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:

THE UNTHANKS – Diversions Volume 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake / Extras (RabbleRouser Music RRM016/RRM017)

Diversions 4For this, their fourth volume of Diversions, the Unthanks have chosen The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake. Inspired by hearing the limited release 2012 CD of her works (a set of songs, accompanied by a booklet of poetry) and spurred on by a pre-existing love of her son Nick’s works, hindsight suggests there was a kind of inevitability to this project.

Molly Drake’s songs often offer poignant, emotional insights into some of the darker recesses of the human psyche. In my view, the songs generally work much better than the poems. Sometimes the poetry feels rather stiff, straining to perform within the chosen verse metre. Perhaps age has tarnished some of the phrases. The songs seem to give her more freedom, allowing her flashes of brilliance in observations, in the way she describes a feeling or a situation.

Of course, The Unthanks aren’t the only artists to have responded to Molly Drake. Eliza and Martin Carthy’s 2014 version of ‘Happiness’ featured a special live appearance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, by Gabrielle Drake, the stalwart custodian of her family’s legacy. The difference between their version and the one on this album is intriguing. The Carthys’ version seems more robust, whereas The Unthanks leave the song’s fragility nakedly exposed.

This album, too, features Gabrielle Drake, here reciting her mother’s lyrics. Look out for her – be quick! – at the final gig of the current tour at London’s Barbican Centre on 28 May. This will be her first live performance together with the band, as the recordings were all done separately.

Molly Drake’s song recordings were usually quite short and accompanied only by herself on piano. Recorded by her husband, at his insistence, they were not intended for public consumption and aren’t of studio quality. In fact, they can often sound decidedly quaint to modern ears, but they offer some delicately lovely melodies and quirky insights into dark recesses of the human psyche. But that’s not all and, as The Unthanks are at pains to explain, there is a dry humour and an unexpected optimism in many of the songs.

From this relatively raw material, Adrian McNally has done his usual stunning job of creating atmospheric, ethereal arrangements, either working with the original melodies or creating new and sympathetic ones. Becky and Rachel deliver their seemingly effortless yet otherworldly vocal performances with tenderness and care, supported by the other able musicians in the band.

‘Woods In May’ has been slowed down and made spookier; the added clarinet on ‘How Wild The Wind Blows’ emphasises the song’s wistfulness and ‘Soft Shelled Crabs’ – never recorded by Molly but given a delightful arrangement based on Gabrielle’s memories of her mother singing it – might, in our unkinder world nowadays, be retitled “snowflakes”.

‘I Remember’ seems like a wry take on ‘I Remember It Well’ from the musical, Gigi with its two souls not quite as united as they might like to imagine. ‘Never Pine For The Old Love’ is simply sound advice and quite a few of the songs deliver similar words of wisdom. By contrast, poems like ‘Night Is My Friend’ or ‘Two Worlds’ seem very raw, grief-riven and hollow-eyed, but their honesty is indisputable.

The Unthanks have delivered a beautiful album (and a half if you count the Extras – and you really should). It feels like a fragile thing, eggshell-delicate, something to treasure and keep for best.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: http://www.the-unthanks.com

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