Brian Cullman on Nick Drake

Grace Rubin
November 22, 2020

This piece is part of the Algorhythms project: artists telling stories about music they discovered from humans. Because where we discover music is an important part of its impact, and not all music is discovered through an algorithm.

Brian Cullman is a folk rocker, music producer, writer, and world traveler. At 15, he played guitar for Danny Fields while Edie Sedgwick observed and Jim Morrison napped (i.e. passed out drunk) on the couch. At 18, he moved to London and fell in with a crowd of English folk singers, including John and Beverly Martyn, Sandy Denny, and Richard and Linda Thompson, who provided mentorship and the occasional gig. Back in the States, Brian collaborated with Syd Straw and Vernon Reid but eventually traded the stage for the page to pursue music journalism with the Paris Review. When he returned to the industry in the 90s, Brian stayed behind the scenes, producing for Lucinda Williams, Sussan Deyhim, and Youssou N’dour. “Any way you slice it,” Paul Opperman once wrote, “Brian Cullman is or has been that guy.”

Brian released his first album, All Fires The Fire, in 2008, and his second, The Opposite of Time, eight years later. This September saw the arrival of his third LP, Winter Clothes, which American Songwriter described as “exuberantly sad,” simultaneously “raucous and tender,” and his “best record ever.”

For his Algorhythm, Brian recalls the folk album that changed his life.

It’s been a long time since a record changed my life. And for good reason. Changing your life is messy.
Years ago, I was at John & Beverly Martyn’s house in London, and, as I was leaving, John insisted I take along a copy of Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left. John always had great music on his stereo, Hamza El Din and Geoff Muldaur and Pharaoh Sanders, but this record seemed different: it wasn’t blues, it wasn’t an old jazz record or Nubian oud music from the desert, this was recent and closer to home.
“You haven’t heard this?” He looked skeptical. “How could you not know this. Man, it’s alive!”
And it was.
And it is.
When I got back to my flat in Islington, I put on “Cello Song,” and the colors in the room seemed to change. It was as if someone had opened up the window and let a fresh breeze into the room, blowing away the dust of the past. The sound of his fingers on the strings was so quietly confident, not a note was out of place, nothing was there by chance. John Martyn’s music was always slightly slurred, messy and sprawling and fractious, it reached for the moon, but might kick you in the shins along the way. This was the other side of the same coin. Precise and intentional. And that voice! Intimate and young and weary and present, it felt like he was singing from deep inside the guitar. The sound and the songs were so delicate that I held my breath….it felt like the slightest wind would blow them away. And yet, they were so finely built, so well-wrought, that now, fifty years on, they are still here, still quietly devastating, still new.

Give Brian’s latest album a spin and listen to the full Algorhythms playlist here.

Don’t believe an album can change your life? Grey Matter is the music community where music and people meet. Learn more and join the community here.

Words

Recommended Reading