‘A different place now’: How tragedy has shaped Nick Cave’s longing for home

By JP O’ Malley

Nick Cave performing in Norway in August: “I don’t have any problem describing the concerts these days as religious.”Credit:Getty Images

Nick Cave is longing for Australia. “I haven’t been there in over two years and I’m aching to get back,” the 65-year-old musician, writer and visual artist explains from London. In late November, Cave will embark on a tour of his home country to perform the album Carnage (2021) with fellow Aussie musician and long-time collaborator Warren Ellis.

“I’m incredibly excited to go back to Australia and play,” Cave says enthusiastically. “Whenever I step back onto Australian soil, I feel this immediate sense of relief, and a deep connection to the land. But it’s going to be a difficult trip this time around,” he says with a sigh.

In the past two years, Cave lost his beloved mother, Dawn, and his former partner and musical collaborator, Anita Lane. The pandemic meant he could not return for their funerals. A long, sombre pause follows. “Then my son died,” he says. “So Australia is definitely going to feel like a different place for me now.”

In May, Cave publicly announced the death of his oldest son, Jethro, 31, who had a successful modelling career and was based in Melbourne. It followed the death in 2015 of another son, Arthur, who was 15 when he fell from a cliff near their home in Brighton, on the British south coast. Cave has two other sons: Arthur’s twin, Earl, and Luke.

Nick Cave in New York in March 2022.Credit:Megan Cullen

“There will always be suffering/It flows through life like water,” as Cave poignantly put it in the song Lime Tree Arbour from the 1997 album The Boatman’s Call. Processing pain has been a consistent theme in Cave’s musical career, which begun in the early 1970s when he formed the Boys Next Door with fellow Caulfield Grammar students including Mick Harvey and Phill Calvert. The band became the Birthday Party in 1980 and left for London not long afterwards. Some members remained in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, who formed in West Berlin in 1983, and have since released 17 studio albums.

Cave, who was born in Warracknabeal, Victoria, on September 22, 1957, has recently co-published Faith, Hope and Carnage, a series of long-form interviews with journalist Sean O’Hagan. “Each life is precarious, and anything can turn catastrophic at any time, personally, for each of us,” Cave tells O’Hagan at one point.

In a chapter about the loss of his mother, he describes her love as “the undercarriage of my life” and talks about the last time he saw her at her home in Elsternwick. “She stood at the door of her unit, hunched over her walking frame, and waved goodbye, and, as always, there was that unspoken sorrow between us, that this might be the last time we would see each other. And, well, this time it was.”

“I was quite reticent at the start in these interviews with Sean, and then became more open to them by the end,” Cave tells me. “Perhaps that has something to do with the concept of conversation itself: where you sit with somebody, and over time firm up your views about where you really think on these matters.”

Cave uses the long-form interview format to speak openly and honestly about art, addiction, absence, grief, trauma and the lifelong search for transcendence. He focuses extensively on the undeniable change in his musical style since Arthur’s death. Cave describes the albums Skeleton Tree (2016) and Ghosteen (2019) as operating from a “distracted semi-conscious place of surrender”.

Nick Cave with his wife, Susie Bick, and their son, Earl, in Los Angeles in 2019.Credit:Getty Images

He also remarks on the prophetic nature of the lyrics. Take, for example, the song, Jesus Alone from Ghosteen, which begins with Cave’s thundering, baritone voice, in spoken word, uttering the haunting phrase: “You fell from the sky/Crash landed in a field near the river Adur.”

Remarkably, Cave wrote those lyrics before Arthur died. In Faith, Hope and Carnage, he floats the idea that maybe we have deeper intuitions than we realise, and that songs perhaps sometimes act as mystical channels through which a deeper understanding is released into the world. He also describes Ghosteen as having a “prayer-like aspect”.

I mention a gig I attended in June, in Zagreb, Croatia, and the frantic energy of the band’s live performance. At times it seemed closer to a communal religious experience than a run-of-the-mill summer rock concert.

