Sunday, 9 January 2011
"Well, a person isn’t his work." Nick and Gabrielle Drake, January 2008
In two hours time, Gabrielle Drake has another interview in the West End. Not this sort of interview, she explains, but one concerning an acting role. On her way from our rendez-vous in Café Richoux, the sole of her shoe will snap in half – necessitating a search for superglue in the Mayfair streets that her brother Nick sang about on an eponymous early composition. A day later, she will email to say that her limping entrance – “like an aged Cinderella” – at the second appointment provided “a good talking point.”
The actress, who has recently garnered acclaim for her one-woman show about the life of Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell, doesn’t seem especially nervous about the other interview. But when it comes to talking about Family Tree – a “new” Nick Drake album, she’s a little more hesitant. Up until this point, decisions concerning the output of the singer-songwriter who took his own life, aged 27, have been relatively straightforward. Where this selection of informal early recordings is concerned, she has no way of knowing if her brother would have approved. Diehard fans – who, these days, include R.E.M., Paul Weller, Elton John, Norah Jones, Brad Pitt and pretty much every British singer-songwriter to emerge in the last decade – know the contents of bootlegs commonly circulated over the last two decades.
The irony of Gabrielle’s quandary does not need pointing out to her.
The first people to release Nick Drake’s earliest recordings into the wider world were not bootleggers. It was Drake’s parents, whose grief at losing their son was heightened by the obscurity into which his work seemed fated to languish. In the years following his death in 1974, Nick Drake wasn’t even a cult artist. For all the dewy, autumnal wonder of songs like Northern Sky and Hazey Jane I, 1970’s Bryter Layter – his most commercial album – still failed to shift more than 3,500 copies in his lifetime. So when fans occasionally made the pilgrimage to leafy Tanworth-In-Arden, where Drake spent his childhood and his final, depressed months, Rodney and Molly Drake derived some comfort from the notion that someone might have been listening after all.
Gabrielle remembers letters from Rodney and Molly Drake imparting news of such visits. In a “letter” to her brother that she recorded for a Times podcast, she explained, “Mummy became adept at improvising and adapting. Meals would be rustled up, beds made and who cared if there were no flowers on the piano?” And while Molly Drake was “improvising and adapting”, Rodney Drake took delight in compiling tapes of performances these fans could have had no way of hearing.
If Gabrielle Drake’s eagerness to explain the circumstances of Family Tree’s release is touching, it’s also not strictly necessary. In the last decade, two biographies and sundry documentaries have appeared – all attempting to identify the constituents of Drake’s elusive sound. Taking Ewan MacColl’s famous Radio Ballads and, The Everly Brothers’ evocative musical family album Roots as his inspiration, it’s a job that album compiler (and manager of Drake’s estate) Cally Callomon manages to do in 68 minutes. Two revelatory compositions by Molly Drake, both serve as reminders that sung melancholy meditations are not the sole domain of sensitive young men with guitars. And so, no less eerily that Nick Drake’s Fruit Tree seems to portend his posthumous fame, Molly’s Try To Remember – recorded approximately a decade before her son’s fatal overdose – finds her singing about loss with prescient acuity. That Molly’s blues bore a greater stylistic debt to Noel Coward than the folk and blues guitarists that Nick came to embrace merely illustrates the changing cultural climate into which Nick and Gabrielle had to try and fit in.
Moving to rural Warwickshire from colonial Burma, Gabrielle remembers that “Nick and I were both facing this 60s world, growing up in a time when it was not fashionable to be what we were.” For Gabrielle, that sense of belonging came with acting. Taught the basics of guitar by a friend at Marlborough School, Nick seemed to find himself in music. The home recordings on Family Tree give a sense of that shift. Preceding the hobo romanticism of Bert Jansch’s Strolling Down The Highway and Jackson C. Frank’s Milk & Honey we hear Nick playing Mozart on clarinet with his aunt and uncle. Prior to that, a poignant brother-sister duet on All My Trials portends a parallel universe in which Drake’s musical fortunes might have been radically different.
“It’s funny you should mention that,” smiles Gabrielle, “After All My Trials, we sort of had the thought that we should do something else – some sort of act together, but it never materialized. Do you remember Nina and Frederik? We were very fond of them at one point.” The mind boggles at the notion that Nick Drake’s first tentative steps into the musical limelight might have been inspired by a Danish calypso duo. But with Gabrielle Drake’s career taking off, it wasn’t to be. Besides, within two years, it became apparent that something dramatic had happened in Nick’s musical development.
