Stuck on you

Best known for his creative partnership with Nick Cave, fellow Australian Warren Ellis has written a new book about the chewing gum that links him to another supremely talented musician

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“The whole book is about this spirituality, this sense of how the intangible can drive your life and how sometimes we need these things to help us step off the edge and take risks. It’s about how nothing can be everything and I totally felt like the concert was there in that single object.”

The concert Warren Ellis – long-time lynchpin in Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, soundtrack composer, a third of dynamic, instrumental band Dirty Three, polymath, Australian – refers to is Nina Simone’s Royal Festival Hall appearance in 1999. And the object he believes contains the essence of that remarkable evening? A piece of Simone’s chewing gum.

“You always fear that if you stop, someone else will come along who does it better.”

Ellis’s literary debut, Nina Simone’s Gum, is a remarkable read, hanging anecdotes, snippets of memoir, self-exploration and philosophising on the fact that the author continues to possess the piece of Simone’s chewing gum he peeled from her piano following that “life changing” concert.

That appearance by Simone, who died in 2003, was part of the Meltdown Festival, by fellow Antipodean Nick Cave and featuring Van Dyke Parks, Bonnie Prince Billy and – yes really – Barry Humphries. For Ellis, speaking from his Parisian home, its ramifications resonate deeply two decades on.

“To be honest, I don’t think I went far enough in the book. The whole thing – the greatness of her, the transformative experience of that concert – it was kind of a religious experience for me and that is all now in that gum. I had to actually pull myself back at times when I was writing because I didn’t want to over-egg it and make myself start to sound insincere,” Ellis explains.

“I wanted to write the book so people could read their own lives into it and believe it and I never went down the route of ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story’. A lot of it’s about giving that concert some grounding, putting it in a certain moment in time and asking other people what they remembered and their own points of view.”

The piece of gum spent much of the ensuing years wrapped in a towel inside a carrier bag but has, much like Ellis’s recollections, since returned to the light of day. It has been presented on a plinth in an exhibition and replicated in precious metal many times by jeweller Hannah Upritchard.

Ellis on flute, on stage with Nick Cave

“I last physically delivered it when it was being cast in November 2019 and I haven’t seen it in the Nick Cave exhibition in Copenhagen because that was shut down because of the virus,” says Ellis. “But I have faith in the people who are taking care of it. I trust them and I know it’s still there.”

Prior to his current tour with Cave, Ellis’s day job as a touring musician had also been severely disrupted this last 18 months. “I have missed concerts but I haven’t really thought about it and that’s strange because I’ve been playing concerts and touring for half my life, for 30 years. This was the first time I had a break of more than a couple of months from touring.

“But I do think missing concerts seems a little trivial when compared to the problems a lot of people have faced during this time – the people who’ve lost their livelihoods and had their lives devastated. Concerts are exciting and the people are great and it’s such a gift to have that in my life but I’d never stepped outside that circle so this has been a forced opportunity to move away. I’ve got to spend months with my kids, who are grown up now – time I’ve not spent with them since they were born.”

He never considered such a break before the pandemic. “I think what it comes down to is you always fear that if you stop, someone else will come along who does it better and you’ll slip off the radar, and the time spent not playing will mean a part of you is lost.”

This sounds incredible coming from such an accomplished musician. Born in western Victoria, he found an old piano accordion at a rubbish dump and took it to school, where his music teacher taught him to play. Then came the violin, to which he attached a pick-up when he was a rock-loving young man in Melbourne – with enduring results.

After busking in Europe and writing music for theatre, he went on to be a founder member of The Dirty Three in 1992, which combined rock with elements of folk, free jazz and more. In 1994 he joined Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

Is Ellis claiming to still suffer insecurities and the fear his musical mojo could vanish?

“I’ve been worried about that for 30 years,” he says with a slightly nervous laugh. “I always go into the studio thinking: ‘Is this the day it’s going to stop?’ As far as I’m concerned you’re only as good as your next project.”

The conundrum for the 56-year-old musician is that he also believed the day it’s going to stop was when he recorded his best work.

“What I was working toward is doing this masterpiece and when we’d finished [2019 album] Ghosteen and I listened back to it, it sounded like the record I’d wanted to make and be involved in all my life.

“It’s so personal but I just thought: ‘Fuck me, is this the end of our creative partnership? It just spooked me and I was really superstitious about it. I couldn’t see any cracks in that album.”

And what did Cave think when you told him this? “I never spoke to him about it. And why would I? To talk about things like that doesn’t do either of us any favours. I was so relieved when we did something after that and I realised these things do go on.”

Since Ghosteen Ellis has successfully scored films, worked with Marianne Faithfull on an album of her poetry readings and, most recently, recorded a new collection with Cave titled Carnage, which the pair are currently touring. And, of course, he’s written Nina Simone’s Gum, which he insists is not just a memoir.

“I wanted the book to be much more than that. I just don’t think my life’s particularly interesting. I speak to taxi drivers, to homeless people, and I find their stories so much more interesting than some guy who’s played in bands around the world, I really do.”

It was conceived as a book of photographs charting the journey of that titular chewing gum, from Simone to piano to towel to gallery to an artefact of quasi-religious significance, with a few words added to guide people to “give them that emotional charge”. He was, however, pushed by his publisher to write more comprehensively.

“I just didn’t know where to start. It was like sitting someone who doesn’t play music at a piano and asking them to write a concerto, but I do like a challenge and once I start something you’ll have to drag me away from it. This really was like jumping into the deep end and it became all consuming but I like to save things that are worth saving.”

Ellis says he doesn’t hold grand ambitions for the book and is “just happy to get through the throwing down of the gauntlet.” He is though, understandably, both happy and proud about the way it turned out.

“I’d love people to find their own story in there. It’s about the little touchstones that people, people everywhere, have that mean little or nothing to anybody else. This particular thing, this piece of gum, felt like it belonged to the world because people have this incredibly strong connection with Nina Simone. I wanted the book to be about awe and wonder and that strange spirituality that comes from such a personal thing.”

Nina Simone’s Gum by Warren Ellis is published by Faber 

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