The following review includes an interview with Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd.
Since his premature death in 1974, English folk singer Nick Drake has slowly cultivated the kind of following that eluded him in life. Though too shy and introverted to gain commercial success, they are those very qualities that have earned him a devoted following that includes luminaries like Robert Smith (who named The Cure after Drake’s song “Time Has Told Me”), Paul Weller, and Peter Buck, not to mention legions of folk disciples.
Fruit Tree is a re-issue of the 1979 boxset that collected Drake’s discography, Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), and Pink Moon (1972). Sanctioned by the Drake Estate, the new edition curiously omits Time Of No Reply, a collection of rare tracks, home recordings, and the last four songs Drake wrote and recorded, originally released with the set, but offers in their place a new 108-page book featuring song-by-song analysis by producer Joe Boyd, engineer John Wood, arranger Robert Kirby, and songwriter/music journalist and friend Robin Frederick, and a bio film, A Skin Too Few, directed by Jeroen Berkvens and featuring interviews with Boyd, Wood, Kirby, Paul Weller, and Drake’s sister Gabrielle.
Fruit Tree, as a whole, suggests taking a fresh look at Nick Drake. Long associated with words like 'pastoral,' 'introverted,' and 'mysterious,' the curious career arc of Drake’s lone three albums prompts other descriptions to be applied: the orchestral mysticism of Five Leaves Left, giving way to the jazz-rock fusion of Bryter Layter, and bleeding into the minimally bleak beauty of Pink Moon suggest an artist searching not only for an appreciative and receptive audience, but also for the most effective methods to convey his songs.
Drake’s outsider art, separated from his folk peers by his distinct roots in American gospel, blues, and R&B, and set aside from more contemporary fans by his quaint Englishness, places him in the category of artists like Daniel Johnston, Roky Erikson, and Elliott Smith, not in musical similarity (not that the late Smith’s acoustic works don’t owe something to Drake’s work, especially Pink Moon), but in those artists' own difficulty in maneuvering the base world of rock ’n’ roll media. Enormously talented and proficient, but far too withdrawn to emotionally deal with the rock ’n’ roll spotlight, the din of the concert-going crowd, and his own worries of irrelevance, Drake was perceived by some of the rock lit crowd as a spoiled, depressed silver-spooner.
Of course, there’s far more to Drake’s music than the 'sad bastard' umbrella is able to cover. The delicate, virginal quality of his voice, never rising above a whisper and inherited from his folk-singing mother (aptly demonstrated by snippets of her work included in the Skin Too Few film), his jazz- and blues-inflected cluster chords, the workmanlike stability of his picking patterns -- they all reveal an artist not concerned with any particular scene, other than the one in his head.
And the lyrics! Always suggesting a man out of step with everything, pleading for “a second grace,” “a place to be,” or mourning a fruit tree that “can never flourish ’til its stock is in the ground.” Or one who couldn’t recognize those around him who tried to be those fruit tree roots: “Know that I love you, know I don’t care/ Know that I see you, know I’m not there.” We find him praying for “warmth and green paper” in the rainy streets under the chiming city clock. Throughout his three albums, Drake uses only the lowliest terms to label himself: a clown, a parasite, a poor boy.
Yet hope and beauty are constant: the sprightly humor of “Hazey Jane II,” the utterly romantic vision of “Northern Sky.” the hard-earned resolution of “The Day is Done.” With a song like “Pink Moon,” Drake manages to somehow encapsulate both the eschatological joy and fear of impending judgment. Feats like this are rare, and their soft accomplishment echoes on in the sounds and tones of Drake’s cult today.
Perhaps it’s best that Time of No Reply has been left out of this definitive version of Fruit Tree. Though fascinating, it’s best to view Nick Drake in light of his three albums. His scarce output only highlights the mystery inherent to Drake’s music. We are left with only them, coherent and complete, and a vision of an artist that remains an enigma to even those closest to them.
The following is a brief interview with Joe Boyd, the man who discovered Nick Drake, managed him under his Witchseason Productions, and produced his first two albums, Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter.
Nick Drake’s music has a few particular adjectives that seem to follow it: 'magical,' 'mysterious,' 'fragile.' How to do you feel these descriptions fare against your experience with Nick? What words would you like applied to his art, lyrics, and overall working approach? What words would you use to describe his music to someone who has never heard him?
