I never know where music will lead me next…
Entranced as I was by Portico Quartet‘s Southampton performance in 2010, I would never have imagined delving into dharma, mantra, and the Muse with their founding member and former hang-player Nick Mulvey seven years later. From Portico’s inner voyages to the irrepressible enthusiasm of Wake Up Now, Nick’s music is more uplifting, its intent increasingly crystalline with each release. We speak here of transformation anchored in the present moment, of devotion as a pathway to creativity, and of how his personal urge to awaken, in whichever way we choose to understand it, may invite broader social and personal responsibility.
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Could you please define yourself as an artist?
The short answer is no [laughs], because it’s such a living experience, being an artist, there are so many elements to it. I’ve always sat between genres. To an extent, every artist does; it’s not often that you find an artist only in one place.
I write songs with the guitar, and I’ve been fundamentally influenced by the great songwriters that my parents played in the house, from their generation – from the Beatles, Bob Dylan… Growing up, that was the kind of furniture in the house, as well as a lot of classical music. I always had a really broad appetite for music. I loved lots of different bands; I also loved a lot of African music. Music has always been a meditation for me, before I could define it that way.
How did your longing for creative expression first manifest? Has that always been there for you?
Yes, it really has. I’ve been playing music for longer than I’ve been making memories. I was definitely doing it as a very young baby, and my mum gave it space, supported it. Playfulness and fun normalised music for me. Years later – at ten or twelve years old – I remember thinking, “Oh, not everybody is like this.” In my young adulthood and early teens, I started to have my own longing for expression, my own tastes. That actually started with the drum kit – I wanted to play the drums, because it looked really fun. A few years later, I had more sophisticated pretentions, and I wanted to learn to play the piano. I loved that. It was after that that I found the guitar; it was a real home for me.
Does that ease of expression run in your family?
I think so… My Dad would play the guitar, and it was like a bedtime story for us, every night. He’d sing us to sleep most nights. He had a limited repertoire, but he did really nice songs.
There’s a lovely nod to your Dad in “Remembering”… It captures that link.
In the new album! Becoming a Dad really gives me an instant connection to him. He became a father at a similar age. On one level, I know what his experience was like. All this compassion naturally comes out.
At your Thekla gig last June, I was struck to hear you singing a mantra. I couldn’t quite make it out then, but have since recognised the invocation to Saraswati, the goddess to call upon for music and creative expression…
And language! To me, your songs feel like offerings to something that is both within and greater than you – what is your relationship to the Muse?
It’s really grown, my understanding of creativity in this way. There is a desire to understand my creativity with this mechanism of personification, but also of devotion. Having a focus for the devotion.
There is a story behind that particular lyric and the use of the Muse. I had a phone call from a friend who was coming to the end of his studies, training to become a Family Constellations practitioner. Later on, he told me that he had a kind of brainwave calling to contact me, but at the time, he just said, “You’re doing something really interesting, you’re writing an album; I need to practise my work – maybe we could do a session together? Just you and I, and it would be about the creative process.” So I said, sure, that sounds really interesting.
We went to a field near his house, with lots of rocks representing the different elements or systems in my life. One represented my family, one for the people I work with in the business sense, one representing the Muse. And one at my feet, representing myself. He had me stand in different positions and communicate from them to the other parts of the system – even back to myself. In the position of the Muse, he fed me these lines, which are typical for the Family Constellations practice, “And as there’s no such thing as time / Nothing is lost and no one is saved.”
He asked me if I had any regrets in my life, and I said, maybe I could have been more organised when I was sixteen, and I would have had a stellar career, some nonsense… He asked me to say back to myself, “There is no such thing as time in the creative realm. So nothing is lost.” And it broke me open, it really moved me. It worked, and I forgave myself. I didn’t know what I was holding until I let it go. I felt very grateful for the present moment. I haven’t lost anything; everything is as it’s supposed to be.
That’s the specific story behind that lyric – those words came directly into the song. I had wanted to incorporate some mantra into the music, but I was very sensitive to getting it right. There are many ways in which you could do it wrong – a bit too new-agey… I’m trying to always bridge a gap and communicate, beyond those who already are interested in those things.
It’s one of the things that I appreciate about your work – it has so many layers. If someone comes to a gig to listen to good music, they get that and leave feeling uplifted. And if someone is open to other aspects, they’ll get that, without you sticking it in their faces. It’s there for the seeing and hearing…
I really work hard to strike that balance. Eventually, this song happened, and I thought, “Here’s the place where we can put it.” Saraswati felt obvious. The mantra is “Aum eim Saraswatiyei namaha, which to the ears sounds like “I’m.” Sometimes I wonder, do people think that’s what I’m saying? [Laughs] It’s E.I.M., which is Saraswati’s seed sound, her essential vibration.
