“Someone said, if you want to work on your art, work on yourself. Everything you create is a reflection of where you’re at. Another way of putting it is, your only gift is your state of being. Everything you give is coloured from your state of being.”
This is Nick Mulvey’s opening gambit. Sat at a table in a Hackney cafe, he’s opening up about his new album Wake Up Now, the follow-up to his Mercury-nominated 2014 debut First Mind. Much has changed for the sometime Portico Quartet quarter in the intervening years. When last we spoke, Mulvey was tentatively feeling his way towards a solo career, having called time on his hang playing years. The Quartet’s use of repetition over song still influences Mulvey’s output, but these days, having left London for the bucolia of Wiltshire and become a father, he’s confidently showing the world the side of his music which came first – that of globetrotting singer-songwriter, replete with Congolese and Cuban guitar skills and a rhythmic way with rhyme, who could be positioned on a defining graph of musicians somewhere between Caribou and Yusuf Islam, or Bob Marley and Four Tet.
“I speak personally as much as I can rather than through sweeping statements,” he continues, musing on the origins of Wake Up Now. “I can see for me it was a natural step of my own inner journey, which is what writing is always about, and it became this outward perspective. I don’t live in a vacuum, no-one does. Initially it’s a non-intellectual thing. The guitar as an instrument is a space that doesn’t really have too much interference from my thinking, and my writing generates a lot more freely and abundantly. I don’t really think about it in a linear way. The guitar shapes where my melody and voice will fit in, and then the phrases will start to give me the key words, at which point, somewhere in that process, my thinking mind also starts to engage, and it becomes mix of both. I don’t sit down with a preordained idea of what I want to write about. The process starts, and I find out somewhere along the line what I‘m writing about.” Until lyrics form in his mind, he still uses ‘the mumbles’ to fill in the blanks.
On the surface there’s carry-over from First Mind, which was largely created using such methods. But surfaces hide depths. This time Mulvey found a need to examine how he made music, partly through necessity. A little over a year ago, he’d made a series of recordings meant for his second album, but then binned them. “I was stumped,” he recalls. “I got to this place with these demos, and I was despairing. I’d made the second batch of demos which were too correct, too perfect. I had the architecture of the songs and the way I go about making music and I’d gone in there and done exactly that, and I was left very cold. I’d exhausted my modus and I was unsatisfied. But at that moment we entered the late stages of my wife’s pregnancy and I didn’t really have to ponder the questions too much; it became obvious. Relegate that album for a minute and serve something else. If it had been left up to me I would have stayed in control, which was the limiting factor of my music, but external circumstances, ie. the arrival of the baby, came and really forced and ensured an opening happened. Does that make sense?” His track Transform Your Game is all about this, if it doesn’t.
“At the beginning of the process they asked who would I like to work with. They said we could approach Brian Eno. And I said sure, can we have coffee with Robert De Niro next week as well?” – Nick Mulvey
“But also another thing happened,” he continues, equal parts enthusiasm and lucid recollection. “I’d got kind of stuck, but this was to be my second second album – I’d done two with Portico Quartet – so I wasn’t going to freak out, I knew what to expect. The artist friends who live near me in Wiltshire, naturally we’re in exchange with our processes, they’re doing their work and I’m doing mine. It was in that moment of need that they started to support me and unwittingly came to really know the arrangements of these songs, and became this band in this much more elegant way than I could ever have orchestrated.”
This new collective is not a band in the traditional sense; it’s still Mulvey’s name above the door. “It’s an interesting one, and I wonder where next after this. I realised that my own stamp on things was never in threat and I would reach fuller expression through sharing the process. They really helped and inspired me. With that in mind I wonder… as I get into releasing the album as me, and I’m a singed artist, I miss their support.” He namechecks co-writer Federico Bruno as a particular influence on the new album. “Federico’s here and shares the process, but the reason I can be confident about this record, as I was with Portico, is it’s not just me and my opinions, it’s us. It’s filtering, but it’s more cumulative than that, getting everyone’s input. There’s probably seven or eight of us.” Is there any carry-over from First Mind? “I feel it’s me that’s the carry-over! I still write on the guitar, all the songs can ultimately be stripped back to a solo performance, I’m still working in songs. My interest is still the same, which is the space between two seemingly discrete worlds which I don’t believe are discrete, which is song form and the more groove based hypnotic music that works with repetition and interruption.”
