Joe Boyd: "Nobody knew who the hell Nick Drake was"

The producer who discovered Drake, and worked with Dylan, Pink Floyd, R.E.M. and more, on music's oddest comeback

By Scott Timberg
Published April 15, 2013 4:22PM (EDT)
   (Anne-Marie Briscombe)
(Anne-Marie Briscombe)

Producer Joe Boyd has led an unpredictable and wide-ranging life in music: He toured Europe with Coleman Hawkins and Muddy Waters, served as stage manager for the notorious Newport Festival ’65 (where Dylan earned boos for performing with a rock band), and went to London, where he produced Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Vashti Bunyan, Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson and the Incredible String Band. His pioneering of folk-rock led to a revival in the ‘80s, as he became sought after as a producer by alt-rock figures like 10,000 Maniacs, Billy Bragg and R.E.M. for "Fables of the Reconstruction."

Boyd wrote about the British ‘60s in the beautifully crafted memoir "White Bicycles," which Brian Eno calls "a gripping piece of social history and the best book about music I've read in years."

But for many music fans, Boyd will remain the guy who discovered Nick Drake -- the depressive English genius who recorded three heavenly folk records in obscurity before dying of an overdose in 1974, at the age of 26.

In 2009, Boyd put together a tribute concert at Birmingham Town Hall with musicians including Robyn Hitchcock, Beth Orton and Stuart Murdoch of Belle & Sebastian. And this month, StorySound Records releases "Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake," which collects the highlights of ensuing shows: It includes Hitchcock singing “Parasite,” Bunyan interpreting “Which Will” and Teddy Thompson on “River Man.”

We spoke to Joe Boyd earlier this month about St. Nick and some of his other adventures.

Let's start with Nick Drake and then we’ll go backward and forward. How did you first meet and hear Nick Drake? I got a sense that he was a pretty shy young man when you first encountered him.

Well, he was always a pretty shy young man. He performed as part of a 24-hour Vietnam protest marathon at the Roundhouse in London and Fairport Convention was on the bill, and Ashley Hutchings, the bass player for Fairport Convention, heard Nick, and went up to him and got his phone number, and gave me the phone number and said, “This guy is pretty interesting, you should check him out.”

And so I called him up and he brought in a tape, and I listened to the tape, and immediately called him again and said, “Come on in, let’s talk.” And we talked about making a record.

He was a Cambridge student, right?

Yeah, he was 19 or even he might have been just barely 19, and it was amazing to me. That demo tape hit me like a sledgehammer. I just thought it was amazing. The songs were pretty much the way that they – obviously with embellishments – but the songs were there. They weren’t developed or changed or anything to make the record. They were there.

Recordings of Drake’s mother have come out recently that have made some people rethink the roots of Nick Drake’s sound. Did you think his upbringing was important to what he turned into?

Absolutely. I met his mother a few times and she was delightful, funny, a lively woman, but very self-deprecating about, “Oh, you know, I just do a few amateur things …” I saw the piano in her home and there were some music papers scattered around, and Nick said, “Yes, my mother writes a few things.” He didn’t really talk her up very much. So it wasn’t until years after both Molly and Nick had died that Gabriel gave me a set of Molly’s songs, and I was stunned because they’re so good and also because you can hear in the way that she shaped the chords, you can hear the kind of voicings of harmonies that explain why Nick had these very complicated tunings. Because he was in a way trying to re-create the sounds that he’d grown up with when his mother played the piano.

So we’re getting things like diminished chords and sixth chords and –

Yeah, but also slightly unusual shapes for them, I think, as well. I never talked to Nick about this, because I wasn’t that familiar with it at the time; I knew Nick was very open-eared and heard a lot of things – to me, one of the things that I’ve grown very fond of in later years, and I feel as if Nick must have heard this, is João Gilberto. Just in that the whole way the voice has an independent life from the guitar part, the two going in very different paths, and also even on “Poor Boy” that strum is very bossa nova, and I think there must have been some influence there.

I hadn’t thought of that, but that makes sense. Even the Beatles and other Brits in the '60s were riffing off bossa nova. There’s a real sort of poetic sophistication to even the earliest Nick Drake too. I mean, a song like “Time Has Told Me,” which is the first song on the first record. It’s almost Proustian, and here this guy’s 20 or something. With that great Richard Thompson solo behind it, too.

