“Nick Drake is about attraction as opposed to promotion,” Cally Callomon, who manages the estate of the late English folk singer, told me when we caught up to discuss a new book, Nick Drake: Remembered For A While, and how he and Drake’s sister Gabrielle have carved their own path in introducing Drake’s remarkable music to a wider audience. “I think that people find Nick in their own way. And I believe that if they’re on a voyage of discovery and they find it, they can own it.”
I discovered Nick Drake while studying in England in the early-1990s. A friend had a 90 minute mixtape that included just about everything the enigmatic singer, who died of an overdose of antidepressants in 1974 at age 26, had recorded in his lifetime. The cassette began with the astonishing “Northern Sky,” and hooked me instantly. That only three brief, then hard-to-find albums worth of his music—and no video—existed only added to the mystery. But, ultimately, it was the undeniable elegance of Drake’s music that captivated me.
I returned to the States only to find that no one had even heard of Nick Drake. For a few years, when friends visited, I’d dig out the copy I’d made of that mixtape. Most were instant fans, but it was almost impossible to find any of his music. Then, in 1994, Callomon—who was a creative director at Island Records—hit on an idea.
“Nick Drake was the one act that didn’t seem to fit anywhere, whose music was unlike just about everybody else on the label,” Callomon recalls. “I had the idea of championing some of the lower-selling artists on Island like Nick, the ones that I felt hadn’t got the recognition they deserved. Chris Blackwell (Island’s president) said that he wasn’t a fan of best-of records. He just wanted people to buy all three of Nick’s albums, and that that was the best of Nick Drake. So I sold it to him like a little library, where you could buy an introduction to Nick Drake. We put out Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake, and very good things happened. People started to discover Nick’s music and the record sold—not huge numbers, but steadily. By the end of the nineties, I decided that I wanted to manage artists—living artists—which I did. But I also wanted to manage a dead artist, and Nick was perfect for that.
“Nick was fairly obscure while he was around,” Collomon admits. “Not totally obscure, but fairly obscure. So that became the task: To treat him as if he’s a living act, and to manage him as if he was a living act, and to do all the things that I would do with a living artist. The only thing that we didn’t have was an artist in the studio making new albums, but that didn’t seem to matter.”
Then, in 1999, Drake’s elegiac “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen commercial, and his profile went through the roof. But although the use shocked some hardcore fans, it was carefully considered.
“The only thing I can do is try to be guided by what I feel and think that Nick would have wanted,” Nick’s sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, who picks and chooses carefully where and how her brother’s music is used and sold, tells me. “I’m relieved when I take on work that satisfies my soul in my own career, but it’s not possible all the time. You have to earn a living, sometimes you make sacrifices to take on the work you really want to take on, but then you have to supplement it with a bit of bread and butter. But what we’ve tried to do with Nick’s music is to not have to do the supplementing.”
“People will point to the Volkswagen commercial and say, ‘Well, that made him really big. That’s what did it,’” Callomon says. “That’s nonsense. The only reason he’d got that commercial was because somebody at the advertising agency had gone out in the seventies, bought the Pink Moon album, and was determined to promote Nick Drake. We had nothing to do with it. It was Nick’s music that did it, and it was the fact that somebody went from being a fan and buying the records in the seventies to being in a position of power where they could say that they thought the song fit the commercial. Volkswagen said, ‘Yes, this is great. Let’s go with it.’ And it took off from there. But it was Nick, and his music, that did the work. We had almost nothing to do with it but say yes to the use, and that we are very careful about.
“We get six or seven appeals for use of the music per month, and we agree to maybe three or four per year,” Callomon continues, explaining the process he and Gabrielle Drake use for choosing which projects to ally Drake’s music with. “We’re quite used to saying no. There have been films that have come to us that we didn’t like very much. When they end up becoming huge the publisher or someone usually says, ‘It would have been great if you could have gotten that.’ And we just say, ‘Sure, but we didn’t like the film!’ So it’s aligning Nick’s music with something that we feel has a quality that we like. It’s not to do with having a good quality or bad quality. I don’t think there is such a thing. McDonalds approached us recently and started off by saying that they figured we probably wouldn’t want to let them use a song in one of their adverts. I told them that we don’t say no to anything but that we have to see the use first. That was the end of the conversation. We never saw it. They probably figured that when we saw the advert we’d never say yes. And probably we would have said no. But you never know, because there have been some real gems that have been really unexpected. And we get the delight of Nick’s music being used in a context where we think the purpose, the music and the visuals, work really well together. And if somebody sees an advert and goes on a journey to discover who Nick Drake is, then fantastic.”
“We’ve been very lucky, because many people have cooperated with us too,” Gabrielle Drake tells me of her experience as an actress dealing in the music business. “We’ve had great help from Nick’s publishers and label too, who always come to us for the ultimate decision on everything. We’ve never been pushed into something that we’ve felt was wrong. I don’t know what would happen if Nick had been alive, but he was very, very stubborn, and I have a feeling he would have put his foot down in a very big way, even if in a very quiet way, if there was something he didn’t like. He would have stomped his foot quietly, and that’s what we try to do as much as we possibly can.”