Knowing what he wanted to achieve but having people around to help him achieve it, he was able to move forward. “I knew I really wanted it. Right from the very beginning I was in a different situation. I’d written First Mind in relative solitude. I’d just come out of the band, I had no assurance that it would be received kindly and I was maybe a bit protective of the process. But with more confidence I naturally found myself in the kitchen showing my housemates some new verses.” He intimates that he gave his friends choices over which verses would go into songs. “It was collaborative from the start but then I realised I liked this, and I wanted to foster it. The next album’s not too far off actually. I’m not kidding – I want to record it in the new year.”
A definite positive of being signed to a major label, as Mulvey is, is having access to a veritable sweet shop of toys in the form of producers, writers, arrangers and iconic figures from across the spectrum of music who can scale up his ideas, teach him new tricks and challenge his thoughts and processes. Mulvey’s management, noting his penchant for freeflowing collaboration, offered inputs. “At the beginning of the process they asked who would I like to work with. They said we could approach Brian Eno. And I said sure, can we have coffee with Robert De Niro next week as well? To my surprise Brian replied, said he’d liked the first record. Brian’s a good dude and has supported other artists. He said he had a few keys for me. The most interesting thing!”
“Artists live in a web of influence and are interested in the scene around them.” – Nick Mulvey
What were the keys? “We had really interesting sessions. Of the two sides, songs and hypnotics, he’s firmly in the hypnotics column. He instructed me to play, and for me to give him the power of when to change chords. I would start the loop. He’d say, ‘you just stay and I’m going to tell you where to change’, and he didn’t tell me for ages and the loop just goes round and round… It was something he was pointing out to me, something I’ve always loved about Fela Kuti and Steve Reich, it’s to hold the space, and the change when it comes is more meaningful. We looked at Talking Heads stuff and Fela Kuti stuff and we examined it for what for him is a mantra, of familiar chords for unfamiliar durations. That became a key to export for the song Transform Your Game. We looked at how Fela Kuti’s music is built out of horizontals, punctuated by moments of verticality – horn stabs, or vocals. He sowed the seeds of furthering that collaboration. A lot of our work was about moving beyond song form – he really encouraged me to completely leave song form behind – and about questioning the idea of the artist working in solitude and his own relationship with inspiration or divinity or whatever, and coming up with ideas. It’s not really true; artists live in a web of influence and are interested in the scene around them.”
Artists are of course not mere individuals as people beyond their music, either. Mulvey’s lyrics on Wake Up Now are noticeably direct on a song about the refugee crisis, called Myela, which does its best to join very many human dots. “I had a longstanding need to write about that,” he explains. “I wanted to do something, and what I do is write songs. Motivated by the feeling that I wanted to do something and needing to put my sorrow somewhere. Personal catharsis, maybe. I think that’s why I had to write my own poetry about it. Federico and I at the start decided to write a song about this subject, and within a few minutes we talked about Peter Gabriel’s song Biko, which has a journalistic approach, the location the time the date. Journalistic snapshots. That was an early guideline to our approach. No-one needs my pontification on this subject – what do I know about it, experientially, realistically? – so we decided we would explore the first-hand accounts of the UNHCR website.”
