‘I knew this was different’: Nick Drake’s producer on misunderstood classic Pink Moon

In the dead of night 50 years ago, two men came together to make a pared-back masterpiece that is still beguiling fans to this day. John Wood remembers the singer’s intense, astonishing reinvention

It is 50 years since Nick Drake made Pink Moon, his third and final studio album, yet his gossamer melodies still beguile us. They are as mysterious as their creator, who almost never performed live and rarely agreed to be interviewed. Songs from the album such as Know and Harvest Breed are fragile haikus, as luminous and elusive as the day they were first played.

Keen to know more about the album, I contact John Wood, its sound engineer and producer. “I probably have a reputation for not giving many interviews about Nick, and in particular Pink Moon,” he says via email. “The overriding reason is that there’s not much to say about two evenings in the studio making an album that only lasts 20 minutes or so.”

Still, he graciously signs off with his mobile number and soon we’re chatting about Pink Moon. “You’ve described it as a folk record, but I don’t see it as folk,” he corrects me, right off the bat. “Somebody I knew described Nick’s music as an English version of a French chansonnier and I’d sooner think of it that way.”

It was at Sound Techniques, an 18th-century former dairy in London’s Chelsea, that Wood and his co-conspirator, Geoff Frost, set up their “English Arcadia”, building their own recording equipment. From 1965 onwards, the studio was a hub for US producer Joe Boyd’s roster of pastoral artists, reeling in the likes of Fairport Convention, Vashti Bunyan, John and Beverley Martyn – and Drake, who recorded all three of his albums there.

Paradoxical elements … the Pink Moon album cover.
Paradoxical elements … the Pink Moon album cover. Photograph: -

The first two – Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter – sold only modestly, around 5,000 copies each, making Drake, who had depression, retreat into himself even further. He felt Wood was one of the few people he could trust. “One day,” recalls Wood, “he just rang up and said he wanted to go into the studio.”

What followed was unexpected. “It was a much more intimate recording,” says Wood. Gone were the mournful strings and the jaunty brass and in their place was simplicity: just Drake and his guitar. “I think he wanted to make a very direct and personal record. I thought, after the first couple of songs, that we would probably augment it a bit. Not a lot, but I was expecting him to get Danny Thompson in maybe.” (Thompson is the double bass player who co-founded Pentangle.) “After the second number, I said something and he just replied, ‘No, that’s it. That’s all we’re doing.’ And that was it.”

Wood could only have Drake at Sound Techniques late at night, over two back-to-back 11pm sessions in 1971. Does he have any lingering memories? “There is one – when we got to record Parasite. There’s this line: ‘Sailing downstairs to the Northern Line / Watching the shine of the shoes.’ Once I heard that, I knew this record was different.”

‘I asked him what his influences were and he said Randy Newman and the Beach Boys’ … John Wood.
‘I asked him what his influences were and he said Randy Newman and the Beach Boys’ … John Wood. Photograph: Courtesy: John Wood

Pink Moon is often described as “desolate” and “bleak”, with Drake’s lyrics interpreted in light of his mental health. Place to Be contains the lines: “And I was green, greener than the hill / Where flowers grew and the sun shone still / Now I’m darker than the deepest sea/ Just hand me down, give me a place to be.”

Yet that is to ignore the album’s paradoxical elements, such as the sky-high hopefulness of the title track’s melody, and the rhythmic propulsion of horizon-seeking Road. “Nick played his guitar like a metronome,” Wood says as we discuss the pulsating quality Drake had. “I cannot think of anybody else I’ve ever recorded, with that little studio experience and at that age, who had that ability. It was extraordinary.” The singer was 23.

