Nicholas Rodney "Nick" Drake
(19 June 1948 – 25 November 1974) was an English singer-songwriter and musician, known for his acoustic guitar-based songs. He failed to find a wide audience during his lifetime but his work has gradually achieved wider notice and recognition. Drake signed to Island Records when he was 20 years old and a student at the University of Cambridge, and released his debut album, Five Leaves Left
, in 1969. By 1972, he had recorded two more albums—Bryter Layter
and Pink Moon
. Neither sold more than 5,000 copies on initial release. Drake's reluctance to perform live, or be interviewed, contributed to his lack of commercial success. There is no known footage of the adult Drake; he was only ever captured in still photographs and in home footage from his childhood.Drake suffered from depression, particularly during the latter part of his young life. This was often reflected in his lyrics. On completion of his third album, 1972's Pink Moon
, he withdrew from both live performance and recording, retreating to his parents' home in rural Warwickshire. On 25 November 1974, Drake died from an overdose of amitriptyline, a prescribed antidepressant; he was 26 years old. Whether his death was an accident or suicide has never been resolved.Drake's music remained available through the mid-1970s, but the 1979 release of the retrospective album Fruit Tree
allowed his back catalogue to be reassessed. By the mid-1980s Drake was being credited as an influence by such artists as Robert Smith, David Sylvian and Peter Buck. In 1985, The Dream Academy reached the UK and US charts with "Life in a Northern Town", a song written for and dedicated to Drake. By the early 1990s, he had come to represent a certain type of "doomed romantic" musician in the UK music press and was frequently cited as an influence by artists including Kate Bush, Paul Weller, Beck and The Black Crowes. His first biography appeared in 1997, and was followed in 1998 by the documentary film A Stranger Among Us
.Five Leaves Left
Drake began recording his debut album Five Leaves Left
later in 1968, with Boyd assuming the role of producer. The sessions took place in Sound Techniques studio, London, with Drake skipping lectures to travel by train to the capital. Inspired by John Simon's production of Leonard Cohen's first album, Boyd was keen that Drake's voice would be recorded in a similar close and intimate style, "with no shiny pop reverb". He sought to include a string arrangement similar to Simon's, "without overwhelming ... or sounding cheesy". To provide backing, Boyd enlisted various contacts from the London folk rock scene, including Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson (no relation). He recruited John Wood as engineer, and drafted in Richard Hewson to provide the string arrangements.Initial recordings did not go well: the sessions were irregular and rushed, taking place during studio downtime borrowed from Fairport Convention's production of their Unhalfbricking
album. Tension arose between artist and producer as to the direction the album should take: Boyd was an advocate of George Martin's "using the studio as an instrument" approach, while Drake preferred a more organic sound. Dann has observed that Drake appears "tight and anxious" on bootleg recordings taken from the sessions, and notes a number of Boyd's unsuccessful attempts at instrumentation. Both were unhappy with Hewson's contribution, which they felt was too mainstream in sound for Drake's songs. Drake suggested using his college friend Robert Kirby as a replacement. Though Boyd was skeptical about taking on an amateur music student lacking prior recording experience, he was impressed by Drake's uncharacteristic assertiveness, and agreed to a trial. Kirby had previously presented Drake with some arrangements for his songs. However, Kirby did not feel confident enough to score the album's centerpiece "River Man", and Boyd was forced to stretch the Witchseason budget to hire the veteran composer Harry Robertson, with the instruction that he echo the tone of Delius and Ravel.Post-production difficulties led to the release being delayed by several months. It has been alleged that the album was poorly marketed and supported, though the inclusion of the opening track "Time Has Told Me" on the Island Records sampler Nice Enough to Eat
brought him a very wide audience (a track from his second album was likewise included on the subsequent sampler Bumpers
). Drake was featured in full-page interviews in the pop press. In July, Melody Maker
referred to the album as "poetic" and "interesting", though NME
wrote in October that there was "not nearly enough variety to make it entertaining". It received radio plays from the BBC's more progressive disc-jockeys such as John Peel and Bob Harris. Drake was unhappy with the inlay sleeve, which printed songs in the wrong running order and reproduced verses omitted from the recorded versions. In an interview his sister Gabrielle said: "He was very secretive. I knew he was making an album but I didn't know what stage of completion it was at until he walked into my room and said, 'There you are.' He threw it onto the bed and walked out!"
