Ahead of three sold-out London residency gigs and an appearance at Glastonbury, Nick Mulvey has just released Fever To The Form, an EP of hypnotic, lyrically complex guitar-based songs. Having collaborated with and supported Laura Marling, Gotye and Lianne La Havas, the EP – his second since signing to Fiction late last year following The Trellis – builds on his burgeoning and deserved reputation for enigmatic originality and individuality.
Well before recognition for his striking solo work began to register, Mulvey was nominated for the 2008 Mercury Music Prize as a quarter of Portico Quartet, to whose debut album Knee-Deep In The North Sea he contributed parts played on hang, a Swiss-made instrument with the appearance of an upside down steel drum. In Portico’s albums the hang contrasted with scatty sax and intricate, jazz-ish rhythms, with later material finding space for electronics. Mulvey’s own work, with the hang nowhere to be found, nevertheless takes on that hypnotic rhythm mantle to make dense, mystical songs, the poetic lyrics of which are as layered as the looping, overlayed music.
“The guitar and the songwriting always came first,” he recalls, sat at a table in the basement of a London pub in which he will play a headline set the same evening. At the height of MySpace’s ubiquity, Mulvey’s own page advertised his services as a guitar tutor, and he gradually amassed a body of songs rooted in guitar training received in Cuba, and later in the Congolese style. It’s fair to say that he hasn’t recently discovered guitar. “Even that was preceded by playing a lot of percussion though,” he remembers, “so in a way when Portico came along it was a surprise; I’d expected to be following my songs and my guitar playing. But not too great a surprise, because I’d already played a lot of percussion. It kind of all overlaps. The overlapping of them makes sense to me; different as they all are from the outside, from the inside I feel that I do similar things.”
It is an obvious given that the hang and guitar are not similar. “No,” he agrees. “But I suppose I’m talking about the repetitive nature of the patterns. That’s always an obsession. And the hypnotic qualities of the two. I’ve always felt like I make little bits of code and do them again and again. That’s what I did in Portico; that was my main function. And then this is similar, although it is writing songs. But then I’m the one with the least perspective, if you know what I mean. I think of it as the same when quite clearly it’s two different things.”
Rather than penning material with straightforward verse-chorus structures, Mulvey’s music instead uses loops, like dance producers might, building, sustaining, releasing. “Yeah. Things loop, and then narrative within the music happens texturally, rather than harmonically. I don’t go to chord or key changes. There are no rules – I do a bit of that – but more often than not I’m layering, and taking out layers, then bringing them back in.”
Anyone expecting a singer-songwriter singing and playing guitar will find Mulvey’s music offering dimensions beyond such norms. On the recordings he plays most of the instruments. “There’s cello on three tracks, and I don’t play the cello; that was a cellist called Hannah Marshall and another cellist called Izzy Dunn, and the drums on Fever To The Form I didn’t play. The bad drums are mine. Or, the simple drums are mine. Like on Juramidam, all I’m doing is a pulse and a thing on the hats. The much more fluid, denser drumming on Fever To The Form was another drummer. One of the exercises of this EP was that I wanted to expand the palette.”
“I’ve always felt like I make little bits of code and do them again and again” – Nick Mulvey
He certainly has, but there’s a fine line between expanding palettes and overproduction, between emphasising individuality and smothering it. “I made an EP in the past that I kept under wraps and didn’t release,” he recalls, “and it was very full, but was kind of mishandled to my tastes. The key elements are the guitar and the personality of the vocal, and the central things got lost because I added in too much stuff. So this time round it was about adding in stuff to a level of just right.” He feels he’s still learning the process of what’s too much and what’s too little. “Definitely, yeah! I was aware of that happening and was quite nervous about that happening, you know? The more people that get involved… I’m quite fierce about keeping the space my own, and all the decisions are my own, but nonetheless I couldn’t deny that things were changing after that point of signing. Part of that is that you have more options. Making this EP was something like being in a sweet shop. I had four different tracks, producers, studios – all top quality. The idea being to get a spread of experience to find one producer to work with for a full album. This EP is fuller and more varied than the album will be, but it made sense to make a wide reach on the EP to get to a focused album.”