“I don’t have any problem describing the Bad Seeds’ concerts [and the solo gigs from me and Warren] these days as religious,” says Cave. “Religion, to me at least, means community, and an exchange of love that operates in a circular way. In that Zagreb gig you mention, it felt like the crowd had literally been released from prison. Perhaps because it was the first major festival there since lockdown. There was a kind of ecstasy from that, which was spiritual uplifting, and instantly brought me and the whole band to life when we went on stage.”

Cave also mentions reading the work of American Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault, who has provided some important spiritual and cultural direction of late, especially in how Cave approaches music today. The Christian mystic preaches about inhabiting a space of mind and imagination, wholly devoid of rational thought and egoic impulses.

Cave has pretty much discarded the traditional songwriting format. Typically, he used to write songs on the piano and the band would simply follow his instructions. Now he begins his musical craft almost like an abstract painter, with a single image. Improvised music then follows, and the song is built accordingly. Crucially, though, there is no end point at this stage. These images tend to come from dream-like unconscious states.

I cite an image Cave mentions in the book. He says it haunted him for many nights following Arthur’s death. It concerns a man standing on a beach surrounded by panicking animals; the hills are made of fire, and there are screaming animals racing back and forward, as sea creatures leap out of the ocean. It could easily be a line from, say, a poem by William Blake, W.B. Yeats, or a passage from The Book of Revelation.

“Yeah, there is definitely that,” Cave agrees. “And I do tend to have, shall we say, a kind of apocalyptic aesthetic in my art. But I’m much more of an optimist than many people might think.”

Approaching songwriting in this collaborative way, where improvisation is key to the process, is both liberating and frustrating, Cave admits. “It’s liberating because [Warren and I] have made some really beautiful records. But the lyrics have become more abstract, atmospheric, and mysterious through this process of improvisation we now use, where the music is dealing much more with the subconscious.

“I do sometimes still long for a traditional song,” says Cave, admitting that his signature rock sound has moved further and further towards the avant garde in recent years. Ellis’ creative input has been central to that transition. A composer and co-founder of the instrumental rock trio Dirty Three, he became an official member of the Bad Seeds during the mid-1990s. At the turn of the millennium, Cave and Ellis began to make film scores together; these collaborations include The Assassination of Jesse James, The Road and The Proposition. In 2021, during lockdown, they recorded Carnage, their first full-length studio album as an exclusive musical duo.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis on stage in Italy in July.Credit:Getty Images

“Warren is much more experimental and extreme in his creative process than I am,” Cave explains. “My lyrics are concerned with images, and how those images reverberate on a subconscious level. Warren, however, has a much more developed sense of understanding of music than me: he can see further into the future with a song than I can.”

Cave describes their creative relationship as “a traditional-conservative songwriter coming up against a totally berserk and wigged-out human being”.

“The tension that happens between the two of us in the studio helps us make very beautiful, atmospheric music, but also very literate songs,” he says.

Cave speaks about making music as a form of spiritual yearning, where the ultimate goal is reaching the divine and the mysterious. Breaking through that creative and spiritual barrier requires patience and trusting intuition and feeling, he explains. But it also means giving up on the notion that you have control. In the same way, as, say, someone might give themselves over to a higher power during prayer.

Cave’s fascination with religion, the Bible, and the life of Christ in particular began in early childhood in the Anglican Church in Wangaratta, where he attended services twice a week as a choirboy. He recalls buying a little wooden cross from the cathedral gift shop, with a silver Jesus on it. Reading the Bible from an early age heightened Cave’s literary sensibility. The brutal, jealous, vengeful and merciless voice of God he found in the Old Testament was especially inspiring for a young artist. By his early 20s Cave viewed the world as a dark and deeply disturbing place. Having a heroin habit probably didn’t help matters.

