During a hugely successful support run with the likes of Lorde, London Grammar, Franz Ferdinand and Elbow across Europe, I catch Nick Mulvey to discuss the transition between Portico Quartet and going solo, avoiding cliché, and his vast array of musical influences.
First Mind has been a really great and successful first solo album for you. How did you find the recording process? You must be more used to a band recording situation, how was recording as a soloist?
It’s really hard to make those comparisons because one was a really fun experience and the other was a really fun experience. I worked with Dan Carey and he became my kind of band-mate. In Portico Quartet I always found a creative balance between what I liked to do with music and what some of the other guys liked to do and creatively we would often have some tension of opposites but we would create something with it. When I left Portico Quartet looking for who to work with I knew what opposites I was after and that’s what lead me to Dan because he welcomes chance and random elements and thinks differently which I like too but often my inclination is to put things into song form so Dan really offered a lot.
You talk about chance quite a lot and the idea of risk, how did you find the admittedly risky jump from the former band to your own solo career? Why did you find the need to put a voice to your songs, coming from the instrumental background?
A whole range of emotions, eventually it was very exciting because I was really making the move towards the music I wanted to make and a lot of trust was involved that things would work out and by that point I was really eager to work towards the music that I wanted to work towards.
The main thing for me was that I was always a songwriter and worked with words so Portico Quartet was the exception to the rule so the return to songwriter was a return rather than a departure and I think after five years with that band I longed to get back to working with words and the only time with PQ I could work with words was in the song titles and album titles.
how do you talk about belief, when Guinness has been telling you to believe for 15 years?
How hard is it as a singer-songwriter to be original, and not to be come too clichéd, or too metaphorical?
That’s a great question, it’s quite an ask as you start out, when I left Portico and started to write, I asked myself how am I going to communicate to my peers when if they’re anything like me they have been exposed to things like advertising all their lives which uses rhetoric, uses words all of the time. When you want to say something simple, what I do as a songwriter I just want to say the perennial simple things but how do you talk about belief, when Guinness has been telling you to believe for 15 years? The words get fatigued and lose their power so what I realised is that I had to look within and when I look within and let it bubble up and try to write and think too much I found that I was discovering original imagery or ways of saying things.
I think it’s just about good writing or bad writing. You have to work hard to be original as a writer and dig deep, you have to be really conscious of it. Let’s say I want to say something like ‘the grass is always greener’ which is something which could be well worth putting in a song, but people are never satisfied. But that phrase is already a proverb and already has a lyric to it with the two G’s. It was probably Shakespeare or someone who made that up, we use good writing all the time in our speech, so you just have to dig deep to find a new one. Most of my peers have all been listening to six or so decades of recorded music, even if they can’t relate to it they understand a lot about song form and cliché and song-writing things, ‘take it to the bridge’, people have already done that. We just have to try to be original!
What was it that made you pick up the guitar in the first place?
I can remember it really clearly, I always played the drums as a kid and that’s what appealed to me which I did but then as a teenager, in my mid-teens I started playing the piano which I really enjoyed. When I was in my late teens, I picked up the guitar and to it immediately. I remember thinking the very first afternoon I picked up a guitar, I liked it because the right hand was kind of like the drums and instinctive and rhythmic and the left hand like the piano, harmonic, you can think about it. I felt the guitar was a perfect combination of what I had done before.
I don’t do fusion, fusion to me is a rock band who include a Tabla player, I just listen to a lot of music and then I make my own
What other influences have found their way into your sound, especially on First Mind?
There’s a lot in there but there are some real key ones that I think are at play there. The one side you have the song-writers that I have been into, the main ones that we all know: Bob Dylan, The Beatles and then everything after that, I grew up on Oasis and Blur. I wouldn’t call the latter two a direct influence on my music but all of the things that make us very familiar with song form. Neil Young, then into Nick Drake and John Martin and Joni Mitchell, a lot of song-writers, Randy Newman, Nina Simone even. Then on the other side it was stuff like Steve Reich, a composer from New York who when I was 15, my Mum gave me an album called Music For Ageing Musicians and it totally broadened my horizons, it was beautiful, symphonic music. Then I started listening to Radiohead, something much more experimental but then the other main thing was a lot of African guitarists like a guy called D’Gary from Madagascar and then I started listening to Moroccan stuff and things from the Islamic music world. Everything left its mark and everything you put in goes into a bigger melting pot where everything bubbles up and comes out and all comes together. I don’t do fusion, fusion to me is a rock band who include a Tabla player, I just listen to a lot of music and then I make my own.
Your music as a soloist might be very ‘new’ but you’ve been on the scene for around a decade now, do you find yourself in a strange position when you find yourself on new music award short-lists in amongst very young artists?
Not necessarily because they’re younger but I do recognise that at this point I’m at a middle ground because it’s new but it’s not new, I get that, because I’ve had a long time to develop my style and techniques and how to make an album. As a début album, it might be misleading because I’ve made records before.
Festival season is under way, you must be hyped for that especially with a huge Glastonbury slot. Which other, perhaps lesser known festivals are you looking forward to playing?
There’s one called Somersault in Devon that just seems to be great and it’s the first year there. I’m also looking forward to Green Man because they’re putting me on the main stage as well, so I feel really grateful for that. I’ve put together a band I’m really happy with so rather than daunted I’m itching to go. We’ve put a lot of time into it and the gigs have been a blast and have been really well received so I’m really excited. Festivals are always a less controlled environment than a gig so you open up Pandora’s Box a little.
‘Nitrous’, a track off the record sounds out the festival atmosphere. Can you talk us through that song?
For me, my song-writing is always a collage, all the things that are going on at any given time can feed into which ever song I’m working on at that point. I think it was September or October after a lot of festivals and they gave me a lot of the object and the content of the song but at the same time it was just as much about the frustration with the relationship I was in at that point and all of my feelings about spirituality. When I’m saying ‘I’ve seen a day with no more to pay’ that’s about getting over human conditions, as hifalutin as that sounds if you’ll allow me that.
As you’ve already mentioned, you listen to such a huge range of different genres. Is there a record you would recommend above any other right now?
I’d love to, that’s a good question. An album called Calling Out Of Context by Arthur Russell is a real revelation to me. It’s from the 80’s from New York and it’s really distinctive music and for me it gives me a signpost as to what I love about music, it’s not squeezed inside songs and can re released a little bit, and that is Arthur Russell.