Wednesday, 4 February 2015

PJ Harvey: Recording In Progress 3/02/2015

Confession time; when I first read about ‘Recording in Progress’, I did think it sounded a bit woolly, but probably because I hadn’t bagged a ticket so was being a bit of a grumpster about it. Low and behold, via Twitter, I read that more tickets were being released due to demand and after a little excited squeal and ‘everyone stand by your laptops and watch that button until it goes from ‘sold out’ to ‘buy tickets’ and then boom’. By the end of the day, there was a green light to go.

Presented by Artangel and Somerset House, this was a date with Polly, her musicians and producers Flood and John Parish. Of course a 45 minute slot does make you wonder if you’re going to walk in on tea break or a fight of unimaginable creative tension…but if you’ve ever seen PJ Harvey interviewed she is the charm, wit and beauty of West Country otherworldliness that could only run a very tight ship of efficiency. 

I avoided reading anything written about it and really didn’t know what to expect. On arrival to the very beautiful Somerset House, sitting aside the Thames on a freezing day, the atmosphere felt like a school trip. Don’t be late, line up, hand over your phones, hang up your coat and keep up. And finally, stick together. Oh okay, don’t mind if I do as Jarvis Cocker is stood behind me and though I’m pretending I haven’t noticed, I’m listening to every lovely deep voiced thing he’s saying and wishing I could remember the name of his 6 Music show.

So having speed read the programme and Polly’s ‘In Conversation with Michael Morris’; recording spaces are a big deal. As a writer, I can get that, I’ve tried to carry the notepad and write on the move but so far, I need a zone, quiet, or music and get into a resonant space that allows all that creativity (or desperation) to flow.  Polly recorded ‘Let England Shake’ in a church and the “building graced every note”.

What interested me about this ‘vitrine’ idea was that Polly is a multi faceted artist, a singer/song writer and visual performer who likes to feel scared and do something she’s not done before, and I wanted to see, read and hear her working with regard to recent news that she has this album coming out and a poetry anthology ‘The Hollow of Your Hand’ later in the year.

My love affair with Polly began for me at around 17/18 years old listening to 'Dry', I seem to recall Courtney Love calling it ‘angry vagina’ music, not sure I agree with that, but Polly's music has remained passionate, personal, political and drenched in history and art. It is no wonder that there was so much interest in this project. Her career has evolved and been consistently innovative with her pick of collaborators over the years *and* her achievement as first solo artist to win the Mercury prize twice.  From 'Sheela-na-gig' to 'Down By The Water', to  'The Words that Maketh Murder', my love of music first off, and later on writing, seems to have been encapsulated by this super ethereal like creature from another dimension.

The progression of writing has accumulated for her, in her own words "I work the words on the page first". And she differentiates between writing words on a page and how it comes to be a song. Very different things, but she’s way ahead of me on this one as I only started writing poetry recently after realising that lyrics are perhaps the simpler versions of poetry, so bring those two loves of my own together. How often have I wished I could write and sing as it just makes your words so much more accessible.  Unfortunately I’m working with the page alone having no power in my voice at all. Anyway back to PJ Harvey and watching the creative process, the hard work and repetitiveness of the whole process was fascinating.  The attention, the care and the labour…

We listened to them tuning up saxophones (three of them) and I noted a certain Pulp front man yawned at this point, then Polly saying ‘Shall I sing this one and just play guitar?’ Yes, yes, yes, pleeeeeease. And she did, three times in different keys while giving Mike Harvey (a bad seed) a bit of a look about his drumming that had gone a bit awry. 

In truth, I think what this ‘Recording in Progress’ did reveal was the patience needed to flow creatively and how it’s not just about bringing the perfect finished product to your audience but revealing the flaws and mundane to the table (or glass box) and seeing musicians recording songs with a maze of cables around them like our own mess behind our televisions and computers. Seeing your favourite writers in piles of paper, surrounded by empty cups and glasses and furious at the wifi going off at a crucial moment would be similar.

Is the process more alive than the polished product? It was fun watching the producers faces go from slightly irritable to head nodding glee, hearing the difference between the same track played in major then minor keys… and the difference was startling. Surrounded by speakers, distortions and scribbled lyric sheets in view of a white board of crossing outs. I’ve seen PJ Harvey perform live so this was a behind the scenes that I personally enjoyed being part of, despite feeling a bit odd looking through one way glass. 

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