This year began with the lovely box set called Tuck Box, compiling all of Nick’s recorded work, alongside demos and even some recordings by his mother, who was an accomplished songwriter in her own right, as well as vinyl issues of his three core albums. Then, on the 40th anniversary of Drake’s death last November, the elegant Nick Drake: Remembered For A While was released. A deluxe book in every aspect, it includes original lyrics, loads of photos, remembrances from Drake’s contemporaries, and even his father’s diaries, which chronicled Drake’s downward spiral toward the end of his life.
“The written word evokes a person far, far more than any photograph I’ve always found,” Gabrielle Drake says of her decision to share such intimate items. “Reading my brother’s letters and reading my father’s diaries, above all, brought the whole thing so clearly into focus. It was almost unbearable. I had hesitations about sharing them for the last 35 or 40 years that they’ve been in existence, but I felt that some things had been misunderstood about Nick. Some easy answers had been put on to him and his background—that he was perpetually depressed, when in fact he had a great sense of humor, for instance—so I felt that I had better put the record a bit straight. I also felt that, when I looked at my dad’s diaries, that, in a funny way, he almost meant them to be looked at. He was an engineer, and for anyone who was actually going through something similar it was as though his writings were a sort of road map. So I didn’t feel badly about putting them out into the public because I thought that possibly someone going through something similar might find it helpful. That’s what I hoped, at least. Certainly when my dad, mom and I, and all of us, were going through things with Nick, there was precious little help for the families of someone going through any kind of mental depression. It wasn’t just suffered by Nick. It was suffered by everybody close to him, really.”
“Books are going through a fantastic revolution now, even greater than music has gone through,” Callomon says of the decision to develop a book that is far more than a standard musician bio. “It took a long time for us to find a book publisher who agreed that we needed to do a big book, that needed to be in color and needed to be exhaustive. We would never have got away with this kind of book five years ago. It was nothing to do with Nick’s stature. It had to do with people being willing to pay however many dollars for a big book that had weight and beauty to it. If we had done what previous publishers suggested—just a thick paperback with a few photos in the middle—I don’t think anyone would have bought it. That’s what Kindles are for. They’re great things to have, but we’re going through a fantastic creative revolution, where people will buy vinyl because it’s a nice thing to have. And people will buy nice books. It’s not about replacing downloads, and it’s certainly not about replacing the Kindle. There’s a place for them both. But I think, at long last, people have woken up to realize that a thing of beauty is worth owning.”
As for the state of the music industry, and how Drake’s music continues to grow in stature and reach, regardless of the growing pains the business is experiencing, Callomon sees his client as operating, as he always has, from outside that apparatus.
“We suffered in the old days from filters,” Callomon says. “Not that long ago, if you didn’t get on the radio, or if you weren’t in the shops or the press, you could almost not exist as an artist. That’s the thing that I suppose I’m most jubilant about today. A lot of those filters that stopped people from listening to music, or hindered the accessibility to music, are completely gone. You only need to put into Google the name of a band, and you can have almost instant access to them. I think that Nick would have fared extremely well if that would have existed during his time.”
“Having said that, the adventure that you were on, of trying to find out who Nick Drake was, when nobody had his music in stock, and nobody knew who you were talking about, is also part of what I see as a courtship, like meeting a mysterious person at a party who you try to strike up a conversation with,” Callomon says, almost wistfully. “There’s currently a twenty-something poet in Bosnia-Herzegovina who just wrote to me. She wrote to the website, saying, ‘I just listened to a track from Nick Drake’s first album. Where do I find out more about him?’ And I felt envious of the fact that she’s got a beautiful, fantastic, long journey ahead of her. She’s never heard ‘Northern Sky’, and she’s about to hear it. What a fantastic thing for a 21 year old poet in Bosnia to have ahead of her.
“Gabrielle has the unenviable task of trying to work out whether or not Nick would have liked us to do something, or would have approved something,” Callomon tells me, explaining how he sees his role in managing Drake’s estate. “I leave that very much up to her. And it’s a thankless task. I’m also aware of the fact that there are a few people out there who think that Nick’s legacy has been completely tainted, soiled and commercialized. They think, ‘One minute he was ours, and it was a secret, and it was all very discrete and everything, and now he’s become public property.’ There’s not much I can do about that. It’s just part of the job. But we do know enough about Nick that this is probably what he wanted. He didn’t want to be a niche, hip star. He wanted to be able to have an international voice and for people to appreciate him for what he is. And little by little, on our own terms, I think that’s what we’ve given him.”
“It took a long time,” Gabrielle Drake says of her feelings about her brother’s new-found profile as a major artist as we wrap up. “It’s so extraordinary. It took such a long time for him to take off, really, and he hasn’t completely taken off. He’s somebody who people seem to discover. And I hope they do.”