Interview: Nick Mulvey – ”I don’t necessarily identify myself with acoustic rock”
Written by Tommy Juto
He’s had a good year, Nick Mulvey. 2014 saw the release of his first solo album, one that was recognized as one of the nominations for the Mercury Music Prize, and as he travels from one city to another, more people get to discover his sophisticated, world inspired folk rock. As he rode into Stockholm, I met up with him to have a few words.
Let’s begin with First Mind, your first solo album after leaving the Portico Quartet. What was the reason for going solo?
– Well, it’s been a natural change. Two things were happening. First, after being with the Portico Quartet for five years I wanted to return to the guitar from playing the hand drum. That had been going on for a couple of years, but then it became intolerable not playing the guitar. Also, I started to have a lot of ideas, and it was becoming a real body of work. Same thing goes for working with words and singing. I didn’t get all those three elements with the Portico Quartet, and I knew that it was gonna be too much to both be in the band and go solo. The other guys were going in one direction creatively and I went in another. This all happened before I was conscious of it, I wasn’t actually a creative functioning person within the Quartet, so it wasn’t really a choice I made as such. But I didn’t want us to go get some money from the record company to make another album and wait to tell them after all that, so I made the change before it went too far.
Did you write all the songs for the album during a long period?
– I wrote them in the two years after leaving the Portico Quartet, but they had a long time to grow, especially some of the guitar patterns. Certainly the way I play guitar did, the African influences, the way I use harmonies. Specific things I use within rhythm and expression, they all had a long time to gestate.
You play the classical guitar, was that an obvious choice instead of the steel-stringed?
– That was something I chose when I was a teenager, to prefer the classical guitar.
Do you use different tunings as well?
– Not much. I use two different capos, though, so sometimes I play in a drop D tuning. When I use that I don’t have to change my bar chords.
For this album you brought in Dan Carey to produce. He’s not exactly known for working with folk musicians. What did you see in him?
– Probably because I don’t necessarily identify myself with acoustic rock. I met a lot of producers and made one track here, one track there, just to get a feel of different studios and different producers’ techniques. I released an EP of all those experiments, Fever To The Form, and one of those was me going down to Dan Carey’s house in South London, his studio is in the ground floor. In the two days it took to make Fever To The Form it became obvious to me that it was special, it was meaningful to meet him, and I don’t really believe it was a coincidence. I had immediate chemistry with Dan and he had a lot of the qualities I was specifically looking for since leaving the Portico Quartet.
One thing I’ve noticed is that you’re using double tracked vocals on a lot of the album. How come?
– There’s a few things. I am constantly trying to position myself away from a typical acoustic singer-songwriter. All the respect in the world for that, but I want space as an artist. I like the effect, the sound of the double tracked vocals. You can feel that the studio process isn’t trying to be natural, and that was important to me. But I think I overdid it on this album.
– Yeah, personally I think that sometimes the second tracking was too high. It still hurts when I hear that. And to be perfectly honest with you, I’ve always felt confident as a guitarist, but it’s been a longer journey to get confidence as a vocalist. I believe now that the double tracking was an act of compensation.
Reading reviews of First Mind, you draw a lot of comparisons to classic singer-songwriters like Nick Drake, John Martyn and Paul Simon. Myself, I think a little of José González. How do you feel about being compared to all those artists? Is it a burden or is it flattering?
– Well, it’s their comparison. I suppose it’s flattering but if I really feel flattered I guess I would also feel the opposite side of it, and that’s the burden. It’s great being mentioned in the same sentence as them, they’re all great artists, but I also think that the act of comparison is useless. Artists and journalists see it differently, perhaps.
When you write songs, do you consciously do it with the aim of a full band arrangement, or is it more like seeing where it goes once it’s finished?
– This album was written completely separately from any idea of a full band. Just me and the guitar, I wasn’t playing with other people at that point. On the record, I play most of the instruments. A guy called Shahzad Ismaily played the drums and laid down some synthesizers, Dan Carey did a few things. That is why there is so much humming. In my mind, in my isolation, I was humming what I in the future was going to make into the other parts. Basically, when I was writing I was thinking it was just for guitar, voice and a cello, but I decided very early on that I didn’t want the cello, because that would make it sound very similar to Nick Drake. So therefore I wanted to use analogue synthesizers, I had what was going to be a Prophet synth line, but when I came to the recording the hums had kind of settled as an actual feature, so they stayed. I don’t think I’ll do it on the next album, though.
Have you started working on the follow-up?
– Starting songs, yes, finishing songs is something else.
This year you were also nominated for the Mercury Music Prize but missed out, just as you did with the Portico Quartet a few years ago. Often awards isn’t that important to artists, but can you feel that it was nice to be acknowledged for your work?
– Yeah, but first of all I have to say that neither of those two times was the words “missed out” in my mind. Because, to be nominated for Album of the year was like, “holy fuck!”. The first time we were on the same list as Radiohead! Amazing. It’s a good recognition from the outside world saying “keep going, you’re doing something right”. I have always had a strong conviction that I’m doing what I’m best at. The right job, the right place. And if a song for me feels right, I’m confident, I know it’s gonna work. But releasing music is a different thing, you know. Creating an album, promoting an album, videos, artwork. This is lots of new stuff for me and not easy, so if anything, the nomination was a confirmation to me that I made the right choices.
You have toured a lot with Laura Marling, who is working in you genre. Do you feel that you learn things from eachother while touring?
– Yeah, definitely. I really enjoyed touring with her and I watched her gig every night. Usually I don’t watch the person I’m touring with every night, but with her I knew it was going to be special, it would be a mistake to miss it. But that has really nothing to do with the sound, with both of us playing the guitar and singing. Much more it’s about how she is true to herself as a person and as an artist. I have just been touring with The Acid, and they have a project called RY X. Now, his musical choices are completely different, but I got a lot from touring with him. It’s very encouraging to see someone doing what you’re doing and doing it well. And with Laura…
– I’ll say something specific I got from Laura was that she has no obligation to explain herself. Ever. And it’s fucking cool. Her fans adore her because of this music. She gives you… Do you know of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces? I remember thinking this with her, she has so many different face. In the end of the concert she gives her audience so much of her in her world, and yet noone in the end knows any more about who Laura Marling is than they did at the beginning. Everyone says the same thing about Bob Dylan, you know, noone knows who he is. Most people who aren’t artists themselves don’t appreciate how much they give. If you can liberate yourself from a rigid sense of self, then you’re free to be much more useful as an artist because you can adopt and adapt and experiment with roles. She does that really well.
Finally, what do you wish for Christmas?
– I wish for… I really wish for a holiday. I’m actually going to Thailand with my girlfriend for a whole month, so I’m looking forward to that.