IntheMiddle with Nick Mulvey

Gryphon Associate Editor, Robert Cairns, sits down with Mercury-nominated Nick Mulvey before his gig at
Church to discuss his latest album, the impending doom of politics, and the importance of British rave culture.

Sitting in the dingy alcove of a backstage dressing room in Church, Nick Mulvey radiates amidst the surrounding gloom with a charm and energy that is almost too intoxicating to comprehend. His voice cuts through the murky atmosphere, as he speaks with breathless passion and the wandering mind of a creator.

Asking whether the folkloric elements that permeate his music were merely additional afterthoughts or intrinsic elements of the recording process, Mulvey’s answer is predictably articulate. “I think all of the ingredients that make the end product are involved before, during, and after. When I start to write a song, all the music I have absorbed through my life, all of that expiration in African guitar, is there in the background informing what I’m doing.” Delving deeper into the guitar-picking technique, Mulvey plucks the air with such precision that you think he could actually turn thin air into an instrument. Mulvey likes to give autonomy to his individual fingers, “there is a kind of African technique which I play which is about independence of fingers, so they’re all doing a different interweaving lines. I always actually think of my fingers as some form of band, you know? So the thumb is the drummer, the index is the keyboard player and the middle and so forth, and they all interlock.”

It’s a complex notion, but Mulvey makes it look stupidly easy. Something that Mulvey finds more difficult, however, is the global political shit-show we’re only just beginning to wake up to. Like some shitty guidance counsellor, I speculate whether the politically conscious edge to Wake Up Now came from a regret from the experience of First Mind, but Mulvey disagrees and adds, “in my journey as a writer I felt all these things about the world. I could see that the very structure of our society is based on injustice and I’m confused like everyone else as to how the fuck is this going on? Just at the same measure that I find life so exquisitely beautiful every day just seeing what it is to be alive and to be in a body and to wake up in the morning and to look around at nature and be alive and the poetry of it all- at the same time I’m starting to see what a nightmare we’re creating.”

We dive even further into the cloudy world of politics, this time discussing everyone’s favourite knitted sweater enthusiast, Jeremy Corbyn, and whether Mulvey believes it’s important for students to have a figure like that to look up to in the world of politics. “He’s the next prime minister; he’s got to be.” [We fucking hope so, Nick] “It’s really important, of course it is. I heard Billy Bragg say that politics is far too important to be left just up to the politicians and it’s amazing and I’m so motivated because for the first time in my life time there is a genuine alternative to those who perpetuate the order, someone who for all intents and purposes really appears to be the genuine alternative.”

“Your liveness is the only thing you’ve never had to earn or achieve, it’s the one thing that’s always been there.”

Mulvey goes back to the beginning. “I remember these feelings starting to come at the raves as a kid when I’d meet people who were very different with alternative stories to tell me about the world, and I really remember starting to see things differently. At the raves with these people we started to question the idea of having to earn a living because, when you’re living, your liveness is the only thing you’ve never had to earn or achieve, it’s the one thing that’s always been there. And I felt all of these things during the first album, but as a writer putting it out there in a new experience of being a solo artist – I wasn’t ready to just go and put it on the frontline. But I would veil the lyrics in a lot of metaphors.”

“For instance, the song ‘The Trellis’ contains the lyric: “Just when the evidence seems clearer than day / could it be that providence is leading us astray?”. We’re fucked and must be way off-course – almost logically can it be that, if such a thing as providence exists, when you look at the way the universe unfolding, then, what we’re going through must be there for a reason. But with Wake Up Now I think I began to understand that I could speak my mind, that it would be okay if I spoke my mind. And writing this album as I did throughout the course of 2016, it would have felt weird and strange and almost an act of denial for me not to talk about these things. To have another album just talking about myself would be like being in a house that’s burning and you’re just making a cup of tea.”

I mention whether there is a hidden message beneath the artwork for Wake Up Now. Mulvey’s eyes light up. “That’s the first time I’ve heard someone mention that. The artwork for the front cover is a photograph from a part of the ceiling of the Pink Mosque in Iran.* This mosque… it’s just covered in euphoric mosaics. It looks like how music feels at the best moments- it’s just like: Boom! Instant connection and divinity. So I loved it as soon as I saw it and wanted it as my front cover. And then I felt I should do some due diligence, so I went to my Muslim friends to ask what is it like for me to use this cover? Does it offend anyone? Am I just helping myself? What does cultural appropriation mean in this situation? I heard back from everybody: ‘this just sings with music, your intention is this, go with it, it’s cool, it’s respectful’. But one Muslim friend said ‘but you should know that those squares in the middle are a form of script’. So these radiating squares at the bottom which I thought were just these really cool black and white lines- they are a script. And they read “Peace, Unity, and Love”.

Credit: Line of Best Fit

The time comes for us to part ways. Mulvey’s got a pre-gig sushi date with his family and friends to run off to, and I’ve got a microwave meal for one that isn’t going to eat itself. But, before he leaves, I pluck up the courage to ask how to go about improving myself as a musician, what it takes to feel confident in the music that you write. “It’s always a combination of being a geek about it and just cracking on hours at a time. Anyone can do that. And then the other side of it is to not worry too much about comparisons outside you. Like, when you’re doing your stretches in the morning, you’re not comparing yourself to anyone else. And it’s like that with music. You’re just stretching your mind and then when you write music it comes from a place within, and then whether it’s compared to that person’s music or this person’s music is irrelevant really.”

Mulvey slips out through the heavy wooden door with an electric smile and an already-vanished wave, before I get the chance to fan girl over him any harder. Speaking to him was like putting all of his music into a comprehensive perspective, an unravelling of the introspective layers and an uncovering of the eloquent, socially conscious, delightful man that lay beneath.

Robert Cairns

* Iraq was corrected to Iran after the mistake was identified by a reader in 2021.