Born Nicholas Drake, June 18, 1948, in Burma; died of an overdose of an antidepressant drug, November 24, 1974, in Tamworth-on-Arden, England; son of Rodney (a lumber merchant) and Molly Drake; attended Fitzwilliam College, early 60s.
While almost forgotten as an important figure in the English folk movement of the late 1960s, reissues of his albums as well as retrospectives have spawned a new interest in the career of Nick Drake, albeit more than twenty years after his death. His songs combine impressionistic lyrics sung in his rich, mellifluous voice with musical arrangements that are both welcoming and haunting. Lack of commercial success plagued his fragile ego, and he accidentally overdosed with antidepressants, but his music lives on.
Nick Drake was born on June 18, 1948 in Burma, where his father Rodney worked as a diplomat. When he was a child, Nick's family moved to Tamworth-in-Arden, near Stratford-on-Avon. Nick attended boarding school at Marlborough, where he still holds several track and field records. Around this time he also began playing the clarinet and saxophone in the school orchestra but soon took up the guitar as he developed an interest in folk and rock music.
While studying English literature at Fitzwilliam College, Nick Drake was playing music in clubs and recording home demos. In 1968, Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings was impressed by Drake's performance at London's Roundhouse Club. Hutchings called Fairport's producer Joe Boyd, who arranged an audition with Nick. Boyd reflects about the audition, "From the first few bars, I knew this was something special." Nick was "very shy and soft-spoken", Boyd added, "but his music was very individual and unlike anything else. He had very big and strong hands, as he was an excellent athlete in school, and he had total command of the guitar, using unusual tunings he invented for himself."
Nick Drake's first album Five Leaves Left was released in 1969. The title refers to the reminder when a package of cigarette papers is almost empty. Drake's music, which Joe Boyd described as "melodically unusual and sophisticated" is a fusion of acoustic folk with blues and bossa nova jazz influences. Production on the album was minimal, with Nick's friend Robert Kirby, former member of the folk-rock group the Strawbs, contributing some string arrangements.
Boyd describes the process of making music with Nick Drake as "very rewarding and enjoyable. This was partly due to the fact that groups I was working with were self-contained while Nick had no fixed group of musicians. This meant that I could listen to his songs, discuss them with him and then come up with ideas for adding musicians. In the end it was pretty much a synthesis of Nick suggesting abstract ideas, me coming up with the musicians and Nick sometimes rejecting certain ideas."
Due to stage fright, Nick Drake seldom performed live. Musician Brian Cullman, who shared the bill with Drake at the club Cousins in London during the summer of 1970 recalls in Musician, Player, and Listener that "his shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent. He sat on a small stool, hunched tight over a tiny Guild guitar, beginning songs and, halfway through, forgetting where he was and stumbling back to the start of that song, or beginning an entirely different song which he would then abandon mid-way through if he remembered the remainder of the first."
Drake's second album Bryter Layter was recorded while he was living in London. The album featured contributions from John Cale as well as members of the Fairport Convention. Bryter Layter was more commercial sounding than Five Leaves Left; it was an attempt to broaden his audience without compromising his music. The critically acclaimed album did not sell well, and Nick became depressed and physically ill, taking his lack of commercial success personally. Soon after the album's release, he moved back to his parents' house in Tamworth-in-Arden.
Despite his illness, Nick kept writing and recording songs. During a series of difficult recording sessions, he hardly spoke to producer John Wood. What Wood thought were just demo tapes were actually finished recordings for his third album, Pink Moon. Drake arrived unannounced at Island Records' office one day, delivered the tapes to the receptionist, and disappeared.
Released in early 1972, Pink Moon became Nick Drake's third consecutive release whose sales did not match its critical acclaim. The lyrics are full of despair, sung only with Drake's guitar playing as an accompaniment, except for the title track where he added a piano part. Duncan Fallowell described the album in Records and Recordings as "intruding upon a private dream world in which even a murmur is indiscreet." Fred Dellar wrote in Hi-Fi News and Record Review "[Drake] employs his deliciously smokey voice in making these intimate, late-night sounds that I find myself playing time and time again."
After the release of Pink Moon, Nick became more depressed and reclusive, refusing to talk to anybody. He suffered a breakdown and was hospitalized for several weeks. A prescription of the antidepressant Tryptizol and the support of family and friends helped him through it. By early 1973 he was ready to record again. Although the sessions were difficult, a complimentary article in the June, 1974 issue of Zig Zag buoyed Drake's confidence.
In October of 1974, Nick Drake went to Paris, to meet with French folksinger Francoise Hardy, who wanted to record an album of his songs. Nick returned with a renewed sense of focus. On November 24, 1974, while writing songs late at night as usual, he took too many Tryptizol pills. Nick was not warned that even one too many Tryptizol was fatal.
Nick Drake is buried in the churchyard at Tamworth-in-Arden. His parents donated money to the church for upkeep of the pipe organ; once a year there is a recital of Nick's music. Guitarist John Martyn wrote a song in tribute to Nick called "Solid Air". In 1978, Martyn told Trouser Press, "[Nick Drake] was quite conscious of the image portrayed in his songs. He was not a manic depressive who picked up a guitar; he was a singer-guitarist in every sense. He was unique in his own way. I loved him very much; it was a privilege and honor to know the man."
by Jim Powers
Nick Drake's Career
Began playing guitar c. 1964; released first album, Five Leaves Left, on Island Records, 1969.
- Selective Works
- Five Leaves Left, Island, 1969, reissued, Hannibal, 1992.
- Bryter Layter, Island, 1971, reissued, Hannibal, 1992.
- Pink Moon, Island, 1972, reissued, Hannibal, 1992.
- Time of No Reply, 1986, reissued, Hannibal, 1992.
- Fruit Tree, Hannibal, 1992.
- Way To Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake, Hannibal, 1994.
- "Three Hours" on Troubadours of British Folk Volume 2: Folk Into Rock, Rhino, 1995.
- The Guardian, August 26, 1994.
- Hi-Fi News and Record Review, May, 1972.
- Musician, Player, and Listener, November, 1979.
- Records and Recordings, April, 1972.
- Rolling Stone, April 27, 1972.
- Stereo Review, November, 1976.
- Trouser Press, January, 1978; January/February, 1983.
- Additional information was obtained for this profile from an interview with Joe Boyd.