Friday, 6 February 2015

PJ Harvey, Recording in Progress, Somerset House, 5th February 2015


After a lengthy morning at the Russian Consulate, submitting my business visa request, I decided to take an early lunch and make the relatively short walk through the sleet to Somerset House, to see if there were any returns of the sold out run for PJ Harvey’s Recording in Progress.

(photocredit © Seamus Murphy)

I didn’t hold much hope, they seemed to be the hottest tickets in town, more an interactive art installation than a gig as such.

© photocredit – Me! (Mel Melis)

It’s totally pot luck, the artists are working, the glass is one way, they cannot see you, they are recording their new album, not putting on a show for you, you might get to hear polished songs, you might just get some discussion, tuning of instruments, jamming, drinking of coffee. So when I asked the security guard in hope, his eyebrow raised itself and he announced with a giant grin. “I think this is your lucky day!” he then led me to a side room in Somerset House’s New Wing, introduced me to another staff member who confirmed that yes, this was the first time they’d ever had a no show and I would be welcome to join the session in progress. I had missed the first fifteen minutes or so, but I didn’t care! The planets and stars had aligned and the gods favoured me! I was going to get to see PJ Harvey recording her new album!

He requested that I deposit any recording equipment (no photos, recording or filming - it was strictly prohibited*) for safe keeping, allowed me to hang up my coat and then led me to the lift to drop me into the stony depths of the catacombs under Somerset House where I was led into the viewing area.

A devoted huddle of acolytes, a tiny number (between 20-30) for an act who can fill massive venues, were politely gathered around the big window spaces looking into the white room, the former inland revenue staff gymnasium that constituted the recording studio in the basement of the historic Somerset House on the Strand. Like me, most of the people there were little. Perhaps our fragility delivers us to the lyrics and powerful themes of PJ Harvey’s work, perhaps I just made a massive generalisation, but I didn’t care, there was plenty of room to see! Peej herself was wearing all black, headphones on, her black hair cascading down in waves, either side of her face. She was testing her vocals on one of the new songs, which turned out to be the “The Revolving Wheel” I believe. Her long time collaborator John Parish listening intently, brow furrowed in concentration as she played the chords she wanted him to reproduce on his acoustic guitar. Flood the producer bounced energetically around the room alternately clutching a cup of coffee and a red moleskine notebook, occasionally scribbling something down, occasionally offering sage advice. “You could bring in the instruments one by one” he suggested on one such foray from his two seater sofa, a statement more than a question. “No” remarked Polly laconically, with a smile. Perhaps a polite reminder that this was her album and vision. Flood didn’t argue, he smiled back. This seemed like a team without friction, a professional but easy going atmosphere to work in. A photographer, I’m guessing Seamus Murphy who created the wonderful films accompanying PJ Harvey’s brilliant last album “Let England Shake” duelled with Flood for centre stage, taking shots of the artists. Also in the room (I think) were the drummer Kenrick Rowe and Terry Edwards, who was ready with his saxophone as well as another unidentified musician with a wondrous beard. A couple of sound engineers dipped in and out at times too. Mick Harvey was also there, sitting next to John Parish, he seemed in a quietly jovial mood, perhaps because the onus was on Parish for the next few minutes. And then some magic happened, Parish played on an acoustic guitar and Polly sang. It was beautiful. We heard the whole of “The Revolving Wheel” from the new album. At the end, I, like many other people in the audience resisted the desire to clap. I saw the two girls in front of me clasp each others hands more tightly. I saw other people smiling in loving appreciation, me too.

The band then seemed to be building up to play a more complete, multi-instrument version of the song, perhaps a version which would end up on the album. The anticipation was building as they tuned up and jammed little elements of it. Mick Harvey’s guitar delivered some pounding bluesy derivatives of the main chord structures but unfortunately our time was up. We were asked to leave the viewing area.

I got perhaps twenty-five minutes of the forty-five minute allocation and I was chuffed to bits. I feel fortunate to have struck lucky. And I can’t wait for the new album. I walked away, the sleet had stopped, the sun was threatening to show its face and I returned to work a happy guy! Best lunchbreak ever!

Big thanks to the very friendly and accommodating staff at Somerset House.

*Fear not! Although recording was prohibited, I did make an “artist’s impression” from memory. Up to my usual excellent standard as usual I’m sure you’ll agree :). I’m not sure there were any big tape reels whirring away, seeing as we are now in the digital age… I think I kind of merged it with an episode of Hawaii-Five-O in one of the police computer rooms. But it kind of works right?

©Mel Melis (not that anyone would steal this….!)