JB: Literate words, complicated and sophisticated musicianship, very English.
You’ve stated that you feel one of the reasons traditionally English-based folk music has had difficulty finding an audience in America is a certain lack of “swing or color” often associated with pop music in America, descended from R&B roots. Yet Nick’s music is awash with elements of jazz, gospel, and blues music, all heavily American in origin. What do you think made an audience so elusive for Nick in his lifetime? How much of the incorporation of these elements came from you and your direction of the rhythm section on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter?
JB: Nick’s music is rhythmically rooted in the Anglo-American pop music/jazz tradition and does not have the handicap of ‘English folkiness’ that for example Richard Thompson has. He failed in his lifetime because a) he didn’t perform live; b) there was no UK radio who would play his records on a regular basis and c) we never got a U.S. deal in his lifetime so he never benefited from the golden age of ‘free-form radio’ where his music might have gained exposure.
It seems in many ways that Nick was his own worst enemy when it came to promotion. His live shows are legendary in their raggedness. Were there any good Nick Drake shows? Did you feel unwillingness on Nick’s part to promote (via live shows, interviews, radio spots) his albums? Did the confrontational tone of many of his lyrics (lines that dealt with his lack of compensation or recognition) ever strike you as odd in relation to his perceived aversion to fame, and his refusal to position himself promotionally? Did you ever feel Nick was deliberately sabotaging himself?
JB: Nick was not averse to fame at all. But he had no ability to talk to an audience and was crushed by gigs where the audience talked through his music. The one great gig was opening for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival hall in November 1969. Nick was just a very shy person who never found a way to reach an audience. I expected the records to create an attentive audience who would shut up and listen to him, but they didn’t.
In recent years, due in large part to the emerging popularity of free-folk artists like Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom, bands like the Incredible String Band, Pentangle, Fairport Convention, and Vashti Bunyan have all received some well-deserved attention. How do you feel Nick is connected to these artists (other than the formal connections of Richard Thompson, Linda Thompson, Danny Thompson, and Dave Mattacks)? Did Nick feel any sense of community with these artists, or vice-versa, or did Nick’s illness make it difficult for him to make the connections? Do you think Nick considered himself a 'folkie?'
JB: Nick was definitely not a folkie. He liked some folk music but never spent much time with other musicians except for John Martyn, and that was more due to Beverly Martyn’s mothering instincts for Nick rather than genuine friendship between the two singers. He did bond with musicians like Danny Thompson and Dave Mattacks who played on his records, but the comradeship was limited mostly to the studio.
How would you describe John Cale’s contributions to Bryter Layter, and his influence on Nick personally and musically?
JB: John took over two tracks in whirlwind fashion and did a great job. I am not sure whether Nick liked them or not, but everyone else did. That was the beginning and end of it. John went back to New York and I am not aware that he saw Nick again.
John Wood, who produced Pink Moon with Nick, said that he couldn’t listen to the album for years. What do you think of Pink Moon? Being close to Nick, is its stark honesty and nakedness difficult for you to handle at all? Did its rejection of a certain level of production standards feel at all personal to you?
JB: It did take me a while to appreciate Pink Moon since at the time I thought it was commercial suicide. He may well have felt that everyone – me, Kirby, etc – took things a bit too far with Bryter Layter.
How did you feel about Nick’s final sessions? Where you present for any of the sessions? By all accounts the experience was harrowing, yet the trip to Sound Techniques seemed to temporarily cheer him up. What did you think would come of a fourth album, if anything? Did you have any ideas about or for it?
JB: I was there and it was harrowing to see someone who used to record live with an orchestra struggle to sing and play guitar at the same time. I think Nick was gratified to have finished the four songs but I didn’t see him acting cheerful about it.
Lastly, I’d like to ask how you feel about the new Fruit Tree reissue. How involved in the project have you been? Do you feel that the additions to the reissue add anything new to Nick’s legacy? Do you see the “Fruit Tree” presenting a complete idea of who Nick was, or do you feel that there will always be a portion of Nick shrouded in mystery? How important is the mystique of Nick to his music?
JB: I haven’t seen or heard Fruit Tree yet so I can’t comment. But getting the 3 albums together has always been a good idea.