He’s recording the album this autumn, and it’s slated for a 2014 release, with singles and “bits and pieces” between now and then building his profile and satisfying his musical curiosity in the sweet shop. “I got to a point where I could have made an album with all of them; I like them all,” he enthuses. “Fever To The Form was made with Dan Carey, in his studio in Streatham. He’s made Bat For Lashes, Emiliana Torrini… all kinds of stuff. Juramidam was made with a guy called Charlie Andrew, who did the Alt-J record last summer. We worked really quickly and just completely understood each other’s motives. I made The House Of Saint Give Me with a guy called Tim Baxter who I made the whole of the first EP with, in west London. The last one – River Lea – I made with a friend of mine, a producer called Will Ward, who is totally from the dance world. He’s not so into all the options of mic placement and that kind of world, but he’s so into tension, release and what crescendos are. He has a natural sense of it. That’s a key thing for me – although it’s guitar and voice it’s got to feel good to ravers. It’s got to make sense – it’s euphoria. The things I care about are totally transferable to the different worlds. But the first one, Dan Carey, was a no-brainer for the album. I got on with him so well.”
“I read a lot of poetry. I’ve got fully formed heroes in the world of poetry. Just like heroes in popular music, who are really important to me.” – Nick Mulvey
His next job is to begin sifting material built up over the years and decide which songs will make the cut for his album. “I do (have a lot of material), and it’s still coming. I’m still writing. Writing songs can’t be a bad thing. But now I’m getting to the point where I’m thinking, maybe I need to stop a bit. But I think as long as it’s coming I’ll keep going. I’ve got another sort of eight or nine tracks just waiting for a bit of spare time. That might be album number two though. In a manner of speaking, the more they choose themselves – the songs – the better the process is, if you know what I mean.”
The obvious question is whether he’d want to involve his former Portico bandmates, Jack Wyllie, Duncan Bellamy and Milo Fitzpatrick. The foursome met and started playing together at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and have worked closely together ever since, until Mulvey’s departure. “I sometimes feel, when I come up with a new pattern, I know intimately what the other three boys would do,” he says. “I know just where Milo’s bassline would land, what Duncan would do on the drums, what Jack would do with a sax or synth line. So I have these funny moments. And sometimes I base my productions on what I think those guys would do. So I am basing the grooves and the shape of things around Portico, or the memory of how they do it. But I haven’t thought about collaborations.”
It thus transpires that a reason for his departure from Portico Quartet was his deep interest in lyrics and the process of fitting them to song. “One of the reasons I had to make the change was that I’ve always cared about words. The key is in the song titles of the first (Portico Quartet) album. Most of them are mine, with all the books they reference. The second album the boys weren’t so into me having free rein there. They became much more monosyllabic, one word things.”
When talk turns to Mulvey’s lyrics, imagery is to the fore and poetry is the foundation. He happily enthuses about the poems he sets to music – not all his lyrics are his own – in the manner of sampling, taking lines or even whole verses from poems and recasting them. Take Juramidam, with its talk of beans and vinters:
‘And there is too much time, drinking, never mind, And it can’t be always like the first, Step in the line, root mixed with the vine And it will bring you back your thirst. There’s too many days in a Heatrow maze, Wondering if I ever been there before, Step in the line, root mixed with the vine, An invitation to the course.’
“That’s a setting of a poem, someone else’s words,” he confirms. “I wanted that as clear as possible on the print of the EP. Juramidam is the setting of a poem called The Feast by Edna St Vincent Millay. I’ve done that on a handful of songs, two or three times, I’ve set poetry. I read a lot of poetry. I’ve got fully formed heroes in the world of poetry. Just like heroes in popular music, who are really important to me. Such as Elizabeth Bishop, she’s one of my faves, Alden Nowlan, I’ve read a lot of him, DH Lawrence. But like a lot of writers I mumble until I find what the words kind of are. It’s a simple thing to say but crucial in the process because it’s more a question of me discovering what’s already there than me sitting down thinking what should I write a song today. That’s a world of difference.”