I found out after that there’s often an order of invocation: Ganesha is the opener of the gate, but Saraswati is pre-Ganesha, because we’re using her gifts. I felt pleased and confirmed when I found almost by mistake that I was doing that.
What is your connection with that path? Would you care to talk about it?
It’s kind of personal, in that I haven’t been schooled in depth. My father was always interested in Eastern culture – more Buddhism. So there were mantras in the house a bit when I was a teenager, it feels familiar. I was happy to reach for it in my adulthood because of that background.
The links come through Ram Dass. So much of my interest in Indian culture has been through Ram Dass. When I was a teenager, I loved African culture – and still do: there’s barely any expression of African music that I don’t love. Buddhism is also appealing, but Indian culture came later, in my later twenties. Through hearing Ram Dass and falling under his spell. He said that Maharaji, his guru, is the fisherman, and Ram Dass is the bait – I’ve definitely been caught, you know. [Laughs]
There began my interest in understanding these deities and all of the different energies and principles they represent. I got into mantra through Deva Prema & Miten, as well. My wife’s parents are friends with them.
The themes of dharma, responsibility, self-inquiry, and awakening all run through this album… What moved you to stand so clearly in your personal intentions and to have the courage to commit to being seen, so to speak?
I hesitate now to say it, because it’s really testing me – the music, and this tour. In a good way, but also taking me very deeply into understanding where I am being played and where I am playing, if that makes sense. The album is a reflection of my interests, of the things that I’ve been taking in, of musical influences. Musically, I’m still working with all of the wide listening I’ve done up to this point. More emphasis has been on the influence of Ram Dass and Osho, Eckhardt Tolle. I only wanted to hear their words, I had a desire to understand their teachings – and am interested to a degree in all saints. That’s been the pull of this album.
I also wanted to make the music that I want to hear in the world. Many people are doing great work about the same themes. In a sense, any artist who is true and surrendered is always an expression of truth. But I wanted to speak explicitly, because I feel it’s really needed. When you look for something and you can’t find it… Okay, I’ll do it myself! [Laughs] I do feel urgency in this time. I knew the energy it takes to make a body of work, and I couldn’t begin if it was just to talk about myself. By the end of touring the previous album, it was frustrating to not be speaking really clearly. Having a kid amplified that, and made me feel I need to take responsibility for what I’m doing.
I get led by the material, by the music. I always start musically with shapes and feeling – and the guitar, which informs melodies, and the melodies give me words… I go a long way in creating these songs before I’m there making decisions. They kind of have a life of their own. I also make decisions – it’s a dance between the two. And there is a choice to talk about these matters. But I was resistant to calling it Wake up Now.
It’s quite a declaration! But we need it…
It is! [Laughs] I was really encouraged by people I adore. I had written the song with the chorus, “Wake up now,” so that already existed in “Mountain to Move.” I was looking through the album for the title, talking with friends about the process, and I received that really clearly from them: Own this, be really transparent, take authority and authorship in it. I had a resistance, even when I was writing the song. Again, the music led me – the pre-chorus, “I don’t want to see us lose any more time / This moment is a mountain to move / So move it inside…” and the melody took me down to “Wake up now.”
I remember Samsara [Nick’s mother-in-law] was in the kitchen with the baby, who was very young, and she leaned round the door as I was working, the first time I sang it and went, [thumbs up gesture] – “There it is!” [Laughter] I knew it was the one, and the chorus of that song.
Immediately, resistance came up – people will think that I am being messianic, if it sounds like a command. Who am I to tell… I know the futility of thinking that any actor can have any influence over this ripening process. In the individual, and on a planetary, universal level. But I’m always doing this dance – it’s a contradiction, I live with it.
It’s brave; by being transparent, people will feel they can be, too. We need to understand that we can lead a normal life, be creative, and nurture our inner life as well.
That’s what I really want, for sure. For people to understand that they are more than their bodies, more than their desires, more than their names and roles. To stay very connected with vibrant mystery – every day! [Laughs] We will make the changes we need to make in our lives by falling in love with this experience. Treasuring and cherishing it, rather than through obligation, or guilt, or fear. I hope that people who come to the gigs really touch this magical feeling.