Drake ended his studies at Cambridge nine months before graduation, and in autumn 1969 moved to London to concentrate on a career in music. His father remembered "writing him long letters, pointing out the disadvantages of going away from Cambridge ... a degree was a safety net, if you manage to get a degree, at least you have something to fall back on; his reply to that was that a safety net was the one thing he did not want." Drake spent his first few months in the capital drifting from place to place, occasionally staying at his sister's Kensington flat, but usually sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors. Eventually, in an attempt to bring some stability and a telephone into Drake's life, Boyd organised and paid for a ground floor bedsit in Belsize Park, Camden.In August, Drake recorded three songs for the BBC's John Peel show. Two months later, he opened for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London, followed by appearances at folk clubs in Birmingham and Hull. Remembering the performance in Hull, folk singer Michael Chapman commented:
The folkies did not take to him; [they\] wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point. He didn't say a word the entire evening. It was actually quite painful to watch. I don't know what the audience expected, I mean, they must have known they weren't going to get sea-shanties and sing-alongs at a Nick Drake gig!
The experience reinforced Drake's decision to retreat from live appearances; the few concerts he did play around this time were usually brief, awkward, and poorly attended. Drake seemed reluctant to perform and rarely addressed his audience. As many of his songs were played in different tunings, he frequently paused to retune between numbers.Although the publicity generated by Five Leaves Left
was minor, Boyd was keen to build on what momentum there was. 1970's Bryter Layter
, again produced by Boyd and engineered by Wood, introduced a more upbeat, jazzier sound. Disappointed by his debut's poor commercial performance, Drake sought to move away from his pastoral sound, and agreed to his producer's suggestions to include bass and drum tracks on the recordings. "It was more of a pop sound, I suppose," Boyd later said. "I imagined it as more commercial." Like its predecessor, the album featured musicians from Fairport Convention, as well as contributions from John Cale on two songs: "Northern Sky" and "Fly". Trevor Dann has noted that while sections of "Northern Sky" sound more characteristic of Cale, the song was the closest Drake came to a release with chart potential. In his 1999 autobiography, Cale admits to using heroin during this period, and his older friend Brian Wells suspected that Drake was also using. Both Boyd and Wood were confident that the album would be a commercial success, but it sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Reviews were again mixed: while Record Mirror
praised Drake as a "beautiful guitarist—clean and with perfect timing, [and\] accompanied by soft, beautiful arrangements", Melody Maker
described the album as "an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz".Soon after its release, Boyd sold Witchseason to Island Records, and moved to Los Angeles to work with Warner Brothers in the development of soundtracks for film. The loss of his key mentor, coupled with the album's poor sales, led Drake to further retreat into depression. His attitude to London had changed: he was unhappy living alone, and visibly nervous and uncomfortable performing at a series of concerts in early 1970. In June, Drake gave one of his final live appearances at Ewell Technical College, Surrey. Ralph McTell, who also performed that night, remembered that "Nick was monosyllabic. At that particular gig he was very shy. He did the first set and something awful must have happened. He was doing his song 'Fruit Tree' and walked off halfway through it. Just left the stage." His frustration turned to depression, and in 1971 Drake was persuaded by his family to visit a psychiatrist at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He was prescribed a course of antidepressants, but felt uncomfortable and embarrassed about taking them, and tried to hide the fact from his friends. He knew enough about drugs to worry about their side effects, and was concerned about how they would react with his regular marijuana use.
