Rachel Unthank: how I fell in love with the defiant songs of Nick Drake's mother Molly

She fled Burma and made it to Delhi on foot – where she discovered her voice. The singer of the Unthanks explains why the band fell for her spellbinding songs about heartbreak, loss, fragility and fear

‘Destiny, do your worst,” declared my five-year-old son the other day. It’s a line from The First Day, a Molly Drake song he has been hearing a great deal of, as we take our new album on tour. I’m confident he doesn’t understand what it means, but he’s certainly taken by its drama. The song – hopeful and defiant, melancholic and searching – captures the essence of Molly’s bittersweet poetry.

A woman came up to me after a recent Unthanks show, with tears in her eyes but smiling warmly, and said: “That was utterly devastating.” This has been the pattern of post-show exchanges: a steady flow of women deeply moved by Molly’s words. They are confused and confounded that they don’t know more about the woman whose songs and poems they have just spent two hours listening to.

Mother of singer-songwriter Nick Drake and the actor Gabrielle Drake, Molly came to public attention in her own right only in 2013, with a limited edition release of her songs and poems, 20 years after her death and almost 40 years after the suicide of her son. We had always been fans of Nick’s music – our album Cruel Sister featured my sister Becky’s interpretation of his beautiful River Man – and we developed a relationship with Gabrielle and the Drake estate. Like many Nick fans, we were eager to hear Molly’s songs, not least because of what we might we glean about her son.

An opaque mythology has grown up around Nick and his privileged, stuffy family from middle England. In fact, Molly was born in Burma and, when Japan invaded during the second world war, she and her sister fled alone, separated from their husbands, travelling on foot to Delhi. In India, Molly and her sister began singing as a duo, while DJing on All India Radio. After the war, she returned to Burma, where Nick was born. The young family moved to England only in 1952.

Molly never performed in public, nor was any of her writing published in her lifetime. Her work shares her son’s dark introspection, but in Molly we get a clearer sense of how those who understand the depths of despair can do so only by understanding happiness and joy, too. Through Molly’s work, we see the soulful, enigmatic, lonesome Nick as a person who was also a member of a loving and fun-loving family.

Molly Drake and Nick Drake on Piccadilly, London, in 1956.
Molly Drake and Nick Drake on Piccadilly, London, in 1956 Photograph: PR

The DIY recordings were made by her husband Rodney, a reel-to-reel recording enthusiast, during the 1950s, with Molly accompanying herself on piano. Through the crackle and hiss, you are initially lured into a false sense of security by Molly’s polished vowels and deceptively polite playing, but listen more closely and you’ll hear how complex and quietly subversive her words are. There is astounding articulation, perception, wit, humour and warmth as she explores the dark corners, negotiating paths through heartbreak, loss, fragility and fear. Plus, there is a playful, funny side on show in such songs as Soft Shelled Crabs and Funny Little Tune.

Being magpie-like folk singers, we were hugely excited by this treasure trove and felt compelled to do something with them. At first, we thought we might include one on our next album. But that felt insufficient. It’s not that we wanted to improve them – Molly’s versions are brilliantly performed in their own right – but the quality of the old recordings means they are unlikely to get any airplay. We knew the strength of her material could stand up to new interpretations.

So late last year, the band got together in our farm building-cum-studio, working as we always do: Becky and I made unaccompanied recordings for pianist and producer Adrian McNally, who used our words and melody (rather than the originals) for his arrangements. To our core of piano, violin, double bass and voices we added clarinet – and, in a happy coincidence, later found out that this was Molly’s favourite instrument. In some cases, our versions ended up being true to the originals; in others, we have let our instincts create new musical environments.

Some songs Molly didn’t record at all. For two – Bird in the Blue and Soft Shelled Crabs – our source was Gabrielle, whose memory of and love for her mother’s singing is still so strong she was able to sing them to us, passing them on in way of the oral folk tradition. Gabrielle helped us further: on the album, her recitals of her mother’s poetry are dotted both within and between songs. In our performances, her recorded voice strikes out into auditoriums, darkened to focus ears on her every word.

That Molly didn’t write to be heard publicly makes the generous, inclusive, philanthropic tone of her work all the more compelling. We are often asked if we think she would have enjoyed the belated recognition. Was she a frustrated artist trapped by the limits of her time and gender?

The Unthanks perform How Wild the Wind Blows: the Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, May 2017.
The Unthanks perform How Wild the Wind Blows: the Songs and Poems of Molly Drake, May 2017. Photograph: Gavin Bush

We can’t presume to know, and it is not on her behalf that we seek to bring more attention to her songs. Our motivation is simply to engage with, learn from and shine a light on great work. The fact that the songs were private for Molly may have given her the space to write with such freedom – to explore her imagination and push herself to the edge of emotion.

The Unthanks have a penchant for melancholy. But I have never known audiences to have such an immediate, deep connection with material. Molly is powerful. She is wholly relatable. Strength and hopefulness run through her work, reminding us to embrace life and not miss “the tide’s magnificence”. She is both pragmatic and wide-eyed. “Dream your dreams,” she writes, “if it’s the last thing you do.”

In a time when we are becoming more polarised, with the privileged and underprivileged continually pitched as enemies, the Drakes are shining, radiant evidence that class and background should have nothing to do with our capacity for empathy and feeling. I want to buck the trend and embrace Molly’s optimism. Destiny, do your worst!

• The Songs and Poems of Molly Drake by the Unthanks is released on 26 May. They perform at Milton Court, London, 28 May.

Rachel Unthank

The GuardianTramp

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