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  • Feature: Nick Drake's 'Family Tree' and Elliott Smith's 'New Moon'

    Wed, 18 Jul 2007 15:36:38

    Feature:  Nick Drake's 'Family Tree' and Elliott Smith's 'New Moon' - A look at the making of two major posthumous releases from indie icons

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    Nick Drake and Elliott Smith lived in separate eras on separate continents, each of them mastering the intricacies of the acoustic guitar while writing songs that would touch emotional live wires in legions of obsessed fans. For Smith, the fanfare came during his lifetime; for Drake, the attention came much later, largely the result of creative licensing by Volkswagen.

    Although Drake wasn't the influence on Smith that some assumed, the songwriters nonetheless shared an aesthetic, not to mention a similar work ethic. But their shared place in history is due largely to their similarly tragic ends: Smith dying from apparently self-inflicted stab wounds at age 34, Drake from an antidepressant overdose at age 26 (the circumstances or motives surrounding each death remain in question).

    Posthumously, they've become larger-than-life. Both are portrayed as tortured troubadours, and their songs provide catharsis for the downbeat and downtrodden. With fans clamoring for more material, this summer has seen the release of two collections that are must-haves for Smith and Drake fans. New Moon culls unreleased tracks from Smith's fruitful period between 1994 and 1997, while Family Tree offers fans an insight into Drake's earliest stages of development, gamely tackling traditional songs and Dylan gems while beginning to write his own inimitable material.

    Gabrielle Drake, Nick's sister, authorized and assembled the Family Tree release, alongside producer Martin Calliman (Cally). In addition to thwarting bootleggers and treating fans to an atypically intimate glimpse at an artist's formative years, Drake and Cally were also hopeful that the collection would reverse some of the false perceptions that have been built up.

    "Nick only became the 'tortured singer-songwriter' later in his life, when he was in the grips of his depression," says Gabrielle. "For much of his life, although he was sensitive and reserved, although he was stubborn and knew his mind, he was delightfully, if gently, humorous, kind, and, I do believe, happy."

    "I hope that this point may seep out on Family Tree," adds Cally. "So many dwell on Nick's later life, sometimes as a reflection of their own— sort of 'depression-by-proxy,' as it were."

    Smith, too, is seldom discussed anymore without mention of the demons that followed him around later in life. But during the timeframe presented in New Moon, Smith was a driven songwriter and an easygoing presence in the studio. New Moon curator and longtime friend and recording collaborator Larry Crane remembers Smith working 12-hour days to help him assemble his Portland studio [Jackpot!], and says he doesn't remember a single touchy moment with Smith when they were recording.

    "One of the things that people don't know is that Elliott was someone who was recording on four-track cassettes when he was like 14, and probably writing since he was 10," says Crane. "Just constantly, constantly improving his craft. I think there are people who hear Elliott's music and think 'Oh, a guy playing an acoustic guitar—that's simple.' But this is someone who had been in all sorts of rock bands and was really pushing himself for years to hone his craft."

    If New Moon and Family Tree succeed in fleshing out a fuller, more human picture of their artists, then they still run the risk of falling into the most dreaded of posthumous release traps: the dilution of the artist's catalog. Neither album was undertaken lightly, as indicated by the lengthy letter from Gabrielle to her brother which accompanies Family Tree.

    "Up till now, every decision I have taken—I have been allowed to take—on your behalf about your music has been guided by what I believe might have met with your approval," she writes. "…But now, I am endorsing the publication of an album that I am not at all sure you would have sanctioned."

    What caused the shift?

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