An Interview

Poor Boy artists on Nick Drake

With such a wide range of artists covering Nick Drake’s songs I was curious about what they might have to say about their part in the project so I emailed them a few questions in April 2004; here’s what I received back. – Tony Reif

1. What did you think about Nick Drake’s music before this project? What appealed to you about the song(s) you chose to cover?
2. Did your response to his music in general or to your songs change during the process of creating your version(s)? What was the thinking behind how you covered them? Were there any interesting discoveries in the studio or did things turn out more or less as planned?
3. What other songwriters are you into or would you like to cover if you had the opportunity? (Maybe we can do this again with someone else! Or how about a record of covers of various composers? (I wonder if there’d be any common ground…)
4. How does this tribute fit in with your other recent performing and recording activities? Where are you heading these days with your own music?
5. Anything else you’d like to say?


1. It wasn’t until the early nineties that I heard Nick’s music and I was really moved by the timeless quality it seems to have. Further, he was that rare blend of a great lyricist (something I admittedly don’t pay much attention in a lot of cases), a great singer and a phenomenal guitarist. The guitar wasn’t a mere buttress for his message but rather an integral and creatively applied facet. Kind of like his contemporary and collaborator, Richard Thompson, another talent that can successfully navigate those same three qualities.

I was drawn to “Things Behind the Sun” by that mysterious modulation between the major and minor and how Nick plays with it in his vocal. With “Cello Song” I was always stuck by the rambling ostinato throughout the song and how the subtlety of other instruments fosters some unspecific transformation in what, by all accounts, is the same from beginning to end.

2. The process played out as planned to be sure. It was initially important to me to really figure out what Nick was doing on guitar and build around what was, more or less, a true rendition of his acoustic playing. I was interested in placing his music in a couple different contexts and not necessarily recreating it in a way more true to my aesthetic although, to an extent, that can’t be helped.

What was most surprising for me was what Sam and Aiko brought to “Things behind the Sun” and “Cello Song” respectively. Even though I knew almost instantly who I’d like to work with on the project, it was still a real pleasure to hear their lyrical interpretations as they recorded them.

3. Well this goes back to a much earlier influence on me and that would definitely be Robyn Hitchcock. Nick Cave or Tom Waits would be fun too. OK I’ll admit it, I’d love to cover anything by the Cure or Depeche Mode! I think I’m starting to betray the decade that encapsulated my formative years. This one of those questions to which the answer could grow as I sit here thinking about it so I’m not even gonna get started on composers!

4. Actually the tribute project rekindled an interest in playing acoustic guitar. Earlier in my life I played acoustic almost exclusively, due to the fact that I was living in a place where finding musical kindred spirits was very difficult. Acoustic fingerstyle music gave me a sense of fullness in the absence of ensemble music-making. Since arriving in Seattle I have found so many people with whom to collaborate that I hardly touched the acoustic at all for about seven years!

The confluence of the tribute record and me getting a great deal on a really wonderful acoustic guitar brought back that interest big time. I have since been doing a fair amount of composing with it. I’m currently finalizing arrangements for an acoustic record, featuring music I’ve written in small towns all over the world. The project is based on the inspiration that the rural place where I grew up provided for me. The mobility of the acoustic instrument offered me a chance to be inspired by other rural places in the US, Canada, France, Italy and Thailand. So I’d go to these places and let something about each of their mysteries become anything from a phrase to a whole piece.

5. If you’re in the US you had damned well better vote in 04 and if you’re not in the US let me take this moment to apologize for our President! We’ll do what we can to remove him from any executive decision-making  and places with sharp objects as soon as possible.


1. I actually didn’t know anything about his music at all. The first time I heard his name was when Brad Mehldau played “River Man” at a concert at the Vogue.

2. The idea of singing “Poor Boy” in 5/4 happened right away, as soon as I heard the song. Similarly, the approach to “Clothes of Sand” just seemed to happen. My ideas about the music (and, in a way, music in general) have shifted since then, but at the time of the recording it still felt like the natural way to approach those tunes. They might be different if I approached them now.

3. Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Kurt Weill, definitely. Some of Alec Wilder’s songs are very beautiful. Lucinda Williams.