Island Records was keen on Drake promoting Bryter Layter
through press interviews, radio sessions and live appearances. Drake, who by this time was smoking what Kirby has described as "unbelievable amounts" of marijuana and exhibiting "the first signs of psychosis", refused. By the winter of 1970, he had isolated himself in London. Disappointed by the reaction to Bryter Layter
, he turned his thoughts inwards, and withdrew from family and friends. He rarely left his flat, and then only to play an occasional concert or to buy drugs. "This was a very bad time", his sister recalled, "He once said to me that everything started to go wrong from [this\] time on, and I think that was when things started to go wrong."Although Island neither expected nor wanted a third album, Drake approached Wood in October 1971 to begin work on what would be his final release. Sessions took place over two nights, with only Drake and Wood present in the studio. The bleak songs of Pink Moon
are short, and the eleven-track album lasts only 28 minutes, a length described by Wood as "just about right. You really wouldn't want it to be any longer." Drake had expressed dissatisfaction with the sound of Bryter Layter
, and believed that the string, brass and saxophone arrangements had resulted in a sound that was "too full, too elaborate". Drake appears on Pink Moon
accompanied only by his own carefully recorded guitar save for a single piano overdub on the title track. "He was very determined to make this very stark, bare record," Wood later recalled. "He definitely wanted it to be him more than anything. And I think, in some ways, Pink Moon
is probably more like Nick is than the other two records."Drake delivered the tapes of Pink Moon
to Chris Blackwell at Island Records, contrary to a popular legend which claims he dropped them off at the receptionist's desk without saying a word. An advertisement for the album in Melody Maker
in February opened with "Pink Moon—Nick Drake's latest album: the first we heard of it was when it was finished." Pink Moon
sold fewer copies than either of its predecessors, although it received some favourable reviews. In Zigzag
magazine, Connor McKnight wrote, "Nick Drake is an artist who never fakes. The album makes no concession to the theory that music should be escapist. It's simply one musician's view of life at the time, and you can't ask for more than that."Blackwell felt Pink Moon
had the potential to bring Drake to a mainstream audience; however, his staff were disappointed by the artist's unwillingness to undertake any promotional activity. A&R manager Muff Winwood recalls "tearing his hair out" in frustration, and admits that without Blackwell's enthusiastic support, "the rest of us would have given him the boot." Following persistent nagging from Boyd, Drake agreed to an interview with Jerry Gilbert of Sounds Magazine
. The "shy and introverted folk singer" spoke of his dislike of live appearances and very little else. "There wasn't any connection whatsoever", Gilbert has said. "I don't think he made eye contact with me once." Disheartened and convinced he would be unable to write again, Drake decided to retire from music. He toyed with the idea of a different career, even considering the army.
In the months following Pink Moon'
s release, Drake became increasingly asocial and distant from those close to him. He returned to live at his parents' home in Tanworth-in-Arden, and while he resented the regression, he accepted that his illness made it necessary. "I don't like it at home", he told his mother, "but I can't bear it anywhere else." His return was often difficult for his family; as his sister Gabrielle explained, "good days in my parents' home were good days for Nick, and bad days were bad days for Nick. And that was what their life revolved around, really."He lived a frugal existence, his only source of income being a £20-a-week retainer he received from Island Records. At one point he could not afford a new pair of shoes. He would often disappear for days, sometimes turning up unannounced at friends' houses, uncommunicative and withdrawn. Robert Kirby described a typical visit: "He would arrive and not talk, sit down, listen to music, have a smoke, have a drink, sleep there the night, and two or three days later he wasn't there, he'd be gone. And three months later he'd be back." Nick's supervision partner at Cambridge, John Venning, once saw him on a tube train in London and felt he was seriously clinically depressed. " There was something about him which suggested that he would have looked straight through me and not registered me at all. So I turned around"Referring to this period, John Martyn (who in 1973 wrote the title song of his album Solid Air
for and about Drake) described him as the most withdrawn person he'd ever met. He would borrow his mother's car and drive for hours without purpose on occasion, until he ran out of petrol and had to ring his parents to ask to be collected. Friends have recalled the extent to which his appearance had changed. During particularly bleak periods of his illness, he refused to wash his hair or cut his nails. Early in 1972, Drake suffered a nervous breakdown, and was hospitalized for five weeks.In February 1974, Drake contacted John Wood, stating he was ready to begin work on a fourth album. Boyd was in England at the time, and agreed to attend the recordings. The initial session was followed by further recordings in July. In his 2006 autobiography, the producer recalled being taken aback at Drake's anger and bitterness: "[He said that\] I had told him he was a genius, and others had concurred. Why wasn't he famous and rich? This rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years." Both Boyd and Wood noticed a discernible deterioration in Drake's performance, requiring him to overdub his voice separately over the guitar. However, the return to Sound Techniques' studio raised Drake's spirits; his mother later recalled, "We were so absolutely thrilled to think that Nick was happy because there hadn't been any happiness in Nick's life for years."
