Formerly the hang player with the instrumental ambient-jazz groovers Portico Quartet, Nick Mulvey struck out on his own in 2012, keen to release his own material, as a singer/songwriter and acoustic guitarist. His debut album First Mind was Mercury Prize nominated in 2015 and Wake Up Now, his follow up, is another beautifully realised work that was co-produced with Ethan Johns and Dan Carey. It’s an album that weaves in African and global influences along with electronics, as Mulvey contemplates both life as a new father and the increasingly worrying global refugee and environmental crises afflicting our shrinking planet. Nick took the time to talk to Brightonsfinest prior to the album’s release and a UK tour.
Being nominated for the Mercury for your first album must have been a big moment for you?
It’s always an honour to be recognised.
What were the seeds of the new album?
We toured the first album right to the end of 2015, at which point it coincided with me moving out of London to living in the countryside and finding out my wife was pregnant. I wrote this album in parallel with the pregnancy and the birth of our kid and recorded it at the end of 2016 and into the beginning of this year.
How’s the baby?
He’s now crawling everywhere. He’s called Inca and he loves playing drums! He’s crazy about it.
He’s following in his father’s footsteps already.
You were originally a hang player with Portico Quartet, from 2008-2012.
I remember some great shows at The Old Market and one at The Dome. I was playing this unusual percussive instrument. But I was always a guitarist and into writing songs and working with lyrics. I was always going to get back into that at some point.
Before Portico Quartet you spent some time in Havana as a student and then did a degree in ethno-musicology, right?
I would never say I was an academic at heart, but I got myself that degree. I was exposed to so much music through that and had such an appetite. I love to understand music in its context. There’s no note that isn’t full of every other note that has come before it. We would pull apart a Britney Spears track, or something in class and you wouldn’t believe how interesting one of those tracks could be. Or we would look at the way music evolved along the introduction of the railway in Congo and looking at mining and the way that affected gender roles within Congolese pop music, or something. Needless to say I am crazy about music and always have been. If you really love a style, you love all the styles all around it that make it that way.
This album is more collaborative, isn’t it?
I have a pool of friends down there and they are all absolutely wonderful musicians and sharing the process was a real intention I had right from the start. My first album was written in solitude, but right from the beginning of this album I knew I wanted to share the process. When I got to a moment of impatience or frustration with the writing process, they really shared it with me. So, a pool of friends got to know the material and, down the line, when I met the producer Ethan Johns, one of the first things he said to me was, ‘Probably everybody you need is closer than you think’. And, I said to him, ‘Well, yeah, there are all these friends and they’re all unbelievably sick musicians and they know the material’. He just shone it back to me and said, ‘Uh, do it! Bring them down’. So, we were in Real World studios, which is Peter Gabriel’s studios. It’s a little haven in a valley and residential; the baby was only six weeks old. My wife sings on the record, too. A real pool of friends made this album and that’s why I love it so much and why I can back it so much. It’s not me on my own with my opinions. It’s a collective expression.
You surrendered your perfectionist tendencies this time?
I learned in lots of different ways through the album process and actually through the parallel of the pregnancy and birth of the baby. The next level for me was so much about surrendering control. Ethan is a real master at that, in terms of creating circumstances in the studio that support this step into the unknown and to leave behind your plans. So, one of those ways was working very quickly. Another of those ways was recording in a live way, where you got a lot of sonic spillage over the microphones and you can’t be a perfectionist. That was the key thing for me. That is what I mean about surrendering control. I had to work out environments where I couldn’t be a perfectionist. Because I was. I was making these demos. the problem was they were perfect. The architecture was just beautiful, everything was how I wanted it. But I was dry and cold and not into it. So, I had to make these environments that were fun and playful and that I couldn’t control.
You took the band recordings to Dan Carey, who produced your first album.
That was the second part of the process. He’s a really dear friend. He’s a real master of living and breathing electronics, sequenced music that is alive. Once we were recording in Real World, these tracks made in this way I wanted to, with everyone in a circle, capturing this realness and this rawness, it occured to me that it would be a beautiful thing to be able to take all these files to Dan and add all these synthesisers and drum machines and arpeggiators, because I always care about that side of music. So, if we wanted to speed up a track we could because we didn’t record to a click track. And we painstakingly applied these beat maps, these click tracks, afterwards. We added each beat, each click, one by one, so then we could make the arpeggiators slow down or speed up with us. I wondered if all the music I love, like Four Tet and Caribou, these electronic producers, who achieve a living and breathing music, work in that way. Probably it’s the oldest thing in the world, but for me it was exciting.
You’ve been playing some great festivals this summer including the Park Stage at Glastonbury, Womad, Bestival, Festival No.6.
That’s what these festivals were all about for us. Because these friends who came to the studio, something clicked and it became a band. There are five of us on stage and it’s a really cool thing.