Nick Garrie’s story draws parallels with Sixto ‘Sugarman’ Rodriguez. He recorded the great lost album ‘The Nightmare Of J.B. Stanislas’ in 1969 but few heard it with the few copies released subsequently treasured by collectors. However Nick kept writing and over the past decade he discovered a fan base he never knew he had.
His current recordings match ‘Stanislas’ with his music continuing to be compared with contemporaries Nick Drake, Bill Fay and Leonard Cohen. With a new single out ‘Lone Ranger In The Sky’, Nick shares his incredible life story with Jason Barnard.
Let’s start at the beginning – can you tell me about your early years?
I was born in Ripon and there just for just one day, my mother wanted me born in England. We then moved straight to Paris, my mother and father were already fighting. They then divorced and I grew up in Paris until I was six. I was in Hull, North Ferriby, for one year and then Norwich for 11 years.
How did you get into music and what were your influences?
The family home was in France and when I was brought up French was my first language. When I was little I was sent off to England from the age of six. I used to make up songs like a cry baby into my pillow. I used to do it when I was going and coming back. Then when I got to boarding school, the first thing the boys did to you was take your clothes off and throw you in the nettles. The next day you’d meet the choirmaster and if you didn’t sing completely out of tune he’d put you in the choir. I hated the choir but it taught me everything about music, the harmonies and melodies. I started guitar at 13 and I taught myself. It was around that time The Beatles came out. There were four groups and they were all trying to outdo each other.
So you went to France after University.
Yes, I got my degree, went to France and got my recording contract straight away and was based in Paris. When it didn’t work out I went travelling to the islands and then to the snow.
One or two years before Stanislas you recorded some demos. ‘Cambridge Town’ is a really lovely song.
The story behind that song is gorgeous because I was busking with a friend of mine in San Tropez. I got called up to the French army so I had to be out of France within two or three days. We met a couple of girls, one of them was Belgian. The day after we met her a man heard me playing on the beach. He said “Are they your songs?” I said “Yes” and he said “I’ll make a record with you. I’m a French producer.” I said “I can’t go to France.” He said “That’s ok, we’ll go to Belgium.” I flew the night after to Belgium.
In those days I used to write two or three songs at a time and at the time I was writing ‘Cambridge Town’. When I got there I phoned the girl up and she said “Come and stay.” So I did and in the morning I said “Do you sing at all?” She said “I don’t know. I never have done.” I said I’ve written this song could you sing this part? We were in the kitchen and she sang absolutely beautifully.
We went into the studio and it was the first song we recorded. That’s what you hear all these years after. The saddest thing is that I don’t know who she is. I never had a relationship with her; all I remember was that she was engaged to be married. Every time I hear it I think of her. I wish she could hear it sometime and know that what she did with me lasted and touched people’s hearts.
Hopefully as word spreads you’ll make that connection. You mentioned getting a recording contract, how did you get signed?
My mother got me an interview with Lucien Morisse who was the head of Disc A-Z. It was a prestigious label and he was also the head of Europe 1, the biggest commercial radio station in France. He had five minutes to see me in and in those days I had my guitar with me all the time. He said “What have you got?” and I played ‘Deeper Tones Of Blue’. He pulled out a contract and said “Sign here”. He said “Have you got other songs like that?” I said “Yes, I do.” He said “We’ll make an album.”
The recording of ‘The Nightmare Of J. B. Stanislas’ is quite an interesting story too.
I worked with Eddie Vartan, the producer, for three weeks. I used to go to his place every day. He played me songs by Nilsson and people like that and I knew there’d be strings but not this huge group. The musicians didn’t like me at all. They were old guys in cardigans and just saw this young whippersnapper with his songs. We just didn’t click, not even the guitarist. The guitarist was more miserable. There was no empathy at all.
I’ve read that you didn’t know about the orchestra and arrived not knowing there would be one ready to record tracks for the album.
