Friday, 13 February 2015

Post Recording in Progress Process


PJ Harvey – Recording in Progress

Somerset House

10th February 13:00 – 13:45

A couple of years ago I met PJ Harvey. It was at the Southbank Centre after a Patti Smith show. I am not just doing this to name drop. I know several others who met PJ Harvey and managed to hold conversations with her like normal people, all I was capable of doing was blurting out at a pitch that may have been a little hysterical, ‘you made my life better!’ Or did I manage a slightly less crazy, ‘your music has made my life better’? Or was it, ‘seeing you play has made my life better’? Because much as listening to her records always has a profound effect on me, the main thing that really alters my life for the better is seeing PJ Harvey live. There are few artists I have seen perform who consistently make me feel so absorbed by the world created in their music that my consciousness goes to somewhere it isn’t normally. I don’t mean that in a terrible hippy rave euphoria way - often the places PJ Harvey goes to in her music are quite dark, but always beautifully crafted and easily relatable even if you don’t understand what she’s singing about, because she is a master of imagery, of atmosphere. Recently she compared her songs to paintings in an interview, but when experienced live they leave the dimensions of a painting and take a person somewhere else completely, as happens whenever you see a truly incredible live band.

So anyway, although I was really looking forward to seeing PJ Harvey’s new project with Artangel, ‘Recording in Progress’, I did not think it would be particularly mind-altering the way I have found her live shows to be. Or even her records. For it is neither a live show nor a complete record, but a ‘living sculpture’ in which the audience gets to watch 45 minute fragments of PJ Harvey and her band recording their new album. We watch them through glass in a recording studio set up in the basement of Somerset House, hearing what they’re saying/playing over the sound system. They can’t see or hear us.

Even from my own experiences recording in a shoddy punk band (where we’ve done it all in less than a day and don’t take things like singing ability or keeping time very seriously) I know that the process of recording can get boring and frustrating. Of course we’re not PJ Harvey, or her band, but still I wondered as I descended down to the basement to watch her work, in essentially a giant fishbowl, how interesting would the process actually be?

I read a review in The Guardian (or somewhere like that) which said that while interesting, the ‘living sculpture’ couldn’t be described as exciting. Perhaps exciting is not exactly the right word for it, although personally I did feel excited throughout. It’s not exciting in the way a live show is exciting or listening to a completed record for the first time is exciting, because you don’t get that immediacy, that quick fix thrill of chemicals fully formed music and performance send to the brain. But perhaps that’s what was special about watching the recording session. I thought to myself at the time – this is like watching something being born only better because it’s watching the process of something being deliberately created. In modern capitalism, and particularly with the event of the internet and social media becoming staples in most of our lives, there is this desperate rush for immediacy, urgency, newness, wanting to get to a point of satisfaction/completion now, which will generally evade us anyway. It would be a bit rich to propose watching PJ Harvey record an album at Somerset House for fifteen quid a ticket is a challenge to capitalism, but I think it is a refreshing move in a time where demands for a finished product immediately are so desperate and thoughtless. ‘Recording in Progress’ was a reminder of the importance of creativity as a process, not just a finished, consumable product. Watching a song slowly build and come together, the care and attention that goes into that. I found that thrilling.

I greedily ran to the make-shift studio as soon as we got down to the basement, then pressed my face to the glass like a goldfish that couldn’t cope with freedom and desperately wanted to get back in the tank. I positioned myself so the person I got the best view of was PJ Harvey. She was in the centre of the room, all other musicians in a circle around her.

The fishbowl was pretty sterile-looking. I can’t imagine going from recording in a beautiful, creepy church in the Dorset countryside (as ‘Let England Shake’ was) to recording in this white rectangle in a basement. But I found the session really moving despite the surroundings. I think it was watching the way PJ Harvey and the other musicians and producer worked together and how those interactions and that particular way of relating was different to the way I’m used to and that in itself felt like an opening to new possibilities. You can always read a person’s diary (or blog!) or watch a documentary or reality fucking TV, but I feel that is contrived in comparison to just being able to observe interactions unedited and in real time. And yeah, you can watch people in the park whenever, but you can’t usually watch your favourite musicians record an album through one way glass. I guess it was particularly effecting to me as a performer/writer who often gets stuck, seeing the concerns of other people creating something different from me –and who have been doing so a lot longer- and what they get stuck on, how completely different it is. There was something in watching that which felt very liberating.

PJ Harvey herself was so calm and in control throughout the session and only said things that were necessary, but never came across as austere or humourless. I loved the way she articulated herself when talking about how she wanted the song they were working on to change: ‘At the moment it’s too beautiful. We need some more ugliness, some more darkness underneath the beauty, driving the song’. How could you not love a person who says that?

