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SXSW: Nick Cave discusses childhood, addiction ... and some music

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The opening panel for SXSW music was billed as a conversation between alt rocker Nick Cave and author Larry Ratso Sloman, but it felt more like that old TV show, This is Your Life, as Sloman took us through Cave’s biography. Starting with his childhood in Australia, the talk moved through his well-documented heroin addiction, relationships with various famous women, and oh, a little about the unique sound that he has honed over the years. Cave reacted to many of Sloman’s quotes pulled from earlier interviews with the deadpan response: “I said that? Cool.”

But learning about Cave’s background did help give a greater sense of the oft-misunderstood artist’s oevre. Cave’s first musical influences grew from the shows he was exposed to as a kid in rural Australia. “Everything we watched was American. Australian didn’t have culture,” he said. The Johnny Cash show took a strong hold on Cave. “There was something kind of evil about it, something dangerous about this articulate character, and I responded to that.”

Cave’s life has been a series of do-overs and fresh starts, moving first to Melbourne, then to London, then to Berlin, then to Brazil. He said he kept trying to find culture in the early moves but admitted jokingly, “Culturally, life has been a series of disappointments.” His life in Australia was dominated by crime and drugs, alongside his girlfriend in those days, Deanna, about whom he wrote the song of the same name. “We had a borderline criminal kind of relationship,” Cave said.

Cave started out as a visual artist, hoping to become a painter. But when he was kicked out of art school (his only submitted work was a painting of a circus muscleman looking up a ballerina’s skirt), it was clear he had to pursue his second outlet, music. It helped with meeting women, too. “It actually works,” he said. “At school I was an anti-magnet for women. Things immediately changed as far as my attractiveness.”

After his father’s death, Cave moved to London, hoping to chase the punk scene there: “We would read [music magazine] NME when we were kids and dream about what it was like to be there. But by the time we got there whatever had been going on had well and truly finished. We were looked at by the English press as being these weird people from Australia making this weird kind of music.”

Playing as the band The Birthday Party, Cave’s shows developed a reputation for being violent. “There was a lot of interplay between the audience and me, which got out of hand” he said. People would expect a certain type of gig that wasn’t about music but was about violence.” Cave said he has always felt like an outsider in the industry. “I still feel very much an imposter in the whole music scene, which I’m quite happy about to be honest.”

It was after Cave and his band moved to Berlin that he discovered his signature deep, soft voice. ” I discovered a tone that I was unaware of. If you record at the mic very loudly and sing softly, my voice has a moderately pleasing tone,” he said. But it’s that tone that critics don’t always appreciate. When Sloman read part of a scathing review of the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, one audience member shouted out “F— that guy!” Clearly, reviews haven’t stopped Cave’s passionate fans.

Cave acknowledged his heroin addiction, rehab, relapse, and rehab again, but did refocus the conversation on his music. He said that after rehab, he didn’t write for seven months, spending most of his time watching videos. Cave mused on writing music and its challenges.

“I think to write a good lyric is very, very difficult. You’re always brought back to the pain of birth each time. There’s all these nasty little births. Your pushing out 13 tiny watermelons out of this tiny little orifice.”

Sloman moved the conversation forward to Cave’s time in Brazil and his most popular album, 1996’s Murder Ballads. “The record was a very playful idea,” he said. “It was a hit mostly because I did a duet with Kylie Minogue on it. She had a very lovely effect on things for a while. She was a force of nature, this girl,” he said. Sloman asked if he saw working with a pop star as somewhat camp. “Maybe it was a little camp, but I didn’t see that at the time. There were a lot of people that didn’t like that [working w pop star].”

The panel sped to a close without delving much into Cave’s new album, Push the Sky Away. The conversation briefly touched on Cave’s relationship with PJ Harvey and his refusal of the MTV VMAs Best Male Artist award in 1996. Fortunately, Cave is playing several shows in Austin this week, so we’ll get the chance to learn more about his latest work.