Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan on What Drives Religious Searching
Discussing Doubt, Wonder, and a Lifetime of Questions
The following is an interview between Seán O’Hagan and Nick Cave, excerpted from the book Faith, Hope and Carnage, a collection of conversations between the two.
I know you don’t like looking back, but I’m going to throw some of your old quotes at you.
Really? Must you?
Don’t worry, they’re not from interviews. I was re-reading your lecture, “The Secret Life of the Love Song,” from 1998. You wrote, “the actualising of God through the love song remains my prime motivation as an artist.” Is that still the case?
Yes, I suppose so. As I’ve said, the songs I write these days tend to be religious songs in the very broadest sense. They behave as though God exists. They are essentially making a case for belief itself, even though they are at times ambivalent and inconsistent about the existence of God. I guess ultimately what I’m trying to do is to put forward the idea that being alive is of some consequence. That we are of some spiritual value.
I read that interview you sent me, the one with the writer Marilynne Robinson. It’s an amazing interview. She’s putting forward an idea of religion as essentially reflective and contemplative, that contemplation of the divine is a big part of what it is to be religious. That really chimed with me. Religion is asking the question: “What if?” And to me, that question is also, in its way, a completely adequate answer. Do you understand what I mean?
I think so: that it may be enough for us to just contemplate the possibility of God?
Yes. That is what my songs have asked for some time: “What if?” A question unencumbered by an answer. Having said that, religion is of little value if it doesn’t serve some larger function—the welfare of others.
Yes, of course. But just to stay with the “what if” question, does it not in itself leave room for doubt as well as wonder?
Yes. Doubt and wonder. Well put.
That’s quite a dynamic, though—almost contradictory.
Well, I think the only way I can fully give myself over to the idea of God is to have the room to question. To me, the great gift of God is that He provides us with the space to doubt. For me at least, doubt becomes the energy of belief.
That’s fair enough, I guess, but it’s starting from the premise that God exists and allows us to doubt, which an atheist would argue is essentially flawed logic. What would you say to that?
Well, Seán, since when has belief in God had anything to do with logic? For me, personally, it is the unreasonableness of the notion, its counterfactual aspect that makes the experience of belief compelling. I find that leaning into these intimations of the divine, that for me do exist, as subtle, softly spoken and momentary as they may be, expands my relationship with the world—especially creatively. Why would I deny myself something that is clearly beneficial because it doesn’t make sense? That in itself would be illogical.
That is certainly an interesting way of looking at things—the rationality of the irrational. Okay, so here’s another quote of yours: “Ultimately the love song exists for me to fill the silence between ourselves and God, to decrease the distance between the temporal and the divine.”
It’s strange to hear these quotes. I don’t even know where that essay came from, but I think that is quite aptly put. Songs have a particular power. I don’t really know of any other form of expression that has that sense of ascension that can transmit or evoke a sense of rising awe—especially in terms of the collective power of a concert.
I do wonder how lasting that is, though. Or how transformative it really is. It’s kind of hard to measure that.
Well, perhaps “transformation” as a word is a little problematic, because transformation essentially means a sudden marked change, and one that has a feeling of permanence. That is not necessarily the effect that music has. Rather, it has the ability to lead us, if only temporarily, into a sacred realm. Music plays into the yearning many of us instinctively have—you know, the God-shaped hole. It is the art form that can most effectively fill that hole, because it makes us feel less alone, existentially. It makes us feel spiritually connected. Some music can even lead us to a place where a fundamental spiritual shift of consciousness can happen. At best, it can conjure a sacred space.
You actually touched on that idea of spiritual ascension in “The Secret Life of the Love Song” when you said, “The love song is the sound of our endeavors to become Godlike, to rise up and above the earthbound and the mediocre.”
Yes, well, I am not sure about that now. I think, these days, I would be more considerate towards the mediocre in us all. Well, maybe not the mediocre, but our ordinariness, our sameness.
It’s interesting that one of the most common concerns from people who write in to The Red Hand Files is a feeling of meaningless or emptiness. Also a deep bitterness and cynicism towards the world, that the world and humanity is essentially shit. And a loneliness, too. I guess what I try to do through the songs and through The Red Hand Files is to make the case that our lives are more valuable than perhaps we sometimes think them to be, or, indeed, than we are told they are. That our lives are, in fact, of enormous consequence, and that our actions reverberate in ways we hardly know.
Well, to be fair, many atheists would agree with that.
I’m sure you’re right. Still, there seems to be a growing current of thought that tends towards the opposing view, a sort of cynicism and distrust of our very selves, a hatred of who we are, or, more accurately, a rejection of the innate wonder of our presence. I see this as a sort of affliction that is, in part, to do with the increasingly secular nature of our society. There’s an attempt to find meaning in places where it is ultimately unsustainable—in politics, identity and so on.
But, hang on, are you saying atheism—or secularism—is an affliction? And that you equate it with cynicism? I mean, come on, non-believers can have a sense of wonder at the world—with nature, the universe, with the wonders of science, philosophy and even the everyday.
No, I am not saying secularism is an affliction in itself. I just don’t think it has done a very good job of addressing the questions that religion is well practiced at answering. Religion, at its best, can serve as a kind of shepherding force that holds communities together—it is there, within a community, that people feel more attached to each other and the world. It’s where they find a deeper meaning.“Whatever you think about the decline of organized religion—and I do accept that religion has a lot to answer for—it took with it a regard for the sacredness of things, for the value of humanity, in and of itself.”
