A college friend of Nick Drake, Robert Kirby’s first commissioned works as an arranger were his unique, autumnal orchestrations for Drake’s “Five Leaves Left”. The sound was English and melancholic, closer to Vaughan Williams than Phil Spector. He was soon in demand and by the end of the 70s had worked with the cream of the British folk rock world. This is the first collection of Kirby’s very special sound.
Nick Drake’s first two albums – “Five Leaves Left” and “Bryter Layter” – sold in tiny numbers when they were first released at the turn of the 70s. Their re-evaluation in the decades since, and the ever-increasing number of Drake fans around the world, has a lot to do with Robert Kirby, whose string, brass and woodwind arrangements helped to make the records so distinctive. They were totemic of a post-60s, post-swinging England that wore a greatcoat and kicked up leaves: the misted, melancholic sweep of ‘Hazey Jane II’; the bedsit-life-in-miniature feel to ‘Day Is Done’; the gentle urban hug of ‘At The Chime Of A City Clock’. Kirby’s orchestrations were relaxed, familiar and entirely autumnal. They matched the photo of Drake on the rear of “Five Leaves Left”, leaning against a wall as everyone else sped past, busy doing nothing. They also matched his smoky, Colin Blunstone-like tones, comfortable with their mock Tudor, middle-class Englishness. The records may have sold poorly, but Kirby’s talent was quickly appreciated by producers Joe Boyd and Sandy Roberton, who booked him to work with other prime British underground folk-rockers including Ian Matthews, Vashti Bunyan, Spirogyra, Shelagh McDonald and Steeleye Span. He would be in demand on the folk rock scene right up to its fall from grace at the end of the 70s - working with nearly everyone in the canon incluing: Steve Ashley, Shirley Collins, Ralph McTell, Sandy Denny and Richard and Linda Thompson.
Arranging wasn’t even on the cards when Robert Kirby went to Cambridge in 1966 – he had originally intended to be a music teacher. Kirby had been born in Bishop’s Stortford in 1948, into a lower middle-class family (his dad was a factory foreman), and won a scholarship as a day boy at Gresham College. As a boy he loved rock’n’roll – Elvis, Fats Domino, Connie Francis – but he also loved singing in church. He joined the choir at Gresham College, and thought he had found his calling when he won a choral scholarship to Caius College,Cambridge.
Two things happened that changed his career path: first, he met Nick Drake at Cambridge, when both failed Footlights auditions, and fell in love with his lyrics; secondly, he heard the Beatles’ ‘She’s Leaving Home’ and realised that musical arranging was something he’d like to have a go at. It’s more than likely that had Drake and Kirby not been at Cambridge together at the same time, and built up their rapport, neither would have made music in quite the same way. Drake needed string arrangements initially for live shows and Kirby obliged; when he signed to Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions to record “Five Leaves Left” in 1969, Drake rejected Richard Hewson’s arrangements and requested to work again with his old friend from Cambridge. This in turn led to Kirby’s arrangements for another Witchseason act, Vashti Bunyan, on her “Just Another Diamond Day” album in 1970. When people heard the young Kirby’s rich sound, more work quickly poured in.
Joe Boyd favoured recording at Sound Techniques, a studio in Old Church Street, Chelsea. By a happy coincidence, producer/manager Sandy Roberton also liked to block book Sound Techniques for his similarly folk-leaning artists, who worked under the September Productions umbrella; Roberton got on well with Kirby and they worked together on almost all of September’s stable. Within a couple of years of stepping into a studio for the first time, Kirby had worked with a sizeable chunk of the best folk rock acts in Britain.
By this point, Robert Kirby had left Cambridge and was living in northwest London. He would work in the front room of his house, the dedicated music room, with a piano and his record collection. The room was, gratifyingly, much as you might picture it – shelves heaving with dusty books, scores strewn about everywhere, boxes of quarter-inch tapes. He would write the first 50% of an arrangement at the dining room table, listening to the song and jotting down ideas to get the most direct manifestation of what was in his mind; it wasn’t until he had to write the dots on manuscript paper that he sat down at the piano in the front room. “If you just listen, you’ll write things you couldn’t possibly play on the piano,” he told a Dutch interviewer in 2002.
His work wasn’t entirely folk-based. 1972 saw a Robert Kirby production – Lynsey De Paul’s wonderful ‘Sugar Me’ – on Top Of The Pops, although he went uncredited. By the mid-70s he was also playing as a live musician, as a part-time member of the Strawbs (initially replacing Rick Wakeman on an American tour) and later with Andy Roberts’ band, but by the end of the decade the twin threats of punk and disco, as well as the rise of the synthesiser, had made orchestrated arrangements less fashionable. The musical landscape was changing, and the popularity of folk, in particular, was waning. “The 70s had been quite a wild and physically draining time for him,” says his son Henry. “Mum said ‘Get a proper job’. Then they had two kids, which led to the sabbatical.” From 1980 until his first forays back into arranging in the late 90s, Robert Kirby primarily worked for market research company RSL, then helped set up Ipsos MORI, where he became a director. All the while he continued to write in his spare time.
Henry Kirby: “He had always played piano, and spent evenings listening to music; he sat in the garden with a beer or a glass of wine, then came into the house and played the piano for an hour or so. Chopin was a favourite, Mozart, and Leopold Mozart – Mozart Senior. The majority of it was classical and folk. Records? I remember him playing ‘Bungalow Bill’ from the “White Album”. He played Sandy Denny, Richard and Linda Thompson.... He used to love making cassettes to play in the car on family trips: ‘At The Hop’, ‘Moody River’, ‘Blueberry Hill’, ‘Don’t Be Cruel’. He loved proper 50s rock’n’roll. His favourite guitar was the Telecaster – he loved the top end. His favourite solo was on ‘Lipstick On Your Collar’.”
By the time of his early death in 2009, Robert Kirby was as in-demand as he had been in the early 70s. A highlight of the comeback years was his part in Radio 2’s 40th anniversary show on “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”. He was asked to arrange the Magic Numbers’ version of ‘She’s Leaving Home’, the song that had inspired him to orchestrate for Nick Drake four decades earlier. Henry Kirby remembers that his dad was “at Abbey Road, sat at the desk where Geoff Emerick would have sat... he was over the moon, very happy. Clearly, he could still do it. The comeback validated it all, and stopped him from worrying he had been a flash in the pan.”
Sandy Roberton remembers Robert Kirby as “super-talented, even better than Paul Buckmaster.” Henry Kirby thinks “he had a childlike positivity, an innocence in his happiness. In terms of his interactions, he left quite a mark on people.” His family are slowly digitising Robert’s legacy, his catalogue and scores – there are also a few dozen, unmarked quarter-inch reels which may contain more recorded treasures. For now, it’s hard to think of a more distinctive British arranger than Robert Kirby, and it’s a real pleasure to assemble the first-ever collection of his orchestrations.