If you listen carefully to the song ‘The Nightmare Of J. B. Stanislas’ there’s a place I come in, in front of the beat. That was Eddie Vartan stamping on my foot telling me when to sing. When I first heard them playing I thought they were just warming up. I said to him “When am I starting?” He said “This is it, Stanislas.” I didn’t recognise it. I didn’t know what the hell it was. It was tough.
‘David’s Prayer’ is another one of my favourites.
I wrote it with a bit of ‘Let It Be’ in mind, then it started getting kind of religious on me; Jewish really. I played it a Primavera Festival three years ago. I wanted to play all the songs as they were in the same key on the guitar but on ‘David’s Prayer’ I couldn’t, it was just too high. So I didn’t play guitar and I went for a little wander in the audience in the middle of the song. When I sung ‘Guide my path…’ I found a girl I knew and I grabbed her and gave her a massive hug. The audience just exploded. Time Out magazine said it was the most moving part of the festival they’d seen in 12 years.
‘Wheel Of Fortune’ was one of the tracks that broke out from ‘Stanislas’ before the bandwagon started rolling. It was on the ‘Circus Days’ compilation.
I was singing it a few years ago and this guy says “Who the hell is big Bill who drops a thousand feet to the ground?” When you write stuff you don’t think about it particularly and you move onto the next song. But it was about the Friday before we broke up at boarding school. We’d go to the cinema or the fairground, the song was about that. But the guy who’s in the song is my housemaster who used to take us to these things. He was an absolute sadistic bastard. Nowadays he would have been jailed so I got my own back and put him in the song.
I’ve read that Norwich inspired ‘Stanislas’ too.
A lot of it like ‘Evening’, but ‘Stanislas’ the song and others was more about student days.
After ‘Stanislas’ was recorded it didn’t really get out.
The guy who signed me, Lucien Morisse, committed suicide just after the album was done. The label said “Go out to the Champs-Élysées. It will be out.” It never did. That was pretty much the end of it. After about six months I went traveling. I had enough with it.
I heard that you didn’t have a copy.
No, I didn’t. If I’m honest I wasn’t that crazy about it. I don’t like saying that now as I’ve met people who it’s meant everything to them. For me it wasn’t what I wanted for my songs.
Was something simpler?
You later recorded as Nick Hamilton. Why was that?
After I made ‘Stanislas’ I met Francis Lai, the composer. He produced a single for me. He said “I’m not using Garrie as the other bastard will cash in, I’ll call you Nick Martin.” I went home to my mother who was Scottish and she said “Your name is Hamilton, that’s my real name!” So that name lasted until recent years. I more or less had given up and then I found that this Nick Garrie person still existed. [laughs] That was my name. The reason I recorded under the name Garrie was that my father was Russian my mother was Scottish. It was an acrimonious divorce etc. He kept saying “My son is Russian and is now French.” My mother said “No, he’s not. He’s Scottish, he’s Garrie.” I was registered in School as Garrie, and my degree was in the name of Garrie. In a way Stanislas was my true thing.
I had a very tough time at boarding school. I was dreading that people would find out my name was Miansarow. When I went to University I did a European literature course and we studied Surrealism. I just fell in love with it. They had a whole section on automatic writing and I tried to write a song automatically which is what I did with Stanislas. I had no idea where it was going. In the song I was saying “My name is Stanislas”, what I was saying was “My name is Miansarow” I’m not Garrie. It was a massive break through for me.
So you went traveling after ‘Stanislas’, what did you end up doing?
I did everything I could really could. I taught English as a foreign language for a bit. Then I set up a ski club in the Alps and worked there for 15 years. I also set a waterskiing club so I was doing skiing and waterskiing.
You started recording again in the mid 70s.
Yes, I did something with Francis Lai in 1976.
And by the mid 80s you recorded an album that was very successful in Spain.
Yes, I did an album called ‘Suitcase Man’ with members of Cat Stevens band, Alun Davies and Gerry Conway. It was number one in Spain for three months. That earned me a tour with Leonard Cohen in Spain which was fantastic.
