It’s hard to imagine Warren Ellis as a child of the 1970s, cycling through Ballarat on a pushbike and playing in the local rubbish tip.
Now, as perhaps Nick Cave’s chief collaborator and a permanent resident of Paris, his life has panned out astronomically differently than if he’d continued his career as a schoolteacher in the Goldfields region.
Living on the outskirts of Ballarat in what is now Alfredton, the young future artist and songwriter spent as much time “loitering” around The Courier’s offices, where his dad worked as a linotype mechanic, as he did on train lines and local quarries.
It was at a Ballarat rubbish dump, which he described as an “endless source of entertainment” as a child that he found a piano accordion, sparking a lifelong love of traditional instruments.
These days, Ellis returns home regularly to visit his family in Ballarat. But come January 15, he will return to perform with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in the wake of the band’s new album, Skeleton Tree.
“It’s still that thing, as soon as I hit the top of the street there, I know where I am and they (my family) still live in the house that I grew up in. There are things that are familiar as a banana sandwich,” he said.
“The accordion was just by chance, I found it at a rubbish dump and I stood on it. The violin was because at the local primary school someone came around with the violin and I noticed all the girls put their hand up, so I put my hand up. The flute was because it would fit in my backpack.”
He said he never had any idea where his musical interests would take him since studying classical violin at university in Melbourne before travelling around Europe as a busker.
Returning to Australia, he began performing and composing for theatre and playing in bands before joining the Bad Seeds in 1995.
He has collaborated with Marianne Faithful, David McComb and a variety of avant-garde artists, and works extensively with Nick Cave as a film soundtrack composer.
“I found myself growing up as a teenager and listening to rock music and punk rock and a smattering of classical because I played the violin. When I started playing in bands, the instruments I played were an asset to me. Everyone was playing the guitar but no-one was playing the violin,” he said.
“It occurred to me, in the process of doing that, if you can make a sound somehow unique or special, it stands out.
“For me it’s always been about playing live and the music. It’s never been a financial thing, I never did it as a job. As soon as I started playing with a band, I felt like I was doing the right thing with my life.”
He said working on the Skeleton Tree album had been an emotional process following the accidental death of Nick Cave’s son Arthur in 2015 when he fell from a cliff.
“It was very emotional. It’s something that you never even think you’re going to be involved in and you just can’t imagine it,” he said.
“It was very tragic and it was also in another sense, there was something incredibly beautiful about trying to rally around Nick and his family and trying to also to try to see the record though, as inconsequential as anything like that is when you look at the events that have happened.
“There was something that felt, I could say, beautiful about trying to do that. It was so tragic and continues to be.”
For tickets to the January 15 concert, visit www.nickcave.com