Nick Cave On Working With Johnny Cash
In this month’s issue of Uncut , we bring you the inside story on the House Of Johny Cash. We spoke to his family, friends and collaborators to tell the definitive story of the Man In Black. Over the next few weeks on uncut.co.uk, we’ll be printing the complete transcripts of these interviews.
And here’s the first one: Nick Cave
Covered Cash’s “The Singer” in 1986 and sang together on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” for American Recordings VI. Their version of UK folk ballad “Cindy” came out posthumously on the Unearthed boxset.
UNCUT: How did you meet Johnny Cash?
CAVE: I had two phone calls from Rick Rubin. The first one I was on holiday somewhere in the south of France and I got this call completely out of the blue from him – just asking if I had any problems with Cash recording “The Mercy Seat”. And that was just such a strange thing – nobody was supposed to know where I was, and it was such a very strange phone call that came through.
I didn’t have too many problems with that, at all. So that just kinda happened without incident. And I got the record and heard it and was really, really moved by it. And thought it was offered another side to that song that I could never have brought to it, I don’t think. It was just his age and his stature, and what had happened brought to that rendition of that rendition of that song. And it had that strange wigged out harpsichord at the end.
So that was one of those little gifts that you can never predict. The next time I was in LA on tour and I got another of these phone calls from Rick asking if I wanted to come down and sing with Johnny Cash the following day. Obviously I wanted to, but I was full of trepidation about the whole thing. He just said bring a couple of songs and we’ll do them. Actually [Bad Seeds’ collaborator] Warren Ellis suggested the Hank Williams song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. We also did a little version of “Cindy Cindy”, which was very funny.
But he was there with June, and she was an absolute trip, this woman. When I mentioned the song “Cindy Cindy”, they said, “Oh we know that,” and this particular song has got these floating verses where everyone throws everything into ot. And they were yelling out verses that I’d never heard to each other – “Do you remember the one, ‘If I had a needle’?!’” and all that sort of stuff. It was a joy to watch. But the real highlight was the Hank Williams song. He’d done it before – I didn’t know that. And that was his favourite Hank Williams song, he said.
What physical state was he in?
When I saw him I was half an hour early. Well, I was on time, and he was half an hour late. I was sitting in the recording studio with the band and Rick, and then he appeared, and there were these steps that he had to walk down to get into the studio. Whatever the condition he had – one of the problems I think was diabetes, and if he went from light into dark he couldn’t see, he was basically blind for ten minutes, so when he came into the studio, he looked real ill, and was helped down the stairs by two people.
He had his arms out in front of him going “Are you there Nick? Are you there?” And I’m like, fucking hell, how’s this guy going to be able to sing anything? Let alone get down the stairs. So it was quite a shock, you know? He sat down and talked and his eyes adjusted to the light, so he could see, and we sat around and talked about things for a while. Then he said, so what do you want to play? So I told him, and the band just started up – they were fucking unbelievable, and he sang it. I was secretly terrified that I wasn’t going to be able to sing this song with him – that it would be in some kind of key that I couldn’t get to, and that I was going to fuck it up. But everyone was so relaxed about it and he was so relaxed and generous with his praise that I felt all right when I actually sang it.
When the song finished there was this sort of silence, and Rick Rubin’s voice came through the cans saying “We’re gonna have to do that again.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I’m flat, right?” And he goes “Nope, Johnny’s flat.” So suddenly I felt a sense of freedom, to sing the song. I had got away with it. Then they got me to sing some harmonies on the other song. And I’m like you don’t want me to do that. And June’s going “You get in there and you sing those harmonies!” I’m like, [sheepish] all right.
We heard that Johnny’s voice was gone and he had to pray to get it back.
Well yeah. He went into this kind of long rant about various things, but he said that he’d had pneumonia three times that year, and he’d woken up and his voice had completely gone. And that he’d got down on his knees and said to God: “I never asked for nothing in my life, I never asked for nothing; but you give me back my voice! So I can go and sing with Nick Cave.” Then he says “And I woke up the next day and I’m singing like a bird!” And June’s going “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!”
