The Real Nick Drake

by Jess Grant

On November 25, 1974, Nick Drake was found dead at his parents' home in Far Leys, Tanworth-in-Arden, following an overdose of amitriptyline, a prescribed antidepressant. He was 26-years-old.

It was a tragic end to a tragic story, which started in 1969 when Drake released his debut album, Five Leaves Left. By rights, the timeless collection of exquisite folk tunes, which was produced by the illustrious Joe Boyd, and featured contributions from Pentangle and Fairport Convention, ought to have been the 21-year-old's breakthrough. But Drake's talent eluded the British press and public alike, and the album was met with a shocking indifference.

Drake was discouraged, though Boyd was undeterred. The producer secured his bucolic protégé a flat in London, whose thriving folk scene was a young Drake's oyster. But his crippling shyness meant that live appearances were few and far between, and whenever Drake did perform, he remained hidden behind his flowing, auburn locks - too afraid to speak to the audience. During this period, Drake started to write and record his second album, Bryter Layter. The LP, which built upon Five Leaves Left with its ornate, elegant arrangements, and featured The Velvet Underground's John Cale, was once again released to a largely unenthusiastic audience in 1970.

Stripped of perhaps his final thread of confidence, in 1972, Drake released his third and final album, the peaceful epilogue, the unassuming opus, Pink Moon, before retreating back to his parents' home in Tanworth-in-Arden. "I don't like it at home," he told his mother, Molly, "but I can't bear it anywhere else." In under three years, Drake would be found dead in his bedroom following a suspected suicide - a verdict that is disputed by some of Drake's closest friends and family to this day.

There were no tributes in the wake of the Drake's untimely death. It was only in the mid-1980s, following a smattering of long-overdue reissues, that the likes of R.E.M., The Cure and The Dream Academy started to cite the enigmatic, gangling folk singer as an influence (the latter would even write a song in ode to Drake).

Nearly three decades on, and Drake has finally secured his rightful place in the history of British folk music. To celebrate the remaster and reissue of his acclaimed second album, Bryter Layer, we were lucky enough to speak with Cally Callomon, the head of Drake's estate. Callomon told us more about those legendary album sessions with John Cale, Joe Boyd and co, discussed the inspiration behind some of Drake's most popular songs including "Northern Sky" and "Poor Boy," and revealed which former Hollywood supercouple is a huge fan of Nick's.
Jess Grant (Songfacts): Bryter Layter was met with indifferent reviews in 1970. Why do you think that the media did not 'click' on to Nick's genius at the time? It must have been extremely frustrating for the likes of Joe Boyd, who recognised his talent early on.

Cally Callomon: I don't know why ANY albums of such strength are passed over when they are first released, but there are many: Exile On Main Street and Spirit Of Eden to name but two. No offence meant, but since 1764 the printed media has made more money by following and amplifying trends than it has in sticking its neck out - and if there is a weekly quota set for 'albums to be praised to the stars' against 'albums to be greatly slagged off' (both of great fiscal worth to a pamphleteer) then 'albums to be not too bothered about' tend not to get big reviews or reviewed at all. Nick's revolution was a quiet one.

Songfacts: Joe Boyd beautifully embellished the arrangements on Bryter Layter - there's string, brass, saxophone, etc. Is it true that Nick later said that the album was "too elaborate"?

Cally: In general I have found this anecdote to be written only by scoundrels with axes to grind or a thing against Joe Boyd himself. I do have a letter home to his father, written by Nick, stating how chuffed he was with the arrangements, praising Robert Kirby and Joe and John Wood for their talents. I think it highly unlikely Bryter Layter had anything on it that was 'forced' upon Nick. I'm told he was absolutely clear about when to say yes and no in the studio. The fact that Pink Moon was so scant with instruments tends to make people think that Nick took control and reacted against the Bryter Layter orchestrations which, I think, is nonsense when you look at what Nick was listening to (along with everyone else) by 1972.

Songfacts: Nick started working on Bryter Layter after relocating to London. Do you think that Nick's move to the city significantly influenced the album? Did Nick enjoy his time spent in London or do you think he longed for the rural surroundings of his upbringing?

Cally: That's too hard a question for anyone to answer, possibly even Nick. I have no idea if the bucolic background was anything Nick would want to return to. Certainly he seemed 'at home' in London, but then he wrote as much from Aix, Morocco, Cambridge and Paris too.

Songfacts: John Cale performed on two songs on Bryter Layter: "Northern Sky" and "Fly." How did John get involved with Nick? Do you know what their working relationship was like?

Cally: Joe Boyd knew John Cale well. Cale was in London working on a Nico album, Joe threw in the idea of Nick working with John - and Nick rose to the opportunity. Nick knew all about Cale's prowess and his viola works. I'm told that their days together were greatly stimulating; Cale making many demands about exactly what instruments he wanted to use in the studio. The two tracks bristle with a muscular and adept confidence.

Songfacts: What is the story behind the gorgeous "Northern Sky," which NME once called "the greatest English love song of modern times"?

Cally: If there is any 'story' it is all in the lyric, I'd rather hear other people's take on it.

Songfacts: A number of songs on Bryter Layter could be interpreted as love songs. Who is the "Hazey Jane" addressed in "Hazey Jane I" and "Hazey Jane II"? "Let's sing a song, for Hazey Jane, she's back again in my mind." Beautiful!

Cally: It is often presumed that Nick wrote songs from a personal aspect but this can only be true if it were so for every other songwriter. We know that Nick enjoyed weaving spells, using words that sounded good, introducing names to help personify a song (Joey, Jacomo, etc). I find it easier not to look for direct correlations (they never stand up) but to see songs as a whole, as a stream. Great painters often titled their paintings to put people on the wrong track fearing that 'the obvious' may disappoint.

