A series of interviews exploring the influences of some of our favourite artists and clever clogses... who is your Geppetto?
We follow hot on the heels of Chivers with guitarist and songwriter John Smith. His latest album, Map Or Direction, is released today (Sep 14th).
What artist / human / thing would you say you have been most influenced by?
Pink Moon, by Nick Drake.
What is it about this 'thing' that you find intriguing?
It has had the biggest impact on my playing. There have been other records, but none so powerful. Pink Moon is a solo album, recorded live (save for the overdubbed piano on the title track) in two midnight sessions in the Autumn of 1971. He sat in the corner of a small studio, facing the wall, playing some of the most revolutionary guitar music ever recorded, freed of the constraints that larger band arrangements had placed on his previous output. His themes of love, loss and death are the profound meditations of a lonely and very sick man, all contained within just thirty minutes, eleven short songs.
The album is a milestone in the journey of guitar music. It showcases Drake's crazy, wonderful playing in all its glory - syncopated rhythms cascading in and out of seemingly complex chord structures. The genius of his writing was that he would only employ a handful of chords in a song, but cast such dynamic motifs that it sounds like he is playing something extremely complicated. His daring use of rhythm exacerbates the effect no end - and has left countless guitar players scratching their heads.
If you were to pick the most important work by this person, what would it be? Why?
One of the most powerful numbers is called 'Road':
He talks about death without pomp or pretense - 'You can take the road that takes you to the stars now. I can take the road that will see me through. I can take the road that will see me through.'
Three years later he was gone, just 26 years old.
The most underestimated? And why?
Pink Moon is it. The string arrangements in River Man and Way To Blue (both on Five Leaves Left, his first album) have left their mark on many people and rightly so. But I think less is more, and the sparse, tight performances on Pink Moon leave room for a mind to wander in and out of the spaces, melodically speaking. I think that his restraint on the record is the mark of a great musician, and is all the more inviting for it. Such restraint requires a lot of balls.
By contrast, I think Bryter Layter (his second record) is over-rated. Not that it isn't beautiful - I just don't care much for the folk-rock overdubs and deliberately loud vocals. The pop sensibilities seem incongruous and unpleasant, like a stranglehold.
What work of yours most bears this influence?
New song Hands (below) has a very pronounced rhythmic drive under a slow and evenly-paced vocal. The effect is that busy and relaxed things are happening at the same time, something Nick Drake used to do with such subtlety, you wouldn't even notice until you heard an album of his for the tenth time.
Listening to Drake has inspired me to explore my instrument. To try and play something different. His were statements of pure intent. I would say he was one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived.
Drake n00bs could do worse than start with the wealth of the musician's material on Youtube.
John, meanwhile, starts a UK tour at London's Roundhouse, in support of David Gray, tonight. Check his MySpace for details. He'll also be collaborating with poets Ross Sutherland and Chris Hicks for Mercy's Wave If You're Really There event at St Leonard's Church, Shoreditch on December 5th.