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An interview with Robert Kirby.
Robert Kirby wrote many memorable arrangements for Nick's music, most notably on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter. Nickdrake.com's Matt Hutchinson had the opportunity to speak to Robert about his work with Nick.
How did you first get involved with Nick's music and what were your initial impressions of him as a songwriter?
We had in fact met our very first term when we both auditioned for the Footlights – neither of us was accepted! We had a mutual friend who knew I had been in a folk group before Cambridge, was in a Pop group at the time - with a single and album out - and we were on the Christmas ’67 edition of “DeeTime”, but that I was also studying music and orchestration and was a Choral exhibitioner. He introduced us.
Was it a daunting experience being asked to do the arrangements for 'Five Leaves Left' when you yourself were still a student? What do you remember from the sessions?
Actually being asked was no problem – I was already doing arrangements for the group I was in. The orchestral players were mainly friends, and there was no mention of a record deal, just live gigs. But I did realize from the off that Nick was somebody very, very special. I remember the session as very intense – I’m sure, contrary to what Joe remembers, that we put down the Five Leaves Left tracks, live, in one 3 hour session
Which guitars do you remember Nick playing and recording with (and do you know where they are now)?
I only remember a Martin D28 and his Spanish guitar – that is not to say he did not have others. I think he sold the D28 after Pink Moon, but before the 4 last songs, in part exchange for the smaller 00015 (or was it 00018). Brian Wells has this Martin and Gabrielle still has the Spanish
There has been a lot of discussion regarding the recording of 'Bryter Layter' and whether Nick was happy with it. I love the arrangements on this album, they take the music in a totally different direction from 'Five Leaves Left', can you tell us a bit about the sessions and how the arrangements were developed?
I know I shouldn’t but I still get depressed by supposition that Joe and myself somehow destroyed this album against Nick’s wishes – there have even been recent posts on your site.
Nick always had the final word, he made the decisions. The arrangements I did were again worked out with him over time and recorded live with him – he never seemed in the least displeased. It was a conscious effort on his part to be more commercial. The instrumentals were his idea and inspired by Pet Sounds and, to a certain extent, The Magic Garden. I believe this is founded on an interview with David Betteridge where he recounts that, after the album’s commercial failure, Nick did ask, “Was it the vocals, was it the lyrics, was it the orchestrations?” – he was searching for a reason and hence started the Chinese Whispers. Like any great artist, he took it apart.
Nick seems to have become the patron saint of the depressed – I am in no way criticizing this fact. But the danger is that when fans take on this intensely personal relationship, they can want to be the only ones to own the experience. They sometimes want everything to be just him and guitar and do not want to believe that, particularly with Bryter Layter, he was crying out for commercial success. Apart from his last year I can assure you that he did have many crazy, happy spells.
Bryter Layter is 100% Nick’s work and how he wanted it at that time. Recently the female vocals on Poor Boy have come in for some stick. To start with, Doris Troy and P.P. Arnold were two of the best ever and that phrase is supposed to mock Nick’s self-pitying, it is supposed to be viciously sarcastic. I was there and Nick actually told them what to sing and how to sing it!
How did the 'Made to Love Magic' sessions come about, were these new arrangements or ones you'd already done which had never been recorded?
The Estate told me about Tow the Line and the other materials and the plan for an album. I gave them the originals for River Man and Mayfair to use and told them I still had the original scores for Magic and Time of No Reply, so John Wood and I put them together. You can see the original scores in the cd booklet, my writing looks nothing like this. I changed very little – for example the flute parts had been on the first fiddles as at whatever concert we had last performed them I couldn’t get any flutes. Also, because this time I had a double quartet I could dispense with a lot of “double-stopping” and use richer voicing.
Are there any more Nick Drake songs you arranged which were never recorded?
'My Love Left with the Rain' and 'Blossom'
Do you have a personal favourite out of the arrangements you did for Nick?
I believe you've arranged a few songs for the new Magic Numbers album.
Yep, two on the album and one held back for a single or B-side. They’ve also had me do it live twice – Roundhouse, which was weird because that is where it all started for Nick, and Hammersmith. They are a fantastic talent – and such 100% lovely people – and devoted to Nick.
Who else have you worked with in recent years?
Since Paul Weller in 2000 I’ve not stopped – he really gave me a kick-start. He is such a consummate professional and so talented. I’m currently doing Linda Thompson’s new one and her son Teddy’s - which we did a lot of in New York. I’ve got 4 or 5 more planned for this year.
Is there anybody (past or present) you'd really like to work with if you had the chance?
Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Brian Wilson and it goes without saying – Sir Paul.