Songfacts: Would you agree that Nick is singing about himself in the tragic "Poor Boy"?

Cally: Singing about himself? Possibly. Taking the mickey out of himself? Quite likely. Laughing at self-pity? Who knows. Have you heard his mum's song, "Poor Mum"? In England we have irony.

Songfacts: What inspired Nick to interpolate three instrumentals ("Introduction," "Bryter Layter" and "Sunday") into Bryter Layter? Were these instrumentals solo efforts, written purely by Nick, or collaborative efforts, written between Nick, Robert Kirby and so forth?

Cally: We know (from his notes) how proud Nick was about the instrumentals. Joe was never keen on them but Nick dug his heels in. Nick had a picture of a Sunday drive in his mind for "Sunday" and asked Robert to emulate passing lorries with the viola and cello parts. I think it safe to say that they were instrumental on purpose and for a reason.

Songfacts: What bands and/or artists influenced Bryter Layter and Nick's music in general? What musicians did he look up to?

Cally: The first part of the question is too hard to answer and it would be unfair to as well, I suppose Nick's entire musical years influenced Bryter Layter. I know Joe has said that the women singing on "Poor Boy" was a tip of the hat to Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne" but that's about it. Nick's record collection contains Ralf Vaughan Williams (obvious), Tim Buckley, Georgie Fame, David Ackles, a great deal of the Baroque (pre-classical), and modern twentieth century composers, plus what you and I may term 'jazz'.

Songfacts: Can you tell us more about Nick's attitudes towards his lyrics? Was he a natural wordsmith? Did he find pleasure in writing? Or did he consider his lyrics to be a side-line to his music?

Cally: Judging by the amount of work Nick put into writing out and revising his lyrics, I would say that the lyrics were absolutely crucial. Lines such as, "As simple as a kettle, steady as a rock," do not get written on a fag packet in 5 minutes.

Songfacts: Have any contemporary bands/artists told you that they are influenced by Nick? I also heard that Brad Pitt is a huge fan?!

Cally: Brad Pitt became a huge fan due to Jennifer Aniston, she got there first. The list of Nick's fans is too lengthy to mention, but it includes David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Elton John, Eg White, Rupert Goold, Bill Nighy, P.J. Harvey, Kate Bush, The Unthanks, Sam Mendes, Roger Michell, Robert De Niro, The Wolf People, Thom Yorke, Stuart Maconie, Mark Radcliffe, Bridget St. John, Jolie Holland and me and you.

Songfacts: Please tell us a little more about yourself, Cally! How did you come to manage Nick's estate?

Cally: I manage living artists as well and worked at Island Records throughout the 1990s and released the Way To Blue compilation and got to know Gabrielle Drake as a result and left Island in order to manage a dead artist as if he were still alive which, in many ways, he still is. He keeps me busier than many living artists I manage which is pretty clever of him, really. Everything I do is in tandem with Gabrielle Drake [Nick's sister], she has been the keeper-of-the-legacy for many, many years.

Songfacts: What are your personal favorite Nick songs, from Bryter Layter and beyond, and why?

Cally: That's easy, it's "Introduction." It is immensely simple and so complicated at the same time. When we re-cut the vinyl with John Wood and we started with "Introduction," I wept. I heard it as if for the first time again, and I do each time I hear it. Not a lot of music has the power to re-new itself each time you play it.

Songfacts: Are there any more projects or releases in the Bryter Music pipeline? I understand a Five Leaves Left remaster is on its way?

Cally: Yes, I am currently working on Five Leaves Left, a more complex album than the first two releases, but I'm glad that the boxes have been well received so far as the poor bootleg vinyl was sounding worse and worse each time it was foisted onto Nick's fans and I thought we should be enhancing the vinyl, not downgrading it. I'm glad that the bulk of vinyl buyers are all under 26 years old these days, Nick's music is ancient, thousands of years old, but apt for any aged listener who cares to listen.

May 7, 2013. Get more from Nick and Cally at Bryter Music.
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Comments: 7

  • Cori Macnaughton from Middle TennesseeI first heard of Nick Drake in 1982, when the son of one of my dad's friends asked me to record his original three-LP "Fruit Tree" box set onto cassette, as he no longer had a record player.

    His favorite album was Bryter Later, which he acknowledged was the most commercial of the three, but mine was his first album, "Five Leaves Left," which remains my favorite to this day.

    I'm grateful that Gabrielle Drake has allowed the release of many additional songs over the years, including some he recorded at home while still working on them, and many are absolute gems.

    He was a singular talent.
  • Ryan from Appleton, Wi"Fly" is the most heartbreaking, haunting song I've ever heard. And I've heard more than a few songs.
  • Dana from Woodbury, MnI first became familiar with Drake in the early 1990's. Saw some of his recordings in a mom and pop record store in Downtown Minneapolis.
  • Jeannie from Nj Usa Thanks for keeping Nick Drakes music alive.i never knew who he was till i heard "pink moon" on a car commercial . i Loved his gentle spirit and so saddened to find out of his ending. A heavenly lovely lonely soul too sweet for his time on earth
  • Jess from UkThank you so much, Dave and Joe. I am so pleased that I played a small part in introducing you both to the wonderful world of Nick Drake.
  • Joe Gator from Gainesville, Florida. UsaThanks for the intro to Nick Drake. My 17 year old and my 22 year old love this sound and so do I. What does that tell you. Sophisticated, ahead of his time. Van Morrison must have heard him sing. Take out Nicks voice, add Morrison off you go. Wish he had stuck around.
  • Dave Bennett from Newcastle, AustraliaWow thank you so much for introducing to a true legend that to me slipped under the radar I could not hepl but think of Jim Croce
see more comments

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