Q&A: Two-Time Mercury Prize Nominated Artist Nick Mulvey Channels Protest Into Protect

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What is music’s role? Music has often been championed as a medium to express the inexpressible and simultaneously obligated to convey the monumental woes of the world at large. Nick Mulvey is a transcendent voice in songwriting who crafts songs of thematic timelessness without purposefully setting out to do so. Mulvey’s music is the result of not setting out to push forward a particular agenda; it is the result of a musician who is in many ways searching for a deeper understanding of his place in the world at large, while not turning a blind eye to the woes and celebration of the people residing alongside him, far and near. 

Mulvey first gained international recognition as a founding member of Portico Quartet, an instrumental band founded in London that blended together ambient music, jazz, and electronica. During Mulvey’s time with Portico Quartet, the band would go on to release two critically acclaimed albums and earn a Mercury Prize nomination. To many, it may come as a surprise as to why Mulvey would leave Portico Quarter at the band’s seeming height, but for Mulvey, it was an eventual inevitability for someone who always saw himself foremost as a songwriter. The decision would find himself in new yet welcomed territory as his debut album, First Mind, would go on to amass critical acclaim and his second Mercury Prize nomination. 

Wake Up Now, Mulvey’s 2017 follow-up to 2014′s First Mind, would be three years in the making, and his sophomore effort feels like those three years were more than well-spent. Wake Up Now immediately feels moving and poignant, as it captures and frames recent events in a way many artists and albums may not dare to. Touching upon issues such as the refugee crisis and environmental destruction, Mulvey’s Wake Up Now tackles these pertinent issues head-on but never in a way that fees overbearing or from a place of anger. Instead, Nick Mulvey transforms protest into protect, crafting songs of celebration for the natural world and the struggles of its people. We sat down with two-time Mercury Prize-nominated artist to glean greater insight into what had made Mulvey the artist he is today.

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Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel

OTW: You were originally a member of Portico Quartet, a Mercury-nominated quartet. What spurred the decision to venture off into a solo career?

Well, I think I’ve always had this kind of broad love for music and have been interested and open-minded about music and that led me into Portico Quartet. And kind of making a band that mixed of all the things that we loved back then, which was somewhere between Radiohead, John Coltrane, Philip Glass, and Aphex Twin. So, there was Philip Glass and Steve Reich – all the repetitive stuff. There was John Coltrane and much more than that – there was a lot of jazz music that we loved. Radiohead we all just adored and electronic music as well. But within all that, I was always actually something else, which is a songwriter, and I always brought songwriting sensibilities to the band. The other guys would find really adventurous, experimental sounds and be really striving to make interesting textures, and it was normally me who would want to communicate it in a popular vernacular. The songs had hooks, they were songs first of all, but they were also much more than that. 

And then, two albums, five years of an amazing journey with friends – we had no idea of what the music institute was or like any interest other than just playing. So, we really had all our first journey into what it means to be a musician and things happened that we didn’t ever expect like a nominate for the Mercury Prize and the album doing really well. But five years and two albums, and I was kind of ready to have independence in my own musical direction – play the guitar again, because I wasn’t doing that, and work with lyrics. So, all of those really basic obvious things that I’m doing now, and I wasn’t actually doing in the band, so it’s no wonder I wanted to make that change.

OTW: So, before even joining Portico Quartet, were you writing songs with lyrics? Was songwriting something you had to rediscover?

I did initially start with writing songs and lyrics, and in fact, the first very brief incarnation of the band [Portico Quartet] was with the same players around me as a songwriter. We did one gig; it went really bad. It just happened that within the same week we all got together, but this time with these instruments called the hang drums. And two of us, me and the other player Duncan, started playing these hangs, and without ever having to think about it or communicate it, the bassist Milo and the saxophonist Jack just started playing, and we had this identity and an energy. So, it amuses me to think – I never really say this because it was so inconsequential – the very first thing we ever did was actually around me as a songwriter, cause that’s what I thought I was about, and that was what I was doing. Portico always happened as this unexpected tangent, you know? And that was a joy, and I just loved it, but then I think it was always a question of when, rather than if, I would carry on with the songs.  

OTW: You have this profound ability to transform stories and messages into a song, which lends itself extremely well to the genres of folk and singer-songwriter. Did you always envision yourself going down this particular path?