Thanks to the recent discovery of a cassette made by an old friend, the emergence of eight previously unheard Drake performances – recorded in 1967, during a gap year in Aix-En-Provence – illustrates that change. In a letter to his parents, the aspiring folk guitarist wrote, “I’m looking around for the opportunity to start playing music in public. I went to a jazz club in Aix the other night and stood in for about half-an-hour with some other students.” Other accounts from Aix at that time portray an erudite young man, emboldened by cannabis, using the opportunity to finesse the persona of a romantic young poet. American singer Robin Frederick – whose song Been Smoking Too Long is covered on Family Tree – was resident at Aix at the same time. “His physical grace and the aura of the Bohemian poet made it easy to fall for him,” she recalls, “I remember him showing up at my door one winter night with a dark velvet jacket but no coat. And it was cold! So here was a guy that was determined to look cool!”
Gabrielle Drake says she remembers the day in her brother strolled into the family drawing room following “what we would now call a gap year” in Aix-En-Provence. His confidence had grown. So had his hair. Though usually eager to play down aspects of her brother’s life which have since become mythologised, Gabrielle acknowledges that “Aix was a pivotal point in his life.” I suggest to Gabrielle that one of the most impressive aspects of his apprenticeship is the methodical nature of it. Most aspiring artists mark their own progress by writing songs. Prior to leaving for Aix, Nick Drake had never written a song. There was no indication that a year later, he would be have written the breathtaking bulk of Five Leaves Left. It was as though the jigsaw of his influences had to be completed and scrutinised before Nick Drake could rearrange it to reflect who he had become. Only then, could he start in earnest.
“Well yes – that’s a quality he inherited from my dad,” smiles Gabrielle, as though the thought has only just occurred. Because my dad was an engineer, he was very methodical. He would say, ‘Let’s look at this properly’ and bring his mind to bear upon it, so that he could start working on it in earnest. I think that Nick probably did that too.”
Despite that fleeting plan to become the new Nina and Frederik, Gabrielle and Nick Drake never worked together. In a strange way, his death has made more of a team of them than it did in life. The promotion that Drake found so cripplingly difficult in his final years – this was a man who left the completed master of his final album Pink Moon in the reception of his record company without declaring what it was – is now left to his sister. It’s a duty which she carries out with a modicum of ambivalence. “In one way, I don’t enjoy talking about Nick too much, because every time you repeat a story it makes it less true.” Perhaps that’s why she has refused to give her assent to a film. “Any films which deal with the lives of artists end up making them smaller, not bigger.”
Besides, it might be that all the narrative Nick Drake’s life needs is the one detailed by his recorded work – from the tentative self-discovery of Family Tree to the five, final songs, recorded in 1974, which portray a beleaguered soul trying to understand a world that has somehow failed him. It feels pertinent to tell Gabrielle that one thing that distinguishes Family Tree is its frequent air of levity. It’s a chronicle of happy times. “Well, a person isn’t his work,” she smiles, “In his time, Byron attracted a litany of and would-be poets who, he wrote, ‘expect me to be in a perpetual state of poetic creation. Good God though! How would one ever shave in such a condition?’”
Twenty-three years ago, when – as Nicola Freeman – Gabrielle Drake took over the Crossroads motel, most of her interviewers had never heard of Nick Drake, less still knew that he was her brother. Now she seems relieved that his fame has gradually overtaken hers. In 2004, Brad Pitt offered to narrate Lost Boy – a Radio 4 documentary about Drake. Its producer David Barber had initially started work on the programme twelve years previously, but stalled when he couldn’t get anyone to broadcast it. “At the time, when he told me that he couldn’t interest any radio stations in it, I decided not to tell my mother. I knew she didn’t have many months to live, and why make it worse? And in way, I’m glad I didn’t tell her, because she died thinking that something was going to happen. And, of course, something did happen.” Registering the photographer’s arrival, the immaculately coutured guardian of Nick Drake’s legacy rises and declares, “I must titivate myself!” – before returning to her thread. “So, you see, hindsight has vindicated my deception!”