You could say that that song was the genesis of "Way to Blue," because when I first heard that song, my first thought was, I gotta get this to Roberta Flack, because she just had this huge hit with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And I thought, “Oh, well this is the follow-up,” and I knew somebody at Atlantic Records and I sent and asked for a tape. But she never recorded it. But I always did have the feeling from hearing that song that his songs were coverable for sure. I think people have been very intimidated by – not a lot of people, obviously – there’s a lot of celebration of Nick’s songs by people who are trying to sound like Nick. And I think I’ve tried to cast people singing his songs who don’t sound like him at all. Because I think that’s the best way to show the strengths of the songs.

Right. That it’s versatile and can be taken new places.

Right. And the first person, the first major artist to cover a Nick Drake song, here’s a test for you: Do you know who it is?

Lucinda Williams. She covers “Which Will” on “Sweet Old World.”

I think it sort of in a way proves that point, how flexible these songs are. That they can be taken to different worlds.

So you found a guy with a very delicate voice and a sort of skeletal finger-picking style, so it’s a very spare music for the most part. What made you want to put strings behind him?

We put strings on the first record. That’s the most string-heavy record, "Five Leaves Left." That was a period when I had been recently very impressed with the John Simon production of the first Leonard Cohen record. And also the Beatles, the way they used strings, George Martin. Because strings before that, I think, they generally had a bad name. They sort of indicated mainstream, they indicated finger-popping, Frank Sinatra, Nelson Riddle, or whatever … pop charts.

But the Beatles and Leonard Cohen had changed that, and also I’d been involved as a kind of production coordinator for Elektra a few years earlier, in a record that I think had a big impact at the time. It’s kind of forgotten now, but at the time I think it was a very important record. It was Judy Collins “In My Life,” which had string arrangements by Joshua Rifkin. Which in a way was relevant, because Robert Kirby was a student studying in Baroque music and early classical and as Josh Rifkin was an expert in that field, and I think they both, Rifkin and George Martin for that matter and Robert Kirby and John Simon, all came from another place, not from the Nelson Riddle place, not from the Hollywood soundstage or the Brill Building sweetener world, but a different place where you recorded the strings differently, you had fewer strings, you had – you could hear the individual textures. Anyway, so that was the mood, and I heard these songs and they were so harmonically rich.

I think I was pushing on an open door when I said strings – it was very much Nick’s vision, too.

“Way to Blue” grew out of a series of tribute concerts. How did those origins shape the recording that we have now, and how did you choose the musicians who’d be involved?

Well, the concerts didn’t shape the recordings, they are the recordings. And even though we’ve dialed out the applause, those recordings are live. They are just taken straight off the feed from the PA system.

So those recordings are live recordings, and the process was kind of – I thought you could describe it as an arc or a circle, starting from the very first one in Birmingham four years ago. We immediately had a proposal to do four more concerts the following spring, and the BBC agreed to record it – and we filmed it.

The people who were involved from the very, very beginning on every single concert were Robyn Hitchcock and Vashti Bunyan and of course the band, which has been the real heart of it. I mean Danny Thompson, Zoe Ramen on piano, Neil McCall who is Ewan McCall and Maggie Seeger’s son, which is curious because you couldn’t find a sensibility more remote from Nick’s, in a way, than Ewan McCall and Maggie Seeger. But Neil is actually the one, the guitar player who knew all of Nick’s tunings, all of Nick’s parts perfectly.

Well, the wide range of Nick Drake’s songs among musicians is sort of bizarre and fascinating, I think. You’ve got a guy, very secluded, I think, when you discovered him, making this very powerful and distinct music, which is sort of, kind of British folk but also has this recognizable character as well. But it’s really ignored during his lifetime, and out of print or close to it for decades, and then we get this resurgence with the CD era, thanks to a lot of people born around the time these things were recorded … They suddenly embrace Nick Drake posthumously, and he’s on the cover of Mojo every couple of months. I know this isn’t the first time in musical history that this kind of thing has happened. But what the hell happened?

