Joe Boyd is an extraordinary music man. As a producer he’s worked with a startling range of important artists from Pink Floyd, to Richard Thompson to R.E.M. and the McGarrigles. He’s a musicologist with a remarkable array of involvements in various strands of world music. He’s an author of a remarkably interesting book calledWhite Bicycles. But right now he’s coming to Australia to curate the Way Too Blue – The Songs of Nick Drake concerts, which promise to be among the most unmissable shows of the year.
It was an honor to get some of his time.
HHMM: Thank you for your time. We are really looking forward to the Nick Drake shows down here. It’s a show that you have already curated in the UK. How has the reaction been?
JB: It’s been great. We did the first one in Birmingham two years ago and it was such a terrific show and people responded so well. We had the BBC offering to film it and we did another four dates in January of last year. We haven’t done it that often though. In total there’s been nine dates in the UK and two in Italy. Each time there’s been slightly differing line-ups each time and with a core backing group and the arrangements for most of the songs pretty much stay the same.
HHMM: Do you almost have to pinch yourself when you see what a lasting impact those albums that you made with Nick have had?
JB: I hope this doesn’t sound ‘funny’, but in a way it is the opposite. For me it was more my incredulity that he failed to reach an audience with those records during his lifetime. When I first heard Nick I said, ‘this is it, this is the star, this is the guy’ and when Five Leaves Left finally came out and didn’t sell, and didn’t get ecstatic reviews and didn’t get everybody jumping up and down I was astonished and devastated. So for me the response of people discovering Nick over the years and saying, “oh he’s a genius”, then my response is “what took you so long?”
HHMM: It’s probably impossible to summarise it succinctly, but what do you feel was the magic in his music and those recordings?
JB: This is going to sound strange because my work as a producer is so associated with the Richard Thompsons and the Sandy Dennys and Nick and the McGarrigles and people like that who are very much people known as singer-songwriters – but the truth is that I never really liked Anglo-Saxon singer-songwriting very much as a genre, and particularly in the 60’s, I was quite hostile to it in a way. I started off as a blues and jazz buff and when I found myself around the folk world I was always much more interested in people who were playing blues or country music rather than people who were writing their own songs. Except of course, the great exception – Dylan – who was obviously genius. But my reaction to Fairport Convention when I first heard them was “oh god, it’s a folk rock group”. But then I heard Richard Thompson play the guitar and I thought ‘this guy is incredible’. It was the same with Nick in a way. I knew I was putting on a tape of an upper middle class boy who played the guitar, I had very low expectations for it because I knew it was the sort of thing that I didn’t really like. Because I had low expectations for the genre it took something unusual or out of the ordinary to get me interested in the form. There was something about Nick’s music from the very first time I heard it that was so unlike anything else that was around at that time. It was very mysterious where he got this from. Years later I discovered that his mother had been a huge influence on him and she from a very different set of influences. Nick had listened to Dylan and Bert Jansch and Donovan but he had his mother’s chord shapes and harmonic sense in the background. That gave him a very different starting point to people who had just grown up listening to Dylan and Rambling Jack Elliott. But all of those things are an analytical explanation for something which is inexplicable, which is genius. And I think that Nick had something that transcended all of those influences and I think that’s what I heard on that first tape, something that was genuinely original that set him apart. And also his lyrics. He was a very well educated kid. He read all the romantic poets, he was aware of a lot of high culture and he had high standards about how to construct a song and how to construct a lyric. I get sent demo tapes from people who say they are huge Nick Drakes fans and you put on the tape and its arpeggio guitar and soft breathy vocals, but it has nothing of the intelligence and nothing of the sophistication of Nicks music and Nicks lyrics.
HHMM: By doing the shows and having these other really interesting artists interpreting these songs, have you found things in the songs that even you didn’t know where there?
JB: Certainly it reveals to me and to everybody else what a great songwriter Nick was and it doesn’t depend on hearing his performances for these songs to live. But I always believed that. Within a week of first hearing the demo I was already plotting to send a tape of Time Has Told Me to Roberta Flack, because she’s had a huge hit with First Time Ever I Saw Your Face and it thought it would be the perfect song for the follow-up and that it would Nick’s name as a songwriter. Of course she never recorded it. So now when I hear Krystal Warren singing it its like “yeah, I knew that could be a great soul ballad’. But there are other things that are totally surprising. Lisa Harrigan’s take on Black eyed Dog was totally astonishing. Deliberately the voices are quite different, one from the other, and one thing I try to do is avoid artists who are obviously very influenced by Nick Drake. To me it’s more interesting to take somebody who sounds nothing like Nick Drake and have them sing the song. You reveal more about the song that way than by having someone who does a very good impression of Nick Drake.
