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Nick Cave remembers his break-up with PJ Harvey: "I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe"


Nick Cave has returned to his fan-led forum, The Red Hand Files, in order to answer yet more deeply personal questions from his supporters. This time, he moves on to a time in his life when PJ Harvey ended their relationship.

Cave, who has tackled questions on the Bad Seeds, the future of rock music and the tragic death of his son, was put on the spot by two of his fans who wanted to know some of the reasons why his relationship with singer-songwriter PJ Harvey broke down.

“Why did you give up on your relationship with PJ Harvey in the 90s? I love her music,” the question states in reference to Cave’s brief relationship with the singer in the mid-1990s. The date of his relationship with Harvey coincided with a time Cave’s life when his drug use was spiralling, a time when his music took a dark and sombre turn.

Tackling the question head on, Cave replied: “The truth of the matter is that I didn’t give up on PJ Harvey, PJ Harvey gave up on me. There I am, sitting on the floor of my flat in Notting Hill, sun streaming through the window (maybe), feeling good, with a talented and beautiful young singer for a girlfriend, when the phone rings. I pick up the phone and it’s Polly.”

“Hi,” I say

“I want to break up with you.”  

“Why?!” I ask.

“It’s just over,” she says.  

“I was so surprised I almost dropped my syringe.”

The break-up—and heavy drug use—would go on to act as a major inspiration to the Bad Seeds’ tenth studio album The Boatman’s Call, a deeply moody and slow and sombre record.

Relying heavily on the piano and Cave’s lyrics, The Boatman’s Call included tracks such as ‘West Country Girl’, ‘Black Hair’ and ‘Green Eyes’ all of which are speculated to be direct references to PJ Harvey. “Deep down I suspected that drugs might have been a problem between us, but there were other things too,” Cave added in reference to this time in his life. “I still had a certain amount of work to do on my understanding of the concept of monogamy, and Polly had her own issues, I suspect, but I think at the end of the day it came down to the fact that we were both fiercely creative people, each too self-absorbed to ever be able to inhabit the same space in any truly meaningful way. We were like two lost matching suitcases, on a carousel going nowhere.”

Cave continued: “Songwriting completely consumed me at that time. It was not what I did, but what I was. It was the very essence of me. Polly’s commitment to her own work was probably as narcissistic and egomaniacal as my own, although I was so deep into my own shit that I can’t really comment on this with any certainty. I remember our time together with great fondness though, they were happy days, and the phone call hurt; but never one to waste a good crisis, I set about completing The Boatman’s Call.

While many of fans had speculated that the album was in part inspired by his break up with Harvey, Cave hasn’t addressed the topic in full in the years that followed its release. “The Boatman’s Call cured me of Polly Harvey,” he admitted in his response. “It also changed the way I made music. The record was an artistic rupture in itself, to which I owe a great debt. It was the compensatory largesse for a broken heart, or at least what I thought at the time was a broken heart – in recent years I have re-evaluated that term.

“The break up filled me with a lunatic energy that gave me the courage to write songs about commonplace human experiences (like broken hearts) openly, boldly and with meaning – a kind of writing that I had, until that date, steered clear of, feeling a need to instead conceal my personal experiences in character-driven stories. It was a growth spurt that pushed me in a direction and style of songwriting that has remained with me ever since – albeit in different guises.”

He concluded: “It also pointed a way to a more poignant, raw, stripped back way of performance – the suspended and barely supported vocal. The Bad Seeds, to their eternal credit, stepped back and just let these piano-driven songs be. There are few bands on earth that understand that to not play, can be as important as its opposite.”