On a beach in Honduras in the summer of 2010, Nick Mulvey experienced his sink or swim moment. Surrounded by strangers, clutching an acoustic guitar, having just told the other members of his band, Portico Quartet, that he needed this two week holiday to decide whether he was permanently leaving them, he started to sing.
“I knew that I’d probably never see these people again and also that they didn’t speak much English,” he says. “So I just decided to sing my mumbles really confidently, and suddenly I found all this imagery, all these new songs.”
For the 28-year-old whose writing has already influenced acclaimed Mercury Prize victors Alt-J, who quote Portico title ‘Knee Deep In The North Sea’ in their jazzy ‘Dissolve Me’, picking up the guitar again felt like a homecoming after five years as Britain’s foremost player of the hang – the Swiss percussion instrument invented in the early 2000s. A steel War of the Worlds alien that gives out a warm melodic clang, its distinctive sound was in large part responsible for Portico Quartet becoming the most accessible Mercury nominated jazz act of recent years. Their debut album, Knee-deep in the North Sea, was Mercury nominated alongside Elbow, Radiohead and Adele in 2008, and led to several years of touring major venues for the band.
Mulvey essentially decided to leave Portico Quartet halfway through a lengthy global tour, but they remain firm friends, with Portico drummer Duncan Bellamy designing the artwork for Mulvey’s Fever to the Form EP, turning a score of the guitar parts into a pattern of dark blocks.
He didn’t rush into this new acoustic freedom. This EP was a long time in the making. For the first six months of his solo “career”, such as it was, he deliberately made no contact with the music industry. “All I wanted to do was play my instrument every day, to be in a room on my own and study my heroes.” He’s hit the road hard too, touring in support of Laura Mvula, Rodrigo y Gabriella, and Lianne La Havas.
Whilst the sparse, cleansed beauty of Nick Drake’s music can be heard (“He’s the main dude for me. It’s a reductionist thing, this boiled down music”), there’s a distinct sense of adventure more akin to the likes of Steve Reich, and even the guitar-picking intricacies of John Martyn that sits alot closer to his sound. It’s difficult to pinpoint but enriching to listen to. Mulvey listened over and over to songs such as Lennon’s Jealous Guy and Prince’s When Doves Cry, pulling them apart to understand their intricacies.
“My playing is all about lines, not strumming chords. It’s about having motion and rhythm and groove. It doesn’t have to be complex, but it has to be animated. Singer-songwriter stuff, Philip Glass – it’s all in there.”
Following quality studio time with the likes of producers Dan Carey (Bat For Lashes) and indeed Alt-J favourite Charlie Andrew, Mulvey’s debut EP leads with Fever to the Form, ostensibly the record’s simplest strum but important to Mulvey as the first song he completed after leaving Portico. “It was a real watershed moment. The first line is, ‘So whether music or madness/I live by one of the two.’ That’s what the choice between the band and my own music felt like to me.”
Then there’s House of Saint Give Me, which Mulvey says falls somewhere between Leonard Cohen’s Ten New Songs and Brazilian choral music, and depicts in its lyrics his father’s retirement work tending his local cemetery. There’s the aforementioned Juramidam, a plucked rhythm with a sparse energy, and finally River Lea, a more experimental piece that combines Mulvey’s guitar with the adventurous cello work of Hannah Marshall.
The EP comes out through Communion Records (Michael Kiwanuka, Deap Vally, Half Moon Run), the independent label-du-jour co-run by Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons.
Mulvey may look like he’s starting afresh, but he insists that everything is connected. “Even though there’s a surface level difference between my music then and now, it’s all the same to me. I do the same things on the guitar that I did on the hang. It’s about repetition, hypnotic music, the groove. On this EP that groove meets songs.”