HHMM: Do you think that we have reached a point in the maturity of our appreciation of contemporary music, that there are concerts and events that celebrate and re-interpret the music of people like Nick Drake?
JB: I think that this pool of music, which you can define however you want, but I guess that started with Dylan and the Beatles, has now a canon of works that can be considered the cream. It’s like classical music where you’ve got so much to choose from, why not choose the best? With perspective, people are looking at the canon of works from 1960 and looking at that body of work and saying, ‘these are the things that stand out and that interesting to look back at’. You can also say, if you are an old curmudgeon like me, that one reason for that is that they aren’t writing such good songs anymore!
HHMM: I wonder if every generation says that though.
JB: There’s been more than one generation since the sixties, you know! If you still have a record store in your neighborhood and you walk in there and look at the box sets and retrospectives, there’s an awful lot more from the 60’s than there is from the 80’s. Any genre of art usually has moments of creation that provide the most interesting stuff, because the blank canvas is the most interesting. For artists today it is very difficult to find spaces to be original. People have been there and done that and the influences are so powerful that its very hard to sound original. People in the early 90’s where going crazy about Oasis and then you listen to it and think, why wouldn’t I just listen to The Beatles. But if you are young you look at them and they are sexy and young and like you, so you listen to them. But fifteen years later people are still boxing and re-issuing The Beatles and not Oasis. That’s true in a lot of areas. Nick and Leonard Cohen are two who were very original at the time. A lot of people have imitated them but once those peoples career arc has gone down, people are more likely to do a retrospective of Leonard Cohen or Nick Drake than of somebody from ten years ago who sounds a bit like them.
HHMM: Where do you think Nick’s music would have gone if he’d been able to make more music? Would he have evolved into an electric format or what?
JB: Who knows? It’s hard to predict, but whatever it would have been, it would have been interesting. Even those terrible desperate last four songs that he recorded, those are desperately sad cries from a deep well. Some artists who get into a position of desperation and sorrow, well that’s all you can hear. But with Nick, even those songs are kind of genius. So I think whatever state he had been in, even if he had been living in a mansion with the royalties of selling a million records, he would have made really interesting music. I think Nick was incapable of doing something mediocre.
HHMM: I can’t let this opportunity pass without asking you about a record you produced which is close to my favorite album ever. And that is Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M. How did five Americans, the band and yourself, in the midst of a London winter, manage to evoke the feeling and strange energy of the deep south so successfully?
JB: They were, at the time, and still are a remarkable group, and a very interesting one. It’s a tricky subject for me because I think at the time we all felt frustrated with the record. I felt frustrated with the mixes. There are two studios at Livingston and the one I felt more comfortable in was being refurbished and so we had to mix the record in the other studio. I always felt like I couldn’t hear what I was doing and Michael and Peter Buck both kept telling me to turn their parts down. I always felt like I hadn’t done the job properly and I was immensely relieved when the record sold well. But to a certain degree I felt that their career was progressing at such a rate that any record they made could have sold well. They were also disappointed in the record at the time and its been really gratifying to have people many years later come up and say that they didn’t like the record at first, but that they really like it now. The band have done that themselves and they’ve told me that they have come around and really like it now. Have you heard the re-mastered version? When that was coming back I actually approached the group and asked if they would mind if I tried re-mixing a couple of tracks. Generally I am very much against doing that because I feel like the mixing was part of that moment and it would be violating of the whole process to go back and fix it. But I found myself on the phone to Athens, Georgia, saying “can I re-mix it”! I went in and did a couple of tracks and I thought they sounded better with just a little bit more voice and a little bit more clarity on Michaels voice and everybody liked it. We were just about ready to go and do the rest of the songs, and then one of the group decided it was a violation of the spirit of the moment and so they vetoed the idea. They were saying exactly the kind of things I would say! I understood the point and decided to be philosophical about it. Then they put out the 25th Anniversary edition of the album and it had been re-mastered. I don’t know who re-mastered it but they did in the re-mastering a lot of what I did in the mixing and were able to achieve what I wanted to achieve. I think it sounds great now and a lot more the way I had imagined it ought to sound.