Music Interviews
3:57 pm
Sun April 14, 2013

Nick Drake: 'A Real Musician's Musician'

Originally published on Sat April 20, 2013 10:33 pm

English folk musician Nick Drake died decades before the song "Pink Moon" found him a wide audience, thanks to a series of Volkswagen ads back in 1999. They sparked a resurgence of interest in Drake's work — music largely ignored in his day but now inspiring legions of young musicians.

Joe Boyd has helped shepherd that awakening. He produced Drake's first two albums back in 1969 and 1970, and since Drake's death has organized concerts in which a dozen or so musicians gather to perform his songs. He says the young performers at those shows — some not even alive when Drake died — all feel a kinship with the singer.

"It's been a pretty consistent truth in the contemporary music field, starting about the mid-to-late '80s: If you asked a young singer coming up, who did they love, who did they put on the turntable, so many people would say Nick Drake," Boyd says. "He's become a real musician's musician."

Boyd is now releasing some of the performances from those concerts as an album called Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake. He spoke with NPR's Jacki Lyden; click the audio link on this page to hear their conversation.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. And it's time now for music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK MOON")

NICK DRAKE: (Singing) I saw it written and I saw it say, pink moon is on its way.

LYDEN: His voice was enchanting and ethereal. Yet, English folk musician Nick Drake dealt with depression and other psychiatric problems until his death from an overdose in 1974. He was just 26. Decades later, "Pink Moon," this song, would find a wide audience, thanks to a Volkswagen ad back in 1999. It sparked a revival in Drake's entire body of work, music overlooked in his day, now inspiring legions of musicians.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK MOON")

TEDDY THOMPSON AND KRYSTLE WARREN: (Singing) Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon.

DRAKE: This is Teddy Thompson, the son of Richard and Linda Thompson, in duet with newcomer, Krystle Warren. And this song's recorded live at one of a series of tribute concerts, a dozen or so musicians all playing the music of Nick Drake. Those concerts were produced by the veteran music producer Joe Boyd, who also produced Nick Drake's first two albums back in 1969 and 1970 in England. And yet, says, Joe, even he was surprised by the Volkswagen ad.

JOE BOYD: After this ad had such an impact and really multiplied the sales, annual sales of Nick Drake records, I met the team, the creative team who put the ad together. And they were a bunch of, kind of, slackers from an alternative Boston ad agency. And this guy told me that they had built the whole storyboard for the ad around a track by The Church.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE MILKY WAY TONIGHT")

THE CHURCH: (Singing) Under the Milky Way tonight.

BOYD: And the night before the presentation to Volkswagen, he was sitting at home smoking something and listening to "Pink Moon." And he suddenly had this blinding insight that this was the track, not The Church track. And he came in the next morning and played it to the rest of the team. He said: Let's go with this. And at the very last minute, sort of minutes before the Volkswagen ad execs arrived, they switched the whole ad. And that's why so many people know Nick Drake today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PINK MOON")

DRAKE: (Singing) I saw it written and I saw it say pink moon is on its way. And none of you stand so tall, pink moon going to get you all. It's a pink moon. Hey, it's a pink moon.

LYDEN: Let's come back to this album that you've just produced, "Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake." You said that you were looking for people who were really comfortable doing this music, who really gave it new dimensions for you. A lot of women perform Nick Drake songs, which I have to say I found really wonderful, Vashti Bunyan, for example.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHICH WILL")

VASHTI BUNYAN: (Singing) Which will you go for? Which will you love? Which will you choose from, from the stars above.

BOYD: Well, Vashti is a fascinating character because her story is so similar to Nick's. You know, she was a very delicate, shy, soft-voiced singer, who I heard, actually, before Nick in the '60s - 1966 - and eventually made a record with her in 1970 which didn't sell, sold even less than Nick's. But at one point, I introduced them to each other and tried to get them to write a song together.

And it was a complete flop because they were both so shy that neither of them said a word, I think, in the entire time they spent in a room together. And, of course, her story is that she had a record that didn't sell. She was living in a caravan in the outer Hebrides, had children, moved to Edinburgh, remarried, never told anyone that she'd had a career, was so crushed by the failure of the career, very much like Nick. But then the internet came along, and she discovered there was this huge following for her one album and the, sort of, 200 copies that had been sold had been copied on tape and circulated around the world. And eventually, it was reissued, and she's had this whole new career and a whole new following of people. And so it just seemed perfect to have her as part of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHICH WILL")

BUNYAN: (Singing) Which will you hope for? Which can it be? Which will you take now if you won't take me?

LYDEN: Joe, I don't want to press because this is just a beautiful tribute album, but you can't help but think about it, relive your experiences, especially as you were there and spending so much time with the young Nick Drake. Were you concerned about his emotional welfare? Did he seem like someone who might not make it physically to you?

BOYD: I think there are two answers to that question. One is, in 1971 - well, at the end of 1970, I was kind of burned out, and I sold my company to Island Records. And at that time, I was depressed about the state of Nick's career. I felt there was an unfinished task, but I didn't really know what to do. I was frustrated with Nick because of his inability to talk when he was on stage, and I didn't really know where to go.

But I also knew that I needed to stop doing what I was doing. And obviously, I look back, and I have many, many second-guessings of that decision. Then, three months after I had moved to California, I got a phone call from Molly, from his mother, and she said: We want Nick to go to a psychiatrist. And Nick doesn't want to go because he thinks it's kind of shameful, which was a typical attitude in Britain at that time. And she wanted me to call him and tell him that I wouldn't think any the less of him.

And I called him, and he ended up going to an analyst who gave him antidepressants. And, of course, antidepressants in those days were way more stronger than they are today. And when I met him on a return visit to Britain a year later, he was in terrible shape. And I really was shocked and alarmed by his physical appearance, by his psychological deterioration, and so we went back in the studio. You know, I thought this was the best therapy for him would be to start making music again in the studio.

And it was painful to watch him because he struggled to play the guitar. He struggled to sing as he played the guitar. And this was a man who'd never made a mistake in the studio on the first records. You could just shut off his monitor and listen to everybody else because Nick would always be perfect. He was technically one of the greatest musicians I've ever worked with.

LYDEN: Wow. You've worked with Pink Floyd, REM, Fairport Convention, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, 10,000 Maniacs and the list really goes on. You've been so iconic and influential, and it just seems that Nick Drake really has held a very different and special kind of place in your memory. And there are so many reasons why.

BOYD: Yeah. I mean, partly, it's the frustration of somebody who I thought deserved to be heard around the world - and who now has been heard around the world - dying without knowing that, knowing how much people loved his music. But also, I think the music itself, I can still - I think more almost than other record that I've ever been involved with - I could put on "Bryter Layter" or "Five Leaves Left" and listen to them just for pleasure because the songs are so rich and so distinctive. And, you know, it was a pleasure working in the studio and, you know, one of the greatest pleasures I ever had as a producer.

LYDEN: That's Joe Boyd. He produced a series of concerts to pay tribute to the music of Nick Drake, and those recordings resulted in a new album. It's called "Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake." And you can listen to a few tracks on our website, nprmusic.org. Joe Boyd, it really has been a pleasure. Thank you so much.

BOYD: Great pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONE OF THESE THINGS FIRST")

DRAKE: (Singing) I could have been your pillar, could have been your door. I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.