The Twisted Words Of Nick Cave The Australian singer-composer and his band The Bad Seeds are best known for his angry, twisted ballad-like lyrics. Their most recent albums were last year's Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! and Live at the Royal Albert Hall.
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The Twisted Words Of Nick Cave

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The Twisted Words Of Nick Cave

The Twisted Words Of Nick Cave

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli sitting in for Terry Gross.

Our next guest, singer-songwriter Nick Cave, is famous for his dark songs and for his rough voice, which brings out all the dark colors in those songs. But he also writes novels which, no surprise, are somewhat dark and rough as well as playfully twisted. His second book, "The Death of Bunny Munro: A Novel," has just been published. The character in the title, Bunny Munro, is a door-to-door lotion salesman in England. At the start of the book, he's making the rounds seducing a string of beautiful housewives, but before long Bunny's life, like the book, takes a much more somber turn.

Nick Cave grew up in Australia and now lives in England. He wrote the screenplay for the bloody western "The Proposition" and co-wrote the scores for that film and for another western, the 2007 movie "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

Terry spoke with Nick Cave last year when his CD "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!" was released. Here's the title track.

(Soundbite of song, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!")

Mr. NICK CAVE (Singer-Songwriter, author): (Singing) Dig yourself. Laz'rus dig yourself. Laz'rus dig yourself. Laz'rus dig yourself back in that hole. Larry made his nest up in the autumn branches, built from nothing but high hopes and thin air. He collected up some baby blasted mothers who took their chances and for a while they lived quite happily up there. He came from New York City man, but he couldn't take the pace. He thought it was like dog eat dog world. Then he went to San Francisco, spent a year in outer space with a sweet little San Franciscan girl. I can hear my mother wailing and a whole lot of scraping of chairs. I don't know what it is but there's definitely something going on upstairs. Dig yourself. Laz'rus dig yourself. Laz'rus dig yourself. Laz'rus dig yourself back in that hole.


Nick Cave, welcome to FRESH AIR. Tell me the story behind writing that song. What made you think about writing a song that refers to Lazarus?

Mr. CAVE: I think I was getting some kind of revenge on my religious upbringing. I was - particularly as a child it worried me a lot, that particular story, that Christ's greatest miracle was actually bringing someone back from the dead, and that kind of, as a child, creeped me out somewhat, to be honest. It didn't exactly traumatize me, but it felt kind of nice to sort of redress that in some kind of way and write a song about it. So I basically took the biblical Lazarus and dropped him in New York City and kind of a half comical look at what would happen to him in a contemporary world.

GROSS: You said that you see the song as revenge for your religious upbringing. So many of your songs refer, you know, have biblical references or references to Jesus or God. And some of them in a more straightforward way, some in a more elliptical way, some in a comic way, some in a cynical way, some in a searching or a loving way. Was that always true of your songs or is this something more recent?

Mr. CAVE: I think it was always true. I can remember as very young writing poetry and the stories from the Bible always played a, you know, there was always a strong element of that even in my very, very early poetry, which I'm not going to...

GROSS: Recite for us now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVE: ...recite for...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CAVE: But there was a kind of fascination. There was a fascination when I, you know, I was a choir boy at school and at the cathedral that I went to and I had to go to church maybe three times a week for about three or four years and I was actually kind of interested, especially in the biblical stories.

GROSS: How old were you when you started reading the Bible?

Mr. CAVE: I kind of got into the Bible because I went to art school and became very interested in religious painting.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAVE: And a lot of that was because I understood the stories. I knew what those paintings were about and I took a great interest in them. And then I think after that I started to kind of read particularly the Old Testament a lot and I did that for quite a few years, and that had a huge influence over the way I saw the world, really, and also the songs that I wrote at that time. You know, and then I kind of gave that up and looked at the New Testament after a while.

GROSS: So what are the differences...

Mr. CAVE: But it's only kind of one element of what I'm doing, really.

GROSS: But what's the difference between your Old Testament and your New Testament songs?

Mr. CAVE: Well, I think that there's a kind of more humanistic approach to the characters in my songs, more forgiving approach to the narratives.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another track from your new CD, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!," and this one also has a Jesus reference to it. It's called "Jesus of the Moon." It's a beautiful song. I mean it's a love song. Would you talk a little bit about writing this song?

Mr. CAVE: Well, you know, I mean I think that this particular record, "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!," despite the title is it's probably the least obsessed or religiously obsessed record I've made in years. It's really not about that. And there is a song called "Jesus of the Moon," really, but I just felt it was a kind of nifty way of describing a sleeping woman and a sleeping woman that I was kind of departing from. It just felt good to describe her in that way.

