The Mercury Prize nominee on overcoming your fears, the healing power of psychedelics and being visited by David Bowie in a dream.
The Mercury Prize nominee on overcoming your fears, the healing power of ayahuasca and being visited by David Bowie in a dream.
Nick Mulvey is sitting in a car making its way through London, getting pretty deep.
The last six years of his life have been filled with personal and professional breakthroughs: the kind of stuff that most of us never really get around to figuring out.
After being nominated for the Mercury Prize with jazz band Portico Quartet, Nick got bored and quit – reinventing himself as singer-songwriter who earned another Mercury nomination for his debut solo album, First Mind.
Since then, he’s swapped London for rural Wiltshire, become a father and revamped his way of looking at life.
New album Wake Up Now reflects those strides: drawing on advice from Brian Eno and even a dream where David Bowie revealed a song to him.
Nick grew up in Cambridge as the son of a biologist and professional singer who taught him the value of mindfulness – an idea that made him cringe as a kid.
Today it infuses the 33-year-old’s work, from shaping the entire creative process to questioning everyday experience.
Your album announcement mentioned that you’ve been on a journey of self-enquiry since the last album. What have been the milestones on that journey?
Well, funnily enough, it’s been about me looking outwardly. At a certain point it becomes necessary to do that because none of us exist in a vacuum.
It also coincided with two personal things. One was a growing sense of responsibility for my small part in this world and feeling like I had to sing about that.
In fact not incorporating it into my music would have felt bizarre because these issues are unavoidably loud at the moment. Everything is changing.
The second milestone was becoming a father. This whole album was written in parallel with my wife’s pregnancy and recorded six weeks after the birth of our baby.
At the very beginning, I looked at all the ways I control the recording process and tried to let go of those limitations. But just working that out leads to an ironic impasse where you’re trying to control how you lose control – and it doesn’t work like that.
Exactly at that moment, the baby arrived and just made a mockery of the whole idea of being in control. Suddenly letting go felt easy and the everything started to flow.
After your last US tour, you expressed disillusionment with ambition and described yourself as being ‘lost in comparison’. An unknown musician might naturally imagine that all the insecurities go away once you’re no longer unknown, so what it is like navigating them as a professional?
I think wherever you are in the process, it’s always scary to put yourself out there and be vulnerable. It takes titanium confidence to think: ‘If I’m seen as I am, I will be fully accepted.’ We’re deeply programmed to fear rejection.
But if you don’t put yourself out there, then you never challenge that insecurity. There’s a reason this job is praise-filled.
That in itself can cause problems, so I’m careful about not receiving praise for myself, but on behalf of the music.
I’ve been learning a lot about the role of an artist and how different that is from me as a person. I’m starting to see it as like being the waiter instead of the chef.
I bring music to the table but, in an important sense, the best songs always involve getting me – my limitations, my personal history, my ambitions – out of the way and letting something greater happen.
That’s what people are applauding. I was on stage in Amsterdam last week when that idea sank in on a whole new level: ‘Oh, it’s not actually me.’
That was such a joyful thing; I felt free to relax and receive the applause on behalf of something else. Interestingly, it was no less satisfying than when I thought it was me.
For a lot of people, that adulation only feeds the ego – which can be a terribly destructive force.
And don’t get me wrong, I have one of those too. [laughs] I recognise that these are moments of insight I’m picking up and enjoy talking about… but I don’t want to give the impression that that’s only how it is. I’m much more down to earth than that.
But the flipside of the ‘I’m just a vessel’ idea is that you can end up shifting the responsibility for ideas when you’re in a creative dry spell. Like, ‘Oh well, the muse isn’t visiting me right now.’
There can be a shirking of responsibility in a way. But the more you go through the creative process, the more of it you retain during those dry spells.
The job of an artist is to hone your skills so that when inspiration chooses to bless you, you’re ready to capture it.
You can take credit for being prepared, though. Bob Dylan supposedly said, ‘I didn’t write it, I only wrote it down.’ But he must have been so ready to be touched by that much inspiration.
From a young age, he obviously dedicated himself to studying his heroes, developing his own creative process and travelling widely. He was absolutely committed. Nonetheless, maybe the inspiration does come from somewhere beyond you.
When you had this dream where David Bowie revealed a song to you, what did that tell you about how your creativity works on a subconscious level?
It entertains me just to be open to what a dream like that can mean. How many artists have been touched by David Bowie in their dreams since he died? Even my bandmate Nick Pini was like, ‘I had a really moving David Bowie dream too!’
I’d love if there were some online dream archive where you could go on each morning and see what everyone’s been dreaming. And it would be great if it was somehow historical, so you could look at what the Victorians were dreaming about.
