Dark Star: Forty years after his death, the songs of Nick Drake—flush with melancholy and mystique—continue to inspire guitarists

Nick Drake with his guitar

Nick Drake died in the dark. Not just in the literal shadow of nighttime—although he did apparently pass away before dawn on November 25, 1974 from an overdose of antidepressants—but also at a moment when the reclusive British singer-songwriter could have no way of gleaning the influence he would exert on generations of guitarists and songwriters.

Drake’s death at 26 came while he languished in obscurity. The three albums released during his short career—Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), and Pink Moon (1972)—each had sales in the low thousands. His seniors and peers in Britain’s political and purist folk revival scene shunned Drake for his privileged middle class upbringing and Cambridge education and his impact in the United States was negligible.

Then, almost 25 years later, on November 11, 1999, Volkswagen launched an advertising campaign for its Cabrio convertible that paired Drake’s song “Pink Moon” with footage of four friends driving on a moonlit country road. Thanks to the mood-driven TV ad, Drake posthumously stepped into the spotlight—the album of the same title sold a staggering 74,000 copies the following year. Since then, anthologies, box sets, demo and rarity collections, tribute concerts and recordings, and cover versions of Drake’s songs by such diverse artists as Norah Jones, Lucinda Williams, Beth Orton, Calexico, and Beck have all contributed to Drake’s belated renown.

“It is sobering to think that more people now hear his songs in a month than ever heard them in his lifetime,” Joe Boyd wrote in the liner notes to 2013’s Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake, an album culled from tribute concerts in the U.K., Australia, and Italy. The American-born Boyd, who became the producer for the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention, Richard and Linda Thompson, and Kate and Anna McGarrigle, discovered Drake (on a tip from Fairport’s Ashley Hutchings) and produced his first two albums.

“His music was unlike anything else I’d ever heard,” Boyd says in a phone conversation from London. “He just bowled me over right away.”

In the wake of the Volkswagen commercial, as well as the subsequent placement of Drake’s songs in television shows and films, including The Royal Tennenbaums, The Good Girl, and Garden State, that same reaction eventually became widespread and helped spawn the rise of the neo-folk movement. Devendra Banhart, Iron and Wine, Will Oldham, Elliott Smith, and José González all owe stylistic debts to Drake’s softly sung, introspective lyrics over acoustic guitar.

“My first thought was to compare him to Bert Jansch, Robin Williamson, John Martyn, and John Renbourn,” Boyd says. “There was that whole genre of complex, fingerpicked guitar playing in Britain, Davey Graham being the grandfather of all of them. You could hear that Nick’s playing was related to that, but it was so different. It didn’t really have a folksiness about it. It was much more urbane and sophisticated. The main thing that impressed me about Nick, was his perfection.”


That impeccability is especially evident on Pink Moon, the album that Drake recorded with only guitar and voice (and a bit of piano). Musicians have been grappling for decades with the often-complex puzzles of guitar tunings, counter-intuitive fingerpicking patterns, and asymmetric vocal lines that Drake created on the record.

“Some years after his death, Gabrielle, his sister, gave me a cassette made by their mother, Molly,” Boyd says. (The album from that tape, Molly Drake, was released in 2013.) “She wrote and played songs on piano, and there’s a unique way that she voices chords that made me think that Nick’s complex tunings were his way of trying to replicate on the guitar the way his mother played the piano.”

When Boyd was called upon to help put together a Nick Drake tribute at Birmingham Town Hall in 2009, he knew the guitar parts would require a special talent. He enrolled Neill MacColl, the son of British folk legend Ewan MacColl and American folksinger Peggy Seeger.

“I’d fallen in love with Nick Drake in my 20s,” Neill MacColl says. “I was at the house of the drummer in my band, and I’d never heardFive Leaves Left.I had one of those experiences. Seven hours later he was begging me to stop playing the record over and over again.”

