Joe Boyd, who produced Nick Drake‘s first two studio albums, put together a series of tribute concerts celebrating the music of the late British folk singer. Now Boyd has assembled some of those performances, by artists such as Robyn Hitchcock, Lisa Hannigan, Krystal Warren and Green Gartside, for Way to Blue, a live collection.
Boyd, who will be joined by Lucinda Williams at L.A.’s Grammy Museum on Monday for a night of words and music, spoke recently with Rolling Stone about Drake’s legacy, the similarities between Williams and Drake and why he doesn’t see there ever being a Nick Drake biopic.
You wrote the foreword for the coffee table book of Keith Morris‘ photographs of Nick. What were your thoughts looking through the book at all those photos in one place?
You couldn’t have imagined a more different guy from Nick than Keith Morris, but in some curious way they seemed to connect so that Nick felt very comfortable with Keith. And I think he was able to get Nick’s character and a relaxed presence out of Nick. Of course I remember the first time I hired Keith to take Nick’s photograph. One of the first things that came out was that photograph in the attic in his house in Hampstead, where it was Nick looking out the window, which ended up on the cover of Five Leaves Left. And then as a sort of afterthought he and Nick came into the office, and I have this vague memory of Keith saying, “Let’s just go around the corner and take a few more shots. I’m not sure I’ve got enough.” And they went around the corner to this side road off Charlotte Street where my office was, and Nick stood up against the wall there and Keith started taking pictures. Somebody walked past and I think saw that he was in the way of a photo shoot, so he kind of started to run to get out of the way quicker, and Keith had the wit to snap that photograph, which became the photograph on the back of Five Leaves Left.
As someone who knew Nick personally, how much does it mean to have this collection, or these exhibits, where people can see him smiling, all these sides of him?
Well, obviously it’s great, but I would also point out a lot of those different moments of smiling appear in the music. People characterize the music as being melancholy and depressed, but there’s a lot of humor in there, a lot of wit. I always think about “Poor Boy,” because it’s a cry from the heart in one way, and in another way it’s also an ironic kind of mocking of his own cry from the heart – which is something that’s very English, of course, but was very much a part of Nick. “He’s a mess, but he’ll say yes if you dress him right.” [Laughs] He’s kind of making fun of his own need to find this idealized romantic love. And even “Man in a Shed,” all the images, you feel the yearning behind them, but they’re also delivered with a wit, irony and a joke about himself. Which is what that smile represents, which is very much a part of Nick’s character.
As you mention those lyrical passages, it reminded me of the National. Who are the artists for you that carry on Nick‘s style and spirit?
I think the best artists are very individual and very particular, and I think that’s one of the problems with Nick’s legacy, if there is a problem. I get sent tapes just by people out there who have a guitar and want to write songs, and they are very touched by Nick Drake and they make a demo tape, and they send it to Nick Drake’s producer and they say, “What do you think of this? I love Nick Drake, can’t you hear it in my music?” And 99 percent of those tapes that I get – or electronic submissions these days – are breathy vocals, Aparicio guitars and form without essence. There’s nothing in there of the wit or the subtlety of Nick, or the sophistication of his music. What drew me to Nick wasn’t the subject matter, but the tremendous originality and freshness of the musical vision. And it’s always been mysterious. You can hear bits of Bert Jansch or Dylan or whatever in Nick’s music, but not very much. And then when I heard his mother [Molly Drake]’s tape I went, “OK, now we’re talking.” You can hear her very distinctive way she wrote on the piano, and you realize all those complicated tunings that Nick did were in order to try and match that vision of harmony that his mother sang throughout the house.
To me, in a way, the interesting comparison – but interestingly enough the very first major artist to ever cover Nick Drake, and because I know her personally she’s told me how much Nick’s music has meant to her and how strong and powerful an influence it was – is Lucinda Williams. And you’d never say she sounds like Nick – she doesn’t at all. But the elegance of her lyrics, and there are some similarities in that she grew up around poetry. Her father was a poet and professor of literature, and Nick had this very classic, English education, where he knew all the Romantic poets and Shakespeare and John Donne, and had all that drilled into him from an early age. And so these two people who had a real breadth of literary influence – it isn’t just simply to say it’s a lyric of moroseness or depression. Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is, to me, one of the great masterpieces of modern pop music, and those lyrics are heartbreaking, but they also step back and laugh at themselves as well. They have those two sides, very much the way Nick had.
