Nick Mulvey is a wonderful songwriter, musician and vocalist. He is completely passionate and committed about what he does, and his songs have the ability to both move you, and make you think. A very rare combination indeed. Points of reference might be John Martyn and Nick Drake, but only in the sense, that if you like their music, you will also be completely smitten by Nick Mulvey. He is though completely unique in his approach and musical trajectory, as is very evident in this interview. Particularly engaging was Nick’s honesty about what drives and motivates him musically and what he finds frustrating, and the insights he offered into his song writing craft. I caught up with Nick at Glasgow’s most iconic venue King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, before he went on stage (see live reviews section in Mudkiss for a review of the gig). Thanks to my partner Elaine who accompanied me, and offered some interesting reflections during the interview.
GARETH: I really love the “Fever to the Form” EP and particularly the title song on that, and what I noticed is that there is lots of things going on musically in it, and a fantastic drone sound going on in the background. I got the sense that you put a lot of thought not only into the composition but the musical arrangements as well.
NICK: Definitely but it's a funny process. In that at the heart of it, it is not a lot of thought in a manner of speaking. It's just a question of in the first place clearing my mind to allow the guitar part to happen. Then when I get the guitar part, it normally gives me the blueprint for everything that will happen after that. So everything that happens texturally and arrangement wise is always directed by that guitar part. It was a really nice basis for recording that song and even writing it. That song has been a very beautiful experience, very easy at all points. I always knew the next move because the previous one told me. So it was like the synth had to come in there. Originally I was thinking the cellos for the part I wanted, but putting in a warm analogue synthesizer just placed the song slightly differently. If you did cellos and a guitar you wouldn’t be any different from Nick Drake who did that 35 years ago. So the warm synths did something I wanted. Less is more.
GARETH: It has a very natural warm sound to it.
NICK: A lot of that is to do with Dan ….the producer. He really captured that.
GARETH: While you are playing solo at the moment, and I am thinking about the soundscapes you create in your songs. Do you think there might be a time when you want to have other musicians playing with you on tour?
NICK: Yeah I can hear that now in my mind, so I think it’s only a matter of time. Hopefully for next summer. Getting a band together is no small thing. I can hear all the parts, all the positions, and the album I have just made is like “Fever to the Form”, it’s larger than just the voice and the guitar, so it feels a natural process to do that. At all points its like getting it absolutely right, so that you don’t lose the intimacy of just the guitar, you don’t lose it even if there is four or five of us on the stage. The boss has got to be the right hand and the actual detail in the right hand. It’s quite a tricky thing to build up textures whilst maintaining that supremacy of the right hand. It’s going to be an interesting endeavour.
GARETH: You mentioned the album. Is that far away?
NICK: Its pretty much finished, it exists on this phone here (laughter). I think the release date will be after Easter.
GARETH: In the third song on the EP, “Juramidam”, you have incorporated some of the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay from the poem “Feast”. What attracts you to her work?
NICK: I think it’s masterful. I think it’s a spiritual preoccupation with what she writes about. You can’t reduce her writing any further, it’s so essentialised. It’s so good. The precision of it is great. So when I was 15 someone sent me that poem in an email. I have always loved it…and the DH Lawrence, I used for a song “Cucurucu”. I had both of those actually pinned up on a drawing board. When I moved house I always took the drawing board with me. If I had a new pattern that arrived, often I would just go to those two poems and see if the metre scanned. Most of the time it didn’t and then eventually from time to time I found it did. Basically the idea was to set that poem…. more or less.
GARETH: I think it really works well, a really unique combination of her and your words.
NICK: Yes, because then I began to write my own chorus. Its interesting middle ground, because I did change some of the pronouns. I changed “I’s” to “they’s” and that was quite interesting. First of all I had to distance myself from it because I felt that “I drank at every vine. The last was like the first. I came upon no wine”. I probably should have been faithful to the original. I just felt quite exposed getting up there, so I changed it to “they” which makes me more like an observer. With the version we have just done for the album which I consider definitive, I began to feel I couldn’t stand by the heart of the chorus, which has a certain sort of admonishment, “Too much time drinking whiskey and wine….”. I couldn’t stand by that if I didn’t personalise the first part, so now I am somewhere in between. So it’s the, I looked, I saw, I did, I found, and therefore maybe I have the authority to say something.
ELAINE: It’s like a journey
NICK: Yeah, getting the pronouns right was quite a personal journey.
GARETH: It’s a fantastic evolution of the song, thank you for sharing that.
NICK: All the songs, I can talk all night about (shared laughter).
GARETH: You are quoted on the Wilderness Festival website, and it’s a great quote, where you said: “I do the same things on the guitar that I did on the hang. It’s about repetition, hypnotic music, the groove. On this EP that groove meets songs.” I really like that quote, as it sums up for me the experience of listening to your music, which places the listener right in the moment. I wonder if that groove is for you the way you open the door for the listener musically.
