For Nick Mulvey and his new album Wake Up Now, the answers are sought and found within. He surmises, “Naturally, this record reflects all that’s been happening in my life recently, as a man and as an artist, trying to answer a call to be a better person. The world seems so lacking in respect for the true value of life, for the planet, and for social justice. But seeds of hope are everywhere.”
“I’m not saying it’s simple at all” he concludes, “and I can be as lost as anybody. But I know there are maps. I sing about those maps.”
You will know Mulvey, who broke out from his former band (Portico Quartet) in 2011, for the exquisite, Mercury Prize-nominated 2014 debut, First Mind. That album was celebrated for the way it combined expressive songwriting with everything from West-African rhythms to electronic dissonance. It operated in a space that required repeat listens to peel back its varied layers, but also worked nicely on mainstream radio, becoming a mainstay on Radio 1 where its intricacies didn’t overbear the hummable melodies. Spurred on by a solid sense of groove, the likes of Cucurucu, Fever To The Form, and the lullabic Meet Me Theresidestepped the conventional, and followed a road that his immediate peers had left untrodden. Here was a sensationally gifted guitarist, delivering a challenging but wholly rewarding debut album. What you won’t know, chiefly because it remained hidden under the surface of that album’s lyrics, is that Nick was deep into a journey of self-enquiry that continues to this day.
Wake Up Now, his remarkable second album, tackles that journey head on and brings those themes clearly to the surface. The powerful, poignant We Are Never Apart, written in response to the crisis of the Dakota oil pipeline running through sacred Native American land at Standing Rock (and our own government’s plans to start fracking here), was written just after the birth of his son and came amid a period of heightened creativity that the transition into fatherhood triggered in him. Transform Your Game is a fluid groove about shedding ego and the possibility of ancestral connection in the here and now, in which Mulvey relays advice given to him: “You will have it all when you find greatness in a peace that you do not claim”. Imogen, an elegant, fingerpicking guitar-led ballad, is about the role of self-enquiry and looking beyond the mind in these ‘end-of-days’ times.
“It’s easy to feel a real armageddon mood in the air at the moment,” he says. “and it blows my mind to think ‘what if we are living through the end of our species?’. We hardly even know how to approach that thought, but it certainly changes the story if you open-up to the idea that we are primarily made of consciousness, that there is an aspect to ourselves that is eternal. What is that aspect? What is it? Of course, it takes more than just knowing it intellectually…”
Wake Up Now is a profound album, but not a heavy or inaccessible one. You can hear touches of Paul Simon’s Graceland in the lightness and sophistication of the harmonies, shades of Caribou and Four Tet in Mulvey’s organic approach to electronics, and even the seeking spirit of Cat Stevens within the quieter moments of acoustic reflection. It also has a quality that is entirely Mulvey’s own, most probably because, for the first time, he is being as honest as possible in what he is trying to say and how he says it.
“In the past I’ve veiled my lyrics in metaphor, but I want to be clearer now. My ambition is to be simple, to speak plainly and to be understood. I shied away before because I wasn’t ready to be this direct in my writing. Now I am ready. And I realised that it’s important in these times for artists to be brave and bold.”
The album process began at the end of 2015 when Nick and his wife left life in London to live in rural Wiltshire. Soon they discovered they had conceived a baby, and for Mulvey the songwriting ran loosely in parallel with the pregnancy.
“Impending fatherhood is a wake up call and of course it was going to impact my songwriting. As my wife prepared for the birth, I felt an urge to take care of our surroundings- our home set-up, you know, putting in the dimmer switches, gathering our people together, getting everything ready- and I think that this urge extended much farther beyond just my own home. I began to feel a new responsibility towards the world we are creating, the world in which my son will grow up. I knew it would be impossible for me to write a batch of new songs that weren’t useful, that didn’t speak in some way to what’s happening in the world.”
Early advice came from David Bowie in the form of a dream. “I vividly recall a dream where Bowie was telling me exactly where to place my fingers on the guitar neck- new chord shapes to play. You’re not going to argue you with him, are you? I thought I’d give it a try and right there and then a new song pretty much wrote itself. Amazing!”
Further advice came from Brian Eno (dreamlike perhaps, but very much in the waking world), who Mulvey spent two days with Eno at his Notting Hill studio in March 2016. “Brian planted some seeds in my mind. He encouraged me to question convention in all ways, not least those of the ‘singer/songwriter’. We also talked a lot about fostering community around my music.”
The advice resonated with some personal intentions Mulvey had already set. “From the beginning of this process I wanted to be open and involve my friends. I knew it would be more fun that way, plus I had always written in solitude. I was bored of that.” Chief among the friends Mulvey would go on to collaborate with were musician, artist, teacher and geometrist Dean Brodrick and the Italian musician Federico Bruno, a producer and multi-instrumentalist with a varied background in choral and scared music and industrial rock. “I felt that as I found the courage to commit, collaborators came to support me. It became magical.”
For all the support however, the process wasn’t always easy and much of 2016 was spent in frustration and impatience, caught up in his own self-criticism. “It wasn’t until the late summer and the birth of my son, when all things musical were pushed to the periphery of my life as I supported my wife, that paradoxically the artistic breakthroughs started coming.” With the album firmly relegated to a second priority, Mulvey began to have the insights that would shape Wake Up Now. “Between washing the sheets and the nappies I started to know what to do. I realised that I had striven to be a perfectionist and that I needed to get freer in my creativity. I saw that I would do this by recording in a very live way, with real musicians all playing together in a circle, welcoming all that sonic spillage and imperfection. I saw that I needed to work quickly and welcome spontaneity.”
Now he had a method, a plan came fast. Producer Ethan Johns came on board and Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios was booked. Johns’ enlisted Grammy winning engineer Kevin Killen (fresh from his work on Bowie’s Black Star) and also encouraged Mulvey to continue working with his own community of friends. Thus a studio band formed consisting of Federico Bruno, drummer Dan See, bassist Nick Pini, Dean Brodrick and a trio of backing singers- Nick’s wife Isadora (with the newborn Inka often in a basket at their feet), Fifi Dewey and Maddy Brodrick. Johns’ insisted on using live takes as much as possible to capture the purity of the moment and preserve the living spirit of the music. Following these initial session Nick, accompanied by Federico, took these raw recordings to long-time collaborator Dan Carey for additional production and electronics. In his south London studio they worked on fine-tuning the record’s distinctive balance between the organic and the synthesised. Carey went on to mix the record too.
The result is an album that fizzes with vitality and variety, driven by lyrical themes that go to the heart of what it means to be alive. This record is beautiful in its simplicity, a tonic for the times, and, above all, deeply musical.
Nick: “Wake Up Now is an album I always dreamed of making. Me and the band worked together in a spontaneous way- not planning too much, and letting the arrangements emerge by themselves.
“Working this way was all about ensuring the living spirit of the music remained exactly that; alive! I’m happy that the fun we had making it shines through.”