It was through a friend of mine that I had first heard of Nick Drake. The name had been mentioned to me several times, but it was at his urging that I finally listened to the music of Nick Drake. As I imagine many fans do these days, I started with his most well-known work, Pink Moon. Honestly, I didn’t like it very much at first. Compared to what I had been listening to at the time, it was incredibly sparse–intimate vocals and acoustic guitar that went hand-in-hand with the slightly dissonant melody. With more listens, I grew to greatly enjoy the album. The intimacy I had somewhat disliked is something I greatly adore about it today. When listening to the album, you can almost imagine Nick sitting at the end of your bed or directly across from you, playing, singing.
Central to understanding his music and his evolution in that aspect, is Nick Drake’s life. Nick was born on June 19, 1948 in Rangoon, Burma. By that time, Nick’s father, an engineer, had been living in Burma for several years, working for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. It was there that Rodney met Molly, the daughter of a member of the Indian Civil Service and they were married when Molly turned twenty-one. Nick’s sister, Gabrielle (who some may know as an actress) was born a few years prior to Nick in 1944. She was born in British India and lived in several countries in geographical area. Around 1950, the Drake family moved to England, settling in Warwickshire. The home there in Far Leys, called Tanworth-In-Arden, would be the home very familiar to Nick Drake fans, but more on this a bit later on.
Molly wrote and composed her own songs, a few of which appeared on the post-humous collection “Family Ties”, in a style that appeared to be quite influential on Nick. Rodney also dabbled in the arts. It is no surprise, then, that Nick was immersed in music from a young age, taking up the piano and even beginning to record. During his time at school, in which he was an accomplished athlete, he also learned the saxophone and clarinet. At age 17, Nick purchased his first acoustic guitar for £13 and was soon quite skilled.
While at college, Nick practiced guitar obsessively. He also traveled quite a bit to France, and also to Morocco. After his time at Fitzwilliam College in France, Nick returned to England and began studies at Cambridge University, focusing on English. During this time, Nick performed at coffeehouses and other gigs, eventually being discovered by Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention. Nick was then introduced to producer Joe Boyd, and soon enough, Nick was signed to Witchseason Records at age 20, soon deciding to leave Cambridge as well.
Five Leaves Left was recorded in London and initially had Richard Hewson scoring string arrangements. It became clear, however, that Hewson was not a good fit, and at the insistence of Nick, his friend from college, Robert Kirby, was hired to arrange the orchestral sections. It took time to iron out initial difficulties, but the album was finished, though it did stall a bit before it was released. While it was a reputable release and garnered some press attention, the album failed to sell well.
Following the release of Five Leaves Left, Nick moved to London to seriously pursue music, though it took some time for him to settle there. Drake played on Jonh Peel’s radio show, and a bit later, opened for Fairport Convention and played at folk houses. Nick had negative experiences with operforming, and it was at this time that he made a decision to av-oid performing in front of a crowd. Many would later comment that this was a contributing factor to the lack of success that Drake found.
Bryter Layter was released in 1970, featuring a more jazz-influenced sound. Many felt that this album would serve as Nick’s breakthrough, however it ultimately floundered, only selling around 3,000 units. Soon after, Boyd left for Los Angeles, an unsettling even for Nick. Following mental problems, most notably depression, Nick was prescribed antidepressants and appeared quite hesitant to take them. He abstained from promotion events for Bryter Layter, such as live appearances and interviews, only contributing to the album’s lack of success. He became withdrawn and fell deeper into depression.
In 1971, Nick recorded his final album, Pink Moon. The album stood in marked contrast to hs previous works, featuring nothing but voice and guitar on every track, save for a very simple piano part on the title track. When Nick took the master tapes to Island Records, the label was surprised to find another album from him. Upon release, album sales were poorer than either of his two prior releases. This served to only deepen his depression. Nick temporarily retired from music, living with his parents, his main source of income a weekly £20 from Island. In 1974, Drake recorded four more songs, intending to work on a fourth album. These songs would find release on posthumous collections.
On the night of November 24, 1974, at age 26, Nick passed some time during the night as a result of an overdose of his antidepressant, amitryptaline. The coroner could not state if the overdose was accidental or intentional. Friends and family have varying opinions, though certainly, either could be the case. At this time, antidepressants were still rather primitive, and taking one more than the prescribed dose could have fatal consequences. In Nick’s case, the overdose stopped his heart. He was found by his mother the next morning.
Post-humously, Nick has found increased fame that eluded him during his life. Through word of mouth alone, he garnered several thousand fans, and in recent years, due to the use of his songs in advertising, he has gained even more. In 1999, the title track from Pink Moon was used in a Volkswagen commercial. In the ensuing months, Nick sold more records than he did in the previous thirty years. After the death of Heath Ledger, it was revealed that he was quite a fan of Nick Drake, and once again, Nick’s popularity grew. “Fly” from Bryter Layter was used in the film “The Royal Tenenbaums” and most recently, the song “From the Morning”, was used in a Cingular commercial. These are only a few examples, as songs were used in several films and advertisements.
Nick’s lyrics were often based on nature, utilizing it as a set of symbols and metaphors for various situations. His lyrics are often poetic, perhaps influenced by his time studying English. He was also quite a fan of classical music, Bob Dylan, Jackson C. Frank, and Robert Johnson, amongst others. A handful of Jackson C. Frank and Bob Dylan covers by Drake would appear on the post-humous “Family Ties”. Nick was another gifted young artist who left us all too soon under tragic circumstances. His music was autumnal, sorrowful at times, but incredibly beautiful and meaningful.
A day once dawned, and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around
So look see the days
The endless coloured ways
Go play the game that you learnt
From the morning
And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see, she flies
And she is everywhere
And see, she flies all around
So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning
–From The Morning by Nick Drake (Pink Moon, 1972)
Drake, Nick. “From The Morning.” Rec. 1972. Pink Moon. Nick Drake. Universal-Island Records, 2000. Vinyl recording.
Humphries, Patrick. Nick Drake. London: Bloomsbury, 1997. Print.
“NickDrake.co.uk.” Welcome To Ancient Enchantments! Web. 25 Oct. 2010. .