Nick Drake – Five Leaves Left Photo Sessions

Nick Drake is a hard musician to write about. Most history that can be written about his life has already been combed over and detailed. Nick Drake, though was hardly an artist known or remembered as so during his brief living life. How could an artist who sold around 5,000 copies now be as easy to namedrop as Billy Joel or Paul Simon? It could be because musicians from his time and those that were inspired by him second-hand became his greatest megaphone. It doesn’t take a VW commercial to clue you in on how special his sound was for its time. Its a special sound that only could have existed if other English artists helped him thoroughly fill out his vision. What I find special about his brief musical career is how his releases appeared exactly during the right time to slot into England’s neo-folk zeitgeist and the greater worldwide singer-songwriter boom, yet somehow be thoroughly forgotten.

Nick and Molly

Before Nick got Five Leaves Left, he had to get to a point in his own non-musical life that was meaningful. Born in Burma but raised in England’s West Midlands in the ’50s, to a highly musically inclined and supportive family Nick should have the life support needed to fulfill some kind of successful trajectory. From a young age, his mother Molly Drake would encourage Nick to learn how to play piano and record his music, even if it was on an inexpensive reel-to-reel deck. Nick and his sister Gabrielle, were inculcated from a young age the deep importance of the arts and music. Molly herself would write and sing songs that hearken to a certain sound Nick would unconsciously draw from throughout his own life.

Something about Nick though was always different than the rest of his family. His own parents were always driven people, Rodney, his father, was an engineer and Molly a devoted civil servant. Gabrielle became an accomplished actress and took to the theater with great aplomb. Nick though, was frequently aloof and rudderless. As a young man, he’d attend boarding school, do great in sports or music (things that interested him) but had much trouble focusing in his studies or making friends with others. By the age of 15, when he bought his first guitar, a $15 cheapo, he’d already been resigned to drop out of school altogether. Somehow, though he had the great fortune of attaining an English scholarship to attend Cambridge university. However, with what became a pattern in his life, he’d delay attending school for a whole year preferring to live in Provence, France. There he would practice guitar most hours of the day, busk for a few in the evening to pay for rent, and get high the rest of the time whether with weed or LSD.

When Nick finally decided to return to Cambridge, everyone could tell his heart and mind wasn’t really into higher education. He was smart enough to barely skate by but never driven to dedicate much time to study or actual claclass work during his time here most fellow students and faculty found it difficult to connect with him on some level. Nick himself, would prefer to stay in his dorm room get high, practice guitar, and listen to music. Most of the few friends he had were people he’d just get high with rather than be close friends with. Of the few persons who were close to him one would be deeply influential.

Nick Drake – 1968

Robert Kirby, a young student studying composition would befriend Nick in 1967. Together they both shared a love of classical music. Its this shared connection that would later afford him the chance to become the string arranger Five Leaves Left. However, Nick’s biggest love for the time was the music of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Bert Jansch. Nick’s own experimentations with open guitar tunings were just attempts to get to that sound his greats could only reach by experimentation. Its this experimentation with blues and folk music that spurred him to try his luck performing in coffee houses around London. There is where his music shined. He himself never had much of a stage presence but there was something about those songs that were so resolutely different. As a 19-year old man, he was discovered by Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings who was simply astounded at the musicianship and look (the imposing 6 feet height most of all!) that this young man had.

This star in the making had to been turned on to someone else who could make him a force. Ashley introduced Nick to producer Joe Boyd, of Incredible String Band and his own band’s fame. Joe saw something special instantly in Nick as well. Much like another Witchseason signed artist, John Martyn, Joe saw in him a very distinct English folk style, one more driven by modern, varied influences than the staid traditional singers of before. Very much a shy man, Nick sent Joe some demo versions of early songs that could be used to make an album proper. Joe instantly recognized a musician who had ingrained himself the lessons learned as a young child to know and understand various chords and chord progressions with the mind to actually use them. All Joe needed was for Nick to have people to round out his sound. That was something he had to draw out from him.

Five Leaves Left album cover.

That’s what you hear on his debut album with Island Records, Five Leaves Left. For this album, Nick had a sound in mind. Hearing the sophisticated string arrangements done for Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Leonard Cohen Joe wanted to provide Nick with an arranger who could compliment Nick’s more intimate and similar poetic style. Originally, he sought the work of arranger Richard Hewson whose work with the Beatles (in Across the Universe) and the Bee Gees (Melody Fair) provided some kind of track record that could work with Nick’s guitar sound. However, for anyone who can sometimes hear how overly syrupy his arrangements for Let it Be could be, in hindsight, that wasn’t going to be the right decision as evidenced by the easy-listening sound of this early demo of “Thoughts of Mary Jane”:

The rest of the musician’s rounded up to aid Nick were in tuned with his vision. Richard Thompson from Fairport Convention and Danny Thompson from Pentangle were glad to help, but something about these arrangements rubbed Nick the wrong way. Boyd himself was dedicating time to record Fairport’s Unhalfbricking and couldn’t quite realize that Nick wasn’t getting through as he wanted to be. Some time later, Nick convinced Joe to hire Robert Kirby, his old high school friend, as the string arranger. Nick felt more confident with Robert around to dictate more of the sound he was after.

“Time Has Told Me” which opens up the album presents that change. As Nick sings smoothly over his acoustic, he gets joined with the tasteful accompaniment of Richard and Danny Thompson on guitar and bass, and a spare piano part played by Paul Harris (later of Stephen Still’s Manassas band). In a world of artists shifting to harder, heavier edged sound (Fairport for one!) here’s this Englishman affecting a country-ish Anglicized folk shuffle which he never played before:

River Man” though in spite of it not being Kirby arranged, presents a thoroughly unique English sound. More Impressionistic than Victorian, this sounds serene string arrangements allowed space for the listeners mind to travel. Nick’s own fractured bossanova guitar style aids in creating a mysterious mood that doesn’t quite spell everything out for you. What makes the so different is the drawn out softened English words and vocals which let the arrangements swell beautifully in and out when needed. One of his idols, Bert Jansch, tried before to do something like this before only to be undermined by indifferent producers. Nick was lucky that he had the strength of mind to avoid over orchestrating music that demanded a measured touch.

The sheer brilliance of Robert and Nick can be heard clearly in their work in “Way to Blue” and “Thoughts of Mary Jane”. The first track thoroughly dismisses all sorts of acoustic instrumentation in favor of string arrangements. String arrangements that were more panoramic than scene setting or background accompaniment. With “Thoughts of Mary Jane” the chamber music techniques, with woodwinds in tow, further amplify the Romantic English pastoral music that Nick was creating. I’ll spare you describing the rest of the songs, as this album is a certified classic which most of you have already heard.

Artists like Leonard Cohen, Tom Jobim, and the Moody Blues showed Nick some kind of path to take such moody, at times bluer, orchestrated type of music to the charts. Although Nick himself was open to perform and play the role of up and coming star, hardly any audience was ready for this kind of music then. People wanted more rocking or acid-tinged music, and not someone exploring deeply personal feelings with slower paced songs of these sort. With this failure, Nick would attempt one more time to capture some of that acceptance he was desperately trying to receive, it was to present a way to a rosier sound, one closer to his heart, more of that tomorrow though…