VESTRIES are usually home to boxes of printer paper, shelves of comb-spined guidelines and reports, and donated mugs of various vintages. On an autumn Tuesday afternoon, the vestry of the west London church I have been asked not to name contains all the above — but also the musician Nick Cave, drinking builder’s tea.
He credits his church presence to the memoir written recently with the journalist Sean O’Hagan — raised a Roman Catholic but no longer practising — featuring their discussions about religion. The book’s wellspring was the death of Cave’s 15-year-old son, Arthur, in 2015, and the profound changes that grief brought on him and his fashion-designer wife, Susie.
Lockdown, and release from the rigours of touring, provided the space for conversations about creative practice, religion, and grief to take place, and for the book to take shape. “It was after doing this book that I started to go to church. So it wasn’t like he [Sean O’Hagan] convinced me otherwise. It was that I was able to speak freely and openly about things and work out where I stood rather than just having information rolling around in your head.”
Good faith is a key concept for Cave as he navigates the rocky path of being a time-served rock star (his post-punk band the Birthday Party first performed in 1977), with all the recreational and relationship choices that that embodies, and speaking openly about Anglicanism.
“The book is about conversation. It is in good faith: that you can talk about things, you can disagree on things, and it’s not the end of the world, it’s just a disagreement. And this book exists on the other side of disagreement. You’re talking to someone that essentially wants the best from you.
“They’re not trying to score points or trap you. They’re just wondering and genuinely curious, they want to know things, and push back when they think you’re speaking rubbish. And there’s a mutual understanding that conversation can be a kind of corrective.”
He continues: “My head is just full of stuff. Even when we’re doing an interview now, as I’m speaking things, and I’m wondering: ‘Hang on a second, is that really what I think about that?’ Because Sean comes back to questions and he will say: ‘What do you think of this? Do you believe this?’ And I’ll say ‘No’. Two weeks later, we’ll ask the same question, and I’ll say: ‘Well, yes, the answer has changed completely.’
“That’s what a good-faith conversation is: you’re allowed the privilege of being wrong, and you don’t have to double down on bad ideas just to save face or score points. We both grew through these conversations — even though Sean was deeply sceptical about some of my spiritual ideas.”
THE result, Faith, Hope and Carnage, was completed four months before we met, and ends with the afterword: “Sadly, as I began writing this afterword, the death was announced of Nick’s oldest son, Jethro, in Melbourne.” Jethro died, aged 31, on 9 May this year.
This was on top of the death during lockdown of Cave’s mother, Dawn, who died in hospital in Australia. Cave’s only contact was via his sister Julie’s iPad. His former partner and friend Anita Lane also died as the book was being written.
An air of loss hangs over our interview that’s impossible to ignore. It feels like entering a minefield to interrogate Cave about the suggestion in the book that Arthur’s spirit retains an earthly dimension through the album Ghosteen.
Megan CullenNick Cave coming off stage in New York City
“There was a kind of holiness to Ghosteen that spoke into the absence of my son and breathed life into the void,” Cave writes. “Those days in Malibu making that record were like nothing I have ever experienced before or after, in terms of their wild potency. It seems strange now to say it, but I also had this idea that perhaps I could send a message to Arthur. I felt that if there was a way to do that, this was the way — an attempt to not just articulate the loss but to make contact in some kind of way, maybe in the same way as we pray, really.”
“And to communicate something to Arthur?” O’Hagan asks.
“Yes, to communicate something. To say goodbye.”
Cave began work on tracks for Ghosteen a few days after learning of Arthur’s death. He also launched the Red Hand Files, an online forum where fans can ask for personal advice. And, in 2018, he went on an ask-me-anything conversations tour.
A little later, the book quotes the American theologian Cynthia Bourgeault and the “imaginal realm”, which Cave expands on in Faith, Hope and Carnage. It “seems to be another place you can inhabit briefly that separates itself from the rational world and is independent of the imagination. It is a kind of liminal state of awareness, before dreaming, before imagining, that is connected to the spirit itself.
