Thursday 19 September 2019

'I almost dropped my syringe' – Nick Cave reveals how PJ Harvey break-up inspired The Boatman's Call

The singer has said he still remembers their relationship with great fondness.

Nick Cave's songs possess poignant, even painful, inner clues about the human condition
Nick Cave's songs possess poignant, even painful, inner clues about the human condition

Laura Harding

Nick Cave has said he was so surprised when PJ Harvey broke up with him that “I almost dropped my syringe”.

He dated the British singer, with whom he recorded the song Henry Lee, in the mid-1990s, and The Boatman’s Call by Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds was inspired by their relationship.

The musician has now said drugs were a problem between them and there were also issues with monogamy and self-absorption, but that he remembers their relationship with great fondness.

Answering a question from a fan on his website, The Red Hand Files, Cave wrote: “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.”

He continued: “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.

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PJ Harvey (Yui Mok/PA)

“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.”

In response to another question, he wrote: “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.”

Read more: Nick Cave ‘So, What Do You Want to Know?', Abbey Theatre review: 'immensely moving, revealing, and frequently hilarious conversation'

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