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Inside Nick Cave's Candid Open Dialogue At Conversations With... in NYC
"I have absolutely no idea what I'm really doing here," admits a nervous Nick Cave, walking to the front of the stage after opening his Conversations With Nick Cave event at New York City's Symphony Space with a moving solo piano rendition of "Sad Waters." The Australian-born cult-rock hero has decided it's time to have a dialog, of some sort, with his audience. "There was something about doing this that felt like it fit into a larger idea that I want to pursue in some kind of way … I don't even know what the idea is yet."
Even at what is presumed to be his most uncomfortable, Cave is still impossibly cool, dressed sharp in a black well-tailored suit, his black hair slicked back, his shoes shined. Later this year, Cave and his longtime band the Bad Seeds will play Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Barclays Center to thousands of screaming fans, but on this night the audience is comprised of a mere few hundred of his most devout fans, many of whom are eager to take advantage of the evening's loose question and answer format. The questions begin flying at Cave immediately.
Perhaps Cave's nerves were put at ease when he saw most of his fans doing the asking were many times more petrified than him at the reality of speaking with their idol.
"I adore you," one fan began with a stammer. "Me too," replied Cave, igniting the room into laughter. The questions pour in, covering a topical potpourri from humor to death, his feelings on cell phones at shows to performing in Israel, and working many projects from novels to film scoring.
"Lyric writing is my main interest," says Cave before he decides a question posed about the gradual slowing of his performance tempos of "Mercy Seat" over the years is best answered with a "really slow" performance of the song itself. He heads back to the comforts of the piano and plays the song, one of his most well-known, with a thoughtful devotion to each word, possibly as a byproduct of the unique format of the night where every syllable seemed on the table for discussion.
Neither the crowd nor Cave shied away from talking about the tragic loss of Cave's son Arthur. Fans shared their similar stories of loss, lauding Cave for helping them cope through his music and his 2016 film documenting his creative and healing processes, One More Time With Feeling, which was nominated for Best Music Film at the 60th GRAMMY Awards.
Cave cites a poem by Philip Larkin called "The Mower" as being particularly helpful in his time of grief. "We must be careful of eachother/ We must be kind while there is time," were the poem's final lines he repeated in his mind like a mantra of healing.
Musically, Cave took requests and plowed through a wide range of his songs on the piano in spurts of two or three throughout the night, including gems such as "Stranger Than Kindness," which featured music by Blixa Bargeld and lyrics by Anita Lane; "Papa Won't Leave You, Henry," at a tempo and volume more suitable for New York's Upper West Side; and his classic "Into My Arms," at the request of a couple celebrating their anniversary.
There was no shortage of questions at the ready whenever Cave took a break from the piano. Because of — or perhaps despite — the audience's eclectic questions, he covered a lot of ground: his connection to the songs as a narrator, saying "Certainly over the last three to four records, I'm writing about myself;" his thoughts on the 12 steps and recovery, saying "I'm very familiar with it, unfortunately"; and his painstaking creative process, describing how you must "prepare yourself for the small miracle of songwriting."
Cave opened up about some of his chief collaborators, including Bargeld and Warren Ellis, and revealed his predilection for collaborating with women. He recounted recent sessions with Marianne Faithful, his friendship with Kylie Minogue and his respect for PJ Harvey (whom he calls by her given name, "Polly") as evidence of how his voice and aesthetic work well musically with female artists. Later, he'd play "Henry Lee," a duet featuring Harvey from his groundbreaking 1996 album Murder Ballads, and her voice seemed to sneak into fans' minds at all the right parts.
At 60 years old, Cave admitted he listens to less and less new music these days, but said there are always staples for him such as Neil Young, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Van Morrison. He also admitted he was late to the party on appreciating some of his British '80s alt-rock contemporaries like the Cure and the Smiths, and told inspiring yet chilling stories of working with Johnny Cash and Rick Rubin. Perhaps the most promising news of the night was that Grinderman, Cave's daring psych-blues side-project with Ellis and other Bad Seeds is "waiting in the wings."
Throughout the night Cave seemed present, if not self-aware, as if it were his intention in hosting an open discussion to be stumped, and have a breakthrough. He gave a particularly articulate answer to his thoughts on chaos versus order, finding the perfect place in his life and work for both, and when confronted with the question of religion, he glanced over his right shoulder back at the piano at which he just performed "God Is In The House."
"It feels unfair that I am taking aim at something that has a lot of value to someone," Cave thinks out loud in what feels like a real-time realization. "Truth is not the ultimate ideal, meaning is the ultimate ideal."
Not all of the questions or answers were quite so heavy or philosophical. The audience had the chance to find out what kind of sandwich Cave prefers ("nothing with meat in it"), why he likes meditation (his wife, Susie, saw an immediate change), that his son Earl is becoming an acting star (complete with his own superfans who wait in hotel lobbies to meet him), and whether or not he should bring back his mustache (a show of hands in the room revealed the jury is still out). But eventually the so-called "Humans of Nick Cave" would go a little too far out in left field.
"There's so many problems with that question, I'll play a song for you," Cave said, sidestepping one particularly sticky inquiry, and the crown chuckled and cheered.
Cave played "Mermaids," honored a request for "Love Letter" and dove back into his middle years with the Bad Seeds for "The Ship Song," "And No More Shall We Part" and "Far From Me." Fittingly, he closed the evening with "Skeleton Tree," the title track from his latest album and a symbol for the tragic, regenerative and transformative time in this aging punk's creative life.
If his Conversations With … concept yields anything for Cave, it's an escape back to reality of how adored, enjoyed and respected his work is, and his fans hope that through this dialog he finds exactly what he's looking for.