But it's - I guess the reason why it's on the record, this particular song, even though it's not really a ballad record and this is very much a ballad, is that it felt like to me a kind of fresh take for me on the leaving a woman type of song that I often write. There seemed to be a kind of rebirth in the whole thing that sounded kind of nice to me.

GROSS: Oh, I think it's a great song. Let's hear it. This is "Jesus of the Moon" from Nick Cave's new CD, which is called "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!"

(Soundbite of song, "Jesus of the Moon")

Mr. CAVE: (Singing) I stepped out of the St. James Hotel, I'd left you behind curled up like a child. A change is gonna come, and as the door whispered shut I walked on down the high-windowed hall. You lay sleeping on the unmade bed, the weatherman on the television in the St. James Hotel said that the rains are gonna come. And I stepped out on the street all sparkling clean with the early morning dew. Maybe it was you or maybe it was me? You came on like a punch in the heart. You're lying there with the light on your hair like a Jesus of the moon. A Jesus of the planets and the stars.

GROSS: That's Nick Cave's song "Jesus of the Moon" from his new CD "Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!." You live in England now but you grew up in Australia. Would you describe the town you grew up in?

Mr. CAVE: It's called Wangaratta. I mean it's about 18,000 people and it was - but with very much a kind of small town mentality, and to be honest, I was quite happy to get out of there.

GROSS: Because?

Mr. CAVE: Well, it was very restrictive and all the stuff that I find difficult with Australia is amplified a thousand-fold in these small towns, and that's if you kind of stick your head too high above the parapet it gets lopped off, if you understand what I mean. Everyone has to be kind of the same, you know, and hunker down, and I didn't - I wasn't kind of interested in that, so it was quite difficult for me. It was quite difficult for my family in general, actually.

GROSS: Well, it's hard for me to imagine you fitting into a place like that.

Mr. CAVE: Well, I didn't, and I got sent to Melbourne when I was about 12. It just wasn't working out in this town for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Sent to a boarding school?

Mr. CAVE: I got sent to a boarding school in Melbourne.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. And was that - that's a more metropolitan place.

Mr. CAVE: Well, a more metropolitan - I mean it had - that also had its problems as well. But you know, I mean there's a lot about growing up in the country that I loved, especially as a child, and my youth - my childhood was spent, you know, down by the river and all of that sort of stuff and it was very free and very happy, actually. But as a teenager, you know, around that time in Wangaratta, it was very difficult.

GROSS: Did you have access, either in Wangaratta or in Melbourne, to the movies and music and books that eventually meant a lot to you?

Mr. CAVE: Well I did. You know, when I was nine or 10 we got "The Johnny Cash Show," for example, in Australia, that was shown in Australia...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CAVE: ...on a weekly basis. So I watched that and that had a huge impact on me. My brother, who was four years older, was very into music and listened to a lot of kind of great music and so I was very much influenced by what he listened to, a lot of English progressive music. You know, so you know, I was around music a lot.

GROSS: What impact did Johnny Cash have on you?

Mr. CAVE: Well, I remember distinctly watching "The Johnny Cash Show" and my ideas about what music could be changing. You know, the gears kind of shifted and something happened with the whole chemistry. My whole chemistry kind of changed watching that. There was something that didn't really understand then, I guess, that was so kind of edgy about that particular show.

GROSS: And Johnny Cash himself, you know, in addition to his just incredibly moving voice, he was able to sing both about the spiritual and do really convincing murder ballads and revenge ballads.

Mr. CAVE: Yeah. I mean the way I looked at him when I was young was that he was an outlaw. You know, I'm talking about a young boy who was nine or 10 watching this kind of stuff. But he seemed like - it seemed like that rock 'n' roll or music could be an outlaw kind of thing that operated on the periphery of society in some way.

BIANCULLI: Nick Cave speaking Terry Gross last year. More after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's 2008 interview with singer-songwriter Nick Cave. He's just published his second book, "The Death of Bunny Munro: A Novel."

GROSS: If you don't mind my bringing this up, your father was killed by a car accident when you were 19.

Mr. CAVE: Yeah.

GROSS: I'm wondering what it did to your sense of justice of there being a God in this world, of your sense of vulnerability and impermanence to have something like that happen when you were relatively young.

Mr. CAVE: Well, I think it had a huge impact. You know, my world became decidedly different almost overnight. It changed from being a relatively safe world to being a very unsure place, and I pretty much left, you know, I lived at home with my mother but I pretty much left home after that and went what we Australians say is overseas, which is to England.

