Adrian McNally talks to Dave Freak about The Unthanks and Molly Drake

Molly Drake
Photograph by Sarah Mason

The songs of Molly Drake have been slowly seeping into public consciousness for the best part of a decade. There was a fleeting glimpse of her home recordings on the Nick Drake-and-co compilation Family Tree in 2007, followed by an album of her home recordings in 2013. Tracey Thorn and Eliza Carthy are among the artists who’ve since recorded cover versions, but it’s arguably The Unthanks’ The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake which really pushes Molly into the spotlight.

Released last year as the fourth in The Unthanks’ ongoing Diversions series, the project (spread over two albums, the second billed as Extras) was created with the direct input of Molly’s daughter, actress Gabrielle Drake, and has been described by the band as some of their best work.

For many, Molly – who passed away in 1993 – has been simply the mother of treasured songwriter Nick Drake whose reputation, based on three previously obscure (though now ridiculously popular) albums, continues to grow. And while her influence on Nick has been acknowledged, the arrival of the private demos tell us she was more than a footnote, but an equally rare and impressive talent in her own right.

“Certainly I think that an element of Gabrielle’s motivation to release her mother’s music was to show the world that her brother, the troubled troubadour, who we are often encouraged to think was born into a stuffy upper middle class English family, with parents who didn’t understand him, in fact had a mother with as much emotional introspection and poetic articulacy as he,” says The Unthanks Adrian McNally. “We can see now that Nick was from a close and loving family, with inspiration and talent passed down.”

When it came to arranging Molly’s starkly recorded material the band explored two approaches.

“On some songs, we have been quite faithful and sympathetic. With others, we have created totally different chordal and arrangement structures, retaining Molly’s story, sentiments and tune, but removing the vernacular of the time she wrote them in, to present them in a way that hopefully shows the quality of the song as being completely independent of the music of the time,” says McNally.

“Some of the creativity that produced those results was born out of necessity. As a piano player, I do not have Molly’s chops. I am not versed in the styles and ornamentations of her day. In most cases, my starting point, which is a common one in The Unthanks, was to get Rachel or Becky to do an iPhone recording of themselves singing a Molly song unaccompanied. I work to that only, so I am free from and not influenced by the song’s original chords and voicings, which often results in a completely different sounding song – because of course, a melody can be given a totally different emotion resonance, if it is set to different chords or rhythms.

“Only in instances where that route proves to be a dead end, do I then go to Molly’s originals.

“This is not a hard and fast rule. There are some instances when just through listening, a decision is made to remain faithful, or that an alternative idea is instantly recognised.

“In all cases, it is the song that comes first,” he stresses. “If we rework, it’s because we can see another way of capturing or putting a different spin on the sentiment of the song, or if we don’t, it’s because we cannot see a better way of expressing the sentiment of the song.

Touring the album last year, McNally and the band were touched by the way audiences connected with the material.

“The show is very subtly lit, so it was more possible than normal, to see faces in the audience, and quite how many tears were being shed!” he says.

“Molly’s writing is the very essence of bittersweet. In defence of her mother’s leanings towards darkness, Gabrielle has said of her mother that ‘happiness was something she understood profoundly – the more so, because she was so conscious of its opposite – sorrow.

“It’s the understanding and acceptance of both as part of life that brings about the condition of yearning that is equal parts hopeful and melancholic, and it’s the equality between beauty and tragedy that breaks our hearts, I feel.”

And while the songs have been the main focus for many, as The Unthanks’ album rightly pointed out, there’s also Molly’s poems too, which were recorded for the project by Gabrielle.

“It’s not just the songs. Her poetry too, through Gabrielle’s performances, is incredibly effecting. Every one of Gabrielle’s performances caused a strong emotional reaction in me on first listen, be that tears or laughter – both of which were caused by the same ingredient – beauty.

“Molly’s messages are profound, but the joy I feel is towards the brilliance and precision with which the truth of that message is articulated. The success of any art should ultimately be judged on how successful the artist has been in conveying what they intended to.

“On those terms, Molly’s writing is amongst the best I’ve ever heard.”

Dave Freak

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The Unthanks perform The Songs Of Molly Drake at Lunar Festival (26-29 July 2018) in Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire (the home of the Drake family) on Friday 27 July 2018. Other artists appearing at the festival include Goldfrapp, The Stranglers, Amadou and Mariam, Songhoy Blues, and Jane Weaver.

For more information, see: lunarfestival.co.uk

Promo video: