Nick Drake recorded three amazing albums between 1969 and 1972. They each have their own individual style and his frustration with his lack of success combined with an increasing reliance on anti-depressants resulted in his third album (“Pink Moon”) being one of the bleakest albums ever recorded. A verdict of suicide in 1974 through self-administered overuse of amitriptyline has been disputed by his family who believe that the overdose was accidental.
Nick Drake’s mother was Molly Drake. She was born in Burma in 1915 and because both of her parents were in the military, she was sent to live with family friends in England, where she was sent to a boarding school in High Wycombe. When she left school, she returned to Burma where she met her husband, Rodney although she had to wait until she was 21 before her parents allowed her to marry. Five years later, in 1942, Japan invaded Burma and Molly fled to her uncle’s house in Delhi, trekking on foot along with her sister Nancy. It was here that Molly developed her singing and piano playing, the two sisters hosting a radio program on “All India Radio”. In the meantime, Rodney worked as an engineer in the war until, weighing less than 7 stone, he was granted sick leave and was reunited with Molly in 1943. Their daughter, Gabrielle, was born in 1944 with Nick following in 1948. In 1952, the whole family moved to England, along with a nanny, settling in a house in Tamworth-In-Arden, called Far Leys. Molly and Rodney Drake remained in the large house with beautiful gardens for the rest of their lives. It was in this house that Molly Drake wrote her songs and poems. She died in 1993.
While it is tempting to interpret Molly Drake’s songs with reference to her son’s depression and early death, it is worth remembering that most of her songs were written in the 1950s. The way in which Molly Drake describes the struggle between happiness and sadness, her nostalgia for a better past and her occasional travels into despair do not necessarily indicate that she was an unhappy woman. In her book of poems, she wrote “To me a poem is not a forever thing, nor the statement of long held views, but the product of a moment so suddenly and hurtingly felt that it has to burst out into words.” Although Molly Drake never released any of her songs or poems in her lifetime, Rodney Drake’s home recordings were re-engineered by John Wood (who had worked closely with Nick Drake) and issued on an eponymous 2013 release.
Gabrielle Drake attended RADA when she left school and after some minor appearances in “The Avengers”, “Coronation Street” and “The Saint, her first big break occurred when she portrayed a purple wig-wearing officer in the long running science fiction programme “UFO” which was broadcast on ITV in 1969 and 1970. After appearing in several sexploitation movies (including “There’s A Girl In My Soup” with Peter Sellers), she had a leading role in the first four seasons of “The Brothers”, before landing the role of motel owner, Nicola Freeman, in “Crossroads”. Alongside her TV career, she has an extensive portfolio of appearances in the theatre. In 1987, she was the subject of an episode of “This Is Your Life”. Rodney and Molly Drake appear after 9 minutes and Molly tells a little story about her daughter, just before 11 minutes. Nick Drake gets a brief but sensitive mention at about the same time in the program, at which point the buttoned up grief is apparent in the stiffened posture of Molly, Rodney and Gabrielle Drake.
Diversions Volume 3 by The Unthanks (“Songs From The Shipyards”) features several spoken pieces by working men from the North East of England. Diversions Volume 4, in contrast, features several of Molly Drake’s poems, read by her daughter, Gabrielle Drake, who has a perfectly enunciated Southern accent. She has been a staunch advocate of the magnificence and beauty of the work of both her mother and brother and when her mother’s songs were released, she gave an informative interview in The Guardian.
“Diversions Volume 4” consists of 18 songs by Molly Drake that The Unthanks have set to music along with 10 of her poems that Gabrielle Drake reads. The album comes on two discs – the main album is 50 minutes long and an extra CD of 4 songs and 4 poems lasts for just under 15 minutes. It is only recently that I have really appreciated the wonder, magic, and the astonishing beauty of this music. The musical soundscape is fairly uniform, and I have needed an awareness of the lyrical content to properly love the album.
Track 1 “What Can a Song Do to You?” (with poem: “Lost Grief”)
“What Can A Song Do To You” describes the memories that can surface when hearing music. Becky Unthank utilises her ability to slow a song down to dawdling pace to enhance the emotions while Rachel Unthank joins her in luscious harmonies. The song ends with a poem called “Lost Grief” read by Gabrielle Drake in which a small snatch of music heard whilst walking down a street brings someone to a halt and reminds her of a time when she could be sad.
Track 2 “Dream Your Dreams”
Rachel Unthank sings a song which celebrates how reality can be enhanced by the power of dreams.
Track 3 “Martha”
Gabrielle Drake reads a poem which hopes that by the time she comes to die, she will have learned to ignore the trivial aspects of life and has grown to appreciate the beauty that is all around us.
Track 4 “How Wild the Wind Blows”
Niopha Keegan (violin) and Faye MacCalan (clarinet) combine to provide a haunting instrumental section in this song which describes how fortunes in life are determined by the whims of chance.
Track 5 “Little Weaver Bird”
Becky Unthank’s voice nearly cracks with emotion as she sings a song about a mother building her home so that her family can thrive.
Track 6 “Bird in the Blue” (with poem: “Lost Blue”)
The song starts with Gabrielle Drake reading the poem, “Lost Blue” which asks us to consider how our perceptions change according to the time of day. Rachel Unthank takes over by singing “Bird In The Blue” in which she hopes that a lost love can be retrieved.
Track 7 “The Road to the Stars” (with poem: “Warning to Heroes”)
Becky Unthank sings a beautiful love song, acknowledging that with her lover guiding her, all her dreams could be realised. At the end of the song, Gabrielle Drake reads a poem warning us not to assume the role of a hero, lest we fail.
Track 8 “Set Me Free” (with poem: “Escape Me Now”)
This powerful and upsetting song tells the story of someone who cannot escape the grief of her loss. Rachel Unthank’s careful enunciation only serves to emphasise the desolation and desperation of someone who can see no end to her unhappiness. Adrian McNally’s piano and Becky Unthanks’ harmonies complete the emotional punch of this wonderful song. Gabrielle Drake reads “Escape me Now” in which she dreams of escaping her grief by running far from it only to be confronted by it at the end of her journey. For me, this is the highlight of this astounding album.
Track 9 “Woods In May”
Becky Unthank sings a simple song describing the beauty of a wood in the spring.
Track 10 “I Remember”
Another nostalgic song about a relationship, remembering the good times but with a bitter twist. Although she remembers lovely things, he can only remember the bad things. She remembers all the lovely images as a couple, and he remembers them from the perspective of two different people. Rachel Unthank sings the first two verses of the song and Becky Unthank sings the last two verses.
Track 11 “Never Pine for the Old Love”
Rachel Unthank sings this fabulous song in which she imagines meeting up with an old lover after many years, only to find that the magic has gone, and feelings have been extinguished.
Track 12 “The Shell”
Gabrielle Drake reads a poem about how we can all ignore the cruel outside world by focussing on our own worry, discontent, and joy. She realises that some people are able to break through the shell that protects us from the desolation of the cinders of the world and she wonders if the price of clarity is too great. My feelings about this poem are that, more than anything else, it describes the essence of Molly Drake. Her seemingly idyllic life sheltered her from the realities, heartbreak and despair that existed beyond her circle of family and friends.
Track 13 “Soft Shelled Crabs”
Faye MacCalman’s clarinet gives this song a jaunty tone and Rachel and Becky Unthank’s sweet harmonies create a seemingly jolly tune with only Niopha Keegan’s sinister violin playing indicating the fragility of the lyrics about soft shell crabs that are easily harmed because they have no way of protecting themselves from others.
Track 14 “Do You Ever Remember?” (with poem: “Time”)
This terrific song poses the dilemma of whether it is healthier to remember or forget past sad times. Gabrielle Drake reads “Time” which covers the same ground insofar as time can be a friend to help us with our healing. It’s very tempting to interpret all these songs and poems in the context of the death of Molly Drake’s son but “Do You Ever Remember” was written about ten years before Nick Drake died. In an interview with The Guardian, Gabrielle Drake said, “Mummy always believed there was nothing to be gained by going back. After my brother died, she always said about Far Leys: ‘We must stay on until we’ve made it into a happy house again.‘”
Track 15 “The First Day” (with poem: “A Prayer for Love”)
At over seven minutes long, this is the lengthiest piece on this remarkable album. It starts with water lapping on the shores of a beautiful lake on a hot summer’s day, or so I like to think. Lyrically, it is a suitably (slightly) upbeat and positive way to conclude an album that has been full of nostalgia, sadness, and regret. Today is the first day of the rest of her life and represents a new beginning. She has reached a point of reconciliation with the past and is prepared to let destiny take its course. This is one of Becky Unthanks most heartfelt and powerful vocals, underscored by Faye MacCalman’s clarinet.
The album concludes with Gabrielle Drake reading “A Prayer For Love” in which her mother yearns for a love which is true – to love what “is”.
Extra Track 1 “Dog on a Wheel”
Gabrielle Drake opens the “extra” album by reading a poem which proposes that travel can’t change who we really are.
Extra Track 2 “Happiness”
Rachel unthank sings “Happiness” and her perfect enunciation delivers a real punch to this song about the elusiveness of happiness.
Extra Track 3 “Two Worlds”
Gabrielle Drake reads a poem which recounts two worlds – one where polite conversation involves recounting the death of a loved one, only to receive an impersonal emotional response. The other world is where thinking of the same death brings us to the depths of hell.
Extra Track 4 “Night Is My Friend”
Following on from “Two Worlds”, Becky Unthank sings about how night time is a relief after a day of putting up a façade of calm and sanity when underneath she is suffering.
Extra Track 5 “Primary Colour”
A short poem read by Gabrielle Drake describes the imagination and precociousness of her young son.
Extra Track 6 “Poor Mum”
A riposte to Nick Drake’s “Po’ Boy”, “Poor Mum” is sung in close harmony by Rachel Unthank, Becky Unthank and Niopha Keegan. In an interview with The Guardian, Gabrielle Drake said, “I don’t think Nick even knew she wrote that song but, yes, she’s saying: ‘You’ve got those emotions. Well, I got ’em too actually. We’re not just sitting here in the background.’”
Extra Track 7 “Well It Is Finished”
Gabrielle Drake’s voice breaks as she reads this poem about the end of a relationship.
Extra Track 8 “Love Isn’t A Right”
Uniquely on this album, an acoustic guitar accompanies Rachel Unthank on the final song which is a paean to the elusiveness and preciousness of love.
In the sleevenotes, The Unthanks write “Hearing a woman, a mother, from that time, expressing the struggle between darkness and light, so beautifully, with such artistry, confidently, and yet kind of from behind closed doors, is as compelling a listen as we’ve ever experienced“.