engineer present in the studio, the resultant album, 'Pink Moon' is a stark and bare record, but contains some of Drake's finest recordings, including the quite amazing title track and woozy "Place To Be".

Upon finishing the album, Drake delivered the master tapes to the front desk of the Island Records offices, placing them on the receptionist's desk and leaving without speaking to anyone. The tapes apparently lay there over the weekend, and remained unnoticed until later in the next week. Pink Moon went on to sell fewer copies than either of its predecessors, partly down to the artist's continued unwillingness to undertake any promotional activity and inability to play live in support of the record.

In the months following the release of 'Pink Moon', Drake returned to live with his parents. Friends have recalled the extent to which his appearance had changed, particularly during bleak periods of his illness, where he would refuse to wash his hair or cut his nails. In early 1972, Drake suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for five weeks.

At some time during the night of 24/25 November 1974, Nick Drake died at his parents home from an overdose of antidepressants. At the inquest that December, the coroner stated that the cause of death was as a result of "Acute amitriptyline poisoning—self administered when suffering from a depressive illness", and concluded a verdict of suicide.

For newcomers to the work of Nick Drake, I strongly recommend starting with the three studio albums made during his life; 'Five Leaves Left', 'Bryter Layter' and 'Pink Moon'. For those who want to dig a bit deeper, seek out the sadly deleted 'Time Of No Reply', which contains outtakes from the 'Five Leaves Left' sessions, home demos and Drakes final recordings. A couple of recent collections also do justice to Drake's legacy, most notably 'Made To Love Magic' which included some of the same outtakes and demos as 'Time Of No Reply', but adds a previously unreleased solo acoustic version of "River Man" and the song "Tow The Line", a previously unheard song from his final session in July 1974. The most recent addition to the list is 2007's 'Family Tree', which contains a number of home demos made by Drake prior to his first album.

MP3: Nick Drake - Saturday Sun
MP3: Nick Drake - Pink Moon
MP3: Nick Drake - Time Of No Reply

Nick Drake on Myspace
Support The Artist. Buy.Buy.Buy.

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