From the morning: Nick Drake as a teen.
One of the sweetest panels at the this year’s South By Southwest revolved around the late singer-songwriter Nick Drake: producer Joe Boyd, onetime-possible collaborator Vashti Bunyan, and sister Gabrielle Drake traded anecdotes about the talented mystery man, played music, and took questions to a transfixed crowd. Luckily you'll get a chance to have a similar experience on Tuesday, Oct. 2, when Gabrielle Drake, Boyd, and singer-songwriter Jolie Holland give a similar talk as part of Noise Pop's collabo with City Arts and Lectures. I spoke to Drake recently from her home in Shropshire, England.
Bay Guardian: The Nick Drake panel you were on at SXSW was one of my favorite things at the conference this year.
Gabrielle Drake: Thank you. This is a new world to me, because really acting is my world. The music world is new to me. But I do what I’m told! [Laughs]
I was asked to come out to San Francisco and to LA, and I’m glad to do that if it helps Nick and his music. I won’t do it very much because I find in a funny way, the more you go on talking about someone you knew and loved, the more removed from you they become.
BG: Are there a lot of misconceptions out there about him that you feel like you should clear up?
GD: I think there can be. And in the end his music speaks for itself, you know, and that’s great. The only questions I can answer really are questions about the childhood we shared together. Other people can answer questions about his music. But I don’t think there are any easy solutions to what made Nick the musician he was. I think the enigma continues really. No one can really come up with easy solutions, and I’m only there to clarify a part of the picture. That is perhaps an important part that needs to be clarified, so that we can go on from there.
BG: What was your childhood like?
GD: I would say that we had a very English, very conventional, very happy childhood. We were very lucky with our parents who came from a certain era in England, a certain time, in that they were both artistic themselves and understood the fact that we wanted to go into artistic professions ourselves. They never stood in our way. They never forbad my brother to become a musician. On the contrary, they did all they could to help him. I’m sure there were things about both our lives that they did not understand, but that’s always the case for parents, isn’t it?! They did everything that loving parents could do really for their children.
BG: You and Nick played music together as children?
GD: Yes. Both my parents played the piano. I had a very musical aunt and uncle, as well. My aunt played the violin and viola, and my uncle played the piano, and my aunt and uncle and Nick would get together and play Mozart together when Nick was playing the clarinet. But Nick and I would also sing together. When we were little tiny children, we’d play the recorder and my mum would play the piano. We had music about us a lot in our lives.
BG: At a certain point you and Nick lost touch while pursuing your own careers?
GD: I think so, inevitably. There’s a four-year difference between us. I left school four years earlier than Nick and started out in the world and, you know, life is always exciting when you’re young and you’ve just left school and you’re going out and finding your own life. Inevitably you leave your family behind when you’re spreading your wings. The same happened when Nick left school. I was already starting on my career as an actor and he was going to university in France, meeting up with new friends, having new experiences. So inevitably to some extent, we were at our least close during those years.
Nevertheless when he was producing his first album Five Leaves Left, he shared a flat with me in London. But I didn’t really know what he was doing, to tell you the truth. He was out recording his music. I knew he was doing a record, but I had no idea how far he had progressed with it, until one day he suddenly came in and threw this record down on my bed! Which was an amazing revelation to me. [Chuckles]
BG: What did you think of his music at the time?
GD: I always loved it. I think my family and I always felt like we loved it but we distrusted our own feelings because we thought it was just family loyalty.
BG: Did you feel like it was criminally unrecognized at the time?
GD: Well, I was in a profession also where it’s quite difficult to get recognition, so I understood. I always felt like Nick would eventually get recognition. I felt like it was slow coming and I thought it was almost inevitable, really. I felt like he was doing well but that already depression had set in by the time he was doing his third album and he was down in the depths of despair - and so really fame and recognition were the least of our problems with Nick. We really just wanted to get him better. We knew it was a disappointment for him, but I don’t think it was a major factor in his depression. It was something else - it was a clinical depression.
BG: Does depression run in the family?
GD: No, really not at all. I believe my mother had a certain amount of depression when she was a young girl, but in those days it was not really recognized as such. She just got on with life. In a sense she had no time to be depressed because they were fighting a war. She was out in Burma at the time of the Second World War and was having quite a difficult time surviving, really, out there. My father was fighting for the British Troops - he was an engineer. So their minds were taken up with other things.
BG: Do you think music helped with Nick’s depression or did the lack of recognition for his work really fuel his illness?