Drake was largely misunderstood and overlooked in his lifetime. Did his lack of commercial success affect him noticeably in the years before he died, at the age of 26, of an overdose of an antidepressant? “I have to say that I was disappointed,” Wood says. “I could not see why Five Leaves Left didn’t do better. People just didn’t get it. It wasn’t immediately accessible.” Drake didn’t seamlessly blend into the folk scene in the UK. Maybe if he’d been over in America, Wood muses, alongside the likes of Richard Fariña and Leonard Cohen, it would have been different. “The second time I was ever with Nick, I asked him what his influences were and he said, ‘Randy Newman and the Beach Boys.’”

And what about Pink Moon? “It’s just bizarre, the way it was discovered,” says Wood. In 1999, Volkswagen debuted a new advertising campaign with the title track – giving sales of the album a huge boost. “After I made it, I didn’t think it had commercial potential,” says Wood. “I never thought it would be a success.” Is he surprised that it is now, and that it has taken on such mythical status for fans? “Yes, I suppose I am.”

Wood didn’t play it for nearly 20 years after Drake’s death. “I felt it was intensely personal,” he says, pausing to reflect on its posthumous success. “In some ways, I don’t understand the wider appeal of it. I suppose a part of it is because of the way it was made, and because of Nick, and the stories surrounding him.”


Kat Lister

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
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

Rachel Unthank

23, May, 2017 @5:48 PM

Article image
Picturing Nick Drake back on tour

A lost recording by the late singer has been turned into a UK-wide photography project. Laura Barton takes part

Laura Barton

24, Jan, 2012 @10:00 PM

Article image
Joni Mitchell’s Blue: my favourite song – by James Taylor, Carole King, Graham Nash, David Crosby and more
As the legendary album turns 50, the musicians it inspired – and those who inspired it – tell us which track means the most to them and why

Interviews by Dave Simpson

22, Jun, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Gwenno, quarry raves and the punks of Penzance: inside the Cornish music explosion
A buzzy new venue is spearheading a south-western musical renaissance, with hundreds of people dancing in the streets after a booming club night. Our writer hits the floor for the Cornish conga

Oliver Berry

24, Jan, 2023 @3:00 PM

Article image
‘The Guardian? What are you doing here?’ My odyssey through England’s cultural cold spots
What’s it like to be an artist in a place deemed in need of cultural levelling up? Our writer meets a Nuneaton couple with big hub dreams, finds a DIY ethos alive in Chatham and has a Blade Runner moment with a painter from Stockton-on-Tees

Tim Jonze

07, Sep, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
My favourite Dylan song – by Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithfull, Tom Jones, Judy Collins and more
Bob Dylan is 80 today. But what’s his greatest song? Stars pick their favourite – and recall their own encounters, from Marianne Faithfull turning him down to Judy Collins whacking a policeman to get backstage

Interviews by Dave Simpson

24, May, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Royal Albert Hall at 150: 'It's the Holy Grail for musicians'
It’s hosted opera greats, suffragette rallies, Hitchcock films, sports events, sci-fi conventions – and, of course, the Proms and countless rock gigs. Artists from Led Zeppelin to Abba recall their moments on the hallowed stage

Interviews by Michael Segalov

29, Mar, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘I don’t want to remember these things’: dark pop poet John Murry on surviving rape, heroin and family strife
The singer-songwriter talks about his adoptive relative William Faulkner, his violent childhood and heroin – and saves a surprise until the end

Simon Hattenstone

16, Jun, 2021 @11:23 AM

Article image
Singer-songwriter Melanie: ‘Woodstock was unbelievably frightening’
Overlooked and underestimated, Melanie was framed as a winsome folkie and left out of the pantheon of greats. Fifty years on from classic album Gather Me, she wants to be understood

Kat Lister

14, Dec, 2021 @3:24 PM

Article image
Eliza Carthy: ‘Folk music is sexy and filthy and at the end of the night you fall over. That’s how I live’
She was the pink-haired fiddler who punked up folk, but Covid almost sank her and her famous family. Eliza Carthy talks about going broke, bereavement and the healing power of boozy, bawdy music

Dave Simpson

03, Oct, 2022 @5:00 AM