Nick Cave’s gift: a skeleton key that unlocks the source of songwriting

After the Bad Seeds singer lost his child, he invited a film crew in and simply carried on working. The result is an indelible portrait of the artistic process itself

Last night I went to see One More Time With Feeling, by accident, with Justine, the French goth-rock anti-nanny whos been helping me taking care of Ash while I try to write songs for a new record.

Ive been struggling with the mystery of how to juggle everything. Im a bit lost. I havent written many songs in the last two years, and not only am I rusty as hell, but my body and brain have been reconfigured by parenthood. My best friend died two months before I gave birth, and I met my newborn son while grief-stricken. Now its a year later and Im sitting in front of a blank piano. It hasnt been very clear to me what I should write about. And, I realized while watching the film, it hadnt been clear to me what Im allowing myself to write about.

I used to write when the mood struck. Id get random ideas for random subjects relationships exploding! my parents! the evils of advertising! abortion! and just crank out some lyrics without thinking twice. But nowadays Im very careful with people, I have my relationships to protect, and a body of work to reference, and then there are the music critics to shoo out of my head and, to be honest, Im never really in the mood to write anymore. Or if I am, Im too busy with a baby to notice the mood striking. I find myself thinking that I have to be disciplined: writers like Thomas Mann (and Nick Cave) are known for just chaining themselves to a desk for a few hours a day. But then Im forced to ask: What should I explore? My Marriage? (No: Bad Idea, too dangerous and possibly misinterpretable.) The death? (No: Its too raw, and its too difficult to do justice to it all.) The birth? (No: Bad Idea, its way too corny and cliched to write about your children and parenting )

Im a longtime Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds fan but Id somehow missed the memo about the documentary, which is a making-of film for their new album, Skeleton Tree. Ive been focusing my attention on the more immediate issues lately: the surprise pile of steaming baby poop on the wooden bathroom floor, the removal of the knife-block thats been looming on the back of the swinging kitchen door, struggling with the choice to walk the baby through the woods instead of answering my emails and running my business.

I watched from the sidelines, with a tight heart and no good words, when Caves 15-year-old son, Arthur, died, falling from the cliffs in Brighton. I was seven months pregnant with Ash, and I was so haunted by the image of the descending boy that it crept into my own nightmares. The idea of losing a child when I didnt yet have my own was paralyzing. I remember being appalled at the media. The goddamn Daily Mail. And I remember thinking:And hes Nick Cave. The harbinger of doom-songs. How will he grieve? What will he write? Will he just disappear himself? What is he going to do?

I have the answer now: he was in the middle of a record that was already eerily connected to the themes of death and falling when youre Nick Cave, thats probably more likely than when youre Taylor Swift and he simply carried on. He kept writing. He wrote his way straight through the aftermath, and not only did he continue making his record, he decided to invite a huge film crew in to capture the entire recording process, a mere six months after his son died.

He positioned himself center stage at his piano under a bank of hot film lights, arranged the Bad Seeds around him, and cranked out an albums worth of breathtakingly sad, improvisational, straight-to-tape songs inspired by his pain. And as I sat there in the dark, in awe of his ability to do this, it seemed to me hed unlocked some Zen achievement in art-making, because in these times the Kardashian age of the Relentless Selfie the choice to document this process still appeared to be an utterly selfless act.

And I found myself wondering if this film would have happened in 1990, before the age of reality TV, or if the Jersey Shores and Real Worlds have somehow carved out a space for a document like this to exist. Nowadays, the hall-of-mirror Instagram-filtered selves that we display to one another arent necessarily getting more authentic as much as they are getting more professional. We find ourselves performing grief, in public, in a way we never have before. For as many people take selfies at Auschwitz, the bar becomes raised for the rest of us, especially the writers and artists: how, in the age of all this perfect-image-posturing, do we process and grieve?

