Nick Mulvey interview – 'My aim is to appeal to your subconscious first'

Defining decisions can be made in mundane places. Nick Mulvey was on a motorway in Germany, somewhere between tour stops in Karlsruhe and Bad Bergzabern and Würzburg, when he decided to leave his Mercury-nominated band, Portico Quartet.

"We were in a service station," says Mulvey. "The others were eagerly talking about Portico's third album, what they wanted to do with it. I felt like my silence was becoming electric. So I had to tell them, I wasn't sure I'd be involved."

It was 2010 and Mulvey had in mind for himself a new start as a soloist. The result, First Mind – an album of chivvying, fast-fingered guitar music, Mulvey's deadpan vocal on top, reminiscent of Erlend Øye or Mark Kozelek – is out this week.

We meet in Hackney, east London, not far from the small studio room where Mulvey sequestered himself after departing Portico Quartet, to better his guitar picking and work up some of the half-formed songs he had in his head. "Following mumbles," Mulvey calls it. "In a room, with no manager and no gigs, for six months."

As part of Portico Quartet, an ensemble in which saxophone, bass and percussion combined to create unusual yet accessible modern jazz, Mulvey played a percussion instrument called a hang, or a hang drum. Curious-looking, it tended to get mentioned whenever the band were written up in the papers; because of its wok-like shape it also inspired a fair few jokes about stir fries.

"I got bored with the hang drum as a musician. And we got bored of it as a band. It became a bit of a shackle." First Mind is noticeably percussion-light, urged on instead – on those tracks free of drums – by Mulvey's nagging circular melodies on the guitar.

Why call it First Mind? "There's a certain degree of naming unnameables here," says Mulvey, bearded and dressed today in a heavy woollen jumper. "It's a bit of a futile game [discussing titles]. But 'first mind' is my way of talking about instinct, I suppose. Lyrically, I was going for words that came without too much calculation or second guessing. I believe in a certain amount of consideration and revision, but I also believe in instinct.

"My aim as a songwriter – just like most of the artists I love – is to appeal to your subconscious first. A song can be cerebrally satisfying second, but first of all it has to feel right." Here, Mulvey muses about Chuck Berry, wondering whether Berry's lyrics to You Never Can Tell were actually "divinely received", they felt so right…

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He rubs his face and apologises: "I could go on all day." He recently had to force himself to stop dipping into a book, Paul Zollo's Songwriters on Songwriting, so regularly was he geeking out on chapters about kd lang and Burt Bacharach. "Songwriting is a form of expression. But beyond that, there are as many definitions of it as there are expressors."

Mulvey grew up in Cambridge, his father a molecular biologist and his mother a singer. They've since retired from those jobs, and Mulvey describes his parents now as borderline new age in attitude. "My dad's a yoga teacher and a Buddhist and he's a big influence on me. 'Mindfulness' was their big thing when I was growing up – I remember thinking it was naff. But it seeped in."

Early musical tastes were implanted either by his father (a keen after-dinner player of Mr Tambourine Man) or his elder sister, a Portishead and Radiohead fan. As a teenager, Mulvey moved against these influences, briefly, by joining a ska band called the Cunning Stunts. "We were a sixth-form hit," he says. Later he went through periods of immersing himself in Cuban, Honduran and Congolese music, and traces of these influences linger in his songwriting today.

Portico Quartet were formed when he was an undergraduate in London, studying ethnomusicology. "I was mates with the drummer Duncan [Bellamy] and met Jack [Wyllie], the saxophonist, in halls. He had a mate, Milo [Fitzpatrick], who was a bassist." Without a name, the new group busked together on the South Bank – a surprisingly expedient way to launch a career, as it turned out. "Not that we wowed executives instantly, but we had some payback, quickly. The hang drum helped us bypass a lot of things – we didn't look like other bands and the novelty moved things quicker for us. We got asked to do a musical festival within two weeks of starting to busk."

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He was in the band for six years. Right in the middle of that, a debut album, Knee-Deep in the North Sea, was nominated for the Mercury prize. (It was 2008, the year Elbow won.) Mulvey looks back on this as a turning point: "We were young and happily naive, everything was a bonus and a compliment. And with the Mercury nomination we got more aware of things. We improved in some ways, but in other ways I was less in love with it all… We'd have these quite surreal conversations, talking about the hang needing to go, but never talking about the hang player needing to go. We didn't discuss that really obvious aspect. Meanwhile, my confidence in my solo songwriting was growing."

So Mulvey opted to leave, making the call in that German petrol station four years ago. In the time since, he's released a couple of EPs (the better tracks from them, such as 2013's Fever to the Form, have been plucked for the LP) and, in January, received a quiet but gratifying mention on the teenager-heavy longlist for the BBC's Sound of 2014 award. At 28, he's a new artist with a first record to peddle, as well as a long-toured pro of a decade's standing. Does that feel unusual?

"I'm in a funny middle ground, that's for sure," says Mulvey. "I've spent, I don't know, probably 10 years, working on a sound, getting it just as I want. I don't want to sound smug, but I have a feeling of having done my best. I'm at peace with it. What will happen will happen."

First Mind is out tomorrow. Listen to a stream now at theguardian.com/music

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