By his mid-30s, however, he had reacquainted himself with the Gospels, finding a more hopeful and positive tone in the New Testament. The message of redemption, love and healing softened the tone of Cave’s musical output too. It also helped him master a genre of songwriting that has been at the heart of his life-long artistic quest: the melancholic love song.

Cave quit using junk and got clean more than two decades ago, via Narcotics Anonymous. But his faith also helped him overcome his problems with addiction.

“I’m a religious person,” he says. “As far back as I can remember I have always had a deep interest in religion. But I had a slightly amorphous relationship with the practicalities of it. I guess the older I get, the less sceptical I become of the whole process. I feel more able to park my scepticism, to a certain degree, and embrace what is good about religion,” he adds. “But the biggest problem I find with religion is the certainty of belief, which tends, ultimately, to lead to a kind of moral superiority, or dogmatism.”

Nick Cave in New York in March: “I’m much more of an optimist than many people might think.”Credit:Megan Cullen

Cave says he finds such views extremely problematic, “not just in religion, but within much of the current thinking in the world today too”. He is hesitant to use phrases such as “woke” or “cancel culture”. Nevertheless, he points to the extreme political correctness of the liberal left. Especially the self-righteous nature the angry rabble assume on social media. We are in danger of creating a society that will ultimately be devoid of mercy or forgiveness, he says.

“To develop robust ways of thinking we need to be able to have the room to make mistakes. Otherwise, our ideas will become reductive and underdeveloped and that’s a huge problem.”

Promoting organised religion. Attacking liberals. Citing Christ. And damming identity politics. Has the former enfant terrible, iconoclastic, rock rebel become – dare I say it – a conservative?

“I’m not, like, a big C, right-wing conservative. I’m a contrary bastard,” Cave says with a chuckle. “But I’m a cultural conservative, in the sense that I’m deeply concerned about our culture, and what can happen to our culture, if ideas and artists just become dispensable for the sake of [political correctness].”

It’s not the first time Cave has addressed this issue in the public sphere. In August 2020 he responded to a question about cancel culture that appeared on his personal website, The Red Hand Files. Launched in September 2018, the site is essentially a public forum, where Cave answers questions from fans. Interestingly, most of those questions are not about creativity or music.

“The most common theme with these letters is a lack of meaning in people’s lives,” he says. “Another theme is people having an intense cynicism towards the world. I’ve also noticed that there are a lot of people grieving and suffering.”

Cave describes The Red Hand Files as “a journey towards self-discovery, on some level”. “Partially, because in trying to think up adequate answers to people’s questions, it provides some kind of meaning to my own life – it’s a profound matter,” he says. “Also, people are articulating things for the first time through these letters, because they’re essentially anonymous and they can just say what they like.”

Cave says it’s “deeply interesting, incredibly humanising, and intensely moving to hear what goes on inside the minds of other people through these personal letters”. In Faith, Hope and Carnage, he reproduces a letter from a woman in Fremantle. Her 22-year-old son had recently died of a drug overdose. She describes a beautiful, sensitive young man who was studying classical piano at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts.

“There are countless letters like that,” Cave says. “And so I increasingly feel a sense of duty in those letters, in answering these questions and treating them humanely.”

Cave has become acutely aware of other people’s suffering over the past few years. Perhaps it’s something that comes with the wisdom of ageing. From that comes a natural predisposition to the responsibility of service, he says.

“Maybe you get to a certain age, and you [realise] that for a long time you’ve just been grabbing the world and sucking everything in that you can get, to become this thing that you’ve always wanted to be,” he says. “And at some point, as you get older, it’s necessary to turn that person around, and look at the world, and see what small benefit you can be to the world, and, ultimately, to other people.”

Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan, published by Text, is out now. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis perform at Hanging Rock on November 25 and 26 (both sold out), Melbourne’s Palais Theatre on November 30 and December 2 (sold out) and the Sydney Opera House, December 16-18 (all sold out). The Victorian dates are part of the Always Live program.

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