‘Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound.
It can never flourish
‘Til its stalk is in the ground.’
Lyrics to Nick Drake’s ‘Fruit Tree’
Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings first brought Nick Drake to the attention of Witchseason Productions’ Joe Boyd. The producer of the first Pink Floyd single recalled how his initial resistance toward “white, middle-class confessional songwriters” became negligible as Drake did not fit that bill. “From the first chords Nick didn’t sound like anything I had heard before. It was just so different.” Boyd was immediately enthralled with the complex guitar tunings and Drake’s overwhelmingly articulate and accomplished playing and signed him to a production and label deal forthwith.
As a producer, Boyd was excited both because of Nick Drake’s considerable talent and because Drake’s demos featured his vocals and guitar unaccompanied. Although the songs were largely written and worked out prior to recording, Boyd was able to creatively dig in through enlisting a host of guest musicians to flesh out and realise the basic kernels of the songs.
They initially brought in Richard Hewson, arranger of the first James Taylor album and The Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road” but both Drake and Boyd felt his contributions a tad fey and corny. Nick suggested his old Cambridge pal Robert Kirby and despite apprehensions due to Kirby’s inexperience, the young arranger proved his worth and was undaunted in the midst of a 15 piece string section. Needless to say, the team breathed a collective sigh of relief once they heard the finished arrangements that framed Drake’s songs beautifully. However, Kirby felt he couldn’t contribute to ‘River Man’, so horror scorer Harry Robinson was enlisted to conjure up an arrangement akin to that of English composer Frederick Delius for the album’s crowning jewel.
The Catalyst and The Cast
Boyd’s role of producer was like one of a catalyst that made things happen by enlisting the optimum crew and providing an encouraging environment that would draw out the best from the young and shy musician. He drafted Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson whose bonhomie evoked laughs from the quiet Drake and Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson who did his best to figure out the young guitarist’s clean yet complex lines and unconventional time signatures. Boyd’s choice of engineer John Wood from Sound Techniques was especially fortuitous as Wood innately understood how best to capture the depth and gorgeous breathy quality of Drake’s voice. He also isolated each instrument and spent much time on getting the best sound that ulimately culminated in a feeling of intimacy that characterised the ensuing album.
Although Boyd was sure that Drake’s first album would follow in the footsteps of Leonard Cohen’s debut that sold 100,000 copies despite the singer/songwriters refusal to tour, the response to the release of ‘Five Leaves Left’ was underwhelming. The only British radio DJ to give the album airtime was John Peel but even this behemoth’s support did little to spark sales which totalled about 6,000 (a lot by today’s standard’s but depressing by those of the late sixties).
However, with time yet sadly decades after Drake’s early death, ‘Five Leaves Left’ and Drake’s following two albums ‘Bryter Layter’ and ‘Pink Moon’ have grown in popularity inspiring musicians such as R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, Dream Academy (who penned a song in tribute to the late musician) and Paul Weller (who helped champion Drake’s music), amongst countless others. Perhaps the fact that Drake did not neatly fit into a popular sound and genre at the time of his debut’s release in 1969 prompted his posthumous cult status as ‘Five Leaves Left’ does not sound like a reflection of the times but in effect, timeless.
Colleen’s discussion with Joe Boyd about Nick Drake here.
Our ‘Five Leaves Left’ Musical Lead-Up Playlist here.