What was he like?
He was absolutely lovely. He obviously knew I was shit scared. He just took me under his wing. I’d been given a Spanish guitarist and a room with a sandwich and a beer. He had a huge room with food and drink. He had us in his room straight away. He listened when I was doing the sound check and said he liked the song I was playing. By ppening for him for audiences of about 5,000 I just went up 10 degrees. It upped my game. That’s all thanks to him.
‘Smile’ from that album is a really great song.
I never play it now but I did play it about 15 years ago on a Japanese tour with Francis Lai’s orchestra. I was one of the singers singing songs I had written with him, that being one of them. It’s a rueful anti-war song “So many eager young men to go to war. Crossing the seas to die on foreign shores.” It could be about anybody nowadays. I played it in Hiroshima and there was complete silence in the audience for what seemed was five minutes and then there was a huge roar. I don’t play it anymore. I should do, it’s ridiculous.
Can you tell me about ‘I’m On Your Side’ from your album ‘The Playing Fields’.
‘The Playing Fields’ never came out so no one’s ever heard the album. I’m thinking of recording it again or just doing something with it. I always thought it was a good song but could never get a release for it. I kind of gave up on it.
You rerecorded ‘Deeper Tones of Blue’, originally recorded for ‘Stanislas’, in a simpler arrangement for ‘Twelve Old Songs’. It’s arguably your signature tune.
I wrote it near San Tropez on a hillside. McCartney said the same thing about ‘Yesterday’, sometimes you get a song whole “Where has this come from? Have I pinched this song?” It just came that way and it’s been a great song throughout the years. I’ve played it at weddings and funerals. I didn’t have any fans after ‘Stanislas’ but I played my songs to my mother in a little kitchen in France. I played ‘Deeper Tones of Blue’ and she said “One day that will be heard all over the world.” Mums are always right aren’t they, even if it’s just a teeny little bit! Over the last 10 years I’ve got messages from people all over the world who were touched by that song.
Even all the years after ‘Stanislas’, I knew in my back pocket that I had ‘Deeper Tones Of Blue’. I used to say to myself “Listen Nick. You’ve got that song. That song will be listened to after your dead.” In life that’s all we care for, to do something worthwhile and you’ve made a little mark on the universe. I knew that it was that song.
‘Love In My Eyes’ was also on ‘Twelve Old Songs’.
I’d just met my wife and she was in England and I was in Paris. She phoned up one day and my stepfather took the phone. I was in the shower and I came out and he wanted to give me the phone. I wanted to say “I’ve got soap in my eyes” but it came out as “I’ve got love in my eyes”. I spoke to her then wrote it in one hit, I changed the music a bit. That’s a song that works pretty well all over the world.
The album you made a few years ago, “49 Arlington Gardens”, is fantastic.
I’m so glad you like it. When I got married I stopped writing. I had long happy years with the children, then I woke up and wasn’t married. I did what I always do, I started writing. 49 Arlington Gardens is where I stayed as a rugby mate had a flat there. I was going to a gig and the car was full of junk. He said “Are you living rough?”, I said “A little bit” and moved in there. After a few days I said “I’m going to write an album and call it 49 Arlington Gardens” which I did.
It was the happiest time I’ve ever had with musicians. I’ve worked with Cat Stevens band and French musicians but these were Scottish guys from Glasgow. They’ve got this slightly gruff exterior but inside they’re just like honey. I just love them really. Douglas Stuart got the musicians together. First of all I played a couple of songs. They said “You’ve got to record these. They are better than Stanislas.” I said “Look I haven’t got the money to do it.” He said “Don’t worry, just turn up.” So all of the musicians played for free. I got a deal through Elefant Records who were really good. They gave me an advance and everyone was paid. I still love to go up there.
A highlight from that album is “On A Wing And A Prayer”. Was that about your marriage breakup?
