Observing Grazyna Auguscik’s musical path has been a fascinating experience. It’s a tale of a modest (to date) girl from Slupsk (Poland), who learnt to play the guitar at a local music school. At the end of the 70s she decided to give singing a go. Her first attempts revolved around jazz singing, both modern and traditional. Somewhere along the way she had a flirtation with folk rock, as well as more popular forms of music reaching a wider audience, winning various awards at Polish festivals.
For a singer in her early thirties (nothing personal!), the decision to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston came quite late. She was probably the oldest in her group and most likely the best or very good, anyway.
Before graduating from one of the greatest jazz schools in the world she had managed to make a name for herself on the most competitive jazz market – USA. She’s lived in Chicago for years but often performs in her native Poland. She can seduce demanding audiences in sophisticated concert halls as well open herself to an intimate group of a dozen or so in a small club or theater. A devoted and loyal lover of music, she loves to produce her albums on her own, which not only requires organizational skills and patience but most of all to have a strong belief in her own talents and musical abilities by taking most commercial risk on herself.
For years Grazyna has been cooperating with young musicians from Chicago. If the opportunity arises, she sits in with big names, such as Jim Hall, John Medeski, Michel Brecker or Patricia Barber.
I myself don’t remember the first time I saw Grazyna perform live but I know plenty of people who became her devoted fans for life after seeing her perform only once.
Grazyna Auguscik plays music her own way, constantly searching for new inspirations. Although she doesn’t shun the famous classics, none of her albums resembles countless works with yet another versions of the old jazz standards. This means her own way.
She once told me that voice is an unlimited power. Indeed, it’s the most intricate instrument in the world, equipped with innumerable timbres and surpassing other man-made sound-producing devices with its articulatory potential. Why, then, have we got so few prominent singers? It seems, to sing, you need to have a story to tell, unlike with the saxophone or the guitar, you can’t just be a voice virtuoso. Singing is a channel conveying emotions and a tool for expressing oneself, the uniquely impassioned telling of a story otherwise impossible to tell.
Grazyna is not after popularity, though, but consistently does her own thing playing the music she loves.
Nick Drake is a diamond in the rough. True, Bob Dylan is a household name and a great poet, but there are also others who, despite not having carved for themselves a successful career of parallel magnitude, certainly deserved one. Part of the legend of many an acclaimed musician is their short or tumultuous life, as was the case of Tim Hardin or Tim Buckley, both American, and the only Briton in the pantheon of rock poets, Nick Drake. What’s the difference between American and British folk, or, rather, what makes Nick Drake stand out?
Far from relying on lyrics alone, he writes exceptional music as well. In his works the melody complements the lyrics and evokes a dark, desolate mood with powerful instrumental support and complex, nonobvious arrangements.
However, the distinctiveness of Nick Drake from Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley and the likes, lies in the fact that he sings about his own feelings and emotions. Bob Dylan remains the greatest rock poet of all time, worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature (which, regrettably, he still has not received, although time is slowly ticking away and he himself will not live forever). Still, Bob Dylan is the voice of a generation, with Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley also frequently commenting on current events or merely relaying stories told by others in the tradition passed on by the previous generation of folk singers, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, not wrong in itself, but lacking individuality. Nick Drake’s intention was not to save the world but, through his music, he strove to convey the feelings confined in a shy, introvert soul. Many claim that this indifference to anything that was going on outside was eventually reflected in his indifference to his own life…
Nick Drake wasn’t the voice of a generation, he sang about his own world, not the world of others. He was, and still remains, genuine and up-to-date in his messages, having written unconventional, obscure melodies that you can’t get out of your head. In his music you can find both elements of Old English music as well as Fairport Convention-inspired blues phrases, which is in fact of little relevance as works of as high a quality as Drake’s do not have to be dismantled into technical bits and pieces.
His music has a very distinctive, individual and emotional touch and is not very adaptable. As a result, Drake’s songs are not often recorded by others. Elton John was the first who dared, before he, or even Nick Drake, released his debut solo album. If his covers were ever successful, it was rather in the instrumental versions, such as Brad Mehldau’s.
Apart from being a poet, Nick Drake was also a guitar virtuoso. John Cale of Velvet Underground dropped by the studio and stayed, making a guest appearance on the second of his three albums. Robert Smith of The Cure came up with the name for his band inspired by one of Drake’s songs and called his guitar technique inimitable. His records are a source of fascination for contemporary artists, such as Peter Buck (R.E.M.), Kate Bush, Ben Watt (Everything But The Girl), Paul Wheeler and Elvis Costello.
His biography has been likened to the incredible life of Robert Johnson, who recorded hiding insecurely in the darkest corner of the studio, which was also how Nick Drake created his last album, Pink Moon. Although the similarities do not end here. They both died at the same age, Nick having recorded twenty-eight songs and four instrumental miniatures and Robert Johnson’s legacy constituting twenty-nine songs and some alternative versions, neither enjoyed popularity when alive but both made an impact on the history of music posthumously, both had a reputation for having an amazing skill with the guitar and having to have waited twenty-five years to be discovered. I’ve got a feeling that the height of Nick Drake’s popularity is yet to come…
Man Behind The Sun
I’m a bit envious, I admit.
Among the people reading this text there are bound to be fans of Grazyna who have never heard of Nick Drake before and if that’s you, you are in for a huge treat. Listening to this album for the first time you will not only discover Grazyna’s extraordinary conception for interpreting Nick Drake’s poetry but you will also learn about the existence of a man whose debut album, Five Leaves Left, was compared to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Surely, as Grazyna’s fans, you’ve remained loyal to her over the years, having collected most, if not all, of her albums. Now, in the company of your favourite singer, you’re about to embark on a fascinating journey into the world of one of the most amazing rock poets..
Many of you are also likely to be fans of Nick Drake, on the lookout for any information about your idol. Know that you’re about to discover a remarkable singer, who will allow you a glimpse into the world where your favourite lyrics have been given a new lease of life. You can safely put this album next to Nick’s three albums – it’s just as good, even more interesting, perhaps, as far as I’m concerned. In a way I envy you more than Grazyna’s fans – not only will the album you’re holding in your hand prove to be extraordinary but, I’m positive about that, you’ll soon be reaching for other records by Grazyna as well.
Grazyna’s ideas for Nick Drake’s compositions are extraordinary. The fact that there have been very few attempts to take on his works over last forty years is a testimony to how complex the material is. Highly intimate on both the musical and lyrical level, his songs are also very much bound to a specific time and place and as such, despite exploring universally understood, timeless concepts, might be difficult to interpret by a different performer. Musically, they pose a challenge as well, the songs cannot be simply sung without being dissected, understood and reinterpreted so that they respond to who is singing them, even if that means altering the original emotion.
Nick Drake is considered by many to be the saddest poet of contemporary music. However, to be able to penetrate the listeners’ souls and move their hearts you have to resort to powerful means of expression. Nick Drake mastered this skill forty years ago and now Grazyna Auguscik is excelling at it.
So much so that I keep wondering if the songs on Man Behind The Sun aren’t better than the original. What’s certain is that they are equally personal and overflowing with contagious emotions. The album delivers a true musical feat, which is a rare achievement in this ever-changing reality. Man Behind The Sun is highly-addictive so consider yourselves warned…