By autumn 1974, Drake's weekly retainer from Island had ceased, and his illness meant he remained in contact with only a few close friends. He had tried to stay in touch with Sophia Ryde, whom he had first met in London in 1968. Ryde has been described by Drake's biographers as "the nearest thing" to a girlfriend in his life, but she now prefers the description "best (girl) friend". In a 2005 interview, Ryde revealed that a week before he died, she had sought to end the relationship: "I couldn't cope with it. I asked him for some time. And I never saw him again." As with the relationship he had earlier shared with fellow folk musician Linda Thompson, Drake's relationship with Ryde was never consummated.At some time during the night of 24/25 November 1974, Nick Drake died at home in Far Leys, Tanworth-in-Arden, from an overdose of amitriptyline, a type of antidepressant. He had gone to bed early after spending the afternoon visiting a friend. His mother said that around dawn he left his room for the kitchen. His family was used to hearing him do this many times before but, during this instance, he did not make a sound. They presumed he was eating a bowl of cereal. He returned to his room a short while later, and took some pills "to help him sleep". Drake was accustomed to keeping his own hours; he frequently had difficulty sleeping and often stayed up through the night playing and listening to music, then slept late into the following morning. Recalling the events of the night, his mother later said: "I never used to disturb him at all. But it was about 12 o'clock, and I went in, because really it seemed it was time he got up. And he was lying across the bed. The first thing I saw was his long, long legs." There was no suicide note, although a letter addressed to Ryde was found close to his bed.At the inquest in December, the coroner stated that the cause of death was as a result of "Acute amitriptyline poisoning—self-administered when suffering from a depressive illness", and concluded a verdict of suicide. Although the verdict has been disputed by some members of his family, there is a general view that accidental or not, Drake had by then given up on life. Rodney described his son's death as unexpected and extraordinary; however, in a 1979 interview he admitted to "always [being\] worried about Nick being so depressed. We used to hide away the aspirin and pills and things like that." Boyd has said that he prefers to believe the overdose was accidental. He recalled that Drake's parents had described his mood in the preceding weeks as having been very positive, and that he had planned to move back to London to restart his music career. Boyd believes that this levity was followed by a "crash back into despair". Reasoning that Drake may have taken a high dosage of antidepressants to recapture this sense of optimism, he said he prefers to imagine Drake "making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death". Writing in 1975, NME
journalist Nick Kent comments on the irony of Drake's death at a time when he had just begun to regain a sense of "personal balance". In contrast, Gabrielle Drake has said she prefers to think her brother committed suicide, "in the sense that I'd rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible."On 2 December 1974, after a service in the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Tanworth-in-Arden, Drake's remains were cremated at Solihull Crematorium and his ashes later interred under an oak tree in the graveyard of St Mary's. The funeral was attended by around 50 mourners, including friends from Marlborough, Aix, Cambridge, London, Witchseason, and Tanworth. Referring to Drake's tendency to compartmentalise relationships, Brian Wells observed that many met each other for the first time that morning. Molly recalled "a lot of his young friends came up here. We'd never met many of them."
During the early Eighties, I drifted away from the music scene. When I returned, I was surprised to find that Nick Drake was becoming famous.—Ian MacDonald
There were no documentaries or compilation albums in the wake of Drake's death. His public profile remained low throughout the mid and late 1970s, although occasional mentions of his name appeared in the music press. By this time, his parents were receiving an increasing number of fans and admirers as visitors to the family home in Far Leys. Island Records, following a 1975 NME
article written by Nick Kent, stated "we have no intention of repackaging Nick's three albums (which remained available), either now or at anytime in the foreseeable future", but in 1979 Rob Partridge joined Island Records as press officer and commissioned the release of the Fruit Tree
box set. Partridge was a fan of Drake's, and had seen him perform early in 1969: "The first thing I did when I got to Island was suggest we put together a retrospective—the studio albums plus whatever else was there. I wasn't necessarily expecting massive vaults with millions of tunes, live recordings or whatever, but there was very little". The release brought together the three studio albums as well as the four tracks recorded with Wood in 1974 and was accompanied by an extensive biography written by the American journalist Arthur Lubow. However, sales were poor and the album received little press notice, and in 1983 Island deleted Fruit Tree
