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Nick Cave on his breakup with PJ Harvey: “I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe”

on August 28, 2019, 2:52pm

Nick Cave has frequently used his blog, The Red Hand Files, to open up about numerous aspects of his life. From teasing the return of Grinderman to commenting on Morrissey’s political views to listing his favorite love songs, the blog has become an outlet for the The Bad Seeds frontman to interact directly with his fans. In a recent post, he responded to questions about his breakup with PJ Harvey and revealed how the split changed his songwriting.

Cave and Harvey had a brief relationship in the mid-1990s, right around when the former was working on The Boatman’s Call. Over on TRHF, two fans asked specifically about this time period: Sao Paulo, Brazil’s Ramon wanted to know, “Why did you give up on your relationship with PJ Harvey in the 90s?”, while Tanya from Toronto, Canada asked, “I had a real hard time with your music, my boyfriend was a fan, until The Boatman’s Call. This record really spoke to me. Can you explain?”

Taking on both questions at once — as the first helped explain the second — Cave began, “The truth of the matter is that I didn’t give up on PJ Harvey, PJ Harvey gave up on me.” He recalled sitting on his the floor of Notting Hill flat when he received a call from “Polly.” It was a Dear John call, and when Cave asked why Harvey wanted to leave, she said flatly, “It’s just over.”

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“I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe,” wrote Cave.

He attributed the separation to a number of factors, including his drug use and the fact that he “had a certain amount of work to do on my understanding of the concept of monogamy.” In the end, though, he believes it came down to them both being “fiercely creative people, each too self-absorbed to ever be able to inhabit the same space in any truly meaningful way.”

Though he was hurt by Harvey’s decision to end things, it turned out to be a powerful songwriting inspiration and helped him finish the unique The Boatman’s Call. As Cave put it,

“The break up filled me with a lunatic energy that gave me the courage to write songs about commonplace human experiences (like broken hearts) openly, boldly and with meaning – a kind of writing that I had, until that date, steered clear of, feeling a need to instead conceal my personal experiences in character-driven stories. It was a growth spurt that pushed me in a direction and style of songwriting that has remained with me ever since – albeit in different guises.”

Read Nick Cave’s entire post about PJ Harvey below. Fans will have more opportunities to ask Cave probing questions on the next leg of his “Conversations” tour, launching in North America this fall. Get tickets here.

Dear Ramon and Tanya,

The truth of the matter is that I didn’t give up on PJ Harvey, PJ Harvey gave up on me. There I am, sitting on the floor of my flat in Notting Hill, sun streaming through the window (maybe), feeling good, with a talented and beautiful young singer for a girlfriend, when the phone rings. I pick up the phone and it’s Polly.

“Hi,” I say

“I want to break up with you.”

“Why?!” I ask.

“It’s just over,” she says.

I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe.

***

Deep down I suspected that drugs might have been a problem between us, but there were other things too. I still had a certain amount of work to do on my understanding of the concept of monogamy, and Polly had her own issues, I suspect, but I think at the end of the day it came down to the fact that we were both fiercely creative people, each too self-absorbed to ever be able to inhabit the same space in any truly meaningful way. We were like two lost matching suitcases, on a carousel going nowhere.

Songwriting completely consumed me at that time. It was not what I did, but what I was. It was the very essence of me. Polly’s commitment to her own work was probably as narcissistic and egomaniacal as my own, although I was so deep into my own shit that I can’t really comment on this with any certainty. I remember our time together with great fondness though, they were happy days, and the phone call hurt; but never one to waste a good crisis, I set about completing The Boatman’s Call.

***

The Boatman’s Call cured me of Polly Harvey. It also changed the way I made music. The record was an artistic rupture in itself, to which I owe a great debt. It was the compensatory largesse for a broken heart, or at least what I thought at the time was a broken heart – in recent years I have re-evaluated that term. The break up filled me with a lunatic energy that gave me the courage to write songs about commonplace human experiences (like broken hearts) openly, boldly and with meaning – a kind of writing that I had, until that date, steered clear of, feeling a need to instead conceal my personal experiences in character-driven stories. It was a growth spurt that pushed me in a direction and style of songwriting that has remained with me ever since – albeit in different guises. It also pointed a way to a more poignant, raw, stripped back way of performance – the suspended and barely supported vocal. The Bad Seeds, to their eternal credit, stepped back and just let these piano-driven songs be. There are few bands on earth that understand that to not play, can be as important as its opposite.

Tanya, maybe it is a combination of all of these elements that changed the way you felt about The Bad Seeds’ music. Perhaps there is also a feminine energy within The Boatman’s Call which you respond to. It feels a wiser, more empathetic record than anything that had been done previously, but whatever the reason, I am happy that you were drawn into the fold.

Love, Nick

Revisit “Henry Lee”, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey’s collaboration from the Boatman’s Call precursor Murder Ballads:

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