Multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis (he can play eight, including violin, flute, piano, accordion—“I’ll have a shot at anything except brass”) is a longtime collaborator with indefatigable brother-in-arms Nick Cave of the Bad Seeds. Over the course of the past decade, the two have put out eight wrenching, melancholic movie soundtracks, multiple studio albums (Carnage was number five on MOJO magazine’s “75 Best Albums of 2021”), and numerous side projects, including two full-length documentaries (the latest, This Much I Know to Be True, will be released in theaters in May).
If all this wasn’t enough, Ellis has just published his first book, Nina Simone’s Gum (Faber & Faber), a beautiful, haunting quasi-memoir about the 57-year-old’s early life growing up in southeastern Australia and his years spent busking across Europe in the 1980s, as well as one particular, transcendent night that changed the course of his life.
After watching Nina Simone performing at a London concert on July 1, 1999, Ellis—“transformed” by what he had just witnessed—climbed onto the stage to abscond with the piece of gum Simone had placed on her towel used to wipe her forehead sweat . For two decades, Ellis barely thought about it…until 2019 when he decided to remove it from its resting place.
The book is about what happens next: the process of casting the gum into artisanal silver and white gold ingots and rings for those closest to him; the story of the gum becoming a main feature (behind bullet-proof glass) as part of the “Stranger Than Kindness: The Nick Cave Exhibition” in Copenhagen, Denmark; and of the effect that this small object—if only touched briefly by genius—has had on others. “All I have seen the gum do is bring out love and care in the people who have come in contact with it,” Ellis told The Guardian. “And that love and care has carried the most humble imaginable thing and elevated it to the status of a holy relic.”
Vanity Fair talked with Warren via Zoom from Asheville, North Carolina, at the start of his and Nick Cave’s 2022 North American tour.
Vanity Fair: What was the motivation for taking Simone’s gum that she had placed in a towel on top of her Steinway piano?
Warren Ellis: People asked me that question when I started writing the book. Nick [Cave] would say to me that he found it amazing that I took it. And then other people would say, “Out of all the people in that room, why did you care enough to pick it up?” In all truth, I don’t know why. I just thought, Why wouldn’t I? I guess it was to have some connection with her. The story has grown around the simple action of doing that, and it continues. People are really sort of taken by the story 20 years later.
What does the gum represent to you? Has this small artifact taken on new meaning these past two decades?
Well, it’s funny because I knew it was really precious to me straightaway. I kept it really quiet. Nobody knew that I had it, beyond a few. I put the towel with the gum into a Tower Records yellow bag and I then put the bag into my briefcase. I carried it with me for a couple of years. And very quickly it became sort of like this sacred totem for me. There was a lot invested in it. The last person to ever touch it was Nina. There are very few people to ever walk the earth like Nina Simone. She’s up there with a group who are just different from everybody else, what they were able to channel. She’s just someone touched by the hand of God.
My life changed after that concert. I got married, my work changed, my life got better. I became super. I got off booze and smack. I felt like my fortunes changed. There was a lot tied up in this little piece of gum. I find it amazing how we bestow meaning on objects and experiences. To me, it’s spiritual.
This gum could still be sitting within that towel.
There were periods where I never looked at the gum. Years. A decade or more barely looking at it. But I know that it was there. Stories like this take time to happen, to develop. It’s a metaphor for ideas. It’s like a song or a film or a book. If you don’t get the idea out, it’s a crime to the idea. You need to get it out into the world and see if it has a life. The gum represents that to me. To me, it’s the essence of spirituality. And I knew that taking it out of my case and taking it to [the master jeweler] Hannah Upritchard in London to be made into jewelry and then putting the actual gum itself on exhibit at the Royal Danish Library where Hans Christian Anderson’s manuscripts are kept was what needed to be done.