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Nick Cave's Other Career

The punk veteran discusses writing and scoring movies, including the current 'Lawless'

By Sean Nelson
Special to MSN Music

©Todd Williamson-Invision/AP
Nick Cave (©Todd Williamson - Invision/AP)

For nearly 40 years, Nick Cave has been mining the dark sides of punk, goth and blues to forge a singular voice in contemporary music. Though the brooding Australian has never been a household name, he is much beloved by a legion of zealous fans who avidly follow his career's many twists and turns, from adventurous stylistic departures with his bands (the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds, Grinderman) to explorations of other mediums, including fiction, acting and, most recently, screenwriting.

The new film "Lawless," starring Shia LaBeouf, Tom Hardy and Guy Pearce, reunites Cave with director John Hillcoat, with whom he also made the 2005 Western "The Proposition." Their unusually fruitful collaboration allows Cave not only to set the scene, but to score it: He composed original music for both films (as well as for several others) with his longtime musical partner Warren Ellis. In addition, Cave curated and produced an astonishing soundtrack album that features his own contributions alongside performances by legends Willie Nelson, Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris, among others. He spoke to MSN Music by phone.

MSN Music: Your film career seems to have become more than a sideline. Are you still a songwriter who works on movies, or is it the other way around?

Nick Cave: I initially got in it to get a sort of respite from the agonies of songwriting. It was supposed to be a temporary foray, but it's blown up into an entirely different thing, partly because I really enjoyed working so closely with John Hillcoat on "The Proposition," and because I had a natural ... talent for it, to be honest. And we'd always done film music, so this seems like a natural extension. But everything I do outside of songwriting is done to keep the songwriting process alive. I'm always working on that

Bing: Nick Cave's music

You mentioned the agonies of songwriting. What about the agonies of film work?

Well, they're different agonies, right? The agonies of film work, such as they are, are because you're part of a massive collaborative machine. Compromises are part of the process. There's something that can be painful about that, but there's also something that can be hugely rewarding about it, actually. One of the real benefits for me is that after I've finished work on a film, I feel a whole renewed love for making records. I start writing new songs because I'm back to working on my own, or with a small group of trusted friends I've worked with for years. But if I was just working on music, it would have dried up years ago.

Are the two pursuits especially dissimilar?

Well, I'm very much a collaborator and always have been. But you need to be able to choose who you collaborate with, and that's not always the way in filmmaking. I'm not talking about "Lawless" in particular, but in general, suddenly you're collaborating with someone you've never even met -- or that you never do meet; they're just this person out there that has this opinion.

More: Nick Cave Worries About Violence in Movies 

Is your musical pedigree helpful in the world of filmmaking?

I don't know. To some people it's a negative thing, like, "Who is this guy, a f---ing rock musician?" As far as being effective at what I do, being an outsider in the film industry is hugely beneficial to the work, I think. When I wrote my first script ["The Proposition"], I didn't know anything about filmmaking at all. I was just asked by John Hillcoat -- I didn't even know how to write a script. I had a typewriter and wrote it. Coming to something as a complete amateur allowed me to bring ideas that, if I had known what I was doing I never would have had in the first place because I'd have known they could never be done.

Is the gifted amateur approach similar to the attitude you brought to your early days in rock 'n' roll?

It is that kind of punk-rock attitude, isn't it? Just give it a go. It seems to work pretty well. My biggest fear about script writing is that I'm going to learn how to do it. The type of thinking that happens when you start to understand the machinations of the craft you're involved in. Because me and Warren [Ellis, Cave's musical collaborator] come out of rock 'n' roll, that's the way we approach the score work, even if it's orchestral. At the end of the day, we still roll our sleeves up and play the music ourselves, and that's what makes our scores sound different from other people's. There's kind of intimacy to what we do that you don't get with a bunch of session musicians, or people who get brought in 'cause they're "the best."

More: Nick Cave's Acting Woes 

Speaking of the best, how did you get Ralph Stanley to sing the Velvet Underground's "White Light/White Heat" on the soundtrack?

It's an absolute coup. We couldn't believe it, really. And he'd never done anything like that, ever. We had quite a time getting it, actually. We wanted him to sing on the version we'd recorded that Mark Lanegan sings on, but he didn't want to. He had very specific ideas about what he would and wouldn't do. For example, we had him sing [Link Wray's] "Fire and Brimstone," but he sang it in the wrong time signature, and in a different key. We Skyped him and asked if he could sing it in C, and his lead guitarist, who he's obviously worked with for many years, just looked at our little faces in the computer and said, "Ralph, don't do C." In the end, Ralph sang a cappella, and it was beautiful, way better than we could have imagined. Ralph didn't sing the versions we wanted, but his own a cappella versions were diamonds.

Sean Nelson is a Seattle-based writer and musician. He is the author of "Court and Spark," a book about Joni Mitchell, published by Continuum Books.

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