It’s a very joyful, hopeful album… If we place ourselves in that energy, without knowing any of its background, we can’t do anything else, the joy is contagious. We need contagious joy!
We need contagious joy – we do, we do.
Does your creative path match your highest intention?
It’s a really pertinent question. In all honesty, I’m living with a lot of conflict, right now. I don’t think they serve each other. There are many elements to it. The two are very harmoniously intertwined in the creation and recording of the songs. The recording sessions for this album were just so wonderful, with roots going back many months in meeting its many characters. The moment in which I committed to really speak the truth… You lose if you don’t and you lose if you do, so I win all around: let’s go, let’s speak the truth.
People started to arrive to help me do that. And Federico [Bruno] is a very interesting guy, the perfect character to come in. Others, too – Dean [Broderick], Fifi [Dewey]… We all know each other through an Ayahuasca church. At the heart of this record is that practise together, which we have had over the years. It came together into this recording session, in October last year. It was absolutely amazing, I really learnt a lot about how to get out of the way, put the pieces together and go into the unknown.
The greater challenges, I suppose, arrived in the beginning of the summer with the release and promotion of the music, with the record label’s ambitions. I thought they were mine, too. But I’m finding a lot of – almost irreconcilable desires. I speak in generalizations… It’s really fresh, I’m really feeling it.
Do you rest on rhythms, practices, or environments in order to create?
Through the writing and recording of the album, mantra was important. I wasn’t sitting so much in breath meditation; mantra was what I was using. And Federico taught me the Catholic version of that, and I found that we were praying. Oh okay – of course!
Even the japa mala and the rosary beads are similar…
Exactly. Through a growing interest in mantra, it was acceptable to part of me because of the otherness, maybe… I thought, praying? No thanks. [Laughs] But through mantra, I began to understand that there is a realm of metaphysical power, perhaps. Fundamentally, I’m doing it as gym for my mind. I focus on repetition, my mind wanders, and I bring it back… So when I started to hear them in my own language, or in Italian or Latin, of course I was interested. I was humbled to be able to approach it. The rosary was a big part of this album.
You’ve said that you wanted to involve friends in the making and playing of this album. How do others, family, obligations, choices fit into your creative life? How do you weave it all together?
We have the family on the tour bus [Laughs].
That’s ideal, with a little one!
We have a revolving trio of grandmas – there are three grandmas: my mum, Isadora’s mum, and her mum’s partner. They’re coming at different points in the tour. Isadora sings with me on the album and in the band, so it made sense for us to do this. It’s a real privilege, a real joy to be able to tour my own project and bring my family. So many musicians have to be away and we can do this. And he [Nick’s son] is really connected with the heart of this. It’s very important to have him along and make it good for him. He’s very comfortable around everybody.
With regard to the music and song writing, I think partly because I’d written in some degree of solitude before that, with the first album, it was natural for me to have a new place to go, to share it. It was more fun. I found I was doing that from the very beginning. That was really fostered by my work with Brian Eno, as well. Brian encouraged me to question the idea of the solo artist in isolation with his connection with divinity and inspiration, and “it comes from nowhere…” He was like, well, on one level, sure, but we’re also all interconnected, inter-influenced. What about that?
I already had these ideas, which were founded in the realisation that my expression wouldn’t be diluted by the inclusion of other people. With the right people, it would be supported.
We moved out to Wiltshire, and collaborators started to come really easily. They were my friends, so when I had doubts, times of difficulty with the creative process, when I was feeling pressure was actually when we were really fostering the depth of our collaboration, becoming really close friends with Dean and Federico.
With my wife, Isadora, I’m always writing around the house, and she’s always finishing off … She mishears my lyrics; she says it differently, and it’s better than the one I was saying. In a way, we wrote “Unconditional” together… She was singing in the living room, and it was so beautiful, with the ukulele, that I took my phone and put it on the table, and recorded it. I loved it! I listened to it for myself for months. In the studio, I played it to Ethan, the producer, and he was like, “This is amazing!” We then played it to everybody, and recorded along to it, making the song called “Lullaby.” A lullaby to the baby in the womb. I used the melody in the song “Unconditional,” so “Lullaby” is a kind of reprise to the song.
With Venus, are you referring to love, or the planet, the goddess…? There’s so much there, I felt it wasn’t just about you and Isadora and the family, but maybe more…
It is more. It’s both, and. In “Unconditional,” I’m really talking about consciousness, as well. “The Venus light” – it’s consciousness; it’s about awareness. It is love.
Have you ever felt creatively stuck, and if so, how did you move beyond that?
