PJ Harvey – Recording in Progress
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.