The titular character Myela is a construct. “For me it means ‘the mother’. In the song, having communicated in a cognitive way in the verses, to get across what I’m saying and engage the mind, the song needed a chorus that is an energetic release that speaks more to the heart without engaging the mind. Living with it on reflection I feel this character growing, and it’s about the mother and blind despair, and when you’ve just got no other move left and you just go, ‘Help’. I didn’t need to worry about critics, because if we just presented the facts as they are, then I’m not sitting here moralising, saying you should do this or that, it’s not a moralistic approach. The facts speak for themselves. It’s not a political song, it’s a humanitarian song.”
Discussion moves lurchingly towards Bono, preaching and music preachermen. “I hope I don’t (preach),” he says, “but I’ve probably failed. I had to really question my motives when I was doing it. At the end of the song we have the line ‘Freedom from the cage of this supposed civilisation’ – I was improvising it in the studio. Immediately someone comes up saying, who am I, Bob Marley or something, but then I sit with it, and the reason I love that line and I can sing that line is that I’m not saying pick up your pitchfork and take it to Westminster, it’s the knowledge that our circumstances we live in are reflections of our understanding of ourselves.”
If this all sounds far too heavy, Mulvey believes in seeing a totality beyond the headlines. “Just like Myela encapsulates a song that had to be that sorrowful, we see in the documentary videos of the refugees, there are always kids playing in the background, just as kids do, and we were talking about that as much as what was being said at the front. At one point in the process Federico and I spent a couple of days doing this research, one of us said ‘isn’t it funny that kids are just kids wherever you are?’, and that was the key that gave us the idea that this song has to resolve in an empowering celebration. Which is musically what it does. And ‘I’m your neighbour, you are my neighbour’ is one of those examples of a neutral fact, it’s just stating a spacial fact. I didn’t want the colour of any morality, I wanted it to be neutral as possible because then the morals are self-evident. Myela does it in miniature, and so the album does overall.”
Joining further dots, the track We Are Never Apart examines corporate government’s freedoms to transatlantic world-linking effect. Fracking company Cuadrilla’s activities in the UK and the US government’s approach to land possession for a pipeline at Standing Rock become intertwined. “It’s inexcusable, but it’s subtle,” he explains. “External pollution is a reflection of internal pollution. I believe that. Many things that are going on are bound up in what has happened at Standing Rock. On many levels. The militarisation of the police force that is operating not for the public, but for the corporate government, which has parallels with that vote in Lancashire,” against allowing Cuadrilla to commence fracking in the county. “The people said no, but the vote was disregarded by the government. The forces at work, obviously I namecheck Cuadrilla, but even more than that there’s the mentality behind our ability to destroy ourselves.”
“We have one planet and we are the expression of our planet. The planet lives within us. At this moment there’s us, only us. Inclusive of Donald Trump.” – Nick Mulvey
For Mulvey this isn’t about left being correct and right being wrong, or other traditional framings of political discourse and the outcomes it begets. “Something I really believe in is that there’s no such thing as us and them. We are above and beyond the idea of us and them. As we potentially reach the end of our species, I don’t give a shit about people talking about going to Mars. It’s nonsense. We have one planet and we are the expression of our planet. The planet lives within us. At this moment there’s us, only us. Inclusive of Donald Trump, inclusive of all types and examples you can give, it’s all us. It’s a protest song beyond ‘us and them’. So who are we protesting against? Well, the song is about self-understanding. That’s the frontier. The mentality behind the ability to destroy our own home, ie. a belief that we are separate from the whole. Which is a core misunderstanding, that begets the oil companies and our desire for oil consumption.”
Here he tacks back in time to find the origin of the present imbalance. “I heard Naomi Klein speaking about the advent of the steam engine and how, in conjunction with certain age-old Judaeo-Christian ideas about man being made in god’s image which was misunderstood and played to our egos, we thought we were superior to all the other beings. The steam engine really allowed us to properly think we are lords of the world. Before that you needed the wind in your sails if you wanted to travel, so you had a reciprocal relationship, a dependent relationship, with nature. Or you needed the river to turn the wheel of your factory. And now we had the steam engine, we could go in any direction we wanted. You can’t even blame human beings for this, we naturally saw all these things and thought, we are the lords of our dominion. And we’ve had a wild ride of 250 years. But now that’s rapidly changing. We can’t live without good soil, we can’t live without a healthy environment. We are not separate from the whole, we are never apart. That’s what the song’s about.”