Finally, and here is where it was a bit life-changing for me, it reminded me how important creativity is to me. How I often neglect my own because it can be scary and it’s far, far easier to consume or deconstruct than it is to create. Yet it reminded me how central it is to my life and how important it is to keep it going and that creativity and collaboration doesn’t always have to be terrifying, it can be exciting and wonderful, even the boring bits.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Melancholy Hill

I didn't anticipate I'd begin a post about depression with a Gorillaz song, until I heard this one and subsequently listened to it on repeat about 8,000 times. And yes, I am very behind as it's from five years ago, but I never heard it until Christmas day just gone. There is a pretty amazing epic animated video that goes with the song, which gives you a sense of the world created in the concept album it's on and the creatures that live within it, but it was the song alone that grabbed my attention when it came on the radio. I heard it when I was visiting my parents', lying in the bedroom of my teenage years. I thought it was a really beautiful song, perfectly capturing the sense of melancholy to which the title refers and I found it very relateable. The sound of giving up, resignation to not getting what you want but making something gorgeous out of the proverbial collapse. I imagine melancholy hill to be a place where you go to give up on things, on others, on yourself, to rest.

Giving up. I have lived with what the vast majority of medical doctors would call middling to serious mental illness my whole life. Unfortunately I find it hard to accept (for me personally, no disrespect to how anyone else view's their condition) that I 'have depression' or I 'have anxiety' or -as I've previously been diagnosed with- OCD, as though these are just illnesses and ca be separated from my psyche/personality/self as a whole. The doctor always told me when I was resistant to taking medication, 'look, if you have high blood pressure or if you break your leg or if you have an infection then then you have to take medication to get better, depression is just like that.' But being depressed isn't like having a broken leg and I can't see the black cloud that hangs over me as an illness that can be cured with medicine. 
I've written about antidepressants previously. I've been on them before but the only conditions under which I'd take them now would be if I was suicidal or I literally thought I was going to die if I didn't get more serotonin to my brain (as happened before - a feeling so unbearable it felt like it would kill me). 
Sometimes people despair that I won't go to the doctor's or take medicine but I feel as though the meds erase a part of me, not because they make me less depressed, but because I don't believe it's possible to only target the parts of the psyche that cause pain -the mind isn't chopped up into convenient bits, it's all connected- I find it hard to explain but I feel like I lose something of myself on them. 
I used to be very into seeing myself as ill but unfortunately I think it's more just a feeling of being trapped. We all have terrible things inside us, private things, difficult things, things that we can't relate to the people around us. But I am acutely aware of mine and I have been my entire life and I am troubled by them but I don't know if that makes me mentally ill for the construction of mental illness revolves around someone being sane. Who is sane? 
There's this stupid psuedo right-on internet fad going around about 'extrovert privilege' which irritates the hell out of me as someone who is an extrovert partly because I desperately want to run from this darkness within me that I feel will one day envelop me. I guess that sounds melodramatic, funny when put like that, but also it just is me. It makes me feel doomed. The other reason for my extroversion is of course my sense of self is largely dependent on what others think of me and that fucking sucks especially for a writer because invariably we are going to hated by some people, even those we admire, but I don't know if it constitutes mental illness. Probably it does in some DSM book, but screw them.
I tried everything. I've been in therapy for ten years and I think it's safe to say it's not working. This fog of sadness and these thoughts that I battle with in my head are exhausting. And yes, when I get it together to exercise or eat well or go outside or see friends without just getting shit-faced, all that does help make things better. But it all feels temporary. A good friend of mine does tarot and there's this card in her deck that's of someone trying to prevent their demons from bursting through a trapdoor but it's clear it's a losing and exhausting struggle as the wooden door buckles under the weight of so many trying to force their way through. Sometimes I feel like that's what I'm doing even when I'm functioning.

I've never wanted to kill myself, not really, but when I think of a lifetime continuing at the same harrowing pace, desperately fighting with myself, of self-sabotaging everything I write because of fear of too much rejection/exposure/that I'm not good enough, of having nightmares each night of such violence that feel so real, of the loneliness of it all, of how fucking tiring it is, I despair. I don't see necessarily myself getting better, whatever getting better even is. Maybe it's me and I'm just too scared of change, I don't fucking know. But I still don't want to do myself in, I think I'm much too Catholic in that respect - it's not that suicide is a mortal sin, it's that misery is there to be endured to the last. I think many people who grow up female or trans or queer learn that they deserve to suffer, but I don't think this is something I deserve really, I used to, but not anymore, but it's what I've got.

And you know what the pain of whatever this thing is (mental illness if you wanna call it that or perhaps just being me) leads to? It leads to desperation, to endless hourrs of googling shit, possible ways of recovery, of self-help books, of different medications, of every combination of B-vitamin and herbal thingy, of meditation, yoga, of CBT, of psychotherapy, of gestalt, Jung, Freud, Carl fucking Rogers, of desperate internet message boards at 3am in the morning, hoping something someone will help. Well, maybe nothing's gonna fucking help me. 

There are times when it feels better and times when it's worse of course but it's always present and I always know it and maybe it's just a part of my fucking personality, whose to say it's actually an illness? Anyway that's why I loved hearing the song so much, why all the violins sounded particularly alive to me, like the glitter of snow. That's why I always find beauty in landscapes that are dark and cold, or in the sea when it's stormy and rough at night, because if it's perpetually stormy in your mind, you sure as hell better find something to hold onto in that. 
What is so liberating to me is the idea of giving up the endless exhausting attempts to 'get better'  and the glorious gorgeous sense of melancholic resignation. And to do that and still feel love and compassion for others rather than just the bitterness and hatred which is a tempting response to the loneliness and frustration of being all at sea in your own mind.