If you could put together your dream Nick tribute concert, knowing how many people are fans, who would you include?
I know that Michael Stipe likes Nick, and you could put that down as a fantasy of having a reunion of R.E.M. with guest vocalist Natalie Merchant, who also loves Nick, singing his songs. I’d love to hear Caetano Veloso taking on a Nick Drake song.
It does seem like in putting these projects together you try and go diverse, rather than just people who imitate Nick.
Yeah, that makes the point in the strength of his songwriting more vividly, and in a way I’m making these concerts as much for my own entertainment. That’s the only way I can do it. I can’t try and triangulate and think, “I’m not that interested in hearing this, but I know an audience might be.” The only way I can work is to say, “What do I want to hear?”
Are there things in Nick‘s music that you now have a different appreciation for?
I think the most striking thing in that regard is Pink Moon, because in the time he made that record I was horrified. I thought, “This is the end of Nick’s chances of being recognized.” He’s done this very stark, very simple record at a time when it was the opposite of what everybody was doing. Rock was getting more and more complex. Donovan had gone from singing “Universal Solider” to making “Mellow Yellow.” Everything was going in a more baroque, more elaborate direction, and Nick stripped it all down and went to just voice and guitar. And I didn’t really like listening to it for a long time, and now, of course, I’m like everybody else – I think it’s brilliant and I love listening to it.
Do you think in coming years there will be other artifacts like Keith‘s photos?
It’s funny – 15 years ago or something I was doing an interview with Patrick Humphries for his book on Richard Thompson, and at the end of the interview he said that he’d gotten a deal to write a biography of Nick. And I know Patrick, he’s a great guy, but I was depressed, because I felt that he’s a music journalist, and Nick didn’t have a music business life. He barely touched the music business in his lifetime. And I tried to get other writers and publishers to write a biography of Nick that would be different – it would be more literate, more poetic – and I failed. But I think there are a couple of interesting possibilities of people out there who might write a really interesting book about Nick. There’s that woman Robin Frederick, who lives in L.A., who knew Nick in Aix-en-Provence and does analyses of Nick’s music way more sophisticated than I can do, and she has a take on it that would be really interesting. But she’s sort of hoping there will be some sort of access to Nick’s family archive she could get to, and I think the family is still protective of that. I don’t know if she’ll ever write it, but I think that somebody could write something at some point that would be revelatory, because all those songs are about real people.
Would you ever want to see a biopic?
The problem is it would have to be very original, oblique and creative, because he didn’t have a very interesting life. He spent a lot of time alone in his room smoking a joint. I’m skeptical of the biopic idea if for no other reason than I know that Gabrielle [his sister] – I don’t think she’d ever approve sync licenses for a biopic. And when I say that Gabrielle would never grant a sync license, I don’t want to think for her. The only way it works is for you to surrender control. You have to give a filmmaker permission at the outset of a project to go ahead and do whatever happens. And I think that would be very difficult for Nick’s sister and the Nick Drake estate, to grant that permission.
It also seems to me he remains an artist of discovery.
I think that’s absolutely true, and I think one of the things that still, to this day, is not as true as it once was, but I remember in the early days, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, I would ask them how they heard Nick’s music. And so many people told me exactly the same story. They had started going out with somebody and, like, three or four dates into the relationship the new friend would turn to them and say, “Have you ever heard of Nick Drake?” They would say, “No,” and the other person would say, “Sit down.” And then would drop the needle on a Nick Drake record and make it clear in a kind of unspoken way that if you didn’t get this, the relationship would not have legs. People felt very quietly passionate about this music and that it was something very personal to them, and if you didn’t share this, if you couldn’t understand why they were so passionate about it, obviously you weren’t destined to be a couple.