Interview: Joel Frederiksen

Jayson Greene

By Jayson Greene

on 07.12.12 in Interviews

The contemplative, pastoral folk music of Nick Drake is oddly timeless. Listening to an album like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, it is difficult its creator anywhere other than perched beneath a shady tree in an English countryside, miles from civilization.

It was this pre-modern whiff that attracted the operatic bass singer and lute player Joel Frederiksen. Frederiksen, a noted interpreter of Renaissance lute music, stumbled across Drake in his earlier coffee-shop folk-singer days, and never forgot the lingering taste of what he calls Drake’s “English melancholy” as he made his way to the upper echelons of the classical-music world. Now, he has united these two interests in a transfixingly beautiful and original record called Requiem for A Pink Moon, which plops Drake squarely in the 16th century, alongside Campion and Dowland. eMusic’s Jayson Greene chatted with him about folk-music beginnings, finding his way to the lute, and going with your gut.

When did you first encounter the music of Nick Drake?

Nick Drake was introduced to me by a college friend who also sang and played guitar. We were both performing in coffeehouses, things like that. I won this competition; the prize, in Mancato, Minnesota, was two nights at a coffeehouse. He was playing Nick Drake for me, and I was immediately struck by the high level of the songwriting, and of playing. I picked it up from listening to him; then I went and learned “Time Has Told Me” from the recording.

I played those songs for awhile. As I found my way through life after graduation, I grew increasingly interested in Renaissance music and folk music. I went out to Washington, D.C., to the Library of Congress, where I actually worked as an intern in the folk-song department. I worked there with a really great folk singer, Joe Hickerson — we called him “the folk singer’s folk singer,” he made some recordings for Folkways. His music was never mainstream, however, because he didn’t have a particular polish to his voice or his playing, or anything else, really. But he had an encyclopedic memory. He knew a lot of songs.

I discovered the lute through that period. I realized, at some point, that I was not a folkie, though. I was never gonna completely fit in that world. I expected the folkies to be these super-cool, really open people, and they were super not-open, I thought. [Laughs.] Much less open even than the classical people I had found. I was always interested in the boundaries, or in pushing them, and they generally were very interested in adhering to them rigidly. I was always rebelling against people who thought they know how it was.

I’ve worked in the classical world before, and encountered some of the attitudes you spoke of. I thought it was interesting to hear that there’s some of that same myopia present in the folk world.

You either had to be born in Appalachia, or something like that, to a family of 18 people or whatever, and have grown up poor and then worked your way out of that, or the other part I had trouble understanding was that there was always the tension with this sort of folk revival, with like Bob Dylan, coming out of Woody Guthrie and all those people. What really got me going back then was, for instance — I was in the stacks in a certain cage in the library where there were very valuable folk documents and I got my hands on a letter that Woody Guthrie wrote to Alan or John Lomax where he described the compositional process and the way he was thinking about stuff like that. That really turned me on, I just thought that was so cool, so that’s in fact the kind of thing I was into. There is a difference between Jean Ritchie who was so much closer to the source and someone who learns the songs from Jean Ritchie. Jean Ritchie learned them in the Appalachians growing up, with everybody around her. So there’s a difference in being a folk revivalist.

Who introduced the lute to you?

I was playing all this Renaissance music on the guitar at the time — solos by John Dowland, other things of that nature. It was the instrument I had. I finally heard this guy Howard Bass. I immediately thought I had to learn it. Once I got my own lute, it was like opening Pandora’s Box for me.

How did you first conceive of this project?

Misunderstanding played a big role! [Laughs.] My press person thought I was going to do a do of a program of Elizabethan songs and Nick Drake songs, which I had no intention of doing. I was kinda mad at them initially, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. I had already hatched this idea somewhere in my head to try Nick Drake on the lute.

Was there anything else specific about Nick Drake’s music that you latched onto besides its form?

I like his use of open tunings, and the whole finger-picking style. His words also touched me. I respond a lot to lyrics; I think that’s why I responded so strongly to guys like Campion or Dowland, because the poetry and the music were at such a high level, the unity that created was powerful. I’m really a sucker for a good ballad, and some of Nick’s songs, like “Which Will You Go For” have particularly beautiful lyrics.

Why does Nick Drake fit in to a world with Dowland and Campion?

Thomas Campion and Nick Drake both went to Cambridge, but neither of them took a degree. Nick was born and lived most of his life near Stratford-on-Avon, where Shakespeare lived. These connections…I’ve thought a lot about it, but it’s not my point to make that a Nick Drake song is just as good as a Dowland song. They’re two different people. Maybe what unites them is a kind of English melancholy. When I was putting the album together, I realized it didn’t work to try to put some kind of really complicated accompaniment to the Nick Drake melodies. The Nick songs I left more or less pure.
As I was working, though, I just started having a lot of fun. I started taking songs like his “Golden Locks,” which is a song I’ve known for a long time, and writing interludes for it, in a more or less Nick Drake style, trying to at least keep a kind of rhythm. I think one of the connections I feel works best on the recording, and that I like personally, is the one that links his “Golden Locks” to “The Place to Be,” the mention of “youth is green” in the one and “when I was green, greener than the hills,” in the other. I’m a singer first. I am really not a musicologist. I’m an amateur musicologist in the sense that I do research. I do think about these things, but I allow myself some freedom; it’s not historically correct or anything. At some point, I decided “I’m going to open up to these Nick Drake songs and do it the way I feel it.”