Now in his mid-50s, MacColl adds that unlocking Drake’s guitar playing for the concert proved to be a challenge. “When I started trying to learn the songs, my God, some of them are hard, because they just don’t do what you’re expecting then to do, at all. His right-hand fingering, particularly, is like playing an upside-down guitar at times. And just the sheer number of tunings! For the gigs we did, I had eight different tunings to get through.”

It was more than just the guitar that made Drake’s music so vexing. “The Robert Kirby string arrangements on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter weaved a spell on me,” MacColl says. “But it was the whole thing. It was fragile without feeling like it was going to fall apart. And his was the most unsquare singing there is. That phrasing was so particular to him—he never starts where you expect, he never ends where you expect.”

Perhaps no one has analyzed Drake’s song structures more than Robin Frederick, a music-industry professional who coaches songwriters and has written several books on the craft. She met a young Nick in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France in 1967, when she was a teenage Los Angeles girl with a guitar, and he was an upper middle-class Brit indulging in the free-spirited atmosphere (and drugs) of the setting. Already a remarkable guitarist, Drake, born in Burma in 1949 and raised in the small village of Tanworth-in-Arden in Warwickshire, England, hadn’t yet started singing his own compositions. Instead, he performed traditional tunes and songs by the major influences of the day. Late-’60s homemade recordings of Drake singing Bob Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” Dave Van Ronk’s “Cocaine Blues,” Bert Jansch’s “Strolling Down the Highway,” and Jackson C. Frank’s “Blues Run the Game” are on the 2007 collection Family Tree.

In an essay for Mojo magazine in 1999, Frederick confirmed that the famously shy Drake was in many ways a cipher, albeit a seductive one. “We knew each other for only a short time,” she wrote. “I’m still not sure who I met; but then, that’s what everyone says about him. Yet, for someone who was so elusive, he had an unmistakable presence that drew people to him. To put it bluntly, falling in love with Nick was a no-brainer and I promptly did; not that I ever let on, mind you.”

After leaving France for Greece and eventually California, Frederick lost touch with Drake, who traveled to Morocco before returning to England. Like so many others, she discovered Drake’s albums only after his death.


“When you play guitar, there’s a tendency to strum and change chords on beat one,” Frederick says from Los Angeles. “But there’s also a tendency to start a melody phrase and a lyric phrase all at the same time, as you strum that beat one. Nick was not starting his vocal phrases on beat one. He was starting them on unusual, unexpected beats, and it created that wonderful, floating, atmospheric feel.

“Today, we all start singing phrases on beat three or beat four—anywhere but beat one,” she continues. “When I work with young songwriters, 14, 15, 16 years old, I notice they have absorbed this style thoroughly.”

Drake’s experience playing saxophone had a lot to do with his phrasing, Frederick argues. “When you listen to ‘They’re Leaving Me Behind,’ he’s playing this very steady, very fast guitar part of eighth notes—one, two, three / one, two, three / one, two—underneath this long, slow, running-out-of-breath vocal line. Then listen to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, and a track like ‘All Blues.’ The drums are playing these fast eighth-note things, and over the top of it Miles is playing these long, smooth lines—the same thing Nick was doing. Nick put that together with folk, and his music became this mélange of folk, Latin, pop, and jazz. It was just so far ahead of its time that he couldn’t find an audience.”

Drake labored over his complicated musical structures, Frederick says, in the service of prosody, the matching of words and music to evoke intense feeling. His widely covered “River Man” is a prime example. “You can listen to ‘River Man’ for years and never notice that it’s written in 5/4,” she says. “Nick is holding the chords out for two long bars and starting the melody in no man’s land in the middle. The overall feel is this sensation of floating down the river, even as he’s singing about ‘the ban on feeling free.’ It’s like he’s saying, ‘I want you, the listener, to feel like you’re floating on this wonderful music, but I feel like I’m stuck in this backwater.’ Everybody else is moving forward on this wonderful river—‘Oh, how they come and go.’ I think it’s one of the saddest songs ever written. This dynamic is in song after song after song. The momentum is always in the music. It’s only the lyrics that say, ‘I can’t go there with you.’ ”

That tension between the complex beauty of Drake’s music and the desolation of his lyrics is perhaps what brings most listeners, including musicians, under his sway. Singer-songwriter William Fitzsimmons, who came to prominence when his songs “Passion Play” and “Please Don’t Go” were used in the popular TV series Grey’s Anatomy, describes himself as “a little bit obsessed” with Drake, whom he first heard via the Volkswagen commercial.

