MERE WEEKS AWAY FROM THE37TH ANNIVERSARY OF NICKDRAKE’S DEATH, HIS LONG TIMEPRODUCER JOE BOYD ANDSOMEONE WHO SHARED A SIMILAREXPERIENCE AS DRAKE, VASHTIBUNYAN, TALK TO ANTHONYCAREW ABOUT WAY TO BLUE.
Nike Drake died young and left a perfectlypreserved body of work consisting of threerecords: 1969’s Five Leaves Left, 1970’s BryterLayter and 1972’s Pink Moon. He left behind littlearchival material. He was interviewed once. He barelyplayed live and no recordings of him on stage exist.There’s little extraneous, reissue-culture, documentaryfoddercrap to obscure the simple, sweet purity of his sad folk songs.
Infinitely more popular since his 1974 death than inhis day, Drake has become one of the most influential musicians of the past four decades. That influencehas led to Way To Blue, a concert tribute assembled byhis former producer Joe Boyd, featuring vocalists like Robyn Hitchcock and Scritti Politti conceptualist Green Gartside taking to Drake’s canon.
“I can take it all the way back to the first time I everheard Nick,” says Boyd. “I got a demo tape of his songsand made an acetate of Time Has Told Me. I sent it toRoberta Flack thinking that she could make it into herfollow-up hit to The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.I have no idea if she ever even listened to it. Obviouslyshe never did it. From the very start, I’ve always wanted Nick’s songs to be sung by other people.
”One of those other people is Vashti Bunyan. Bunyanand Drake have long been connected – they wereboth managed and produced by Boyd, blessed witharrangements by Robert Kirby and, eventually, foundtheir music embraced years after its release.
“There was one time where Joe wanted us to writetogether, so he sent me to Nick’s house,” recounts Bunyan. “But I had a very young baby, who kept crying every time I picked up a guitar. I don’t think we evenspoke two words to each other, let alone wrote a song together. It was never, ever going to work. He was a veryshy, withdrawn person and I was in the early stages ofmotherhood; it just wasn’t a good match. But I havevery, very strong memories of what he was like as aperson, how it felt to be around him and, of course, of his music.
“I always felt that he knew he was genius; that he knewwhat he was writing was profoundly wonderful. I neverfelt that about myself at all. So, it was less painful for methat I was totally ignored. But at the time it must havebeen terribly painful to him that his music wasn’t.
”In some ways that regard is surprising, but Boyd saysthat he never doubted Drake’s potential for popularity.“My feeling when I first heard him was ‘if LeonardCohen can sell 100,000 without touring – which he’d just done in 1968 – then Nick Drake can sell 100,000 records without touring’,” he recount Yet, after Five Leaves Left failed to score a US releasein 1969, Boyd’s optimism was curtailed and “nothing happened”. Still, after working on Bryter Layter, Boyd’sfaith was still buoyant, even if the sales for Drake’ssecond album were tepid. “At the end of 1970, I sold myproduction company to Island Records,” says Boyd, “and in the contract of sale, there’s a clause that specifi callyforbids them from deleting Nick Drake’s records. Even atthe time, I was already a) frustrated they weren’t selling and b) convinced that, if they were kept in print, one daythey would. I always felt that it would continue to growand people would continue to discover it and that’swhat happened. It was only when that Volkswagen commercial came along [featuring the track PinkMoon] that it really took a big leap, beyond what I’d expected.
”Despite having worked on Bunyan’s Just AnotherDiamond Day, Boyd didn’t share that same faith abouther. “To be honest, I never had the same feeling about Vashti’s music as I did about Nick’s,” he chuckles. “I always felt, with Nick, that if people heard his music,they’d buy it. With Vashti, I thought her album was abeautiful gem, but that it was something very specifi c,not made for a big audience. And it wasn’t. Nick’s disappointing sales were in the range of 2000 copies,Vashti’s disappointing sales were less than a hundred.”Having written a collection of songs whilst walking tothe Outer Hebrides on foot – with husband, dogs, horse,and wagon – Bunyan came back to record with Boyd. Her album barely attracted any interest and almost immediately sank. Stung, Bunyan retired completely from music. “I couldn’t play those songs again, Icouldn’t sing them; they reminded me too much ofbeing a complete musical failure,” she says. “I never sang them around the house. I never sang them to my children, which is one of my biggest regrets. But it was the only way I could deal with it at the time.”
In 2000, Just Another Diamond Day was reissued and re-embraced. Bunyan was coaxed out of retirementand soon collaborated with Animal Collective, JoannaNewsom and Devendra Banhart. “I must’ve gotten moreused to it, surely, but still the overwhelming feelingis one of disbelief,” she laughs. “I still can’t believethat people out there know me and know my music;that anyone has heard of me at all. Playing live, theexperience was so amazing; to once again be playingthese songs that I hadn’t sung – hadn’t even thoughtof – for so many years, playing them to people whosomehow knew them and loved them, that was almostsomething I couldn’t believe.”Bunyan sees the sadness in Drake not being able to havea similar experience. “The tragedy is that he’s not hereto see how incredibly well his music is accepted andregarded,” she says. But Boyd sees it differently. “There’sa sadness, there’s a wistfulness, to hear an audienceacclaim Nick’s music and him not be there, but that’snothing new. That’s been a fact of our lives for 35 years.But, more than sadness, for me these shows are fi lledwith a lot of joy.”