I dunno. All the analyses about shifting tastes or whatever pales besides the fact that he simply is an extraordinary talent and a great figure, and it just took the world a little while to find out. They sadly didn’t find out until after he died. Actually, I’m doing something at Joe’s Pub in April, and I’m inviting to join me onstage these two guys, Arthur Lubow and Brian Coleman. They wrote the first appreciations of Nick’s music back in the '70s, kickstarted the process. So we’re gonna sort of talk for a few minutes about going back to a time when nobody knew who the hell Nick Drake was, and how it was that they did, and why they wrote those pieces and I think it’ll be kinda interesting. And I think even before the ("Pink Moon") Volkswagen commercial, we’d gone to selling 25,000 or 30,000 Nick Drake records a year. And then the year after the Volkswagen commercial, we sold 100,000 or something. But it still was already happening, it was already a growing thing. And you already had musicians quoting him as an influence through the ‘80s and onto the ‘90s.

In that original English scene you worked in, the other great talent seems to be Richard Thompson, whom you worked with through the ‘70s and in the ‘80s as well. You describe him in “White Bicycles,” I think, as someone who could play an encyclopedia of different styles and still sound like himself. I wonder if you continued to follow his career since then and how he seems to have developed since you worked with him. Does his playing and songwriting still interest you?

Well, in fact, funnily enough, I just had dinner with him the other night in Austin, and I saw him play in London three weeks before, and I think he’s playing as well as ever, and I think the new album is terrific. It was interesting, I played the new record, and I was listening to it and thinking, “Boy, he sounds like he’s having fun.” And then I thought, “Wow, these songs!” There’s a certain, I’ve found over the years with Richard’s songs, sometimes there’s certain genres of songs that he has. There’s a type of ballad and a type of off-tempo rocker,  but these sound fresh. He sounds like he’s got a new lease on life. He loves his rhythm section I think.

And then the other thing which is really striking, I was thinking to myself, I was just listening to it on my Boise portable in the kitchen, and I just said to myself, “Wow. It sounds so good. Where did he do this?” He made it on the last great recording medium: the MCI 16-track two-inch. Because that’s really – you could say that’s where, that was the beginning of the end, where they took a 2-inch tape and they crammed 24 tracks onto it, in the same space that had previously held 16. And the sound of those multitracks going at 24 2-inch is nowhere near as good as 16 track 2-inch. And then you go to digital, and the rest, it’s … all doom and gloom.

And so the fact that he went back and did it all analogue, and 16-track 2-inch, boy. You can just tell. If anybody thinks these are just weirdo farts who say “analogue is a good thing,” you know, listen to that record. Just listen to that compared to an earlier Richard Thompson record done digitally, it just sounds so different. It sounds so much more three-dimensional.

My only frustration with Richard was that I think he has the talent and the sensibility to go into any culture and conquer, and just do something amazing. I tried years ago to get him to come with me to Morocco and make a record with Moroccan musicians. And you know, he’s like, “Ehhhh, just like Ry Cooder and all them.” He sort of doesn’t want to be the copycat. And yet I think he more than any of the other sort of Western white guy – I mean, which is not to say that I don’t appreciate Paul Simon and David Byrne and Ry Cooder and what they’ve done -- but I think Richard could have done something really extraordinary and still can. But he’s just throwing himself into some other completely different context.

Well, to American alt-rockers, you’re probably best known for R.E.M.’s “Fables of the Reconstruction,” which I think was a hard record for them to make. But it was so distinctive and kind of glorious with all that echo, and that sort of Southern mystery of it. How did you approach those sessions? Those were in London, I think.

Yeah, they were in London. And you know, I approached them in kind of the way I would approach anything; just get some tracks down, and then it became more difficult after we finished making the basic tracks because I think they got tired of cold rain in London, an hour's drive from Mayfair every day, and I was frustrated because we had to move into this Studio B in Livingston while they were installing a new board in Studio A, and I never got really comfortable with the monitoring. I’ve talked before about this, in slight exaggeration, but I think there’s an element of truth that Michael Stipe was still very much wanting his voice pulled back in the mix, whereas I think in the next record, there it is. Big and bold.

But the distinctive sound of that record, was that something you knew you wanted coming in?

