AUSTIN, Texas -- Nick Cave has written novels, movie scripts and a few dozen of the greatest songs of the last 30 years. Yet for him, it never gets any easier.
The problem with finishing a song, Cave said Tuesday as a featured speaker at the 27th annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, is that then you have to start over again. "There are all these nasty births" that are like "pushing burning watermelons out of a tiny orifice."
The raven-haired, rail-thin singer looked back on a life devoted to music that began by accident. Growing up in Australia, his ambition was to become a painter, but he failed art school in his second year, a devastating blow. Fortunately, "I had a band on the side."
Johnny Cash's "man in black" was an early, outlaw influence, and so was David Bowie. "I didn't do sports so it was assumed I was homosexual," he said. "It toughened us up." He dressed in drag to provoke the macho boys, and then fought back with the rocks he packed in his handbag.
The violence followed him to London, where he moved in 1980 with his first great band, the Birthday Party. "People came to the gigs to beat the (expletive) out of us," Cave said. "It was like being back at school."
The physical bumps and bruises eventually healed, but a few psychic scars still linger. The bass player in the band referred to Cave as "the unmusical one," the guy who couldn't play, so he became the singer by default. "I still feel very much an impostor in the whole music scene," he said, a role he now accepts. Over time, he came to trust his voice,learned how to sing softly, and opened up his songwriting to include a more "feminine" perspective that a girfriend, singer-songwriter Anita Lane, helped him discover and refine.
He kept moving -- to London, then Berlin, then Brazil -- each time, he said, to start over and, in one case, to find out how to live without heroin. During drug rehab in London, he said, "the idea was to break you down, which they do quite well, but they didn't do the building you up part very well."
Brazil brought him out of a long period of depression and sobriety, and started a new creative burst, punctuated by a 1996 hit duet with pop singer Kylie Minogue on "Where the Wild Roses Grow." Not all of his fans loved it, he acknowledged, but for him it was "a moment that resonates positively with me ... maybe it was a little camp, but it didn't feel that way at the time."
With "The Boatman's Call" in 1997, his songwriting took another major turn, presenting a more personal perspective. It became part "of a world I've been building, a Cave-ian world: an absurd, magical, transformative world that is different than the real world." Through it, he said, he has come to know himself and the people he loves better. "My wife (Susie Bick) dances in and out of the songs. I feel I know her better in songs than I know her in real life. It makes me feel closer to her. I weld myself to her in those songs."
Grinderman, a smaller, punkier version of his main band the Bad Seeds, was created when he and co-conspirator Warren Ellis "wanted to reduce the music to its core elements," Cave said. "Rather than sack the band members, we just used a few. It was absolutely (screwed-up) passive-aggressive behavior." Ellis' motto for the band was "no God, no love," and lyrics were "basically ad-libbed."
"My writing had become quite congested," Cave says, "it broke things open."
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