Interview: Nick Mulvey on activist themes in 'Wake Up Now,' the poetry of Bjork and doing covers
Courtesy of Universal Music

British singer/songwriter Nick Mulvey is back with his sophomore Wake Up Now, an activist-themed album brimming with an infectious positivity that builds from his Mercury Prize-nominated 2014 debut First Mind. Mulvey first came to prominence as fusion jazz band Portico Quartet's hang drummer. The wok-style drums were a focal point of their ambient jazz sound and quickly took them from London street buskers to the recipients of a Mercury Prize-nominated debut; touring the world and cultivating an international following. In 2011, just as the band was preparing to head back into the studio to record their third album, Mulvey departed.

With the discipline of a monk, he locked himself away in an East London studio where he practiced the guitar relentlessly. Mulvey soon emerged with a new direction as singer/songwriter and showcased his virtuosic finger plucking skills that have now become his calling card; inextricable to his hybrid world-music-meets-indie crossover sound. With the critical acclaim of First Mind and the success of tracks like "Fever To The Form" and "Cucurucu" it isn't surprising that Mulvey admits to feeling the pressures of a follow-up. 

About to kick off his U.S. tour next week, AXS caught up with Mulvey ahead of his Bay Area show at the Swedish American Hall (Nov. 17). He revealed how Brian Eno helped him shake off some of his despair, why he felt the need to take an activist stance and his approach to doing cover songs. 

AXS: How are you feeling about this new album being out there, it is at once tender, celebratory but also a call to arms and your first since becoming a father?

Nick Mulvey: It’s big measures of everything right now. And I’m in the middle of it. My reflections only go so far but I do have some immediate feelings upon releasing this music which has surprised even me. I’ve had an intense experience in the build-up to this record, I’ve not done so many records that they don’t faze me. It triggered a lot of fears and vulnerabilities in me; will I be accepted or rejected? I’ve had to work through all that. By the time I got to the release, I was in a place of real peace with it. The industry is changing so much, I don’t know if I feel the same way about having some straightforward, enormous, stellar career? Remembering that I don’t know what shape it’s going to take out in the world, I needed to get into the mindset of just having my career with all its nuances, character and quality. I’m really proud of that. It's something to be cherished. Yet, it’s easy to forget it when you have a new record out in all it’s potential, existing in the realm of ideals and possibilities.

AXS: There’s a real direct, activist stance that you have taken with Wake Up Now – you have not shirked away from complicated hot-potatoes like the refugee crisis ("Myela"), to fracking in Dakota ("We Are Never Apart"), and a call to arms (“Mountain To Move”) – did you know from the onset that these themes of conscious environmentalism and activism were what you wanted to tackle? 

NM: Definitely not. In the beginning, I didn’t know where this was going to go; I was just following the instruments, engaging with the material and got with the process. At the same time, it felt natural to tackle these themes, it would have felt unnatural not to. I don’t think everything has to be engaged in this way, it’s like I remember being a kid and growing up in Cambridge no one was doing what we wanted to do so we did it ourselves; in terms of putting together the club nights we wanted and the music we liked. I felt that with this record. And it’s not true that no one else was doing it. I was very inspired by Antony & The Johnson’s or Anohni’s album Hopelessness. And I was very inspired by people like PJ Harvey and have been inspired over the years by loads of others who go on this journey. But at the same time, in terms of my sphere and beyond, in British pop music; I want to hear these songs. And activism not just in terms of ‘us versus them,’ but in terms of the role of self-inquiry and greater self-knowledge: what is the protest song beyond duality of us versus them? There’s only us. If we all share the same formless awareness, we only have ourselves to fight. That’s on an absolute level. But on a relative level, there are definitely sides and actions that need resistance. I felt this sense of why bother doing anything now? I know the energy it takes to go deep and write 20 tracks. I couldn’t muster that energy if it wasn't for something useful.

AXS: Is it true that Brian Eno told you to “open up and share the workload?”

NM: That’s a bit of Chinese whispers, what he actually said was “…to question romantic notions of the solitary artist and that element of divine mystery.” And one of the effects of what he said, was it encouraged me to welcome my community of friends. It’s kind of funny, he’s got this Machiavellian way of working, he never said anything straightforward like “do this” or “that,” but it had this way of all coming to bear. Half the time I wasn’t even conscious of it. My first album had been very solitary so I got comfortable with the fact that my expression would not be diluted if I shared the process. Through this period of frustration where I was lost for a minute in my own drama, Brain's words came to bear; close friends of mine, Frederico Bruno and Dean Broderick who I had earlier been discussing these half-finished songs would come to play a bigger, more collaborative role. 

AXS: One of my favorite songs of the album is “Infinite Trees.” It took a moment to figure out it was the melody from Carla Bruni’s “ La Ciel Dans Une Chambre,” which was originally an Italian song, how did that 'cover' come about?

NB: We got in touch with Gino Paoli (who wrote the original in 1958). He was over the moon about it which gave me a sort of personal satisfaction. The song happened very prosaically in April or June last year, in that period we were discussing; of frustration and over thinking. Frederico, my Italian friend, was over at my house. We do this thing we call cleaning the pipes; it’s an exercise to keep the water moving through the system. We learn some songs and do some covers to keep things moving. I have this respect for the super-classic chord sequences; the archetypes like in “Blue Moon” and Elvis Presley uses them a bunch in his big songs. They can become fatigued and how you use them is all important. I wondered how this fluttering, repetitive, right-hand pattern that I had in my arsenal could be used in that chord sequence to give it a fresh spin. Frederico then started singing “Il Cielo In Una Stanza,” then we pulled up the lyrics in English, and with my own melody coming through... it’s not really a cover, or something original but this third thing was being born. Ethan Johns, my producer, liked it. He encouraged us to go for it and follow it as a piece of music. And we had the blessings of Paoli so it became this spacious thing. It was recorded one night after a late dinner, we hardly said a word; for 10 or 15 minutes I was just going around in a loop and gradually, everyone joined in on their parts. It was beautiful. The only decision making done was after the first take, when we decided everybody would do half as much in the second take.

AXS: You have a way with covers. Before I had heard of Portico Quartet or even Nick Mulvey, I had stumbled on a cover of Bjork's "Bachelorette." I didn’t think anyone could or should cover a Bjork song but yours was a revelation.

NB: With some songs, you really get a calling to cover them. Bjork is one of my heroes and I love the strings on that track. When I started to unpick the song I looked at the lyrics: "You’re a fountain of blood in the shape of a girl/ I’m the bird on the brim /hypnotize by the whirl.” It’s as good lyrics as I've ever heard and English is her second language! I thought, "fu*k, I just never knew what those words were," so it was my intention with the cover to put those lyrics front and center for people to hear.

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