Skip to Content

Nick Cave’s Songwriting Transcends Time

Nick Cave’s Songwriting Transcends Time

Nick Cave may have yet to have a number one hit in America, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a musician you love who has never heard of him.

It’s never too late to discover the King of Alternative Rock. The most challenging choice is deciding where to start. Do you prefer soft piano sounds, or do you want to be hit over the head with the exuberant anger of gothic rock?

Today, we’re going deep into the woods to discover why Nick Cave’s songwriting transcends time.

Let’s dive in!

The Story of Nick Cave

Nick Cave is a prolific Australian musician with a fanbase spanning generations. Born in rural Victoria in 1957, Cave first made his mark with his 70’s post-punk band, The Birthday Party.

A cult following quickly grew after the band moved to London and eventually Berlin. Crowds could not get enough of Cave writhing and screaming onstage, spouting twisted tales of despair over bleak yet noisy guitars.

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds formed after The Birthday Party broke up in 1983. Cave’s lyrical focus remained heavy, with influences from The Old Testament, Delta Blues, and outlaw country heroes like Johnny Cash. The sound shifted from a four-piece on fire to eight well-dressed gentlemen orchestrating dirgy sonic love letters.

Illustration of Nick Cave

By 1994 Cave was winning Australian music awards for Best Songwriter. His albums Let Love In and Murder Ballads attracted a wider audience, collaborating with artists like PJ Harvey and Kylie Minogue. Cave, unfortunately, had also been battling heroin and alcohol addiction for his entire musical career.

After Nick Cave released his tenth studio album, The Boatman’s Call, Everything changed again. He moved from the anger of The Old Testament to a more loving, softer New Testament style of writing. 

The record won unanimous critical acclaim and brought Cave into the mainstream. He also met the love of his life, Susie Bick, and finally ditched the drugs and booze. 

Nick Cave has produced over 50 studio albums and soundtracks. In addition, he was crowned an Officer of the Order of Australia for his “distinguished service to the performing arts” in 2017.

What is Nick Cave’s Songwriting Process?

Songwriting might be the boldest superpower Nick Cave has. Sure, he’s known for his screams and howls as he thrusts around, tossing his mic to the ground. And his stage presence is something to behold. But Cave would be nowhere without his words.

Nick Cave’s love for the written word started with his parents. His father was an English teacher, and his mother was a librarian. Nick wanted to be a writer before thinking about being a rock star. 

His first novel, And The Ass Saw The Angel, is a torturous journey of a young mute boy. He also wrote the screenplays for the 1995 film The Proposition and 2012’s Lawless.

But Nick Cave’s pinnacle of creativity lives in his songs. At its core, his writing process is simple. He writes every single day. First, he jots down ideas for lyrics by hand. His office is riddled with endless scribbles, and torn pages are strewn about. 

Next, when the songs start to form, he types them into his computer and continues. This practice goes on for months. When Cave finishes a piece, he prints the page, numbers it, and glues it to his bespoke notebook. From the book to the record to the stage, the song takes flight.

In 2018 Cave started an experiment called The Red Hand Files. He invites anyone on Earth to ask him any question they want. Cave typically has 3,800 letters in his inbox. Cave shares his responses to his email subscribers once a week, often encompassing broader reflections on life and how to live it with reluctant compassion.

Nick Cave’s Best Known Songs

The Mercy Seat

Nothing screams Nick Cave better than this 1988 seven-minute saga. Featured on The Bad Seed’s fifth album, Tender Prey, the song tells the tale of a man awaiting execution. Cave wrote The Mercy Seat with bandmate and longtime collaborator Mick Harvey. The term mercy seat refers to the electric chair and the biblical gold lid of the Ark of The Covenant.

Cave wrote The Mercy Seat as an afterthought. While he was writing his first novel, the lyrics would come to him in spurts, written on scraps of paper near his desk. He never imagined it would become a song he’d play at every show for the next thirty years.

Although the song reached number three on the UK indie charts, it remained an underground goth classic until Johnny Cash covered it in 2000. For Cash, The Mercy Seat represented his ongoing work with the prison system and capital punishment. 

Red Right Hand

Red Right Hand is a song about a shadowy figure coming to town, striking fear and allure everywhere he goes. Cave took the phrase red right hand from John Milton’s famous Paradise Lost poem. Released in October 1994, this signature Nick Cave song is Certified Silver in UK Sales.

Like many great songs by Cave, Red Right Hand remained widely unknown in American mainstream culture until the movie industry got a hold of it. The cautionary tune pops up repeatedly in the Scream horror movie franchise. It also appears in Hellboy 2004, The X Files, and Dumb and Dumber.

If you’re still unsure where you’ve heard this song before, tune into the British Crime Drama Peaky Blinders. Red Right Hand has been the title track of the show since 2013.

Into My Arms

This 1997 love ballad was a turning point for Nick Cave. Besides being miles away from his usual confrontational style, it also exposes his softer, more vulnerable side. Guardian Journalist Paul Farrell calls it an Australian Anthem, stating it has “comforted generations of listeners.”

The lyrics for Into My Arms describe a man’s love for a perfectly imperfect woman, longer for her to be in his arms. With just Cave and his piano, he encourages the audience to sing the chorus together with him.

Is Nick Cave Still Performing?

Oh yes. Nick Cave has been steadily touring since 1978. He’s no Bob Dylan, since he takes a hiatus now and then. Naturally, Cave’s touring stopped after his son Arthur died in 2015. 

When he started touring again in 2017, Cave realized he needed his audience as much as they needed him. Performing is a catharsis for Cave. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds will be touring Europe and The US starting in the summer of 2022.

Unfortunately, Cave lost a second of his four sons, Jethro, in April 2022. In all likelihood, the upcoming gigs will help Cave process the grief. 

His 2021 side project, Carnage, was inspired by life during the pandemic years. Co-written with long-time collaborator and friend Warren Ellis, the duo recently completed a short UK/US tour for the album. Cave and Ellis’ collaborations include scoring soundtracks to films such as The Road and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

Warren Ellis is an Australian musician who ran in the same circles as Cave during their early twenties. Ellis toured with his instrumental band Dirty Three before playing with The Bad Seeds. 

He has won several music awards and recently released a book about music and human connection called Nina Simone’s Gum. In 2021 he opened the Ellis Park Sumatran Wildlife Sanctuary.

Nick Cave’s Songwriting Truly Does Transcend Time

Nick Cave has something for everyone, whether you want to start with his gentler, newer sounds or begin when he was the king of howling horror. 

You could watch the 2005 film The Proposition for a visual dive into his storytelling. Or go backward in time, album by album, back to 1979. 

Better yet, just start with the lyrics. Nick Cave’s stories are as wild and wonderful as those spun by Johnny Cash, Neil Young, and Nina Simone. 

What’s Your Favorite Nick Cave Song?