Nick added a voiceover to the film that reminds the audience how totally self-conscious this whole process is: he lends commentary about the sound of his voice (he feels guilty, he should have warmed up more); about the bags under his eyes (they didnt look like that a year ago); about Warren Ellis, his arranger (look at him, holding it all together). He wonders aloud how on earth, standing in the local supermarket, he became an object of pity. The lyrics, his poems, and the interviews about grief and his marriage blur into one piece of art, and he speaks frankly about how he doesnt consider these songs polished or beautifully edited in the way hes grown accustomed to editing. Instead, theyre just musical scenes of raw, human expression set to the musical backdrop of the Bad Seeds, the steadfast, brotherly musicians who create the steady sonic canvas on which Nick splatters, speckles, and slashes the stumbling, found words of a mourning father.

And we listen with different ears, because theyd been tuned to hear at a different frequency by the additional images in the film: in between each song, we travel outside. To the shoreline, to his house, to the kitchen, to a sons empty bedroom. To a quiet scene in which his wife Susie, breathing back tears, holds up a childs drawing of a windmill and a cliff (the very cliff), wondering aloud why the picture was put, years before the fall, into a black frame. She admits shes superstitious. Why a black frame, why not a white one? She cant make sense of it. And we all sit there, across elastic time, an audience in pained silence in a cinema, as Nick and Susie Cave sit in pained silence in a kitchen in Brighton. And you wonder, again, why Nick Cave has chosen to do this, when he just as well could have skipped the whole exercise.

But fundamentally this is what we as artists have always done. We take our pain and we transform it into some kind of narrative, some show or story, something else. We frame our trauma as best we can, and we offer it up. At best, its a gift; at worst, its a product. And the amount of enduring respect we bestow on our artists seems to be directly proportionate to how well, how authentically, how selflessly, they can take and deliver an emotional selfie like this.

Watching Nick coping with this whole situation by writing, recording and training the camera on himself made me realize that Ive left my most painful experiences untouched in songwriting. The death of my college boyfriend. My brother dying for no good reason when I was 21. The difficulties with bearing children, the deep-dark bloody-womb moments. These things havent got songs yet. Maybe I havent felt authorized to write them.

This is why Nick Caves choice to document this heartbreaking record was the ultimate reminder to me that, to be a useful artist, Im going to simply have to to dig deeper if I want to add anything meaningful to the conversation. And its terrifying. All I have to do is close my eyes and see a few YouTube comments ( flaming narcissist who fucking cares how totally tasteless pure wankery ), but then again, look at Nick. He ignores all that and simply puts it out there, too preoccupied with being authentically in the moment of expression to give a single fuck.

In the final moments of One More Time with Feeling, were shown near-static portraits of the entire film crew, the band, Nicks wife Susie and Earl, Arthurs twin brother. Then theres an empty frame, a blank, gray portrait of a missing son, and we hear Nicks voiceover explain that he and Susie have chosen in the end to be happy as an act of revenge. I thought: Ha. Only Nick Cave, king of darkness and murder ballads, would choose to word it that way. In a black frame.

Call it an act of revenge, or of defiance, or of celebration, whatever. It was a reminder so loud that, as a songwriter, Im almost deafened. A reminder that any pain of any size can be transmuted into a gift of art. We cannot make sense of anything, really, although we can plod forth with our stupid little notebooks and paints and guitars, with our pathetically small little mirror-shards of offered reflections to one another, showing the poetic debris weve managed to harvest from our suffering.

Art reminds us. That our plans are meaningless. That help is not on the way. That our children can die in our lifetimes. But I have to say, though his song subject is (as usual) darker than dark, Nick Cave acts here not as a harbinger of doom but of the lightest, noblest message an artist can deliver to us: that the choice to make art is, indeed, an act of blistering revenge against the nonsensical, cold unfairness of this world. Tragedy strikes. We can close down, or we can keep working on finding a frame in which to house all of this confusion. A black frame, or a white one any frame at all. We have a choice.

So thank you for the gift, Nick. Thank you.

Off to write.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/10/nick-cave-skeleton-tree

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