Well, to me, it wasn’t like trying to do something different than their other records, it was just trying to do something the way that it seemed obvious to me, the way I hear things, and it wasn’t – I never go at a record trying to be, you know, try to get a certain sound. I suppose every producer hears things differently, and I hear things a certain way, and then 20 years later, people listen to a bunch of records I made and say, “Oh, it has a certain sonic consistency.” And that’s just the way I hear it. In fact, that record was probably less the way I hear things than others, simply because we had disagreements about balances, and both Peter Buck and Michael Stipe wanted their voice and their guitar turned down.

The first band you’ve ever worked with where the guitarist wants his guitar turned down, and the vocalist wants his vocals down …

Exactly. I think in a way the ones that sound most familiar to me that sound like, “Oh yeah. That’s the kind of thing I know how to do,” are the ones where there are other instruments besides the basic rock lineup. You know, “Feeling Gravity’s Pull,” and “Can’t Get There From Here” and “Wendell Gee” are the three tracks that I would first play if I was ever saying to somebody that, “Oh, play me a track from ‘Fables,’” I would probably reach for one of those three because I felt like I kind of got a handle on those because there were these other outside elements which weren’t the band. I could sort of structure a sound picture around something that they weren’t messing with, that they weren’t saying, “Oh this is how I want my …”

When I think of that record, it’s “Green Grow the Rushes” or “Driver 8.” But it’s all wonderful stuff. You got your start presenting these when you were very young, I think some friends of yours discovered Lonnie Johnson working in a hotel, as a cook or something, and you invited them to a house party when you were still in high school. That’s something I really don’t understand; he’s a hugely important musician. How can one of the pioneers of the jazz guitar, perhaps the inventor of the guitar solo, become completely anonymous, so a bunch of teenagers find him. And today people still don’t recognize his name.

Yeah, I can’t actually claim that we led him to anything. I think Chris Albertson, who had the radio show in Philadelphia, was responsible for recording him on Prestige and that led to the coffeehouse circuit and things like that. So I can’t really claim that our invitation to him – I think it had a psychological impact on him, because there he was, there were all these white middle-class kids lapping up what he was doing, and I think it gave him psychologically a bit of a boost.

But I think it did a lot more for us. For me, certainly, it opened my eyes to the fact that you could pick up the phone and get something done. It wasn’t like this huge gulf and the people you were listening to on record, that actually some of them were alive and were real people, and would probably be very grateful for a gig.

It was the very beginning of his reemergence.

Yeah. I mean what had happened was that Chris Albertson had a show on Philadelphia Radio, late night playing jazz and stuff, and he was this Danish guy who had moved to America because he loved jazz and blues and he had this show. And he had written a book about Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, and he mentioned on his show, he played a Lonnie Johnson record and he said, “You know what? Lonnie Johnson is living in Philadelphia, and working as a cook in a hotel.”

And so my brother and I and Geoff Muldaur got out a telephone directory for Philadelphia, and sure enough there was a “Johnson comma Lonnie.” And we just dialed the number. And this guy answered, and we said, “Are you the Lonnie Johnson who recorded for Bluebird in the 1930s?” And he said, “Yes.” And we were stunned, we sort of thought it was a wild goose chase.

Amazing. Well, we’re here to talk about Nick Drake but your career has more to it. I wonder if we’ll ever get a sequel to "White Bicycles"?

Well, not a sequel, but I am definitely writing a book, which is taking me a heck of a lot longer than "White Bicycles" took to write. It’s a book about the phenomenon of world music.

Is that where your heart is these days?

Yeah, I listen to all kinds of things. But definitely my energies at Hannibal Records starting in the late '80s went much more into putting out records from Cuba or Africa or Brazil or Eastern Europe or whatever than it did to finding singer/songwriters.

Not a memoir so much; that’s why things are so long, because I’m writing stories about things that I wasn’t around for. I discovered – I mean, this is why it gets complicated and the research is so fascinating and takes up so much time – I discovered that in 1853, Charles Dickens wrote a scathing review of a Zulu choir in London. So. It gets complicated.

Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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Bob Dylan Joe Boyd Lucinda Williams Music Nick Drake Pink Floyd R.e.m. Richard Thompson