The rational explanation of my David Bowie dream is that part of me already knew the chords, the words and the song I came up with afterwards – but that my subconscious utilised the imagery of an inspirational figure to relay it all back to me.
On the other hand there is such thing as an astral realm and science is catching up with other areas of understanding all the time, so who knows?
It’s interesting to wonder how much business got done after the death of someone like Prince and David Bowie, even if the material truth is that it’s just the subconscious communicating to your conscious mind.
I’m a perfectionist and I often find it debilitating, from a creative point of view. How do you deal with that?
Recognising it is the first step. I’d made a bunch of demos and wondered, ‘Why is this leaving me unmoved? Everything’s perfect.’ The architecture of the music had been done to a T.
Then I realised it was the perfectionism itself. I had unwittingly aimed to make something flawless, which turns out to be a bit of a crap approach.
You have to welcome imperfection and have the courage to be more open, vulnerable and also playful.
Once I realised that, it was about finding conditions that support that lack of control – like recording live with friends. The ‘standard’ procedure, I realised, was part of my problem.
I want to ask about what you call ‘the artist’s paradox’: you need to believe that your work can have an impact but, at the same time, you recognise how tiny your actions are in the bigger picture. Having said that, you’re drawing attention to some important issues on this album, which most musicians don’t do. Does that help tilt the balance a bit?
The other day I heard Billy Bragg acknowledging that a song in itself can’t change the world. It’s immaterial. But people can affect change. We are going to make it happen.
So the song plays a role in that, even it’s letting someone know they’re not alone or that the refugee crisis isn’t just another ‘issue’: it’s a message that the inequality between the global north and the south cannot continue. Climate change is a message too – in the language of the earth.
We need to change the systems that rule the world. But how do we do it? There are certainly people in positions of power trying to affect that change any way they can but, most of the time, we need an inner framework to understand ourselves and the world so we can re-orientate ourselves and our consumption. That’s what this album is all about: that we have to change ourselves to change the world.
What can you tell me about your experiences with ayahuasca?
I think it’s beyond fascinating and inspirational that, since the late ’80s or early ’90s, this healing plant has been travelling widely and providing deep healing around the world.
It’s not mainstream but it is a phenomenon and I’ve been blessed to stumble across it. Indigenous communities in the Amazon always speak of the will and the intelligence of the plant. In the West, we think, ‘Oh, that must be some poetic metaphor’ but it’s not.
Personally, it has provided me with enormous healing, massive insight and profound help. I can’t recommend it enough, really.
What kind of meditation do you do?
My daily meditation just follows its own rhythms; it’s a very personal thing. Mantra meditation is great. The idea that this magical word works in subtle ways is fascinating – how it makes the tongue move in your mouth, how it affects the endocrine system and the hormones in your body – but my practice of it really accelerated when I let go of all that stuff.
I’m no expert but, to me, the mantra is like a mental gym. You sit down, commit to it and naturally within seconds your mind wanders – so you bring it back to the mantra, over and over.
It’s like doing a bicep curl: it feels monotonous but it builds up over time. You don’t think, ‘Oh, I hope this bicep curl is going to do something magical!’ It just allows you to bring your mind back to a single point of focus so that we’re not always glued to our mind.
Spiritual practices like meditation and yoga are all about having a vote in your own life. Normally we just live at the behest of our emotional reactions and we don’t even realise how our attention is constantly fixed on our mental activity and what that’s triggering in our body.
Gradually a fascinating space opens up where you go, ‘Well, what is all this attention?’
It’s like the flashlight that can’t shine on itself: you can’t know it intellectually because the mind can only think about something with a subject/object duality.
If someone wanted to learn more about the way you see the world, is there a term for the beliefs you find yourself aligning with?
I heard Osho, who was a charismatic, quite confrontational spiritual teacher from India, talk about how there’s no hope of finding an absolute truth through philosophy.
Instead he talks about the way of the disciple: to look around you and find those radiant beings who are meaningful to you and worth following.
For me, there isn’t one particular position; I love great masters and spiritual teachers like Osho, Ramana Maharshi, Eckhart Tolle – who wrote The Power of Now – and Ram Dass – who was the nucleus of the ’60s counterculture – as much as enlightened beings like Jimi Hendrix and Patti Smith.
The beauty of these characters is that they show us how to live well and lift the lid on what’s really going on.
I’ve been fascinated by this stuff since I was a teenager and have kept hungering for it over the years, always in time with my music making. I had a sense, even as a kid, that nothing is ordinary.
Even ordinary is extraordinary because, when you think about it, we’re apes in space having a chat.
Wake Up Now is out through Fiction Records.