20 Nick Cave Quotes on the Creative Process

This week marks the New York theatrical release of the Nick Cave experimental documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. Staged, but not scripted, the film explores Cave’s creative practice and the myth of the artist. “Those personas—the [Leonard] Cohens, the Dylans, the Caves, are quite fragile, and I think we should look after them,” Pollard stated in a mini doc about the film. “Our culture is shifting in meaning, and there aren’t going to be too many in the future, because you see too much.” As Cave is an eloquent writer and speaker, we’ve gathered several passages from fascinating interviews that offer a similarly intimate view of the artist’s creative process.

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“I think the creative process is an altered state in itself. But I’ve tried it both ways, to be honest, and these days when I sit down without being full of drugs it’s a lot easier. A lot more comes, and it’s kind of better for it, I would say.”

“The artistic process seems to be mythologized quite a lot into something far greater than it actually is. It is just hard labor.”

“Well, as anyone who actually writes knows, if you sit down and are prepared, then the ideas come. There’s a lot of different ways people explain that, but, you know, I find that if I sit down and I prepare myself, generally things get done.”

“The secret to longevity in the music business is to change, and to be able to change. . . . When I start writing songs, and they come easily, I’m always very suspicious. That usually means they’re reminding me of something I’ve already done before. When the songs become unsettling, and I feel anxious about what I’m doing, that usually means it’s going to be more interesting later on when we actually record the stuff.”

“I think there’s definitely traps for people who grow older. One is nostalgia and writing nostalgically. I’m very aware of that. That idea that you don’t have a present that’s worth writing songs about, all you have is a past. I don’t believe that.”

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“I’ve always felt much more comfortable writing in the third person. I would find it impossible to write a book that was written from the author’s point of view about myself. But I could write it quite easily by putting a character in to portray me and writing from an outside point of view.”

“They never pour out of me. Each song is a difficult and painful birthing experience. Not that I really know what the birthing experience is like. I assume it’s painful.”

“I learned that there are ways to make the creative process more effective by articulating things I started to realise where time could be used in a better way. I kind of weirdly discovered through making the record, if you wake up early in the morning and start writing immediately, before you get out of bed or do anything, that time is a very beautiful playground for ideas where the resistance against the process doesn’t exist.”

“You know the thing is about the creative process is that at the time of doing it you have to believe it’s great. If you don’t think it’s very good then there’s no way in the world it can go into the studio, record it or put the energy required to record it unless you think it’s the best thing in the world. The thing that generally happens is once the record comes out you get the record and you listen to it and you go “Ah, it’s not the best thing in the world it’s just a bunch of songs and some are good and some are not so good”. Certainly time weeds all of that out and playing live has a huge impact on the life of a song because there are songs that you just can’t play live, they’re dead before you even [revisit them], you know? There are songs that you rehearse and you can actually feel the audience dying as you play them. After, I’m like “That’s it, we don’t play that song”. There’s a brutal kind of culling system on the songs.”

“You know, an idea is just an idea. There seems to… the kind of epiphanies that you have, like the little sudden bursts of light, they’re very small and they’re very short and it’s the pursuit of the idea that’s the important thing. . . . I know a lot of people who have way better ideas than I do that—much more frequently than I do that just can’t sit down and actually do it. Ideas are such are a little overrated really; it’s the work behind the idea that’s the important thing.”

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“The way I go about writing records is that I make a calendar date to start the new record, so I have nothing. I don’t have a bunch of notes that I bring into the office, I start with nothing at all. And I actually had a notebook that was made for me by a girl from Sydney: she’d made this kind of boutique notebook for me, because she’d heard me complaining about the fact that notebooks don’t open flat—I write in them, then try and play the lyrics on the piano, but they [claps his hands shut]. So she made, designed, a notebook that would open flat so that I could play the piano and sing from the notebook. So that was this empty notebook that I took into the studio on that particular day and started writing the record [Push the Sky Away]. And as it turned out that notebook became kind of essential in the process of making the record and ended up documenting the writing of these songs in a very minute way. I’ve always done a lot of research and stuff around the songs that I write so there are pages and pages of writing and you can kind of see these songs emerging. And when they got to a place that where I thought they were ready, I would type them out on my typewriter on the back sheets of old books—I tore out the back sheets—type them and then glue it into the book. So you had these kind of anatomies of songs in this book.”

“I’ve always hated narrative songs. I hate those songs where, basically, it’s an unfolding of a story. Dylan wrote like that. I can’t bear them, to be honest—you know, “The Ballad of Such and Such.” You listen to the story—and it’s beautifully written. But on some level, you hear it once and you’ve got the gist of it. There’s this kind of tyranny of the narrative, where you have to engage from the beginning of the song and listen to the end. But I’ve always found that that’s just the way I write. If I can’t visualize the thing on the page, it’s completely meaningless to me. I can’t write that “I love you, baby,” which are the songs I love, like a James Brown song, that just come and “get funky!” They’re the songs that I really respond to myself. But I’m a storyteller. I felt really pleased with this record and, to a certain extent, the last record, that the narrative structure had been shattered, but there are still highly visual songs where you enter a kind of world when you listen to them and things are going on, but you don’t have to get locked into them.”

“To be honest I feel that if I am not creating my sense of self plummets so low, my feelings about myself and my self-esteem take such a rapid nose-dive, that I have to get back in the game and start doing something again just to feel like I am engaged in the world.”

“I find [listening to music while writing] very distracting and it would also impose moods on your writing and influence your writing and that is not a good thing. I work in an office when I am working, a very bland office with nothing on the walls. It is just a desk and something to type on and my piano and that is where I write my songs. There is no visual imagery around, there is no window to look out and there is certainly no music.”

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“We have a board in the studio where the songs are structured with the things we need to do with each song. . . . The ordering of the songs can be a complete bitch, but it’s really important to us. Things like titles, the kind of things you’re sort of stuck with after the real effort’s been made to make the record. This can be a real nightmare, because it’s very difficult to find the order of the songs. It’s very difficult to find the right title, because there’s always either too much weight to the title or too little, and it’s not right. It can be a really difficult thing to do, and often you settle on titles that you’re not particularly happy with, because there’s just nothing better.”

“The meaning of the songs is not so important to me. It’s more where the songs actually take me, and to the places that they take me. I can reconvene with ghosts of my past in some kind of way. That can be quite a beautiful thing. What the songs mean to other people is a completely subjective thing, and it’s whatever they can get out of it that I guess is important. For me, the meanings of the songs are not so important. The words seem to be a kind of padlock that hopefully opens up different meanings or different feelings that break through the words.”

“Looking back over the past 20 years, a certain clarity prevails. Amidst the madness and the mayhem, it would seem I have been banging on one particular drum. I see that my artistic life has centered around an attempt to articulate an almost palpable sense of loss that laid claim to my life. A great gaping hole was blasted out of my world by the unexpected death of my father when I was 19.”

“Our records have always been—and increasingly so—stepping stones for the live presentation of those songs. And really, they don’t find their full potential until the live shows. I think that’s always been the way with the Bad Seeds.”

“I write songs in batches then record them and then can’t write again for ages. I try and build one song upon another, they may not look obviously inter-related but often one song acts as a springboard into another.”