Inside the mind of Nick Cave

Tom Hingston Studio’s new deluxe album design for the musician offers a fascinating glimpse into his working process

“Rants and screeds, embarrassing digressions, photographs, drawings and scribbles that in
a sane world should never see the light of day”.

This is how Nick Cave’s website describes the contents of the notebooks that he uses to write his songs.

At the studio of Cave’s sleeve designer Tom Hingston, I’m leafing through two such notebooks, used by Cave to write his most recent album, Push the Sky Away. Each contains a collection of scribbled phrases, half-formed verses, suggestions for musical style and pasted-in found imagery. Most pages are hand-stamped with “Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds” and the date. In amongst the outpourings of Cave’s imagination are route maps of the kind produced by ferry companies or airlines marking the band’s progress on tour or locations where the album was recorded.

Out of this maelstrom, Cave pieces together his songs. When he feels a lyric is near completion, in a suitably gothic touch, Cave cuts out blank endpapers from his collection of old bibles. Onto these he types the words of the finished song and pastes the pages into the notebook. Again, the band-name rubber stamp is liberally employed. Alterations are typed out and stuck over the originals, creating multiple layers.

It’s an extraordinary process, one that hints at Cave’s original training as an artist. And it’s one that fans will now be able to see up close if they can get their hands on the ‘super deluxe’ special edition of the album created by Tom Hingston Studio in collaboration with Cave. Along with CD and vinyl versions of the record, plus two seven-inch discs, a linen-covered box contains a 120-page facsimile, amalgamating the content of the notebooks in front of me.

And these aren’t just any old notebooks. After an exhibition of Cave’s archive featuring various scrapbooks, notes and assorted material at the Arts Centre, Melbourne in 2007, Sydney-based bookbinder Jillian Burt began making notebooks specially for him. The facsimile notebook included with the ‘super deluxe’ edition of the album includes a description from Burt detailing how this came about.

“At the exhibition I read about Nick returning to writing in notebooks with the first Grinderman album, and that he works with both notebooks and computers now,” she writes. “I set out to devise a book that would be the perfect tool that would sit open flat on his desk as he typed notes from it into his computer. (He said it also stands open flat on the music stand of his piano.) It’s a collaborative process. Nick makes the books his own. He modifies them and adds features – in the one the album is written in he’s taped a pocket for loose pages into the back cover. I’m constantly experimenting with materials, techniques and features and every time I see Nick, about once a year in Sydney, I give him a selection of the books I’ve been working on, and he comments on the features that seem useful to him, or not.”

In what Hingston describes as the biggest, most complex print project the studio has undertaken, they set out to accurately reproduce Burt’s books, working in conjunction with production house Think Tank Media. Burt’s advisory notes to the studio (also included in the release) explain that “All of my materials are modest: some purchased from hardware stores…. The materials for Nick’s book are ‘rescued’ supermarket exercise books, copper staples, packing tape, filament tape, environmentally sound Tudor manilla folders (as end pages), unbleached box board.”
Hingston’s studio had previously worked with Cave on Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!! and Abbatoir Blues/Lyre of Orpheus, but neither sleeve was as complex to produce as this. “For years we’d been saying that it would be great to do something with the notebooks,” Hingston says, “but ordinarily there just isn’t the opportunity.” However, this is the first album that Cave has released on his own label “so we haven’t had the normal restrictions…. Ordinarily a label would have become scared [at the complexity of the project] but because it’s just Nick’s money we were able to push it much further,” Hingston says. “Nick wanted the final thing to be as close as possible to the way he’d do it.”

As we’ve written about before in CR, a lot of these ‘special edition’ formats are overblown and ill-judged. This project feels different. The facsimile notebook is beautifully produced. It may not have quite the richness of the handwritten original but it’s very well detailed. There are some nice touches too. The inside back cover has a pouch containing a notelet from what appears to be a hotel (but which is actually fictitious), a reference to Cave’s habit of jotting ideas on such things. Also included is a sheet of coloured stickers: during the production process, Cave used a colour-coding system to indicate to Hingston’s team which fragment of his jottings belonged to which final song so that the pieces could be brought together in context in the facsimile version.

Cave’s website describes the book, accurately, as “an anatomy of the album, song by song. The multitude of written notes are painstakingly reproduced, a detailed dissection of each song, an autopsy with a runaway scalpel … an unprecedented insight into the mania of the songwriting process.” At £90 the ‘super deluxe’ edition is definitely one for devotees only, but such fans will enjoy the quality of the final product and the sense of getting just a little closer to the dangerous mind of Nick Cave.


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