Nick Mulvey: The musical prodigy who was schooled in Havana
With a top 10 debut behind him, Chris Jones chats to singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey, who despite having great success with Portico Quartet, took the risk to strike out on his own.
When it comes to formative experiences for a rock artiste, college days can often be the most fruitful, it seems. After all, everyone from U2 to Radiohead to Genesis can trace their roots back to after-class jam sessions and stage debuts in which enthusiasm was doubtless in greater supply than seasoned musical talent.
For singer-songwriter Nick Mulvey - formerly of English band Portico Quartet - there was an added exoticism, as at least part of his musical education was gathered in the evocative surroundings of the Cuban capital Havana, after he won a place at a music school there as a teenager.
"It was basically an enormous country house on the outskirts of Havana," recalls the now 30-year-old. "The Americans used it, and then it got used as a French circus school. The circus people built these iconic domed buildings for their trapeze artists to rehearse in. Then in the revolution in 1959, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro imagined it as the Caribbean's premier art school, all multi-disciplined, and they turned those big domes into these great spaces for enormous sculptures to be made.
"The place is larger than life. It was designed by a guy who was really into breasts - women's forms, big, undulating shapes. It was fascinating."
It was certainly an eye-opening experience for a lad straight out of school, and which doubtless contributed to his successful career both with Portico Quartet and as a solo artist.
On the face of it, Mulvey's musical career had been going swimmingly when he quit the band. Portico Quartet had released two very well-received albums, they were touring plenty and their idiosyncratic sound had united fans from the jazz, indie and experimental circles.
And yet, in early 2011, Mulvey walked away from the band, from his percussion instrument the hang drum, and from the worlds of jazz and experimental music. He decided that from that point on, he was a singer-songwriter. The decision worked. In May this year - just over three years after leaving the band - he released his debut album First Mind to rave reviews and a top 10 placing in the UK album charts. And then the album was nominated for the Mercury Music Prize - his second nomination before he had reached the age of 30.
"Sometimes you've got to hit rock bottom to have the motivation to change," he says. "But at the same time it's a very slow, dawning thing. When I first had the thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to do something else?', I dismissed it but it kept coming back. After a while it's not even a decision - it's the truth of what's happening anyway. (You think), if I don't author this, then we're just going to get another advance from the record label, get in the studio ... I had to really own it."
As for the future, five-year-plans and set targets aren't really Mulvey's style. His approach is based on single-minded passion for his craft and taking things one step at a time.
"I love writing and I will always do it so I don't need to create time to write - I need to create time to rest," he says. "When I'm restful it just happens and I'm doing it for fun. That's really the place you want to be."
- Nick Mulvey plays the Limelight, Belfast, on December 10. For details, visit www.limelightbelfast.com