Nick Cave: ‘Being forced to grieve openly basically saved us’
In a rare interview since the death of his 15-year-old son, the singer reveals his struggle to write and reconnect with the world after the tragedy
Nick Cave in One More Time With Feeling. Photograph: Kerry Brown
Nick Cave and I are cruising down a highway north of Sydney towards a show with his band the Bad Seeds in the coastal steel-town of Newcastle, when he turns to me and says: “We’re going to have to talk about Arthur for this, aren’t we?”
It’s late January, and tonight’s show is part of an Australian tour that marks Cave’s first live performances since the death of his 15-year-old son, who fell from a cliff in Brighton back in July 2015 after experimenting with LSD.
Audiences are well aware of the tragedy in the wake of the release of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ 16th studio album, Skeleton Tree, not to mention One More Time with Feeling, director Andrew Dominik’s luminous black-and-white documentary of the grief and love that infused this recording.
Cave asks if he can follow through with anything he might say by emailing me his thoughts, because things never come out the way he would like when speaking about them.
In interviews, he starts to see everything he says appearing as text before his eyes and it becomes hard to say anything at all that’s true. “But if I could just write something in response to anything I say, or develop a quote better with an email later, I’d really appreciate it.”
Sure, I say to him.
Cave goes on: “The thing is – I feel like there are things I’d like to say about Arthur, but I’ve been too frightened to say them.”
He admits that just two months before this tour he suddenly took to bed, unable to get up. “It just sort of all came down again.”
For each show on this tour, a predominantly instrumental electronic piece serves as a prelude to the band. The music suggests a wind-churned netherworld in which Cave’s voice rises up in a Dante-esque incantation. It’s hard-to-catch; something about “Far from your eyes in a place where winter never comes . . . And all along the wind I run . . . And I return to this place . . . And all along the wind I run.”
Brighter than ever
In the car, Cave requests this track no longer be played before he is about to go on stage. His tour manager explains that Bad Seeds band-leader and songwriting collaborator Warren Ellis has arranged it “specially” for the group to hear before they begin each concert.
Cave considers this very slowly and quietly, then asks that he be called a few minutes later so he does not have to stand side-of-stage and listen to it every time. “It’s so easy to go from ‘Oh yeah’ to ‘Oh no’ just before you go on stage,” he explains.
Trying to meet Cave eye-to-eye in any conversation about his lost son Arthur induces a feeling akin to stage fright. Yet he has been relentlessly upbeat for the shows on this tour so far, as if released of a burden and obviously glad to be performing again. Seeing him backstage after these sprawling and exultant shows, there’s a spark and warmth in his eyes and in his conversation, too. Arthur’s twin brother, Earl, now 16, has got Cave into the Smiths. “Do you like them?” he asks, as if they are absolutely the latest thing. “Great lyrics.”
Curious, charged, Cave is somehow brighter than ever.
But that is, of course, not the whole story. Lovely Creatures – The Best of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (1984-2014) is ostensibly the reason why Cave is bothering to do this interview. But he is also slowly attempting to come back into the world, step by step. I suspect it won’t be long before he is up and running at a terrifying pace; Cave possesses a momentum that can knock you over through sheer proximity alone. He tells me he is already writing new songs. “Not to answer Skeleton Tree,” he emphasises, “but to artistically complete the trilogy of albums we began with Push the Sky Away.”
In the few months after we speak, I get word that Cave and Ellis are releasing their soundtrack for the National Geographic series Mars, and that Cave has written a children’s story. There are another five soundtracks spilling out.
‘What’s the point?’
Lovely Creatures was ready for release two years ago, but its nature as retrospective celebration felt wrong following Arthur’s death, and Cave put the whole project away. When we meet, a day after the Newcastle show, at a Sydney hotel to do our interview proper, I remark that after Arthur died I would not have been surprised if Cave had felt: “What’s the point?”
There’s just this thing, and there’s no way to navigate it. It just sits there and it fills up all the space. It fills up your body. It’s like a physical thing
“What’s the point?” he says back to me. When Cave repeats something you feel a prickle of rebuke in the room. “No,” he says, “I never felt that for an instant. I think I talked about this in the movie – but this whole thing about there being no imaginative space to sit down and actually write about something, that was a problem. Like there’s just this thing, and there’s no way to navigate it. It just sits there and it fills up all the space. It fills up your body. It’s like a physical thing. You can feel it pressing against the insides of your fingers. There’s just no room for the luxury of creation.”
“I don’t feel like that any more, I have to say,” he continues. “I feel I am in a very good place with lyrics. I work differently these days. I have abandoned my office completely and am finding great pleasure sitting at the window in my bedroom, surrounded by my books and just thinking and writing words.