4. This project coincided with a general turn in my approach to repertoire and ideas about singing. I’m definitely looking for a way to integrate and express all of the things that interest me (folk, jazz, country, new music, art songs). Dealing with Nick Drake’s material was a big part of letting myself ‘cross over’ into some more mixed territory. I’ve been exploring this idea more and more, which makes me think that I would approach the music differently now. I’m keeping the tunes in my repertoire and looking at other songs of his as well.

5. I’m so happy that you asked me to be a part of this project, Tony. Thanks for introducing me to Nick.


1. I have loved Nick Drake’s recordings for years, particularly Pink Moon. That was a huge influence on my decision to make a solo record (Field Study, 2001). The simplicity of the delivery and the production help to make it  such a timeless work, plus the excellent songs of course.

Whenever choosing cover songs, I have to look primarily at whether I can get behind the lyrics. Whether I can make them come out of my mouth truthfully. Which is really a very personal decision, just about visceral belief.

2. Well, of course the thrilling thing for me was working with Robin. I have loved her music for so long. It felt like a lucky little triangle, getting to work on Nick’s songs with Robin.

3. It’s well known that I hold a candle for the songs of Brecht and Eisler. And I recently fell in love with the songs from Hair…how bout a musical theatre cover album?

4. Oh lord, there’s a question. Where the heck am I going? I have a new record that will be out in late 2004/early 2005, I’m just mixing it now so I am not the one to describe it. It’s a beautiful monster, and it’s got me captive.

5. Thanks to Tony for persevering with this project, another beautiful monster I’m sure.


1. I only became familiar with Nick Drake’s music after I was asked to make a contribution to the project along with Chris Gestrin. His songs made me sad. They had a deeply personal nature to them and a nostalgia not unlike the feeling one might get watching silent footage of one’s family from years past on the old Super Eight. At first this made it hard to decide which song to cover. My initial instinct was to go with something more conventional in form like “Time Has Told Me” which I really liked anyway. In the end however, the more loosely formed “Three Hours” worked in our favour, as Chris and I both agreed it would allow for greater freedom of interpretation rather than “another cover of “Time Has Told Me” as sung by…” It was the very fact that his songs weren’t conventional and so personal which I think allowed us to do something a little different.

2. We didn’t know what to expect. Chris and I didn’t have a plan beyond taking the form of the song into the studio and seeing what happened with us and the other musicians. I think we wanted to lay back and trust that it would happen on its own. Just before starting, this really nice Italian fellow who played accordion, Filippo Gambetta, showed up. You had met him earlier in the day and invited him to drop by the studio if he got the chance. [Actually he’d performed at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival a couple of days earlier which is when it occurred to me that he he’d be a good addition on this song. – TR] So it was anybody’s ball game. There were two takes. Not much happened in the first one beyond going through the song. But in the second take, everyone sort of relaxed. The song opened up and we became musicians. We were listening and telling a story. In the end I think we got a pretty interesting take on the song.

3. I want to do an album of art songs as covered by musicians who aren’t necessarily classically trained musicians, not unlike the musicians on this album. Composers like Schubert, Schumann, Vaughn Williams, Bernstein and others. (A song like Vaughn Williams’ “Silent Noon” would be perfect. Have you ever heard that song Tony?). It’s not exactly a new idea. Jeff Buckley did an excellent rendition of Benjamin Britten’s “Corpus Christi Carol” on his acclaimed album Grace.

4.  My music has taken a back seat these days to acting work. However, I have been doing some casual writing and recording with Chris Gestrin and his brother and also hope to release some of my own stuff later this year.


1. I actually just discovered Nick Drake’s music a few months before through a friend of mine who was an avid fan, then did a performance with François Houle. I love his work as a songwriter, a unique voice, a unique vision and so much emotional content.

2. It was really amazing to see such a level of commitment to the songs on the part of the musicians and especially Tony Wilson. He himself is a genius and they seem to meet soul to soul.

3. Any, with the caliber of musicians that were involved in this project, anything done with them is a gift and an honor.

4. There was an interesting connection because at the time I was starting on my own project and it included the François Houle 5. I had Tony Wilson and François arrange a number of my own compositions so it was all on the same wavelength which was in some ways most unexpected.

5. Can’t wait to hear, see, play that CD because it probably will be pure magic.


Other artist links:

Mike Dumovich

Chris Gestrin

Robin Holcomb

François Houle

Sam Mickens

Ian Moore

Mount Analog/Tucker Martine

Jesse Sykes

Tony Wilson