I think it’s different for me in a more fundamental sense. There’s kind of a following the materials, or something like that, as an artist and having a relationship with my instrument – the guitar mostly. It’s like I don’t think about styles or genres in a kind of intellectual way. It’s more like following the material, the strings, the wood, my fingers, and then switching off my mind and just really processing my own shit, my own emotions. There are things I’m looking for, and that’s mostly not a songwriting thing, that’s more of just a repetitive thing, playing music, strumming things through. So, those are the origins of the expression, and then from there I get into the writing the songs, and it’s only down the line that I start kind of thinking what is this? And that’s also the case in the studio when it comes to choosing the other instruments and stuff. In a very fundamental sense, I always think of it as being an exploration of songs and songwriting and more instrumental, repetitive and hypnotic music. Those two worlds, in fact, they are kind of one. The deeper I go into it, the more I realize they’re not distinct. But on the surface, they seem different, and I’m exploring where they always meet.

OTW: What was it like picking up the guitar and fully devoting yourself to it after so long?

Well, it was great. I remember just being, I don’t mean this with any sort of bad light on the band, but for me at that moment, I was free to really indulge in what I needed to do and explore it. It was never an effort because I loved it so much, you know?

OTW: So, when did you first pick up the guitar then? Was music something that was always an integral part of your household and upbringing?

Definitely, yeah. My mom is a professional musician, a singer. But she’s also quite formal about it, so she always tried to get us do lessons as a kid. And I’ve always played music of some kind all my life, and it was always just fun and a playful thing, so I was often quite resistant to my mom’s approach. My dad he’d sing us songs before we go to bed. That was really normal for me, and I always liked that approach more. So, I played the drums since I was a ten-year-old, and I always feel in some fundamental sense like a drummer. I feel like I play the guitar and piano like a drummer. It’s about rhythm, groove, momentum, and motion. The music always has motion. I never put a chord down and just sit there and put another – it’s always got a buzz and a tick-tock. But I did want to learn the piano. I was a teenager; I had more sophisticated ideas. I was like yeah, I want to play the jazz piano; that’s cool. And I loved that. I had a good teacher who really understood I was more of an intuitive player. So, I never learned to read music and he taught me in a really intuitive way the theory that I needed. So, I did have some theory about what a chord is made of, how you make a chord, what are the relationships between chords, what is the blues sequence, why does that energy happen like when you lift up in “Billie Jean” to the second chord? Like what is that? The question is still a mystery. It’s beautiful. Lou Reed said there’s nothing better in music than that interval. I was seventeen when I picked up the guitar, but immediately it was home, and I could combine everything I learned from the drums and piano and just put it right there.

OTW: You left England for a time to study art and music in Havana, Cuba. One could say that African and Cuban sounds permeate styles of your music. Did you find your time in Havana to be a rather formative time for you and your music?

It was in a way, yeah, but not in a surface-level way. If you were to listen to Cuban styles, you wouldn’t hear them in my music. It’s not like a direct thing – there is a love of African music that runs through my work, and that’s why I wanted to go to Cuba. I mean it was kind of random why I went there – a friend had been there and just came and said, “you should go.” And I was like, “yes I should. Brilliant, let’s go.” So I went there, and it was a really formative time for me, because I got into playing five hours a day with a whole bunch of people I never met. It was a very international school, lots of young musicians, we’d study during the day, which was difficult for me because although I had these moments of lessons of the piano and stuff, I was a very self-taught musician. I had terrible technique and the vibe in Cuba is kind of with this Russian influence from the Soviet cultural influence. They have this kind of high standard of academy, and the teachers kicked my ass every day, and then I would go in the evening and through the night and just play and play, play, play, play, play, play – often percussion but at the guitar as well and singing all the time. And then it was like that for three months, then I extended it four months, five months, six months, eight months I was there. So, I came back definitely having grown a lot as a musician.

OTW: You had the opportunity to meet with a living legend, Brian Eno. How did this meeting come about and in what ways did it end up influencing you?

Yeah, it was very cool. At the beginning of this second album, we had quite an open page in terms of who do I want to work with and where do we want to go. And they said well, we can contact Brian Eno. I remember joking with them and I said, “Let’s do that, and can I have coffee with Robert De Niro next week, as well?” It felt almost ridiculous, very ambitious. And amazingly, he got back in touch saying he was a fan of the first album, and he’d love to help. He was very clear from the start that he wasn’t taking on full producer duties – He hadn’t done that in awhile – but that he’d love to help. He’s a very gracious dude. I think that it’s kind of a natural and integral part of being a rounded artist is that some of your time is spent working with younger artists. He said in this initial email that he had some keys for me, so I was flipping, as you’d imagine. I got very excited, basically, and I went to see him at the beginning of the process. This was at the beginning of 2016, last year, and the days were great.