from its catalogue.By the mid-1980s Drake was being cited as an influence by musicians such as R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and Robert Smith of The Cure. Smith credited the origin of his band's name to a lyric from Drake's song "Time Has Told Me" ("a troubled cure for a troubled mind"). Drake gained further exposure in 1985 with the release of The Dream Academy's hit single "Life in a Northern Town", which included an on-sleeve dedication to Drake. In 1986 the first biography of Drake was published, in Danish—it was eventually translated, updated with new interviews, and published in English in February 2012. His reputation continued to grow, and by the end of the 1980s, his name was appearing regularly in newspapers and music magazines in the United Kingdom; he had to many come to represent a "doomed romantic hero", and an "enigma wrapped inside a mystery". The first step in translating that reputation into record sales came with the release of the compilation album Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake
in May 1994. Although the album never charted in the UK, it sold consistently over the next few years, gaining a gold disc certification in September 1999 for sales of 100,000 copies in the UK.On 20 June 1998 BBC Radio 2 broadcast a documentary entitled Fruit Tree: The Nick Drake Story
, featuring interviews with Joe Boyd, John Wood, Gabrielle and Molly Drake, Paul Wheeler, Robert Kirby and Ashley Hutchings, and narrated by Danny Thompson. To tie in with the release of the compilation album Made to Love Magic
, an updated version of the documentary was broadcast on 22 May 2004 on Radio 2, retitled Lost Boy: In Search of Nick Drake
and featuring the same interview clips but with Thompson's narration replaced by that of Brad Pitt, a self-confessed Nick Drake fan. In early 1999, BBC2 aired a 40-minute documentary, A Stranger Among Us—In Search of Nick Drake
. The following year, Dutch director Jeroen Berkvens released the documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake
, featuring interviews with Boyd, Gabrielle Drake, Wood and Kirby. Later that year, The Guardian
placed Bryter Layter
at number 1 in its "Alternative top 100 albums ever" list.In recent years several musicians, including Lucinda Williams, Ben Folds, Badly Drawn Boy, Lou Barlow and Mikael Åkerfeldt have cited Drake as an influence. In 2004, nearly 30 years after his death, Drake gained his first chart placing when two singles, "Magic" and "River Man", were released to coincide with the Made to Love Magic
album.On 16 May 2009 Joe Boyd curated a concert at the Birmingham Town Hall, with Robert Kirby as musical arranger and a variety of singers and musicians performing Drake's songs. Among the featured artists were Robyn Hitchcock, Camille O'Sullivan, Martha Wainwright, Graham Coxon, Beth Orton, Harper Simon, Kate St John, Stuart Murdoch and Vashti Bunyan. Following this concert's success, Boyd staged a short UK concert tour of in January 2010, following the same format, Artists on the tour included Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Lisa Hannigan, Scott Matthews, Teddy Thompson, Krystle Warren, Robyn Hitchcock, Kirsty Almeida and Harper Simon. The concert at the London Barbican Centre was filmed and broadcast on BBC Four in April 2010.
Musical and lyrical style
Drake was obsessive about practising his guitar technique, and would often stay up through the night experimenting with tunings and working on songs. His mother remembered hearing him "bumping around at all hours. I think he wrote his nicest melodies in the early-morning hours." Self-taught, he achieved his guitar style through the use of alternative tunings to create cluster chords. These are difficult to achieve on a guitar using standard tuning; Drake used tunings which made cluster chords available using more conventional chord shapes. In many songs he accents the dissonant effect of such non-standard tunings through his vocal melodies.Drake studied English literature at Cambridge and was particularly drawn to the works of William Blake, William Butler Yeats and Henry Vaughan, and his lyrics reflect such influences. Drake also employs a series of elemental symbols and codes, largely drawn from nature. The moon, stars, sea, rain, trees, sky, mist and seasons are all commonly used, influenced in part by his rural upbringing. Images related to summer figure centrally in his early work; from Bryter Layter
on, his language is more autumnal, evoking a season commonly used to convey senses of loss and sorrow. Throughout, Drake writes with detachment, more as an observer than participant, a point of view Rolling Stone's
Anthony DeCurtis described "as if he were viewing his life from a great, unbridgeable distance." This perceived inability to connect has led to much speculation about Drake's sexuality. Boyd has said he detects a virginal quality in his lyrics and music, and notes that he never observed or heard of the singer behaving in a sexual way with anyone, male or female. Kirby described Drake's lyrics as a "series of extremely vivid, complete observations, almost like a series of epigrammatic proverbs", though he doubts that Drake saw himself as "any sort of poet". Instead he believes that Drake's lyrics were crafted to "complement and compound a mood that the melody dictates in the first place."