March 24, 2013
I’ve been listening to songs by Molly Drake this week, in preparation for the Laugharne Weekend literary festival. There’s going to be an event about Nick Drake with his producer Joe Boyd and a few singers, including Robyn Hitchock, Katell Keineg, and myself, are going to perform some songs, as a kind of illustration to the talk. When I was asked to do it, I immediately thought of Molly Drake, since I’ve been very fascinated by a new collection of her work, out on Alimentation records. Molly was Nick’s mother, and a very talented singer, songwriter and pianist who played for friends and family, rather than in public. Her songs are fresh, melodic, and musically sophisticated. They seem quite light in tone but actually there’s an undertow of melancholy in all of them. They take me back to my childhood, in that her style reminds me very much of my mother’s singing, which was fashionable in the forties and fifties but was swept away by rock and roll.
In the early fifties, my mother Susan Stutchbury (as she was then) was a student at Cambridge where she met Julian Slade, the composer of the musical Salad Days. They became friends, and she went on to star as the leading lady in his first production, Bang Goes the Meringue! Later on, when she married and had children, she stopped appearing on stage but continued to sing constantly around the house. The same was true of her great friend, Angela Haswell, my godmother, who also had a beautiful voice. These women, who by the way were the first generation of women to graduate from the university with proper degrees (before that, if you were a female, they just gave you a piece of paper saying ‘well done’), were remarkably talented in many ways, but in those days, once you married, you gave up any kind of serious work or public life.
On top of that, during the sixties and seventies, my generation became very dismissive of that kind of music. I always felt quite embarrassed about liking it, and kept pretty quiet about it, since at the time masculine rock was all the rage. So it’s very poignant now to return to that era and realise how stupid that attitude was, and how difficult it must have been for our parents – accustomed as they were to a diet of tuneful, romantic, and often gently witty songs – to listen to us all singing three-chord tunes in fake American accents, strumming away earnestly on guitars. Fortunately things have changed, but it still makes me feel sad to think of all the lovely songs like Molly’s that have been sitting on the shelf for years, and are only now just beginning to be dusted off again…