GD: It’s hard to say, really. I think music was his life and I know what he said to my mother was, in the depths of his depression, “I’ve got no more music left in me.” And that was the cause of great despair to him. I think that he didn’t realize that sometimes one’s spirit has to take a rest, and he’d been so creative, it needed time - just a little dormant period - before it all came back again. But I think of the greatest trials for any artist is to feel that their art has escaped them, and maybe that was the case with Nick.
BG: Another great moment at SXSW was when Nick’s songs were played alongside his mother’s.
GD: I’d never compared her music to his music but Joe Boyd, Nick’s producer, when he heard my mothers music well after Nick died, said, “This explains a lot about Nick. You can see where his influence came from.” He could see the influence as a musician and an outsider - the influence of my mother on Nick. I don’t think Nick ever recognized it and I’m not sure my mother ever did but people who listened to both their songs do see that Nick’s songs are a progression from hers, if you like.
BG: The Family Tree album came out earlier this year. How much of a hand did you have in it?
GD: Well, I’ve always had the tracks. What happened was, after Nick’s death, a lot of young fans would turn up on the doorstep of my father and mother’s house and they would always greet them and take them in. My father would play to them Nick’s early recordings, which he made at home. And because he was an engineer and was able to do these things - in those days, it wasn’t so common as now – he’d made a tape of recordings of my brother’s early songs and early cover versions. And somebody put this out as a bootleg, and these bootlegs have been proliferating, and they’re really horrible quality. My brother would have been quite horrified because he’s an absolute perfectionist.
We decided eventually - myself and the man I’ve appointed to manage my brothers estate – we had to do something to rectify this horrible situation with bootlegs and we thought we’d get together with John Wood, Nick’s original sound engineer, and put together a record of this early recordings so that the fans have got something - if not perfect Nick, because none of it was. I don’t know if Nick would have ever approved of these things becoming public, but at least they’re being heard in the best possible way they can be, as we’ve done a proper job of cleaning them up and making them as good as we can possibly can.
BG: They were meant as demos?
GD: My father had recording equipment at home much earlier than anyone else, and all our childhood, we’d all just gather around the tape recording machine and record stuff. And my brother, when he grew up, it was quite natural for him to play and sing and record himself on our home recording machine. Plus also he had a friend in France. Nick used to busk when he was at university in France - in cafes as a young people did. And one of his friends over there had a quite sophisticated-for-the-time cassette recorder, and he recorded Nick playing, and those recordings are actually very good, and some of those are on the Family Tree record.
BG: Will any other recordings come out later?
GD: No, we’re planning no more recordings. That’s to say there’s nothing else that we think is worthy that we think can go out. We really do not want to scrape the bottom of the barrel. We think Nick might just have sanctioned Family Tree if he knew the reason for it, but we feel he would have been horrified if anything else came out.
BG: Do you have any thoughts on why his music has stood the test of time?
GD: I think the reason why his music touches people is that it’s absolutely true to itself. It’s full of integrity, and he simply wrote about what he felt and knew about. And that strikes a chord with many people. He doesn’t try to comment or do anything else. It’s gentle, it’s full of irony, and it’s his observations of life.
BG: His music really does bear the imprint of his personality?
GD: All of us who knew Nick really well always say that we never knew Nick at all. It’s the people who never knew him who say I understand Nick profoundly. And that’s because I think, as with many true artists, Nick is many things to many different people. You can touch people in different ways, even though we who knew and loved him never really felt we knew him, he speaks to people through his music. They feel they knew him better than we ever did.
BG: You’re in charge of his estate now – how do you feel about the Volkswagen ad that so famously included “Pink Moon”? Did you think it would have this kind of impact?
GD: I still can’t believe it. I hold my breath. I never know if it’s going to last or if it’s going to stop from one day to the next. I’m very glad that his music has touched many people. And I feel like it’s the only comfort for him having died so young. I wish he could have stuck around to see it for himself. But at least he’s getting the recognition now, and I hope this is something that will go on. I believe America is just starting to understand and hear Nick.
I know that for my parents - when young fans would come to visit and find Nick, as it were, and when they turned up at the house - what moved them and what moved me was when one young person said, “If it hadn’t been for Nick’s music, I would have done exactly the same as Nick, committed suicide.” And I wish Nick could have known that. I know he once said, “If only I could feel that my music had ever helped anyone in any way, I would feel better.” And of course, now it really has.
BG: Do you believe he committed suicide or overdosed by accident?
GD: I don’t believe it was a conscious decision to end his life. I believe it was a subconscious decision. You see, it wasn’t premeditated - he left no notes or anything like that. I think he just took a handful of pills, and thought, well, either I’m going to wake up better or I’m going to die. One or the other, it’s going to be better than what I’ve got now. But I can’t really know for sure, Kim.