A possible treat for Nick Drake fans? An album is released on Navigator Records, April 15, 2013. Featuring Teddy Thompson, Vashti Bunyan, Green Gartside, Robyn Hitchcock, Lisa Hannigan, Scott Matthews, Krystle Warren and Danny Thompson and recorded live in London and Melbourne, it's titled Way To Blue
Undoubtedly one of the most influential English singer-songwriters of the last 50 years, Nick Drake found little mainstream success during his lifetime; however, since his untimely death at the age of 26, his fragile acoustic, autumnal music has touched the hearts of millions of people.
Over the years since Drake's death, his original producer Joe Boyd has explored the possibility of producing an album in tribute to his songwriting. But despite many well-known artists wishing to participate, he always resisted, because it seemed the only practical way to accomplish it would be for each artist to supply a track recorded separately, with their own chosen musicians.
Boyd felt that the only way to avoid the pitfalls of the typical Tribute Album would be to have everyone together for a week in a rural studio, backing each other with harmonies and guitar parts, creating an organic whole of an album. By performing Way To Blue fifteen times over the course of four years, he has accomplished something resembling his original dream.
The songs have been honed and shaped over the course of time, and the spirit of togetherness among the Way To Blue company has proved inspiring to all participants.
The recordings on this new CD are the edited highlights of concerts in London and Melbourne; the interpretations provide evidence, if such evidence was ever needed, of the timeless depth of Nick Drake's qualities as a songwriter. The result is an album with the quality of a studio production and the spontaneity of a live performance.
Writing in the album sleeve notes, Joe says, “Selecting singers has been one of the most rewarding parts of this exercise. One criterion was that none of them should sound like Nick.
“Vashti Bunyan is the one singer who actually knew Nick. I tried to get them to write songs together, but should have known that two such self-contained people would have trouble provoking one another into a collaboration. Since that time, the arc of Vashti’s career has been almost as remarkable as Nick’s, with the gratifying difference that she has survived to enjoy the late (but not too late) adulation of a generation of singers, songwriters and fans.
“Robyn Hitchcock was too young to know Nick, but not by much. He grew up, he says, “with his nose pressed up against the glass of the Sixties” and has carved out a brilliant career, bringing to his own songs and his interpretations of Dylan, Syd Barrett, the Incredible String Band and Nick Drake a genuinely original evocation of the mad spirit of those years.
“Shortly after the Birmingham Town Hall show, as I was preparing a concert of Incredible String Band songs at the Barbican, I learned that Green Gartside, whose Scritti Politti recordings I had loved in the ‘80s, wanted to come and ‘play some back-up guitar or sing harmony’. I asked him whether he was equally fond of Nick Drake. You can hear the response in his performance of “Fruit Tree” on this cd.
“Lisa Hannigan is a magnetic and melodic singer with clever, thoughtful songs. I had but to mention Nick to her and she was on the team. Her wild take on “Black Eyed Dog” brought down the house the first night and has done so ever since.
“Scott Matthews, a Midlands singer-songwriter who went from small clubs in Wolverhampton to earn an Ivor Novello Award, sell 80,000 copies of his debut cd and duet and tour with Robert Plant. The passion and power of his version of “Place To Be” has all the more impact for the fact that it sneaks up on you.
“Krystle Warren is an African-American woman with a powerful voice and impeccable taste who loved Nick and wanted to sing “Time Has Told Me”. I saw in her the realization of a dream I had from the time I first heard Nick’s demo of the song and was convinced it should be Roberta Flack’s follow-up to “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”.
“Teddy Thompson is the talented son of my old friends and colleagues Richard and Linda Thompson. Teddy has his mother’s exquisite phrasing and sense of humour and his father’s intensity. Teddy’s seemingly effortless rendering of “Riverman” became one of Way To Blue’s highlights.
“When we received an offer to tour Australia, we decided to bring six singers with us and add two locals. The male choice of Shane Nicholson was easy – he has become one of Australia’s favourite singers, winning award after award. Shane slotted easily into the show and delivered the impeccable “Poor Boy” you hear on the cd.
“The female voice proved more difficult until I discovered the mesmorizing singing of Australian Zoe Rendell who with Steve Hassett, comprises the duo Luluc. The lineup was complete.
“From his characteristic entry at the start of the second verse on “Things Behind The Sun”, many will recognize the “Danny Thompson feel” underpinning Way To Blue. A jazzer, he has lent his skills to dozens of my productions and hundreds of albums by artists across the pop, folk and jazz fields. Nick loved Danny, both for his playing and for the way he teased and cajoled him, never letting him retreat into his shell, drawing laughter from him whenever they met.
“Nick was never a folkie and some from that world have been uncomfortable with his privileged education and accent. Yet Neil MacColl, son of that founding anchor of British folk, Ewan MacColl, is the most supremely accomplished virtuoso of the impossibly complex Drake guitar parts. Which needn’t be that much of a surprise – his mother Peggy Seeger is a banjo and piano virtuoso who can startle the uninformed by playing brilliant renditions of Debussy and Scriabin!
“Kate St John insisted on Zoe Rahman for the piano chair. Zoe has been a revelation. She is a jazz player, but her own albums deftly weave in the music of her Bangladeshi heritage; making the leap to the very English art-song of Nick Drake seems just another effortless step accomplished with the fluency of a virtuoso devoid of any hint of jazz cliché.
“Guitarist Leo Abrahams warmed my World Music heart by adding the Ukrainian bandura to his adventurous use of effects. When he was unable to make the Australian tour, Steve Jones proved a more than able deputy. He shares with Leo a background of working with Brian Eno and composing film scores.
“Also bringing World Music chops to the party is drummer Martyn Barker, who performs with the Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara duo as well as Billy Bragg and Beth Gibbons.
“Each concert featured a section of seven string players. The personnel have altered with each tour, but first violins Oli Langford and Jules Singleton have provided brilliant leadership and all the British, Italian and Australian players have given us wonderful energy and have clearly loved playing Robert Kirby’s and Kate St John’s arrangements.
“The sadness of honouring a poet who died so young was compounded when Robert Kirby passed away as we were preparing for the first Way To Blue tour. Robert was a classmate of Nick’s at Cambridge; the musical context of Nick’s first two albums is that of a collaboration between two friends. He took Nick’s music on its own elegant terms and created a body of work that has lasted far past both his and Nick’s life spans.
“It would be impossible to imagine Way To Blue without Kate St John. Her impeccable taste on accordion and cor anglais combine with her arrangements and direction to provide the glue that holds this diverse project so sweetly together.”