NICK: Yeah it is. Most of that kind of stuff is subconscious, its just what I like in music I end up doing. So any reflections are after the event. But I do think so, if the song is a room and you’re a guest in it, I am going to heat the seat up for you, I want you to be here. It’s got to be challenging, but yeah its got to feel so good to be in that song. A lot of that was compounded by when I was leaving Portico Quartet, and the whole process of coming away from that. We kind of got a little bit stuck, in that we couldn't..... we started to write music it was difficult to listen to, and it always bugged me, and I started to lose belief in it. I started to wonder if our main aim of this music was to flummox the listener, and that as a main aim is flawed I think. Surprise is key, but your main aim I think has to be to communicate, not to flummox. If it’s the sole aim you are a bit lost. For example if we did a crescendo, building up to something, we would get to that point, and then do something different. So you have all this expectation and non-fulfilment, and I just knew I wanted to do expectation and fulfilment.
ELAINE: Perhaps it's okay the first time, but if you are just doing it for the sake of it.
NICK: Yeah, that’s it. We were quite young and a bit...very typical, you become quite self aware of yourself as a unit. It becomes very difficult to just be simple. Simple songs, simple harmony; at the heart of it, that is very important.
GARETH: That feels like a motif for how you see the music.
NICK: Simple music, adventurous textures, that for me is where I put my energies. You can't beat the simple great. “What shall we do with a drunken sailor”, I was thinking about it the other day, singing it with some friends. That is an inter-era smash, that's a 400-year-old hit! It's such a great...the call and response. Suddenly I was alive to it. Everything about that song is interesting. It's survived this long and we all know it. The refrain, the melody, as far as I am concerned you can't beat that. What you can do, is get your textures right.
GARETH: How has the tour been so far? You started in Leeds, then Newcastle, Manchester, and now in Glasgow.
NICK: Good, yeah. Amazed at all these people coming to see me. It's new and very different from the last run of gigs I did. So it feels to be a snowballing of all the different strands, releasing the EPs, getting played on the radio, which is new to me. We had specialist plays and spots with Portico Quartet, that's what we were all about, but never, like daytime. It's been mad to go up to places I have never been before, and lots of people coming to see me. I am having the time of my life.
GARETH: On twitter I picked up you played a Donna Summer cover in Newcastle, it sounds fabulous. Are you going to play it tonight, and why Donna Summer?
NICK: I can let you into a secret I am going to play it tonight. All the cover choices are never a cerebral decision. I started this groove and I sung a minor third long, just a hum kind of thing, and because the groove itself didn't have any of the minor or major third expressed in it, I could move up a semitone up to the major, from minor to a major, which is exactly what she does at the beginning, and I was like, that's Donna Summer isn't it. It occurred to me this is going to work, and I quickly put up the lyrics. I didn't listen to the tune, I would hold off listening to the tune until I finished my version, and then I would go back to it and match it up. I like very much taking songs that are understood in an electronic context and taking them back to the acoustic instrument. If it’s successful people are always pleased by that, because with dance floor music we don't think about how good the songs are. To do that round the campfire so to speak, you realise how great these songs are. It’s a key part. That's how I always respond to them, with how good the songs are.
GARETH: You mentioned earlier about Nick Drake and I have read favourable comparisons of your music with Nick Drake and John Martyn. How do you feel about those comparisons?
NICK: It's totally a 100% flattering. They’re in there, though sometimes I shy away from it a bit. That was music I listened a lot too in my late teens, really formative in my understanding of music. It's not something I listen to so much now, though I love Pink Moon whenever I hear it. It’s a key part, though the only thing about those comparisons is that there is so much music that I love, that always to start talking about one or two feels limiting. For me a more fruitful conversation is which of the main classics that we all know don't I love or don't you love. I like them all; I don't think it's too difficult in this day and age. You grew up on Paul Simon, you listen to West African music, you listen to some techno, and you have the stuff on your iPod, where are we going with it all, it's not like we are just listening to blues. Or that is what you are into and you will dress this way. It's not like that anymore. My only problem with comparisons, well more conversations about influences, is that there is so much in there, that to pick one......
GARETH: Is to define oneself.
GARETH: I have one final question. Have you played Glasgow before and have you had a chance to look round.
NICK: I played King Tuts when I was supporting Willie Mason, about a year ago. Yeah, so that was a great night. That whole tour was fun. I think that was the only time I played Glasgow. Though I played the Arches with Portico. I have only done it in this capacity; you play the gig and leave the next day. So maybe tonight. There is a lot here that I want to see.
Interview & photo by Gareth Allen