I am fond of PJ Harvey’s early career albums (1990s-2000s), I respect her very much. I find it particularly engaging when I’m looking at every detail of her albums as there are diverse meanings embedded in her musical and extra-musical ‘product’. I find Harvey to be rather musically-versatile, a characteristic that is very difficult for musicians/performers to support and maintain in the twenty-first century. And from what I understand, to do this, she’s working with the same musicians ever since she began her career at her early 20s.
When I found out about her project ‘Recording in Progress’ at Somerset house, during which she turned the recording studio into a live art installation, I thought this would be really interesting to observe. It is not every day that an artist allows the audience to be (passively) present in the making of an artwork. As a number of journalists were keen on highlighting, Harvey isn’t the first composer to do such a thing – but does that matter? It’s not an innovation contest (or is it?).
Members of the audience have the opportunity to attend 45-minute long sessions during which they experience the creative process of Harvey and her musicians in the recording studio. It sounds interesting, doesn’t it? I was able to book a ticket online – they were sold out in less than thirty minutes.
Once I entered the west side of the Somerset house, a neon red door welcomed me. I assumed this was part of the marketing campaign for ‘Recording in Progress’. The cloakroom was the first stop. The audience had to leave phones and any other recording equipment behind. Most of the attendants seemed to be hardcore PJ Harvey fans. “Did you ever have any weird incidents?”, I asked Koffi, one of the staff members. “Oh yeah”, he replied, “we had to call an ambulance for a woman”. As Koffi said, there were a handful of people that were under the influence of drugs or/and alcohol when they attended Harvey’s sessions.
I hadn’t seen so many leopard skin fur coats together in a room before – there must be something with PJ Harvey fans and the fetishism of the leopard skin fur coat, which Harvey adopted in the 1990s since her ‘Rid of me’ days.
Once assembled and ready, we were guided downstairs, an area which used to be the Inland and Revenue staff’s gymnasium, a rather new addition to the Somerset house. The area downstairs was carpeted; we followed a wide corridor to the north side, passing by various doors on the left and right-hand side. There’s all sorts of different things to do there, ranging from seeing art exhibitions to receiving spa-physiotherapy treatments. At the end of the corridor, we took a left turn through a door that lead to a rather different setting. It was all now more ‘industrial’ looking. The temperature dropped. It was darker. No more carpet – just solid paved floor. A weird, old-looking ramp on the left. We walked down a few steps – one could already hear the sound coming from the studio.
In front of us, there was an artefact exhibition behind a window. A chair, earphones, drum sticks, a drum with Harvey’s coat of arms drawn on, some other music-making devices (m-audio USB keyboard, percussion, ukulele, and other small musical instruments). This was the commodification of ‘Recording in Process’ – every item that Harvey wanted the audience to look at and connect it to the studio experience. I’m almost certain it will be featured in the album booklet once released.
On the left, there was another door that lead to the main exhibition-studio area. It was a room within a room. The epicentre is the self-contained recording studio. Large space, but not huge. Musicians can communicate easily, they’re set up in a circle, about 2-3 m. distance from each other.
The audience could walk at the L-shape area that surrounded part of the studio and peek through the large windows. Of course, Harvey and crew could neither see nor hear us. But surely, they knew they were being observed.
Around the audience room, there were certain framed A4 pages, depicting Harvey’s lyrics and the different stages in the process of their making. Print, pen, pencil, notes, rhythmic patterns, symbols. All sorts of visual cues. The audience room was built to look like an exhibition room: wooden flooring, white walls, large white speakers all around the room, so that the audience would immerse in the experience. Although you’re looking at the recording, it feels like you’re in it – it’s a bit confusing at first.
My first feelings were summed up in two words: lab rats. I have spent most of my life in academic settings, so this felt strangely natural to me. We were there to observe how musicians work and function in their home setting. We would walk away with some findings. We expected certain things. And there was excitement when unexpected things happened. THAT’S science!
I wandered around the audience room and noticed a few items in the studio – certain musical instruments that Harvey brought with her from her recent trips to Afghanistan, Kosovo and other areas she visited. I glanced the coat of arms, which featured a two-headed wolf that passed a food plate at the top of a shield (the main section of the coat of arms) to a skinny goat that wore a bullet belt. Under the shield, the wolf stepped on a rifle. The shield depicted three birds and three keys.
Everything was allegorical and political – it’s a story of modern wolf-minded people who pretend to be taking care of the seemingly poor, but somehow empowered ones, whereas under the table, they give them no choice but to do as they’re told. It’s along the lines ‘you’re uncivilized, we’ll treat you well and teach you to behave. But drop your weapon first’.
Harvey brought with her cultural artefacts from her recent travels: musical instruments. This is a rather neo-colonial tactic, but she appropriates it by using them in her music.
I was present during the recording of vocals for one of her tracks, ‘Imagine this’. In general, I very much liked the song. It is a pop-song march in 4/4, beginning with the tambourine that sets the beat. The lyrics are the primary element of the song, considering that the melody is rather monotonous and repetitive (very catchy though). For this song, Harvey has used a number of acoustic stringed instruments and percussion – however, I couldn’t hear any bass guitar. I assume it will drastically change by the end of the recordings.
I have three observations to make regarding ‘Recording in Progress’. First, Harvey and crew spoke technology and music theory most of the time. I don’t know how someone with no prior knowledge of both could follow the discussion.
Second, power dynamics. Harvey was the only woman in her crew that consisted of sound engineers, musicians, and a photographer. She and the producer were the ones making suggestions on everything. Her biggest contribution was a suggestion to sing all vocals of the song louder and powerfully. This did the trick – it gave the song a really strong boost. Otherwise, it would be rather flat and dragging. I was surprised when Harvey asked the drummer to sing. Perhaps it wasn’t his best day, and it didn’t work that well. They had to drop the pitch lower to help him do this.
The living artwork – the musicians – seemed to perform excellent their identities and roles. All very polite, having a banter at times (although Harvey didn’t seem very amused, but did not complain at all). I was interested in the way Harvey decorated this studio, which had become her ‘permanent’ home. She put up her drawings, and the coat of arms we also saw outside.
Third, comes the importance of silence. And this is something that every recording musician would appreciate. But for the ones who pay the recording studio by hour, they cannot afford it. When in the studio, you need time to process everything that happens. When you listen the sound of your recorded guitar, it sounds different than what it would do in the rehearsal studio, at home, or anywhere else. It takes long to process this – and one needs silence. Not everyone has the luxury to pay for it though. These are precious moments. And in the end, this thinking process is what leads to creativity.
Last, in the studio, it’s the things that are not told that are often important. Like in anthropology – the untold, unseen, and unheard. However, it takes more than 45 minutes to realise what these are. For this, I would certainly go back and observe a different session.
What’s Harvey’s ninth album going to be like? It will be creative. It will be political. It will be very much a Harveyan album from her latest period (‘White chalk’ and ‘Let England shake’). I think it’s the end of this trilogy – or better, it serves in the continuity of ‘Let England shake’. Seeing what I experienced at the Somerset house, I wouldn’t be surprised if her album would be called ‘Global shame in the name of money’. She is taking a political stance opposing to inequalities driven by financial reasons. She appears to be a humanist. It’s almost like she says ‘burn your leopard skin furs and follow me’. However, I’d really like to see how she will use the funds from ‘Recording in Progress’ and the sales of her forthcoming album. I would expect donations and charity.
So thank you, Ms Harvey. We’re looking forward to the end product.