“Although it’s guitar and voice it’s got to feel good to ravers. It’s got to make sense – it’s euphoria.” – Nick Mulvey
But he’s about far more than merely setting the words of others to loops. Even his song titles have layers within layers. “Juramidam is an Amharic (Old Testament, Ethiopian) word. Jura is the same word as jury and oath, and midam means family. It’s a key word from the texts of a Brazilian church called Santa Daime. Look it up!” he enthuses. “I’d ask these Brazilians what it means and they could never quite say, but they’d roll their eyes and say it was an unsayable word. The best definition I got was oath family. To me that just meant everyone I know, basically. It’s this Amharic word that’s travelled with the Catholic church to Brazil, and there’s this whole Brazilian thing called Santa Daime. I don’t know quite why they latched on to that word from the Old Testament but they say it a lot, and that was how I encountered it. I didn’t really think about it, I just decided to call this song Juramidam. I got messages from various folks in Brazilians who thought it was really funny. I went there in 2006; it made a big impression on me.”
How does he decide which poems will work with his music, and which concepts work together? “I don’t trust a lyric if it doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “For example on the song Venus, ‘Down to the river yesterday’ is just very literal, ‘to see what she would say,’ less literal, ‘Said you best believe the better reprieve is always on its way,’ and I just used the word reprieve there because it rhymed with believe and I decided I’d look up what that means later. The initial thing is always the musicality of the line, and that’s the thing with the mumbles, you’re always approaching with the musicality, and the cognitive stuff is second. How does the musicality feel? That’s the rhyming pattern, the alliteration. So I was really pleased to find that reprieve means cessation from struggle, and the secondary meaning is a reprieve from punishment, that would be used in a court, you get a temporary stay from your punishment. And I was blown away to then find a third meaning for this word that I’d just chosen for aesthetic level of musicality, that reprieve is the musical term for chorus. And it comes just before the chorus. So strange and funny things can happen. And then it all gets a bit Freudian. That is much more valuable to me than what I think about the world. I think things go much better when you let them emerge. It’s a much more daring process, I think.”
“Tension, release and euphoria. I keep coming back to those. Expectation of fulfilment is another way of saying tension and release.” – Nick Mulvey
His particular guitar style and influences bear closer examination too, for they do not arrive from a typical singer-songwriter palette. “The Cuban stuff was before the Congolese stuff,” he explains. “The Cuban stuff is in there too but less so; that gave me a good grounding in some classical technique. Congolese is key, because what underpins that playing is the way the thumb and the index finger interlock. That is right at the heart of what I do because Congolese guitar always has different lines moving, always momentum, always rhythm. You never strum a chord, sit there, sing your thing, like maybe Rufus Wainwright would do. I love that approach and that dude, but… yeah.”
All of which means that Mulvey is not the sort to happily pigeonhole his music into a particular genre. Given all of the above, how could he? “Genre is meaningless,” he agrees. “What comes through is the tension and release within the music, euphoria. That’s going to outmode genres as a way of thinking in the future. It’ll be more like ‘what kind of stuff are you into?’ and it’ll be easier to say I’m into the tension and release. I always find there’s a really tangible thread between the things I love, and those are things I’m interested in. Tension, release and euphoria. I keep coming back to those. Expectation of fulfilment is another way of saying tension and release.”
Clearly he’s been listening to influences outside of the usual singer-songwriter sphere. “I’m only getting into Pixies now,” he confirms. “I’m catching up. I listen to mostly west African and central African music, Steve Reich and all kinds of instrumental music. But I also listen to loads of hip hop and dance music.” Living in London and like the city being open to the world, Mulvey is a prism of sound, a distillation of influences and concepts, a node in a schematic between genres, times and styles. “It’s surprising how comfortable people are with something that is so patchwork, that has the nod of hip hop but is such a melting pot of things, as you’d expect from a generation that’s listening to Spotify. You’re listening to one minute of this here, this one minute there; one minute you’re listening to Vaughn Williams’ Lark Ascending, the next Nina Simone, then west African music, and then go to WOMAD or something. That’s my experience, and that’s how I make music.”
Nick Mulvey’s EP Fever To The Form is out now through Fiction, with his debut album to follow. Tours and further information can be found at nickmulvey.com.