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Nick Cave explains his departure from fictitious narrative songwriting

Nick Cave has become a writer of note in addition to being a celebrated musician, lyricist and composer. His blog, The Red Hand Files, serves as a platform on which he answers the questions from his fans on an amazingly wide variety of subjects. Regardless of the anger or anguish in their questions, or the swearing, Cave responds thoughtfully and candidly every time. His is a quiet voice amidst the sensationalism prevalent in social media. It is refreshing to read his blog posts. In this one, he explains to a reader what led him to stop writing fictitious lyrics, and move to autobiographical lyrics, and how he feels about this. Paragraph 3 of his answer is particularly revealing.

As always, I cannot add anything to his gentle and honest words. I like that he always ends his answer with “Love, Nick”. I wish I could end all my emails like that. So here is the blog post, in its entirety. If I were you, I’d subscribe to it or ask him a question. I have no doubt his answer will be worth waiting for:

Ask Nick a question on The Red Hand Files

I want to thank you for releasing Live at Alexandria Palace and especially for playing those Boatman’s Call songs. I listened to that record repeatedly as a lonely, bullied and suicidal 12-year-old girl and I think I took it as some kind of a fantasy of love and all the sweet, horrible pain and adventure it would bring.

I remember around that time watching an interview where you said you felt somewhat ‘disgusted’ by certain elements of that record. I could not possibly understand what you meant by it back then.

Now, 20 years later, I have experienced love, pain and adventure. Listening to your Alexandria Palace versions of those songs, they are not a fantasy to me anymore. They are as real as I am in my attempts at living.

What were you disgusted by back then? What do those songs mean to you now and what made you revisit them?

I wish you could have seen me as a 12-year-old trying to figure out what ‘an interventionist God’ means. Thank you for bringing so much light into my life. 

Dear Elina, The Boatman’s Call was a record born of a personal misfortune that led to a departure from fictitious narrative songwriting into a kind of writing that was more autobiographical. Artistically, my hand was forced by a convergence of events that felt so calamitous at the time that I could not find a way to write about anything else. It’s not that I had any desire to write a ‘break-up record’, but these events just rammed the ramparts of my songwriting and seized control. 

After The Boatman’s Call came out I experienced a kind of embarrassment. I felt I had exposed too much. These hyper-personal songs suddenly seemed indulgent, self-serving amplifications of what was essentially an ordinary, commonplace ordeal. All the high drama, the tragedy and the hand wringing ‘disgusted’ me, and I said so in press interviews. 

In time, however, I learned that the disgust was essentially the fear and shame experienced by someone who was swimming the uncertain waters between two boats — songs that were fictional and songs of an autobiographical or confessional nature. A radical change was occurring in my songwriting, despite myself, and such changes can leave one feeling extremely vulnerable, defensive and reactive.

Of course, I no longer see The Boatman’s Call in that way, and understand that the record was a necessary leap into a type of songwriting that would ultimately become exclusively autobiographical — Skeleton Tree and Ghosteen, for example — but, conversely, less about myself and more about our collective ‘selves’. When I sang the The Boatman’s Call songs for the Idiot Prayer film, they no longer felt like cries emanating from the small, yet cataclysmic, devastations of life. They became more about a spiritual liberation from the self, about something broader and more comprehensive — not transcendent exactly — but expansive, in that they collected us all up in the commonality of the experience they attempt to describe. At least, I hoped so.

Thank you, Elina, for your very sweet story. Funnily enough, I am still trying to work out what the first line of Into My Arms actually means. It’s a slippery fish and — like many good lines — difficult to hang onto, as elusive and deceptive as time itself. Love, Nick
Copyright © 2021 Nick Cave Productions, All rights reserved.

2 comments on “Nick Cave explains his departure from fictitious narrative songwriting

  1. Neil Pendock

    Very moving. Thanks.

  2. Hi Neil – good to hear from you. You should have a listen to his 2019 album “Ghosteen” – it is beautiful and subtle. The arrangements are superb, and so are the lyrics.

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