Drake tunes are on their way

Nick Drake released but three albums ‑ the last, 1972’s sublime Pink Moon, a bittersweet charcoal sketch of beautiful things to come. Alas, at age 26, he left this world, forever to remain a treasure to be discovered by discerning listeners of each subsequent generation.

Nick Drake released but three albums ‑ the last, 1972’s sublime Pink Moon, a bittersweet charcoal sketch of beautiful things to come. Alas, at age 26, he left this world, forever to remain a treasure to be discovered by discerning listeners of each subsequent generation.Friday, at the First Baptist Church, you can discover anew the music of Nick Drake, as a dozen or so notable notables pay homage to the man and his music.

It’s music that has endured, deftly dodging trends to remain the essence of pure artistic expression. The passage of time has, if anything enhanced the beauty of Drake’s stark imagery and haunting melodies. That the troubled artist behind the songs of Bryter Later, Five Leaves Left and Pink Moon died tragically, and prematurely, inevitably adds to the appeal.

“I have a very strong memory of hearing his voice and immediately it spoke to me,” singer-songwriter Kurt Swinghammer recalls of his introduction to the unique vocal and guitar stylings of the late composer. “As time went on I was surprised to realize not that many people or musicians were aware of him.”

It’s a common experience. Upon hearing Drake’s world-weary whisper for the first time, one might find it inconceivable that this man is not known to music-lovers the world over. Yet, Drake’s lone shot at stardom came many years too late, via a Volkswagen commercial that co-opted Pink Moon’s exquisite title track. Given the distinctive sound of Drake’s recordings, few have dared even to cover his deeply-personal songs.

Enter Luke Jackson, a musician with a vision that two years ago culminated in a revival of Drake’s music at a Toronto church, with performances by a number of key players in that city’s scene and the full approval of Drake’s family and trusted arranger Robert Kirby. Two years later, many of those musicians are back, as is a string-section that lovingly recreates the arrangements that enveloped Drake’s understated vocals on his first two LPs.

And this time, it’s touring.

“It’s an awful lot of work to do for one night,” Jackson says of the ambitious project. “And there are Nick Drake fans everywhere.”

Growing in number, one hopes. And for them, The Songs of Nick Drake promises an all-star travelling cast, abetted for the Ottawa show by ringers Jim Bryson, Marie-Jo Thèrio and Marc Robert Nelson, to a church near you. Kirby’s string arrangements will be prominently featured, performed as originally written. Vocally, however, interpretations are up to the artists.

“It’s kind of liberating,” Swinghammer, a man with many an album of original music to his credit, notes. “It’s a great opportunity to find a different way to express yourself through other people’s words – to step out of my own skin, to not sing about my own hang-ups, my own neurotic tendencies. To sing about somebody else’s.”

Drake’s hang-ups remain the stuff of legend. He rarely performed live; no footage and little audio exist of the artist in performance. What we know of the clearly tortured artist is, for the most part, to be discerned from his often-downcast lyrics. Debate over whether Drake took his own life or met with an accident, persists. It all adds to the legend. And, truth be told, to the appeal.

“There really is a lot of mystery,” Jackson confirms. “I think people fall in love in equal measure with the music and the myth of Nick.”

To that charge, Swinghammer pleads guilty.

“I think when I was younger I did sort of find that kind of a romantic notion,” he says of Drake’s mysterious life and premature death, adding the first detail he recalls hearing about the artist’s personal life was “that he had committed suicide at his own birthday party.” Untrue, but ideally suited to myth-making.

“He does seem to be foreshadowing death in a lot of lyrics,” Swinghammer opines, “with some very subtle references, and others that are overt. It’s fascinating; it’s something you can’t separate from the material. And in a way he’s really benefitted from having his life and work encapsulated in such a brief period. He wasn’t around to repeat himself endlessly and become boring, or sell out, or become monotonous. There is this very vital period, forever frozen. One can only speculate what could have happened.”

Consider that a tip for you young, budding musicians.

For what is forever frozen is unparalleled in popular music. That rarest of things: a flawless song catalogue. And, thanks to Jackson and friends, that catalogue will continue to live and breathe, celebrated by new generations of listeners. Troubled or otherwise.

“When you discover Nick Drake music you don’t associate it with anything else,” Jackson says of the songs’ continuing ability to touch heart and soul in unsuspecting listeners. “You know, our parents played us Beatles records; they didn’t play us Nick Drake records. So everyone comes to Nick Drake in their own time and in their own way.”

For Ottawans, that time can be Friday, at 8 p.m. It’s a celebration, and a forbidding challenge for some of our country’s finest interpreters of song. Drake’s CDs will be available for purchase, as will material by the evening’s performers – including a 12” single featuring Swinghammer’s arrangement of River Man. (The fetching single sports a portrait of Drake, painted by Swinghammer, on the cover.)

“My goal,” Swinghammer states, “is to find a personal way to express material that’s different. To find a unique way to do it. Some people do it very faithfully, but that doesn’t interest me.”

Jackson will be among those playing in the band, and offering a unique way to approach the material of Drake. A veteran singer and songwriter himself, the Torontonian has in recent years been consumed by the spectre of the Drake muse. And if that threatens to overshadow his own solo career, so be it.

“There are worse things to be known as, as far as I’m concerned,” Jackson concludes. “I’m touring with some of my favourite musicians and we’re playing the music I love the most in the world. If people only know me as the guy who did the Nick Drake tour, that might be the only way they know me. I’m comfortable with that.”

The Songs of Nick Drake will be seen and heard Friday, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m., at the First Baptist Church, 140 Laurier Ave. W. Tickets are $38.

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