“It is an ‘impossible realm’ where glimpses of the preternatural essence of things find their voice. Arthur lives there. Inside that space, it feels a relief to trust in certain glimpses of something else, something other, something beyond.”
COMING to terms with the loss of his son and becoming a regular parishioner do not overlap. “Personally, I haven’t looked for support in that way from the Church. It’s about something else entirely. And I’ve found most support about that sort of thing coming from other people, and especially through something like the Red Hand Files.”
Cave’s wife set up a group for grieving parents. The couple also coped with grief through work. Susie Cave created the fashion label Vampire’s Wife, beloved by the Princess of Wales and Princess Beatrice.
“She was literally in a darkened room. Until she got what seemed an incredibly insensitive request from a friend: ‘Look, I need you to make me a dress for the GQ Awards. Could you do that?’ And that was the real answer. She got up and did it.
Megan CullenSusie and Nick Cave
“And that kicked off a way of engaging back with the world. It’s not that everything went away, by any means. But there was just something that got her out of bed in the morning. And I think it continues to be that way. And the dresses themselves are extremely extraordinary: there’s a spiritual embodiment of her loss in those dresses. That’s how I see them.”
One of the most oft–quoted passages of Faith, Hope and Carnage explores the interplay of grief, work, and forgiveness. “There is not a song or a word or a stitch of thread that is not asking for forgiveness; that is not saying we are just so sorry.”
But who is forgiving whom? Where is this forgiveness to come from? “I guess it’s forgiveness from God. But I think it’s also forgiveness from our son or sons. It’s the feeling that my son is trapped in a similar situation of feeling. The need to be forgiven for causing such, well . . . the need to be forgiven and . . . it’s just I find that difficult to talk about.”
He pauses, then says that it’s easier to talk about forgiveness in wider terms. “To make art and do things creatively is a way of redressing the balance of our sins in the world. That’s one way to do it. To make art and to write songs goes some way in improving matters. That songs are fundamentally good. There’s a sort of moral dimension to a song that they do good. They make things better. And I think that’s one way of making amends or reconciling oneself to the world.”
AS A child in Wangaratta, Cave used to make Staffordshire-style figurines, to the delight of his mother, who kept them on display throughout her life. He returned to ceramics during lockdown, and made a series of figures of what I assumed was Satan, but this is quickly corrected: “It’s a devil. It’s not the devil.
“It’s a devil, which is essentially a man with horns. It tells the story of a man, of the devil; it tells my own story. It was supposed to be like the Stations of the Cross — not in a blasphemous way. Each was a meditation, and that you move from one to the other. And it tells the life story of the devil.”
The final figure in the series looks lonely and elicits sympathy. “He’s forgiven in the end. And I mean, there’s obvious parallels to my own life. But this was not something I set out to do. This was something that unfolded. It was astonishing at the end, when I looked at them all together, to see what they were saying. Those devils are small, and they exude a humility.”
The series, two years in the making, is now on show in the Sara Hildén Art Museum, in Tampere, Finland, until January, together with works by Brad Pitt and the British sculptor Thomas Houseago.
Cave learnt of his mother’s death on the day that he was due to go to the studio of his friend Karen Johnson for a ceramics session. “I was about to call Karen and cancel the day, but Susie encouraged me to go and do one of these sculptures; she said ‘go’, and so I did.
“And I really got pulled into the whole thing. There was something about making these ceramics that was deeply intoxicating. After a couple of aborted attempts, I just woke up with the idea of doing the devil, that came almost fully formed.”
Spirits are a focus for his enthusiasm for the Gospel of Mark, having published an introduction to the Gospel in 1998. But is not the familiar Gadarene swine cleansing that he is most drawn to, but the child with possible epilepsy in Mark 9, whose father asks for help.
“This is the mute deaf child that has fits, and Christ steps into an argument where his apostles are trying to remove the unclean spirit, and they can’t do it. And everyone’s doubting that they have any power, and Christ steps in and does it; but it’s mostly the response from the father-figure in that story.”
What is left out of the Gospels is as compelling as what is included, he says. “I’ve been fascinated by the stories of the Bible on that basic level as stories, but the Christ stories have a strange pull. I like to imagine what’s going on, because there’s not a lot of information.
