Nitehawk Cinema and Noisey have teamed up for a cool monthly film series called “Music Driven,” which screens movies about music. The very first installment took place last Sunday with a showing of the film A Skin Too Few, a documentary about Nick Drake. Besides the interesting film, there was a Q&A with Nick’s producer Joe Boyd and a performance by musician Jesse Harris. I like Nick Drake but have never totally plunged into his catalog or read much about him, so it was an enlightening experience. Here are five things I learned.
His family was very supportive and influential.
Nick’s sister Gabrielle is one of the most prominent figures in the film, and it’s clear that she absolutely adored her brother. Her recounting of the delightful surprise she felt when Nick unexpectedly presented her with his very first record was a great moment. His parents seemed to be quite supportive of his talents as well. In fact, his mother Molly was a musician and a primary influence on Nick. If you listen to a song like “I Remember,” you can feel the same poignant mood and hear the same kind of subdued yet magnetic and melodically rich vocal performance for which Nick came to be known. Joe Boyd thinks Molly’s piano playing was one source of Nick’s unique guitar style, particularly his use of odd tunings.
His producer doesn’t consider him a folk artist.
As Nick’s producer, Joe Boyd was probably as close to Nick’s music as anyone could be. He says he does not consider Nick a folk musician, particularly in the context of the British revival that was happening around the same time that Nick was making music. He used the phrase “British art song,” and besides Nick’s mother, Joe thinks that the other influence on Nick’s style and sensibility might have been Joao Gilberto, the Brazilian guitarist who created Bossa Nova. I found this very interesting and I wish I had more technical knowledge to explore this connection. But when I listen to something like “Desafinado,” I can loosely grasp the connection through the rhythmic sensibility and the finger-picking patterns. Anyone who knows more about Nick Drake, Joao Gilberto, and music theory, feel free to weigh in on this in the comment section.
“Pink Moon” was NOT the original choice for the Volkswagen commercial.
Nick Drake was never all that popular in his own life time. He slowly began to sell more records after his death, but in 1999 the use of “Pink Moon” in a commercial for Volkswagen called “Milky Way” brought him a much wider audience. Among the hundreds of thousands of people who liked the song and commercial so much that they bought some music (after researching who sang it) was my dad. Thus, that was my introduction to Nick Drake, too. I still consider this to be one of the greatest commercials I’ve ever seen, if not my favorite. Though it is ostensibly to sell a car, it’s a beautiful story – really a short film – and perfectly executed. The music is awesome, obviously. And I just found out in trying to track down the YouTube clip that the always amazing Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris directed it!
But if it wasn’t for an eleventh hour audible, this all might never have happened.
Joe Boyd revealed in the Q&A that the original choice for the music in the clip was actually a song called “Under the Milky Way,” by Australian band The Church. The night before the ad agency was going to pitch Volkswagen, one of the team was getting stoned and listening to his Nick Drake records. In a moment of pure inspiration, he realized “Pink Moon” should be the song for the ad. So the next morning, the team scrambled to change it, though not changing the name of the ad. Nick Drake’s following grew enormously as a result.
An interesting footnote to the story: a cover of The Church’s “Under the Milky Way” by Sia was used in a Lincoln MKT commercial a few years ago. My dad was inspired to buy music after seeing that, too.
Before his commercial-assisted mainstream rediscovery, his music was primarily shared through relationships.
It’s a fascinating “What If?” to think about where Nick Drake’s music would be today if the ad was released with The Church as originally intended. Perhaps he would never have experienced the sudden massive uptick in sales, but I think Nick Drake would have still become more and more popular among music fans. Especially after learning from Joe Boyd the main way his music initially spread: between lovers. Joe said that he heard countless stories of how people would be in relationships and their significant other would one day introduce them to Nick Drake. All of them would inevitably taken by it (aside from a small minority who would see their relationship end as a result) and the circles would widen. What a great way for something so personal and powerful to be shared, this entwining of passion for people with passion for art.
The most powerful musical moment for me was learning how “Hanging On a Star” might have been about Nick’s frustration with his reception.
I came away from the film understanding Nick Drake better but also realizing he is someone who will always remain mysterious to some degree. However, I had a striking moment of empathy when the film mentioned how “Hanging on a Star” could have been about his feelings of frustration and confusion about making this great music and being told he was a genius, yet not having that reciprocated through album sales or attentive live audiences. This achingly gorgeous tune hits right to the core if you’ve ever felt misunderstood and lost at any point for any reason, whether making something creative, trying to accomplish a far off goal, or struggling in a relationship and so on. Which I think everyone does, and that’s part of why this music lives on. For someone so mythic and distant a figure, I was glad to have some moments like these where I could understand and relate to Nick Drake as a human person.
[I couldn’t find the Made Love to Magic version, which I prefer, but this one is still good and gives you the idea]
Bonus fact: Oh, and in listening to a bunch of Nick Drake before the film and after, anyone else think “Hazey Jane II” from Bryter Lyter was the first ever Belle & Sebastian song?
There you have it, some things I learned about Nick Drake. I enjoyed the whole event a great deal and plan on attending more of the series. I recommend it to anyone who likes music and film. The next screening is Hit So Hard, about Hole and 90s alternative. I will unfortunately be out of town, so if anyone else plans to go and wants to put together a similar list, get in touch!