lIt’s been 50 years since Nick Drake made Pink Moon, his third and final studio album, but his gossamer melodies still seduce us. They are just as mysterious as their creator, who almost never performed live and rarely agreed to be interviewed. Songs from the album like Know and Harvest Breed are fragile haikus, as light and elusive as the day they were first played.
If I want to know more about the album, I contact John Wood, the sound engineer and producer. “I probably have a reputation for not doing a lot of interviews about Nick, and Pink Moon in particular,” he says via email. “The main reason is that there isn’t much to say about two nights in the studio making an album that only lasts twenty minutes.”
Nevertheless, he kindly logs out with his mobile number and soon we are talking about Pink Moon. “You described it as a folk record, but I don’t see it as folk”, he immediately corrects me. “Someone I knew described Nick’s music as an English version of a French one.” singer and I would rather think so.”
It was at Sound Techniques, an 18th-century former dairy in London’s Chelsea, that Wood and his co-conspirator, Geoff Frost, founded their “English Arcadia” and built their own recording equipment. Beginning in 1965, the studio was a hub for American producer Joe Boyd’s roster of pastoral artists, which included the likes of Fairport Convention, Vashti Bunyan, John and Beverley Martyn—and Drake, who recorded all three of his albums there.
The first two — Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter — sold only modestly, about 5,000 copies each, causing 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 recalls, “he just called and said he wanted to go into the studio.”
What followed was unexpected. “It was a much more intimate recording,” Wood says. Gone were the mournful strings and the merry brass, and in their place came simplicity: just Drake and his guitar. “I think he wanted to make a very direct and personal best. I thought, after the first few songs, we would probably increase it a little. Not much, but I expected he might get Danny Thompson.” (Thompson is the double bassist who co-founded Pentangle.) “After the second song, I said something and he just replied, ‘No, that’s it. That’s all. we do.’ And that was it.”
Wood was only able to have Drake at Sound Techniques late at night, during two consecutive 11 p.m. sessions in 1971. Does he have any lingering memories? “There is one – when we were allowed to record Parasite. There’s this line: ‘Sail down to the Northern Line / Watch the shine of the shoes.’ When I heard that, I knew this record was different.”
Pink Moon is often described as “desolate” and “gloomy”, with Drake’s lyrics interpreted in light of his sanity. Place to Be contains the lines: “And I was green, greener than the hill / Where flowers grew and the sun still shone / Now I’m darker than the deepest sea / Just give me a place to be.”
But that’s ignoring the album’s paradoxical elements, such as the towering hope of the title track’s melody and the rhythmic propulsion of the horizon-seeking Road. “Nick played his guitar like a metronome,” Wood says as we talk about the pulsating quality Drake had. “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.
Drake was largely misunderstood and overlooked during his lifetime. Did his lack of commercial success noticeably affect him in the years before he died of an antidepressant overdose at age 26? “I have to say that l was disappointed,” says Wood. “I couldn’t understand why Five Leaves Left didn’t do better. People just didn’t get it. It was not directly accessible.” Drake did not blend seamlessly into the UK folk scene. Perhaps it would have been different if he had been in America, Wood muses, along with the likes of Richard Fariña and Leonard Cohen. “The second time I was ever with Nick, I asked him what his influences were and he said, ‘Randy Newman and the Beach Boys.'”
And what about Pink Moon? “It’s just bizarre, the way it was discovered,” Wood says. In 1999, Volkswagen launched a new advertising campaign with the title track, which gave the album’s sales a huge boost. “After I made it, I didn’t think it had any commercial potential,” Wood says. “I never thought it would be a success.” Is he surprised that it is now and that it has taken on such mythical status for fans? “Yes I think so.”
Wood stopped playing it nearly 20 years after Drake’s death. “I thought it was very personal,” he says, reflecting on its posthumous success for a moment. “In some ways I don’t understand its wider appeal. I suppose part of it comes from the way it was made, and from Nick and the stories around him.”