“It’s interesting to read between the lines and work out what’s actually going on. Like the story I just told you about the chaos that’s going on, and everyone doesn’t know what to do, and Christ steps into chaos.”
HE FIRST heard the Bible as a choirboy in Wangaratta Cathedral, going three times a week until he was 12 and sent to boarding school. ‘I wasn’t a very good choirboy, I wasn’t a very good singer. I was conscious of the fact that I wasn’t one of the rising stars of Wangaratta Cathedral. Then I just went to boarding school in Melbourne, and that was it.
“You know, I don’t think I ever left the church. I just went to Melbourne.” He recalls finding the sermons particularly trying as a child, though he finds them more engaging now.
There has been a Christian theme running through some of his lyrics over the years. “The Mercy Seat” will be resonant with anyone familiar with Salvation Army worship; “Brompton Oratory”, his break-up song about P. J. Harvey, refers to both the Oratory and the Pentecostal Kensington Temple; and “God is in the House” is a send-up of fire-and-brimstone moralising. Still, there are no plans to pivot into Christian rock.
Faith, Hope and Carnage explains his personal crossroads of rock and religion: “All my songs are written from a place of spiritual yearning, because that is the place that I permanently inhabit. To me, personally, this place feels charged, creative, and full of potential.”
He says that his friendship with Chris Martin is not influenced by the Coldplay singer’s Evangelical upbringing. “He reached out when Arthur died, he sent Victor Frankl’s [book] Man’s Search for Meaning — which was way too early, I was not in any mood to read something like that. But I remembered that as an act of kindness, and when I was in a condition to say thank you, I did, and we became friends.
“Very often, I get on well with people who are involved in music in a completely different way than I am, because it’s not about the music.”
Cave says he knows of two other performers who are in the closet about their Christianity.
Megan CullenPerforming in New York
After losing her son, Susie Cave became interested in Hari Krishna services, and persuaded her husband to join her at one event. “There was a pile of Birkenstocks; so I took my shoes off and went in. They were playing Krishna music with a call and response thing, but the lights were out, it was very dim.
“Within a very short space of time, I really liked it, and started dancing around, going ‘Hari Krishna, Hari Krishna’, not because I was a becoming a Krishna, but there was just this beautiful music, and I was happy. And the headache I’d arrived with went, and I felt good. It was only ten or 15 people in there.
“Then, at the end, the lights come on. And these youngish people knew who I was, and the whole temperature for me personally changed. And it became like it all came back. But there was just this moment of possibility of being able to lose myself in the dark, and it was really quite beautiful.
“Maybe that is what happens for people when they go to something like this. They can just be absorbed into the community without feeling alienated in some way, or separate or special. Maybe everyone feels awkward. There’s something to be said about religion with the lights off.”
The metaphorical lights are turning up on our meeting in the vestry, as the phone rings (“I haven’t heard a landline in ages”), the door keypad pings, and others need to get into the vestry for its numerous purposes.
How does he find being part of an everyday Anglican church community? “To step into a church is quite different than just entertaining your own ideas about things within your own head. In church, something happens with the sceptical side of me that at times drops away, and there is a genuine sort of rising of the spirit.
“I’m kind of moving into these intuitions that I feel all the time, but I’m also a rational person. I’m on a journey towards something, which seems to me mysterious, unfathomable, even absurd. But that journey may just be the religious experience.”
Framing his current belonging over a longer timescale, he concludes: “As far back as I can remember, and despite the kind of life I’ve lived, I’ve felt pulled back to toward religion. And I go to some length in the book to explain that this is not vague spirituality: this is towards something much more systemised and concrete.”
As we say farewell and head towards the cloisters, the verger says: “See you Sunday, Nick.”
“Yeah, Sunday,” he replies, “And then I’m on tour.”
Faith, Hope and Carnage by Nick Cave and Sean O’Hagan is published by Canongate Books at £20 (CT Bookshop £18); 978-1-83885-766-0.
Read why Rowan Williams has chosen it as his favourite book of the year here. Full review here.