Nick Cave: singer, songwriter... shopkeeper
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“Everything that I turn into a Polaroid has meaning – some hidden, some not so hidden,” says Australian gothic rockstar Nick Cave. “So I can reveal a lot, and not reveal it at the same time.” For each picture he takes, he individually adds a name, types out the title, date-stamps it and glues it all together to sell on his recently launched online store, Cave Things. “It’s the obsessive and dangerous end of granny-core,” he jokes. “Fetishistic and deranged.”
Such personal intensity and attention to detail poured into a project is not unusual for the songwriter and lead singer of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, whose 40-year career has seen him celebrated for husky baritone ruminations on death, love, religion and pain. Best known is likely to be “Red Right Hand”, which was used for the titles of the BBC series Peaky Blinders, 1997’s “Into My Arms” or his duet with Kylie Minogue, “Where the Wild Roses Grow”; his most recent album release was 2019’s Ghosteen. Always immaculately tailored, he has been described as “the greatest living songwriter” by Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
As fans of Cave’s music well know, opening up is not new for him. With every creative expression, he seeks a deeper “communion” with his audience. Cave Things, the online store of weird and wonderful stuff that he has conceived, sourced, shaped and designed, feels a natural next step. On the site, Cave describes the content as “beyond merchandise but stops before art… the incidental residue of an over-stimulated mind”.
A nose around the site in all its peculiar glory reveals ephemera including a family snap of Cave as a toddler, song lyric sheets complete with scrawled notes, a rejected single cover sketch and a notebook covered in a love letter to an old girlfriend. “I gave up the idea of a private life years ago, you know, protecting myself,” says Cave. “I am just who I am. People can take me or leave me. I am not holding much back. All that obfuscation and mystery, it’s exhausting and unnecessary.”
Such Cave-ian treasures feel more like objects pilfered from his home, ones laden with history and meaning, than some corporate fan merchandise bought online. They go deep, and often dark. The drawing titled Mutiny! was created during the mid-’80s, when Cave sometimes drew with his own blood, as his co-authors explain in his new book Stranger Than Kindness: “‘When you’re an intravenous drug user,’ Cave wrote, ‘blood plays a big part in your life.’ This particular drawing was done after a long day in the studio recording [post-punk band] The Birthday Party’s final album. The band had the music for a song called ‘Mutiny’ but Cave had yet to write lyrics. He stayed up all night shooting up amphetamines and heroin, writing the words. ‘What can I say?’ Cave said. ‘It was fucked up.’”
Within the evolving collection of 50 or so products (including a recently launched Christmas capsule that features a Deer T-shirt, £35, and a Christmas Bunny bowl, £35), even the more typical fan-site slogan T-shirts (£35) and tote bags (£20) feel intimate. One T-shirt bears a quote from his mother, who died this September: “Head high and fuck ’em all”.
Then there are the less definable, slightly perplexing but utterly compelling objects: prayer cards, a Birthday Book (featuring Nick Cave quotes for every day of the year), and the ceramic “Dread” tiles printed with Cave’s cartoonish drawings of a bat, cat, monkey, duck and tadpole (£20). “This is the first series of tiles,” explains Cave. “Five designs, created in quarantine, named as such because of the feeling of quiet hopelessness I felt drawing these cute little animals.”
Enforced lockdown at home in Brighton with his wife Susie and their son Earl ironically provided Cave with the freedom to indulge his full creativescape. He found himself drawing more, taking Polaroids, painting, making collages, films, ceramic sculptures and designing clothes. “I’d always done this sort of stuff, but never with such devotion,” Cave admits. “All alongside writing songs, lots of songs.”
Cave’s creative process has always included the visual component of “drawing his songs” – creating artworks alongside the songwriting – but this outlet is something different. “For me lyric writing is extremely difficult,” he says. “My words don’t come easy. Still, I work at it every day. So the other stuff, the visual stuff, Cave Things, is pure play. It makes the process of songwriting tolerable.
“The pandemic allowed me time to get organised,” he adds. “Out of that came a torrent of things – from the sublime to the ridiculous. But beautiful things too! Cave Things has become a mysterious, subversive, super-playful enterprise where anything can happen.”
Cave is selling stuff, yes, but it’s not just a commercial venture. “My favourite thing is the Hyatt Girls pornographic wallpaper, made from drawings of naked women I have doodled in hotels down the years,” says Cave. “It’s a lovely thing – and so far has sold zero rolls. I am immensely proud of designing a product that literally nobody wants!” The erotic wallpaper in pink ink (£200) features Schiele-esque figures performing sexual acts, originally sketched on Hyatt hotel-room notepaper.
Cave’s intensifying desire for communion with his fans can in many ways be traced back to the death of his son, Arthur, in 2015, aged 15. Cave’s struggles with making sense of his loss are documented with poignancy in the 2016 film One More Time With Feeling. Two years later, he started The Red Hand Files, a website and newsletter where he answers personal questions posed by fans. Last year this came to life in Conversations with Nick Cave: An Evening of Talk and Music, a series of live Q&A talks interspersed with songs played on request. And May this year saw the opening of Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition at Copenhagen arts space The Black Diamond, an immersive experience through eight rooms of Cave memorabilia and material. “Like being at home with Nick Cave,” reported the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Being able to connect on a deeper, more personal level with his community, especially when we are all so isolated and disconnected, is “a monumental privilege, it really is,” says Cave. The Red Hand Files have become a particularly sacred aspect of his life, “a kind of survival strategy for me”. Last time he checked (at the time of writing) he had received 39,435 questions. “Some of these questions are not really questions, rather they are people writing in about things that have happened to them, things that are concerning them – they’re sad about people they have lost, or they’re suffering with mental-health issues, struggling with relationships, worried about the state of the world, or they just want to share that they are plain happy. I read all of them. It is very important to me to do this.” More recently, themes often centre around grief and isolation, but topics also include Elvis, pets, identity, homophobia, shyness, the Bible, addiction, vegetarianism, Christmas, mercy, monsters under the bed and, of course, the music.
Cave’s responses are thoughtful and generous. Being a subscriber (there are more than 100,000) makes for emotionally intense reading. In Issue #1, Cave writes back to Jakub in Poland, detailing his inability to write after Arthur’s death. It is Cave at his most vulnerable, and should be compulsory reading for anyone lost in grief. In Issue #123, in response to Lottie in Leeds who asks, “How do I know I’m on the right path?”, Cave offers the most inspiring and typically anarchic nugget of wisdom to be taken by all those prone to self-doubt.
“The Red Hand Files turned into something much bigger and more important than I ever dreamed it would be,” says Cave. “This is largely due to the extraordinary openness and vulnerability of the people asking the questions. So it means something – to sit down and respond to someone who is articulating something they may never have put into words before. It’s powerful.” Interestingly, it has a broader appeal beyond Cave’s muso fanbase. “There are a lot of people subscribing to the website who are not necessarily Nick Cave fans but just like the format and the feeling of authenticity,” he says.
Cave Things, with its authenticity, openness, mixture of vulnerability and power, and its quirk, also has the potential to exceed expectations. “There are some genuinely beautiful things in the pipeline, and some crazy shit too,” says Cave. “But the whole thing is becoming increasingly ambitious. For me, that is one of the collateral benefits of this wretched pandemic; I feel very free, free to do what I like – the music industry has been atomised, the rulebook has been torn up, few of us are working, but there can be an energy to disaster, a feverish need to respond to a crisis that is weirdly compelling. The Red Hand Files and Cave Things both talk to this time.”