We did two days in his studio with a little bit of plugging in the guitar and recording, but mostly he was really interested in my guitar patterns and the way I play this repetitive aspect. He was very much, unsurprisingly, interested in this more ambient, hypnotic approach to music. His instructions to me were like just go there. Now for me, at this time, on this album, I still had more to do with songs and song form, but initially, these sessions with him were all about that. We listened to Talking Heads and we listened to Fela Kuti, and we talked about how do chord sequences work in that music, and what’s the journey of the release of that energy in that kind of music. It’s mostly about the suspension of energy and holding tension. You know, normally in normal songs you have four chords you might go around quite quickly, whereas in Fela Kuti you might stay on the chord, stay on the chord, stay on the chord, change, change, stay on the chord. So, I showed him my newest patterns, and they were mostly conforming to the songwriting chord changing. And he said, “Let’s play a game. Give me the control. You’ll play, and I’ll tell you when to change the chords.” So, I would play around, and he would hold it. I began to realize, “Alright, cool. It’s just opening up the space.” And then he’d say, “Change, change, change back.” He summed all of that up with a little piece of advice, which could have been one of his Oblique Strategies, and when he said it to me it felt like a kind of parody of Brian Eno saying it to me. He said, and I wrote this down in my book, “Use familiar chords for unfamiliar durations.”

It’s not necessarily about pursuing new musical ground by finding more complex harmony or cleverer tricksy stuff. That’s not my vibe anyway. So, use familiar chords but use them for unfamiliar durations – have changes that aren’t expected. And then there were lots of other things. It was so interesting. We talked about all of the different societal shapes that music can represent. Like an orchestra represents a pyramid of power, from God to the composer to the conductor to the first violinist to the second violinist to outwards to the masses. That speaks to a feudal system of power, while a four-piece rock and roll band is different, or a community in a Fela Kuti band with eleven, fifteen people on the stage speaks of another kind of social structure. And he said, “Beware of the messages that you communicate through the choices you do.” Because if I wasn’t careful with it, in my own music and within the idea of the singer-songwriter, you’ve got this notion of the lone artist who’s in communion with the divine and who gets his ideas from nowhere. And he’s kind of suspicious of that. Yes, on one level, ideas come from somewhere mysterious, but also on another level you live in a web of influence with all of your friends and collaborators, so make sure to involve to that. He sowed some seeds basically, and down the line six months later when I was making the album a lot of them came to bear.

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Photo: Eliot Lee Hazel

OTW: You mention those seeds that came to bear. On your sophomore album, Wake Up Now, you opted to record it with a live band, which is increasingly uncommon nowadays. Do you believe this was one of those seeds of Eno’s that came to bear?

I have to see it as connected. In my mind, I didn’t necessarily think of it as Brian said to do this, therefore I’m going to do it, but for sure he planted those seeds. The reason that guided me into the live recordings was quite interesting, because it wasn’t necessarily about the sound. I wanted the sound of living and breathing music, but that was secondary. The reason I went there was that my journey up to this point had always been working with click tracks and multitracking. I would put down the guitar and a guide vocal, and then maybe I’d play the bass and some percussion, and then me or a collaborator would play some synths. One after the other, that was just the natural way it happens. As a guy with a guitar, I was always aware that people would think of me as a folky thing, and that always never felt quite right for me because I love equally as much electronic music or all kinds of things. I would often choose collaborators or methods of working that played into other ways to express the fact that there was more to what I’m doing than just a folk singer-songwriter thing. While that was necessary in some ways, it also meant that I never got into being a singer and all of what’s that about. And for me, that was about what it means to really make true performances on record, of real emotion. I would say that, although I’m proud of my first record, I didn’t know about that then, and I wasn’t working with a producer who was also thinking that way and pushing me, so I realized the new level for me was getting into the idea of what it means to properly create emotion on a record.