Mr. CAVE: He had been an English teacher. Was he an influence on you in terms of writing or the books that you read?

Mr. CAVE: I mean was a massive influence. You know, he was a smart guy and very well-read and, you know, and I'd be sitting around at home reading something or other and he would say, you know, I'd be reading a crime novel, let's say, and he'd say, well, look, if you really want to read a great murder scene, here, check this out, and he'd kind of read the murder scene in "Crime and Punishment" to me. Or you know, he read me the first chapter of "Lolita," which had a huge impact over me. I mean for many reasons, but not just in that he turned me on to a lot of great literature but I kind of saw the effect that literature had on him and, you know, and kind of wanted some of that.

GROSS: And your mother was a librarian. Did she choose books for you?

Mr. CAVE: Well, not in the same way. But really, I'm - even though my father was very much the flamboyant one and the one, you know, the family would kind of crane towards when he would be talking at the dinner table, I'm very much like my mother, actually. Most of my ideals and stuff really come from my mother.

GROSS: Now, we talked a little earlier about growing up in Australia and one of the things about Australia is that, you know, the white people there basically came to start a penal colony and you wrote the screenplay for the film "The Proposition," which relates to that.

Mr. CAVE: Yeah.

GROSS: And you wrote the score. You co-wrote the score for it too. So we're going to hear the title clip, so to speak, the title scene in which the police captain actually makes the proposition. But set the scene for us. This is very early on in the film, just summarize for us, which brought us to this point.

Mr. CAVE: Well, the - the film opens with the kind of obliteration of the Burns gang by the police, you know, a horrible kind of gun fight. And the two brothers, these three brothers, but two of them have been captured. Mikey(ph), which is the little one and Charlie, which is the main character of the film. And the police chief presents these two brothers with a proposition in regard to Arthur Burns, a kind of renegade brother who is departed from the gang sometime before and is living up in the hills. And what you'll hear now is "The Proposition."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Proposition")

Mr. RAY WINSTONE (Actor): (As Captain Stanley) I wish to present you a proposition. And now would (unintelligible) in this God forsaken place. The blacks won't go there or the trackers. (Unintelligible) I suppose, in time, the bounty hunters will get him. But I have other plans. I aim to bring him down. I aim to show that he is a man like any other. I am to hurt him.

Mr. ROBERT MORGAN (Actor): (As Sergeant Lawrence) When you're ready, sir.

Mr. WINSTONE: (As Captain Stanley): And what will most hurt him? Well, I don't know (unintelligible) about that. And I have realized, Mr. Burns, that I must become a little more inventive in my methods. Don't speak, Mr. Burns, listen to me now. Don't say a word. Suppose I told you there was a way to save your little brother, Mikey, from the noose. Suppose I gave you a horse and a gun. I suppose, Mr. Burns, I was to give both of you and your young brother Mikey a pardon. Suppose I (unintelligible) give you the chance to expunge the guilt beneath which is so clearly labor. Suppose I gave you till Christmas, I suppose you'd tell me what it is I want from you.

Mr. GUY PEARCE (Actor): (As Charlie Burns) You want me to kill my brother.

Mr. WINSTONE: (As Captain Stanley) I want you to kill your brother. Arthur Burns is a monster, an abomination. You were right to part company with him.

GROSS: It's Ray Winstone in a scene from "The Proposition," which was written by my guest Nick Cave who also co-wrote, "The Score." That must be pretty exciting to write the screenplay and the music for a movie. It's a very brutal film, and again relates to the origins of Australia as if, you know, colony. Since you are interested in like murder ballads and revenge and songs about those themes, are you particularly interested in the penal colony origins of your country of origin.

Mr. CAVE: I mean, we all are. All Australians are to a degree. I mean, for a long time we were, as a country, was considered to kind of shameful aspect to our heritage. You know, the fact that we come from colonial stock and we were prisoners initially and criminals. But I think that that's kind of largely changed and we're more kind of accepting of that these days. But I was actually approached by the director to write this screenplay because he could manage to get - he wanted to make an Australian western, just couldn't manage to get a script that he liked or that was Australian enough actually.

But I was just very interested in writing a script anyway just to see if I could do that. And I was lucky enough to be presented with the idea by John Hillcoat about something that I knew a little bit about.

GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us. It's really been great to talk with you.

Mr. CAVE: Thanks very much.

DAVIES: Nick Cave speaking to Terry Gross last year. The singer/songwriter second book, "The Death of Bunny Munro," a novel has just been published. Coming up film, critic David Edelstein on Michael Moore's new movie "Capitalism: A Love Story." This is FRESH AIR.

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