Not so much about the breakup. It was more about getting really bad depression and feeling pretty worthless. That was a way of working it out. I’ve played it three years running in New York and I’ve had so many people coming up to me and say “That song has got me through such bad times.” I had a lady come up to me and her daughter had died only a few months previously. She said “Your song has given me so much succour.” I don’t think it’s a good thing to write when you’re down but sometimes it just comes out. Then people react to it, they feel for it.
There’s a positivity to it, despite the darkness.
That’s the idea of it. Whatever is thrown at you, you will get through on a wing on a prayer.
You mentioned playing at the Primavera festival. Your live version of ‘Evening’ originally on ‘Stanislas’ has been released from that show.
It was a big stress with the Scottish band and Spanish strings, who were phenomenal. But on that song I played alone, just me on the guitar with the strings. It was originally recorded in Paris and was the last track we did. When I originally recorded it for ‘Stanislas’, Eddie Vartan was so fed up he said “Do what you want with the musicians.” So I said “You can send them all home, I’ll keep the young trumpet player.” But this live was something crafted and really, really beautiful. I think “Evening” is my best song ever. They make it just memorable.
It would be good to hear the full set live.
I’ve got a copy but haven’t bothered. Once I record something I listen to it for three days 24-7. Then that’s it, I’m finished with it. I don’t have copies of my songs, I’m done with it. That’s it.
There’s a really good documentary about you on YouTube.
It’s a friend of mine, Ally Kerr, who’s a great singer. He was very discreet and captured the essence of it.
Your single from a few years back “Rainy Days In Sunny Sydney” stands up.
That came about because of Pigmy, he is a small Spanish guy and a great songwriter. He played with Kevin Ayers and all followed the same path. He wanted to produce a song of mine so he picked that up. I came over to the studio in Barcelona and played it, me on guitar and voice. He worked like an absolute slave to turn it into what it is.
I’ve heard that there’s been fabricated biography about you.
Oh really. I didn’t know. You couldn’t make up the things I’ve done between the skiing, the sun, the water, the hot air ballooning, teaching and the swimming school. Now I’m singing in old peoples homes. Who’s going to write a book about me even close to the truth?!
Your latest single, ‘Lone Ranger In The Sky’ is one you wrote many years ago.
Yes, I wrote it years ago but never played it live. I then started playing it a couple of years ago and it had a great reception when I played it in New York. We recorded it there and I just love it. It’s a true song about a little fella who I was at school with. We grew up together and were up to no good from the ages of 6 to 9. He went down a different path and died ridiculously early. I got the news in a school magazine with glossy pictures and there was just a little line saying he had died. I just thought “Just put him in a song, keep it alive.”
And does the future bring more singles?
I’m not sure. I’ve got a couple of nice songs I wrote before Stanislas so maybe I’ll record them. I’m also playing live on Sunday 22 November in Utrecht, Holland with Jacco Gardner. He’s curating the festival and is a big fan. I prefer people coming to me to ask me to play. I then know they want to know my stuff and want to hear it. I can’t be doing with explaining who I am and what I can do.
There’s a film coming out in France called “The Way We Were”. They’ve used my song “Stephanie City” in it. It’s great as it’s 50 years after I wrote it.
I really appreciate speaking to the writer of all those great songs.
All these songs are signposts of my life because I only wrote when times where troubled. Every song has massive memories for me. Everything I’ve ever made has been pretty much a disaster, it never went anywhere. The only thing that did do well was the album in Spain and I didn’t get paid for it. So I don’t really expect anything from anything I record.
It’s been a privilege as, people like me who write like that, depend so much on people who like our stuff. When somebody comes along who really likes it, it gives you even more reason for keeping on living.
An audio podcast of this interview including the songs mentioned is available on The Strange Brew’s Nick Garrie Podcast.
Photos used with kind permission of Nick Garrie. Copyright © Jason Barnard and Nick Garrie, 2015. All Rights Reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any from or by any means, without prior permission from the author.