His perspective won’t be shared by everyone in the first world, for whom many of these issues continue to appear as mere fringe concerns, things that happen to others, irking at the edges of daily lives lived amid so much bustle and hustle. But Mulvey reminds those people that while they are not the whole of humanity, they are inextricably a part of it. “If you grew up in the Horn of Africa, these issues would have been screaming at you your whole life,” he says. “Or if you’d been made homeless because you’re a vet coming back from Iraq without support, the issues would have been loud and clear for a long time. The difference is that now we’re getting to a place with climate change and austerity, it’s really clear to all of us that change is necessary, vital. We’re in unprecedented times. It doesn’t matter if we have global nuclear disarmament if we don’t alter the frames of mind behind the creating of those weapons. It will just manifest in another way of killing each other. There needs to be a fundamental re-understanding of ourselves, and a repositioning of ourselves as a part of the whole.”
Is this the message behind the album title, Wake Up Now? “It’s an album that doesn’t flinch from what I needed to engage with which is a world in transpersonal trauma, and feel some of that, not turn away from it. But I have a funny relationship with the album title. Believe it or not, it’s not me telling anyone to do anything! The speed at which anyone else awakens or accepts anything has nothing to do with me and I have no influence over it. That would be ridiculous. I have to live with the fact that people will hear it that way, but it’s actually not that. It is about me speaking to myself. It’s about my own awakening. On one level it was a slogan, but it’s really an invitation for celebration.”
For anyone pondering how waking up from a comfortable night’s sleep could ever be a celebration, he has a clarification. “A celebration of being alive. Much more than engaging with the difficult elements going on right now, this album is about celebration. The joy we felt when it started kicking into gear, it was an amazing ride. This journey with these friends, starting with their support of me at the start through a difficult patch, really flourishing, and then around the time of the baby being born, this rollercoaster of songs, I couldn’t catch them quick enough, and I knew suddenly the producer I needed to work with” – Ethan Johns – “and I also knew I needed to take it to Dan Carey, I knew it needed to be recorded at Real World Studios, I needed to involve my wife and some of her friends. Fun doesn’t even touch it. It was a relief. The key thing, of surrender in the middle of it all, of being moved. The experience of being moved by something bigger than yourself, and the joy of letting go of being the little mover, controlling, thinking you’re in charge, that’s what matters.”
From this he fashions his central message. “Even more than ‘you must wake up’, or ‘evolution is needed’, or whatever, we won’t make the change we need to make out of any sense of guilt. The only gift you have is your state of being, you only give from wherever you’re at. Falling deeper in love with this experience of being alive which also means to face the pain, which also means to go there. A lot of the time we numb out, because you can’t get to joy without going through suffering. We need to do a lot of both. If we act out of a sense of guilt we’re actually still in the frame of mind that’s created these systems that’s taken us to this place. We talk about the weather – and this is where I probably start sounding like a fruitcake – we normalise every day, and that’s ok because we have to normalise, and I know that if you’re in debt, if you’re suffering, it’s really hard to see the wonder. But the truth of it, when you hear from astronauts who have been out in space and looked back at the Earth and looked at this system and just thought, all that complication down there, and when you get a dose of that reality, the weather is not the weather like this human measured inconvenient thing, it’s the meteorological reality of every day. We should look up at the clouds and our jaws should hit the fucking floor. And we should weep! Every morning, every day. Connection with that inside ourselves is the foundation for the changes we need to make, to move forward. We’re touching the miracle of things.”
Nick Mulvey’s Wake Up Now is out through Fiction on 8 September 2017. Tour dates and further information can be found here.