It then invited me on an interesting journey, because so much of the recording process is about locking things in and capturing the music, and I had to realize that I needed to create the environment that would push me into the unknown so that emotion could be real and genuine. Because if you’re singing a song you’ve always planned and the red light goes on, then it’s really easy to not turn up. So, one of the ways in which I could ensure that surrender would happen – which is an interesting sentence, because am I controlling surrender? It became this really interesting thing of how do I surrender? Because when you surrender, it’s not you who’s doing it. And one of the things was a live recording with people recording at the same time, so you have all the sonic spillage across the microphone. So, after you’ve done the take, you can’t necessarily go and overdub that vocal, because it’s got cymbal splash or whatever it is. I had to surrender more. And then the other thing was not only just musicians live at the same time but my friends. Now it helps that I was already on a journey with my friends and that they’re amazing musicians. It helped because if I tried to control them and tell them what to do, with affection, they’d say Nick I love you but fuck off. So, it became this intention, or this game of I’m going to get them all together, and then I’m going to have to jump into the river and go with it and that’s going to make better music.

OTW: I would say the risk worked out well. The album, in my opinion, turned out beautifully.

It’s living and breathing. It’s joyful. The celebration has an energy and a wildness, and that’s because we let it be. I’m really amazed by it, and I mean that in a humble sense. I’m really proud of it. I’m happy for all of us who made it together.

OTW: There’s also some really powerful messages on the album, from references to the Dakota Access Pipeline to the refugee crisis. Was that an intentional thematic choice when you were going into the songwriting process of the album?

It was and it definitely became so. Even though there ends up being kinds of themes and messages in the album, the majority of the whole process, with the one exception of a song called ”Myela,” which is about the refugee crisis, is much more of an exploration into the unknown where I’m following my fingers. I’m thinking musically. I’m thinking about shapes. I’m thinking about phrases, sounds, and feelings, rather than concepts or ideas. I’m all the way into the process before I start looking at okay what are these words, what are these themes? So, I’m still following that artistic journey, which is not about I have an agenda or whatever. But at the same time, and definitely in parallel with becoming a father and also in parallel with 2016 – 2015 was fucked up, 2014 was fucked up, 1996 was fucked up. If you except that the west is built on racism and injustice and you open up your heart in hell and you say you can’t numb yourself anymore, you equally start to realize that every breath is unbelievably beautiful. And you also start to open up to the reality of quite how fucked up things are, then 2016 when it kind of went mainstream or something. Now, if you’re like let’s say Thom Yorke in the ‘90s, it was hard work for him to say all this stuff about hang on a sec, I think things are fucked up.

And now, we have Trump in power, we have Brexit happening, we see that none of these reasons for going to war are real, and we have climate change – I believe climate change isn’t an issue like all the other issues, it’s literally messages from planet Earth in its own language of weathers and storms and biblical droughts. Therefore, summoning the energy to go deep and make some work and make an album, it felt something like the house is on fire and I’m going to suggest we all have a cup of tea? No, it’s like the house is on fire; it’s just obvious. We have to talk about it. So, Standing Rock was something that really captured me, like the rest of the world, it’s not something that feels American so much, because the song also references the commencement of fracking Lancashire in the UK, despite an almost unanimous referendum that people don’t want it. The collusion between big business and government is the same, but beneath those issues, the song is about what I indeed I think the whole album is about and again all the songs are about, which is the nature of consciousness. And in this instance, it’s about our mentality behind our ability to destroy our own home, which is a belief that we’re spate from the whole. That belief that we’re somehow separate from everything is really coming down now, which is a celebration.

OTW: You’ve described Wake Up Now as a protest album, or rather a protect album of sorts. Would you mind elaborating on the concept and intention behind the album?

That was such a profound element of what is happening at the moment. Particularly here in the US, where you’ve got indigenous communities at the forefront of these climate battles, which is slightly different than in Europe. And a respiriting of our material worldview. That’s really something fundamental that’s happening. A respiriting of the material worldview where the beauty of such is that we don’t have to abandon the scientific approach but it has to be reunited with a reverence for the living universe. I was reading the other day, if we can say that our energy is recycled sunlight and we are conscious, should it not be therefore that the unrecycled, original source is conscious in a way that we cannot even imagine. I think these are very conscious planetary beings. So, that distinction between protest and protect, I hope it is reflected in the album. Even though it goes to these places of, as best as I could, not shying away from the suffering – more than that it’s about celebration. That’s kind of I hope the same twist as those protectors. It’s about the mentality and the state of being that you’re coming from with it, because the action or the gift will be always defined by the state of being it comes from. So, if you’re protesting against something you’re making more of that same friction, that same energy. Whereas if we’re creating things out of falling in love with the planet, and that’s what this album is, it’s a celebration of wonder and the joy we had making it. It is alive and kicking in it.

OTW: In the same vein or protest and protect albums, were there any albums or artists with similar veins that really struck you?