It was the real deal, and it was extraordinary. When he started singing all his illness just seemed to fall away. He became energised by that. I often hear that, and often it’s a load of shit, but this is actually true. In some ways when I was sitting there talking to him, I was kind of wondering how this man was going to be able to sing anything at all. Once he sat down there was just this real strength – this force of nature that came out of him. For me – it was two hours, and I walked out thinking, fuck, what happened then? That was the extraordinary thing. I felt I had really seen something that for me was hugely comforting, and inspirational, and truly incredible.
Some fans of the early stuff say the Rubin material doesn’t have the rhythm and attack of the earlier records.
I disagree with that. To do something like that – what Rick did with him – I’ve heard criticisms as well, from certain people, that Rick was kind of bleeding him dry by getting him back into the studio. But I’ve gotta say, it was the other way around. He was energising this man and giving him something that he hadn’t had for a while. Now there were certain songs that he got Johnny Cash to sing that were stepping into really risky areas, “Personal Jesus” and stuff like that. It’s risky, to haul this legend right up to the cliff face of contemporary music and expect him to do something with it. But I love the way he did those songs: the U2 song, they were great. And I think there were enough older songs to make those records really work.
What do you make of Cash as a singer? He’s almost intoning rather than singing.
It’s in the tone, and the phrasing. He has this unconventional and extremely awkward phrasing sometimes. It’s rhythmic, I guess, but it’s really on the one. Like that Bob Dylan song, “It Ain’t Me Babe” – “No, no, no!” But being on the one like that lends a certain gravity to what he sings sometimes. And also with the tone of his voice. I don’t think other people can get away with singing in that way. That’s the thing. You know, you’re really hearing every word thundering out.
There’s so much that’s complex with Cash. The sense of sin, and danger, and Biblical righteousness. But he has this stage persona, too…
I saw that show that he did in London maybe 10 years ago, 15 years ago. It was in three parts. He did early stuff with a small band, and then he sat and played. It was at the time the first of those American Recordings came out, I guess. In the middle he sat and played this new stuff on the guitar by himself, and then at the end June came out, and it was a big kind of knees-up end to the whole thing. And it really showed these three sides of him in quite an unconscious kind of way. When he did this stuff in the middle it was spine-chilling cos it was so… there was something wrong with his voice. When he put it low there was some irritation going on with his voice, but he just sang it anyway.
It was so beautiful, and so wracked at the same time. And such a contrast to that early stuff. Then he went on and did the thing with June Carter, doing Jackson and all that kind of stuff, and slapping their knees. I could be reading things into it, but he looked onstage as if he was quite uncomfortable doing that final stuff: that he was now somewhere else. And it was when he was doing that stuff on his own that it was just so beautiful. But I only met him for those couple of hours in the studio and he was everything that I thought he would be.
Was he a genius?
I don’t know what that word means.
Which period do you like best?
I go through all the different periods. Sometimes I listen to him a lot, and sometimes I don’t listen to him for years. And sometimes he seems to be having a huge influence over things.
Did he have a tangible influence on you?
I remember Mark E Smith coming up to me once, in is usual charming manner, and saying “Anyone that sings with a deep voice is an arsehole,” or something. And I was like, “All right, well what about Johnny Cash?” he was like, “Oh, no, you’re right.” And fuck you! But for me, it gave me a licence to sing in a certain way. Not that I sing like Johnny Cash, or by any means think that I have that tone of voice that he has, but I discovered a way of singing through trying to sing his songs, where you could sit back and there was a kind of relaxed tone. You could get down in that place where he gets down. and that there was still a kind of strength to that.
I discovered that from trying to sing some of that Muddy Waters, and trying to sing “Long Black Veil”, and those kind of songs that he recorded from years ago. That if you just sat back and sang quietly, I discovered that I had this pleasing tone to my voice that I didn’t know that I had at all. Because all through the Birthday Party I basically screamed, and I could never sing softly because the music was so loud. It was when we started to sing soft music that I discovered there was this kind of fluidness about my voice that I didn’t realise that I had. And that was very much from trying to sing those Johnny Cash songs.
So there’s a power in restraint?
Absolutely, and that really influenced the kind of songs that I wrote for quite a while. That I’m actually a better singer when I sing quietly than I am when I sing loudly. My voice pushes into a different tone when I sing loudly that’s pretty unattractive. People forgive me for it, but there was something about it. I guess it’s a kind of crooner thing.