“I don’t want to over-romanticize it,” Fitzsimmons says in a phone conversation from his home in Illinois, “but I heard ‘Pink Moon’ and I kind of froze in my tracks. I’d never heard anything like that before. I bought Pink Moon and it became the desert island disc after the first listen.”

Fitzsimmons was working in a hospital psychiatry unit in New Jersey at the time, planning to pursue psychotherapy as a profession, partly because he had coped with his own depression. “In all honesty, the mental health stuff was coming through to me very clearly in his music, especially on Pink Moon. But there was also this explosion of something in my head when I realized you didn’t have to leave the guitar in standard tuning.


“Take a song like ‘Fly’—you can’t play it in standard tuning and get the same feeling,” Fitzsimmons continues “The voicings that he’s using hit a different part of your heart. With a lot of Nick’s songs, like ‘Northern Sky,’ ‘Which Will,’ and ‘Place to Be,’ I truly believe that you could listen to the instrumental and map out a general idea of what the song is about, without the lyrics.”

Conversely, California singer-songwriter Mariee Sioux—who is closely identified with the psych-folk movement for which Drake is nothing less than a godhead—makes little effort to parse Drake’s music. When she was a teenager, Sioux, now 29, first heard Time of No Reply, the 1986 Drake collection of alternate and previously unreleased tracks.

“I listened to it nonstop, and for years after that,” Sioux says. “Hearing his voice, I could feel exactly how he felt. I had always felt a lot of depression, and I could hear the sadness. It just spoke to me at that time in my life.” But Sioux, who made her commercial recording debut in 2007 with Faces in the Rocks, has never tried to play a Drake song. “I totally understand how someone would want to go there, but I don’t want to break into the magic,” she says. “I love the mystery and not knowing how Nick Drake got his songs to sound like that.”

Meg Baird, who ascended into psych-folk semi-stardom with the Philadelphia band Espers, was first exposed to Drake in the mid-1990s, when a band she was in covered “Hanging on a Star.” When Baird’s sister and musical partner, Laura, gave her a mix tape of Drake’s music, she got hooked. “It never much left my car deck for quite some time,” Baird says. “This was such good, gentle music that ties together what feels like truly ancient sounds with modern sounds. It seems like the feeling comes from a great deal of work, re-work, and consideration.”

Drake’s influence can be heard on Baird’s solo albums Dear Companion and Seasons on Earth. On the latter, she says, she “drifted into” one of Drake’s favored tunings, D-G-D-G-A-D. “It wasn’t conscious on my part, but I’m sure my ear gravitated to it because of Nick’s writing.”


Tunings, techniques, and genre experimentations may all be part of Nick Drake’s legacy, but Fitzsimmons, Sioux, and Baird are onto something when they speak of the less tangible aspects of Drake’s appeal. “Sometimes you aim for the heart in music,” Baird says. “Sometimes you aim to strengthen, or agitate, or yearn. Nick’s music opens your heart and protects it all at once. It offers an incredible depth of intention, encouraging you to do your best to incorporate that intention into anything you are making.”

Nick Drake may have died in darkness, but through his singular sound he left behind a timeless template for self-expression, and, ironically, an artistic light that shines ever brighter.

Click here for more news, features, and reviews from our December 2014 issue.

Derk Richardson
Derk Richardson

Derk Richardson is a freelance music journalist, host of the KPFA radio program "The Hear and Now," and former managing editor of Acoustic Guitar.

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