I50 years have passed since Nick Drake made Pink Moon, his third and final studio album, and yet his diaphanous melodies still captivate us. They are as mysterious as their creator, who hardly ever performed live and rarely agreed to be interviewed. Songs from the album such as To know and harvest breed are fragile haikus, as luminous and elusive as the day they were first performed.
Wanting to know more about the album, I contact John Wood, his sound engineer and producer. “I probably have a reputation for not giving a lot of interviews on Nick, and especially on Pink Moon,” he says over email. “The overriding reason is that there’s not much to be said for two nights in the studio to make an album that’s only about 20 minutes long.”
Still, he graciously signs off with his mobile number and soon we’re discussing Pink Moon. “You described it as a folk record, but I don’t see it as folk,” he corrects me straight away. “Someone I knew described Nick’s music as an English version of a singer and I would prefer to think of it that way.
It was at Sound Techniques, a former 18th century dairy in London’s Chelsea, that Wood and his co-conspirator, Geoff Frost, created their “English Arcadia”, building their own recording equipment. From 1965, the studio was a hub for American producer Joe Boydfrom the list of pastoral artists, shocked by Fairport Convention, Vashti Bunyan, John and Beverley Martyn – and Drake, who recorded his three albums there.
The first two – five leaves left and Bryter layer – sold modestly, around 5,000 copies each, which caused Drake, who was suffering from depression, to withdraw even further into himself. He felt that Wood was one of the few people he could trust. “One day,” Wood recalled, “he just phoned and said he wanted to go into the studio.”
What followed was unexpected. “It was a much more intimate recording,” says Wood. Gone are the gloomy strings and flippant brass and in their place, simplicity: just Drake and his guitar. “I think he wanted to make a very direct and personal record. I thought, after the first two songs, that we would probably increase it a little. Not much, but I expected him to bring in Danny Thompson maybe. (Thompson is the bassist who co-founded Pentangle.) “After the second issue, I said something and he just said, ‘No, that’s it. That’s all we do. And that was it.
Wood could only have Drake at Sound Techniques late at night, on two consecutive 23-hour sessions in 1971. Does he have any lingering memories? “There is one – when we had to record Parasite. There’s this line: “Sail down to the Northern Line / Watch the shoeshine”. Once I heard that, I knew this record was different.
Pink Moon is often described as “sorry” and “dark”, with Drake’s words interpreted in light of his sanity. Place to Be contains the lines: “And I was green, greener than the hill / Where the flowers grew and the sun still shone / Now I’m darker than the deepest sea / Just give me, give me a place to be.”
Yet that ignores the album’s paradoxical elements, such as the dizzying hopefulness of the title track’s melody and the rhythmic propulsion of Road’s quest for the horizon. “Nick was playing his guitar like a metronome,” Wood says as we discuss Drake’s heart-pounding quality. “I can’t think of anyone else I’ve ever recorded, with that little studio experience and at that age, who had that ability. It was extraordinary. The singer was 23 years old.
Drake was widely misunderstood and overlooked during his lifetime. Did his lack of commercial success significantly affect him in the years preceding his death, at age 26, from an overdose of an antidepressant? ” I must say that I was disappointed,” Wood says. “I couldn’t see why Five Leaves Left hadn’t done better. People just didn’t get it. It was not immediately accessible. Drake didn’t quite fit into the British folk scene. Perhaps if he had been in America, Wood muses, alongside Richard Fariña and Leonard Cohen, it would have been different. “The second time I was with Nick, I asked him about his influences and he said, ‘Randy Newman and the Beach Boys’.”
And what about Pink Moon? “It’s just weird how it was discovered,” Wood says. In 1999, Volkswagen launched a new advertising campaign with the title track, giving the album sales a huge boost. “After I did it, I didn’t think it had any commercial potential,” Wood says. “I never thought it would be a success.” Is he surprised that he is now and has gained such legendary status for fans? “Yes, I guess I am.”
Wood didn’t play there for nearly 20 years after Drake’s death. “I felt it was intensely personal,” he says, pausing to reflect on his posthumous success. “In a way, I don’t understand the wider appeal of it. I guess it’s partly because of the way it was done, and because of Nick, and the stories that put it there. surround.