At some point in the early days of January, deep in the midst of essay-season, Polly-Jean Harvey, 2 time Mercury prize award-winner (and the only person in the history of the award to win it twice), Queen of alternative music and one-time girlfriend of the mighty Nick Cave, announced a truly unique series of events. From the 16th of January until mid-February, PJ was to take residency in Somerset House in London, to record her new album live in front of an audience, offering 4 sessions of 45 minutes a day. She was to be enclosed in a fully-equipped studio with her band, with 2 walls made of one-way glass – we could see and hear her but she couldn’t see or hear us. The Somerset House website described it as a ‘mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture’ and described how ‘visitors experience exactly what is happening at a particular moment in the studio, as Harvey and musicians, together with her longstanding producers Flood and John Parish, go through the creative process of recording an album of songs.’
I remember distinctly when I hear her last record, 2011’s ‘Let England Shake’ for the first time, and gob-smacked, mind-blown and utterly astonished don’t really come close to what I thought of it. I happened to be in Paris back when it was released and she was to play a concert at the Olympia, and I came within a hair’s breadth of spending 240 euros on a ticket from a rather unpleasant man outside. I didn’t which was probably a good idea, but I got to see her twice that summer which certainly made up for it.
So when I saw that these events had been announced, I felt it was an unmissable experience, a wholly unique concept and just a really great idea. Alas, within 40 minutes of tickets going on sale, it was sold out. ‘Booooo’ I inwardly roared to myself as I cycled home, and I thought no longer upon the matter.
Fast-forward to Monday, the 26th of January. Whilst enjoying my morning bowl of cornflakes, I was scrolling through the depths of the internet and stumbled onto the Somerset House website once again – and tickets were available for Tuesday the 27th at 11am. So me and my housemate Ben both snapped one up. Great excite!
Tuesday morning staggered round, and at the crack of dawn we were up and on our way to London. However, whilst in Brighton station buying a coffee, Ben suddenly and rather urgently exclaims in a hushed voice ‘Nick Cave is over there’. ‘Bollocks!’ I retorted, and looking up, who should I see but the Prince of Darkness himself. My jaw hit the floor. There he was, looking as he always has, with slicked back, jet-black hair, a dark blue suit coupled with a large-collared shirt and a variety of rings and necklaces. We couldn’t quite believe our eyes.
Panic ensued. What should we do? We followed him at quite a distance through the barriers and discovered that he was going to be on our train. Mr Cave is also very savvy with Victoria station, as he walked to the very front of the train to ensure he could vanish into the pulsing bowels of London with great ease upon his arrival. We got on the same carriage as him, desperately discussing our plan of action – should we approach him? Should we leave him alone? What should we do? The seats all being taken up, we stood in the doorway – Mr Cave sitting less than a metre away from us. Throughout the journey our conversation loudly perused the greatness of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Shane McGowan and The Fall. As well as continually deliberating what to do.
We decided to write him the following note and present it to him upon our journey’s end.
The journey wasn’t over however – as we went through East Croydon, an elderly couple boarded. Seeing there were no seats available to them, Mr Cave is the only person in the whole rail carriage to offer them his seat. A true gentleman. He then came and stood next to Ben. I could see Ben visibly tense up, all the blood rushing from his face as he looked across at me with a mixture of fear and wonder. Soon we arrived, and as we got off the train we approached him. I’ll try my best to type out the exchange we had with him during the 100 metres from train door to barriers.
Ben: We didn’t want to disturb you during your journey so we wrote you this (gives Mr Cave the note)
Nick Cave: Oh, thanks guys. How you doing, you guys good? (Claps Ben on the shoulder like he’s an old friend)
Ben and I mumbling incoherently, wide-eyed with awe: Yeah, we’re pretty good, yeah sure.
Nick Cave: What are you guys up to in London?
Me: We’re going to see PJ Harvey record her album at Somerset house.
Nick Cave: Oh really? Ah…. that’s funny. I think Mick Harvey [ex-guitarist of the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds] is going to be there too. That’s funny. Are you guys musicians?
Me: Sort of.
Nick Cave: Cool. Well good luck.
Me: Have a nice day
And that was it! We staggered off giddily to the tube station and burrowed our way to Somerset House.
Here’s Nick and PJ.
Hare krishna everyone, stay tuned for part 2.