“I am not worrying too much about writing actual songs as such, rather just amassing a stockpile of lines and thoughts, images and ideas. I feel I have turned a corner and wandered on to a landscape that is open and vast. The ‘sweet prairies of anarchy’ as [the English poet] Stevie Smith says.
A bit of clarity
“I wrote a bunch of songs after Arthur died, but I felt they were somehow a betrayal of what we were all going through at the time or worse, a betrayal of Arthur himself; that they didn’t possess the required emotional reach, so I scrapped them. But Andrew Dominik found them in my notebooks and loved them and used some of them for voiceover in his film One More Time with Feeling. I can see now, with a bit of clarity, that there was something powerful about them that I was unable to see at the time. Anyway, they are floating around. But I am writing new stuff. Lots of new stuff.”
Cave says he doesn’t have much time for overtly narrative songs these days, that they feel restrictive: “The idea that we live life in a straight line, like a story, seems to me to be increasingly absurd and, more than anything, a kind of intellectual convenience,” he says. “I feel that the events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards, affecting everything, our present, and our futures, of course, but our past as well. Everything is changing and vibrating and in flux. So, to apply that to songwriting, a song like I Need You off the new album [Skeleton Tree], time and space all seem to be rushing and colliding into a kind of big bang of despair. There is a pure heart, but all around it is chaos.”
Yet Cave is still telling us stories in songs such as Higgs Boson Blues – where scientists anticipate an experiment that will isolate the so-called “God particle” – and eerie, recent stunners including Magneto. They are just more expressionistic, subconscious, dreamier and deeper, maybe, than before. “I can’t write a song that I can’t see,” he concedes.
Listening to the remarkable trajectory of Lovely Creatures from its opening track, From Her to Eternity, to its last, Push the Sky Away, it’s hard not to be awed by Cave’s journey. Time has burnished the songs’ strengths. Whether it’s something as narratively detailed as The Carny or The Mercy Seat – each practically a Netflix series in a single song – mighty love eulogies such as Into My Arms and Shoot Me Down, or disturbed internalised reveries on nature and the city such as We No Who U R and Jubilee Street.
A lot is said about grief, especially the conventional wisdom that you do it alone. I personally have found that not to be the case
I had wondered if tragedy might diminish Cave’s work, making the past feeble and histrionic in comparison with the wounded visions of the present. But the work, it seems, has come forward to meet him just as strongly. Reflecting again on Arthur and any meaning that might be found, Cave says: “It’s hard to know what to say that is helpful. People often say they can’t imagine how it would feel to lose a child, but, actually, they can – they can imagine what it is like.
“A lot is said about grief, especially the conventional wisdom that you do it alone. I personally have found that not to be the case. The goodwill we received after Arthur’s death from people who I did not know, especially through social media, people who liked my music and kind of reached out, was extraordinary. This had much to do with Andrew’s film and I will always be indebted to him for this. The rush of emotion it unleashed in people and the way they wrote about their own sadnesses and their own griefs was monumental and amazingly helpful for me and my family.
“Initially, I thought it would be impossible to do this in the public eye. The impulse was to hide. But it turns out that being forced to grieve openly basically saved us. Of course, there is something that feels almost heroic about suffering on your own, to be locked into a world of memory, almost a nobility, I understand this, but it is an illusion and a very dangerous, life-threatening situation to put yourself in. Susie and I have grown to understand this. We are vigilant around each other, watchful that we don’t shut down.”
The ‘treacle of grief’
Cave raises his wife Susie Bick’s work on her successful fashion label, The Vampire’s Wife. “I’m really, I’m just really blown away by Susie, by what she has become over this past year – or what she has managed to do. Seeing it from a different point of view, the incredible healing act of work. It’s not just … in the film it came over as – when Susie talked about it – a distraction. It is that, but it’s actually helped her and – as much as something like this can ever be healed – it’s brought her out of the kind of treacle of grief that we were trapped in in a beautifully creative way. That’s been something inspiring and very helpful for me to see.”
I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came
Returning to work, to the songs on Lovely Creatures and to performing them live, for Cave more than he could ever have imagined has occurred. “I haven’t gone near these songs in years. Some of them, I’m literally shocked to find that their meaning has changed completely to me. They suddenly mean something else entirely. Like Into My Arms or something like that. It just suddenly feels like I’m not singing it to whoever, it’s . . . ”
He trails off, pausing to consider his point. “You know, I’m just telling you this, in a way, because one thing I don’t want is people having to come along and involve themselves in someone else’s drama. I don’t want the shows to be like that. I want the shows to be uplifting and inspiring and for people to walk away feeling better than when they came, not some sort of empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk out feeling like shit. I don’t want that. Because I’m not feeling that way. On stage I feel great. It just sort of feels beautiful and inspiring. The songs are strange things, you know. They’re patient, and wait for the meaning and then meaning changes through the years.”
Lovely Creatures The Best of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds 1984 - 2014 is out now on BMG