Yeah, there were moments of definite protest. Most recently, Anohni and the Johnsons, specifically Anohni with Hopelessness. It’s a recent one, but it was profound for me to hear that. Because there’s this kind of relish and relief to hear an artist of profile with an album where the first song is about drone bombing, the second song is about irreversible climate change, the third song is about states spying through the internet, the fourth song is about Obama’s kill list. It’s just like thank you, you know? And not that that’s easy listening or that I enjoyed that, but I needed to see an artist doing that. And for me, I knew that I wanted to go there, and it was an important thing for me to hear. Following the distinction of the question, which I really like, there have been albums throughout my whole life that have been protect albums that have taught me reverence for the joy of living and wonder for life. Paul Simon’s Graceland was really one of those, and I remember having a moment previously I had felt like lyrics were something that I didn’t get. It was listening to Paul Simon when he said in, a song called “Under African Skies”, This is the story of how we begin to remember, This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. I remember just this euphoria of he’s describing this thing that I feel that I thought was just me. I think we all know that in our own ways with music. This was definitely one for me, and that was an amazing confirmation. I love that music can do that, and I hope this album does that a lot for people – having inclinations about life, about themselves and to get confirmed when they listen to this music. 

OTW: You’re now a recent father. Did that have any effect on how you approach and view music, or what you believe music’s role is?

I think it might have had an effect on a broader scale, but the effects are really, really interesting. Really tangible and material. I think it’s for a lot of new parents, as you get close to the birth and then after the birth, you have to go to work in this new way where you’ve got something to live for and work for. The effectiveness of my actions, I could see them change. They became really powerful. Before that, I had great support from the people I worked with, I was privileged to just have all this time to write an album, which was another reason why I wanted to write something useful, profound, and worthwhile. Because it’s a privilege to sit there writing music. So, what am I going to write about? Myself? Boring. So, I’m here writing all this music with a lot of support and resources and possibly too much time, not enough perhaps pressure on me, and I was a bit lost for a minute. After seeing Brian, that was really great. I was making these demos, which were multitracked and click tracked, and they were leaving me cold. I didn’t quite know what to do, and my wife was now in the late pregnancy, and I was stumped. But because she was in the late pregnancy, it was actually obvious for me that I had to change the priority in my life for a minute – relegate the album over here and actually focus on setting up the house, getting ready for this baby, and supporting my wife. Being very practical, you know? And not making many plans, not being busy, just being at the house.

I’d be literally cooking the food, cleaning the house, and in that mode I started to get all this insight into the album. “That’s the way in which I’m being a control freak. I need to record live. I need to do it with my friends.” All the fundamentals that came to define the album really came from preparing to be a father. So, before the baby was even born it had this effect on my music making. So, I don’t know if it makes me feel any different about music in general. After the birth, I definitely just knew, “We need to record here. We need to record now. I want these players.” And the songs really started flowing as well. The days were spent obviously changing nappies and 99.99% in this new world, and then I’d have five minutes where I’d write a verse. All that time throughout the whole year I had too much time. I wasn’t pressurized enough to really focus, so that was quite a positive thing.

OTW: Continuing on the in the subject of fatherhood, do you know what kind of music you’re going to raise your son on?

Good music. I think that’s really the answer to that, which is like to say the styles, the genres, and the artists are as rich as they can be today. We just cherry-pick what we want. We have music on tap from Spotify. So, I think even for our generation the idea of the genre is really breaking down. For my parents, you were either a mod or a rocker. You liked this and you dressed that way and you define yourself that way. That’s dissolved, and I wonder what it’ll be like even further. So, as long as its good music that’s shot through with proper artistic nutrition and integrity then that’ll be the soul food he needs. I’m fascinated by what he’ll end up liking down the line when he starts to exert his own tastes. Already, he definitely responds to music really, really clearly. It’s amazing, actually. He’s really responsive to music, and he’s often around us making it. He was in the studio when were making the album as a six-week-old baby.

OTW: Hanging in the studio with your newborn certainly must have been an interesting experience.

There were a few takes where we had to do it again. And when you’re like editing or you’re kind of in the process, you don’t just listen to a song once. You spend the whole day in loops, so he knows the patterns of this album really well. So, he might back in the backseat crying, and I’ll put it on and as soon as “Unconditional starts, he just drops into this place where he’s content. It’s really sweet to see.

OTW: Who are your Ones to Watch?

I think she’s no secret but there’s this artist called YEBBA. Everything I’m hearing is amazing. Nilüfer Yanya as well.

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