Yeah, I know that. You just have to learn for yourself each time. For me, it was my second second album – I had done two with the band [Portico Quartet] in the past, so at least I knew a bit to expect the challenges. From the beginning of this album, there were fears that are always there, and I befriended them, eventually. I recognised that I can carry on all the same, even if they’re here. I knew to continue all the same. Even if I don’t feel inspired, there are many things I can do. I would work on learning someone else’s song… Mostly, very practical things to get me beyond that: devices to keep going. And then inspiration eventually comes back.
On a deeper level, I’ve been working on this idea that I am the waiter, and not the chef. I’m bringing the music to the table, where the people are, and that keeps me in my position. The chef is something else. Normally, problems come when the waiter starts to think he’s the chef.
[Laughter] I have to remember that – that’s great!
It works, yeah.
Do you know this quote by Joseph Campbell? He wrote, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living.” How does that resonate with you?
It’s true, definitely true – which doesn’t mean I’m always there… That’s beautiful. I count myself as lucky that what I love has always been obvious to me – and it was about music… I played all kinds of instruments, and had a very broad appetite. It was fun, and I was lucky to have some early triumphs – small things, at school, or with my family, who made music available to me. Even at a young age, I was able to see that it would be other people’s conditioning to think, I should get a proper job. I always knew that this would be fine. And also that I didn’t have to know the future and have typical security. It would be fine if I just went deep into music, if I went for it. It’s a big part of this album.
In “Unconditional,” you sing, “It was right here all along / What you’re looking for is never gone.” What is the interplay between longing and completion, between seeking and finding, in your work?
I was really beginning to understand, through different spiritual teachings, that all the different desires have a similar root. It’s about longing for Self, for the satisfaction of abiding in our own Self. Self-enquiry becomes self-abidance. With that lyric, how could I say what someone else is looking for? It’s the one thing that we actually never disconnect from. It’s impossible to disconnect from it.
Completion is the end of seeking, it becomes more about stopping. I like Gangaji a lot, and she said that she was a typical seeker, she tried lots of things, and all of that was necessary. Each thing dissolved her ego, and played a part in her journey, but at the right time, she met Papaji, and he said “Stop.” And that was the teaching.
It’s one of the contradictions I’m feeling between what I care about the most, what my spiritual path is about, and how it interplays with being a professional musician. It’s very easy in the professional musician realm to be based in future ambition, external validation, and success. The industry I work with is naturally and correctly situated in that realm, but it pulls me out of this one. It’s better for everybody if I am inspired and happy, and here, now. That’s me doing my job. And of course, that works for everybody. It doesn’t matter what side of the industry or job you’re in – we all work for that future goal better by finding it now.
What is your closest experience to simply being, to a state of connection? Is this a state you are in when writing or performing, and/or is it something that feeds your music?
My experience closest to being is… being. In the blessed moments when any obstacles are out of the way. It can be when you’re playing football and you’re really committed, in the moment. I like to play football on a Tuesday when I’m in Wiltshire, and I love it for that reason! Definitely it’s the case with music. But I don’t notice it, because it’s so natural. I want to be there, the whole time.
It’s so elusive… Sometimes you’re meditating, everything stops, and the minute you realise it, it’s already gone, you’re back in the mind. As you say, when you’re being, you’re being!
Being amazed by being is a part of the trap, somehow. You fall out of the moment.
Going back to “Transform your game,” you sing “You’ll do all the things for which you came…” If it’s not too personal a question, what would you say your gift is?
[Pause] My gift is the way I feel music. My gift is these songs. There are lots of details in my way with rhythms and harmony that all have warmth and animation, somehow. People often tell me it feels good, it’s an embrace. My uncle would always play, when the family came together, and I recognise that in the way he plays. I know what it’s like to experience it. Someone told me that my music has a Christ-consciousness to it… And I thought, maybe that’s the feeling of this warmth.
It’s very much in the heart…
It’s a heart thing. Of course, I place this resonating chamber to my chest, and I’m manipulating strings in front of it, and it sends vibrations – fundamentally and in non-conceptual ways – directly into my chest. Likewise, I think it goes out that way.
What are you most excited about at the moment?
This second baby! Even if it’s only a year since we had the first one, there have been a lot of changes, and you adapt very quickly. We’re three months into it already, it’s going to be April, and that seems so close!
Experience Wake Up Now here. ‘While my muse waits patiently / Dancing for the answers in the rain / She says, ‘You’ll do all the things for which you came,’ in “Transform Your Game.”
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