What kinds of questions, in particular, would you say religion is more adept at answering?
It deals with the necessity for forgiveness, for example, and mercy, whereas I don’t think secularism has found the language to address these matters. The upshot of that is a kind of callousness towards humanity in general, or so it seems to me. And I think callousness comes out of a feeling of aloneness, people feeling adrift or separated from the world. In a way, they look for religion—and meaning—elsewhere. And increasingly they are finding it in tribalism and the politics of division.
The decline of organized religion may be one reason for that, but there are others, of course, social and political.
Well, whatever you think about the decline of organized religion—and I do accept that religion has a lot to answer for—it took with it a regard for the sacredness of things, for the value of humanity, in and of itself. This regard is rooted in a humility towards one’s place within the world—an understanding of our flawed nature. We are losing that understanding, as far as I can see, and it’s often being replaced by self-righteousness and hostility.
That would seem to be the case. In another lecture from 1996, “The Flesh Made Word,” you talked about the influence of the Old Testament on your earlier songs and how, through that, your songwriting “blossomed into a nasty new energy.”
I think that’s pretty understandable, given that the Old Testament is full of the most wonderful and violently outrageous stuff—powerful, at least it was for a young man of my apocalyptic tastes! Whereas in the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, the language is softer, but more penetrating.
When you started to delve into the New Testament, how influential was that on the way you wrote songs? I’m thinking particularly of The Boatman’s Call (in 1997), in which there was a definite change of tone and, indeed, a different kind of song.
I think so, yes. When I reacquainted myself with the Gospels, in my thirties, I found the language so beautiful, it touched a need in me. It seeped into everything, especially my songs. There is nothing quite like the Gospels in literature—and the great human drama at its center, the story of Jesus.
I have always liked the passage where Jesus loses it and clears the hustlers and money-lenders out of the temple.
Yeah, well, you would!
Jesus the anti-capitalist! You also wrote about the particular resonance of the line, “the kingdom is inside you and outside you,” which suggests that it is also possible to have a private and unmediated relationship with the divine.
Yes. That line gave me a sense that there was some personal agency around the idea of belief, rather than needing the church to deliver it to you. I liked that idea, because on a personal level, at that time, organized religion just didn’t do it for me. Even when I was a heroin addict, I was in and out of church, trying to find some relationship with the whole thing. That line helped me form my own relationship with God or belief, something more flexible, and not feel that I had to go somewhere else to find it.
A song I love from that period is “Brompton Oratory.” How did it come about?
Well, it is exactly as it says. I had broken up with Polly Harvey, and I was distraught, to say the least. The song is an explicit description of my situation—sitting in the Brompton Oratory in London, listening to the Gospel—
The reading is from Luke 24
Where Christ returns to His loved ones
I look at the stone apostles
Think that it’s alright for some
—and just writing down the song as it happened. But it remained open-ended for a while. I couldn’t work out how to finish it, so it just sort of hung around, part-written. Then a couple of months later, I was walking past the massive Pentecostal Church in Notting Hill and these lines sort of dropped out of the sky:
No God up in the sky
No devil beneath the sea
Could do the job that you did
Of bringing me to my knees
I was very pleased with that. Suddenly I had an ending to the song! Sometimes songs feel like little triumphs over your misfortunes. Little acts of revenge! I wrote the music to it in a flat in Basing Street, off the Portobello Road, on a tiny Casio synth I had bought down the market. The drumbeat is the “rock” setting on the Casio slowed right down. I have nothing but affection for that song. I’m glad you like it.
Well, it has that collision of the sacred and profane that is pure Nick Cave. As in the lines:
A beauty impossible to endure
The blood imparted in little sips
The smell of you still on my hands
As I bring the cup up to my lips
Yes, that’s a wicked little landmine hidden in the song. It has a lovely visceral charge! I love the little rising internal rhyme of “cup” and “up.” It’s fun to sing.
Have you heard Mark Lanegan’s version?
Of course! It is amazing—all those seasick horns, and his beautiful, ragged voice. It sounds like a New Orleans funeral march or something. It sounds like an act of love. He made that song his own.
Given the circumstances of your life at that time, would you say there was a desperation in your religious seeking back then?
I don’t know about that, but I guess they were desperate times. My beliefs, such as they were, were very much a solitary concern. I had plenty of people to take drugs with, but very few who would accompany me into a church. It wasn’t really desperation, though, but it was more than “vague spiritual beliefs.” Ever heard of that term?
No, where does it come from?
When I went to my first rehab, they presented me with a list to fill in: twenty things that were indicators of whether I was a drug addict/alcoholic or not. One of them was “Vague spiritual beliefs.” I always thought that was kind of funny—you know, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t—it suggested that my going to church was just a symptom of my sickness. Maybe they were right.
You have lived your life between extremes—heroin and God.
I guess. Yes. I don’t know. Maybe.
And not one after the other—it’s revealing somehow that you were exploring the divine even when you were using.
I guess that’s true. But it could be that using heroin and the need for a sacred dimension to life were similar pursuits, in that they were attempts, at that time, to remedy the same condition.
A kind of emptiness, I guess, and a hunger.
A hunger for what?
Excerpted from FAITH, HOPE AND CARNAGE by Nick Cave and Seán O’Hagan. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2022 by Lightning Ltd (on behalf of Nick Cave) and Seán O’Hagan. All rights reserved.