Part 1: Why Nick Drake String Arrangements are so Popular. . .

The music of Nick Drake is now (almost 40 years after his premature death in 1974) more popular than it ever was in his lifetime. It continues on its journey with an impetus entirely of its own, awakening the consciousness of people across the world. Brad Pitt is an especially famous devotee of his music and hundreds of bands nowadays are influenced by the subtle yet affecting qualities of Nick Drake’s albums. Many clients who get in touch with us requesting string arrangements specify that they’d like a particular track to include a string arrangement like Nick Drake’s, so this is the first in a series of blog articles about some of the techniques of orchestration and harmony which make the strings on his albums work so well.

Nick Drake’s music is often described as ‘wistful’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘pastoral’, encapsulating a peculiarly English poetic touch. He often seems to be viewing the world from a detached perspective as if somehow elevated from it. The whole atmosphere created has a feeling of being slightly narcotic, as if experienced in a haze. Drake’s delivery is educated and middle-class with no attempt at a trans-Atlantic posturing: indeed, the words and delivery are more reminiscent of 19th century English poets than of any comparable contemporary songwriter. His guitar playing is highly rhythmical, with many cross rhythms that require little additional percussion (although the use of a conga in a track such as ‘Cello Song’ complements the guitar well). His style is also fragile: it doesn’t require much to break the magic spell and sadly this does happen on certain tracks of the second album ‘Bryter Layter’. Often the melody line is simple and diatonic – yet underneath is a labyrinth of complex chords, attained through his experimentations with open tunings. But the focus of these three articles will be the string arrangements which often so perfectly complement Drake’s songs. I’ll take an overview of his brief life and slim output and then focus on two of the three albums released: namely ‘Five Leaves Left’ and ‘Bryter Layter’. The third album entitled ‘Pink Moon’ was much stripped down from the previous two efforts and as such didn’t have any string arrangements on it at all.

Drake was often described by those closest to him as being a remote personality whom few people (if anyone) truly got to know. He attended public school at Marlborough College before spending six months at the University of Aix-Marseille, eventually going on to study English literature at Cambridge. It was here that he met Robert Kirby, who provided most of the string arrangements on ‘Five Leaves Left’ and ‘Bryter Layter’ (he was also introduced to the American producer Joe Boyd who was to have such an important influence on his recording career).

His first album, ‘Five Leaves Left’ (named after the slip of paper found in ‘Rizla’ cigarette papers) was recorded at the end of sessions for Fairport Convention’s ‘Unhalfbricking’ album (hence, the use of Richard Thompson on the opening track). This was not a satisfactory arrangement and although the album turned out well and generally received good critical comment (although some felt there was a lack of variety in the tracks), it didn’t sell more than a couple of thousand copies. Part of the problem was Drake’s inherent shyness: he was reluctant to be interviewed and cut an awkward figure when he performed live (often spending a long time tuning up his guitar and largely ignoring the audience). ‘Bryter Layter’ was given the easy listening treatment, with saxophones, drums, gospel singers and harpsichords, prompting the Melody Maker magazine to describe it as “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”. Again, the album didn’t sell well, and this, coupled with his growing unease with performing on stage, led to him withdrawing into himself further (Boyd also left to work in Los Angeles, so Drake lost a musical mentor).

‘Pink Moon’ proved to be his final offering and runs at a meagre 28 minutes in length. The album was largely recorded in two days and it seems that John Wood was the only other person involved in the making of it. It is pared down to guitar and vocals, with piano in just one track. Again, initial sales of the album were disappointing and Drake effectively stopped writing songs. He became even more withdrawn and returned to live with his parents in Warwickshire, which he seems to have accepted as an inevitable necessity. Kirby described a typical visit from his friend: ‘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.’

In 1974 he approached Wood about recording a fourth album and songs were recorded, but he had deteriorated both in personal appearance as well as in musical performance (necessitating overdubs for his vocals and guitar as he could no longer record both simultaneously). This, coupled with unsettling outbursts of bitterness made the recording of these tracks an unhappy experience. Drake died of an overdose of antidepressants in November 1974 at the age of 26. His legacy amounts to little more than 2 hours of music, yet the influence he continues to exert over singer/songwriters and string arrangers is considerable.

In the next blog article, I’ll explore why the string arranging in the first two Nick Drake albums (and in particular, ‘Five Leaves Left’) is so successful and is still so often held up as an example of good string arranging today.