PJ Harvey – Recording in Progress, 27th January. Part 2 – In the bowels of Somerset House

PJ Harvey

I realise now that the entire previous article didn’t exactly fully address the event itself, and for this I apologise – however, for those Harvey-heads out there, I hope that our brief encounter with Mr Nick Cave titillated you somewhat. Hopefully, in this 2nd part of the tale, I will describe everything I saw and heard during our 45 minute slot in PJ Harvey’s studio. So come with me, follow my beckoning finger and join Ben and I in the basement of Somerset House. All dialogue here is as I wrote it so it is actually basically what they all said. Honestly! Even the lyrics and the chords!

 

We took an uneventful but somewhat excitable tube journey from Victoria to whatever station is nearest to Somerset House (I forget which one), riding high off our brief encounter with Mr Cave, and leapt off at the correct stop, smoking and hallooing our way to Somerset House by the banks of the Thames. If I have been to Somerset House before this event, I cannot remember when or what for, but it is a really lovely place – a beautiful building, and with a very fine interior as well. We were greeted, upon entry at the main gate, with this –

 

doorlight

 

Due to our punctuality, we had arrived slightly early so we loitered about, smoked some more, and continued to talk about the surrealness of meeting a man who has birthed some of the most challenging and interesting music in all aspects of the word. Soon enough, 10:45 came round and we were ushered into this room –

 

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(I hope no-one objects to the somewhat regular use of pictures, not only does it break the article up a bit, a somewhat wordy account of the recording process is imminent)

 

We left jackets, bags and other electrical equipment here, and had a brief browse of the gift shop which offered signed posters, postcards (both of which I got), handwritten lyric sheets and beautiful limited edition prints of PJ in and around the underbelly of Somerset House (which I believe were taken by the very accomplished photographer and close friend of PJ’s, Seamus Murphy – who also made a video to every track on Let England Shake, like this one)

 

 

We were led off down some musty stairs, twirling deep into the core of Somerset House, and we are led through several corridors until we are presented with a door marked with the words ‘M57’. It’s unlikely it has anything to do with PJ Harvey other than the fact that that was the room she was allocated to record in, but there was a sense of anticipation as we faced it. No-one in the group of 50 people knew what to really expect (unless they’d been before) and I almost felt nervous. Were we going to be confronted with them sitting around chatting for 45 minutes? Or would they be running through the tracks? No-one knew, and that was something that was truly brilliant about this event – you couldn’t predict what was going to happen or what you were going to see.

Soon, the door was thrown open and we heard muffled sounds emanating from the room beyond.

We entered an all white room… and there, in the centre, through 2 panes of glass making a small box in the corner of the room, was Polly Jean Harvey, resplendent, all in black. John Parish loomed in one of the corners of the studio, sulking over an altered drum kit, featuring what appeared to me to be Napoleonic war drums. Mick Harvey was there, as Mr Cave promised, seated behind a bank of various keyboards and effect pedals, thoughtfully strumming an acoustic guitar. Seamus Murphy was there too, scurrying around the studio, silently photographing the event. Flood (aka Mark Ellis), the legendary producer, with albums by (amongst many others) Nick Cave, New Order, Erasure, Warpaint, Sigur Ros and most of PJ Harvey’s records to his name, was seated on one of the all-white sofas in the studio, along with another man who I didn’t know (either a member of PJ’s band or an assistant producer/editor or something…). All this we could see. But they were completely oblivious to our presence. It suddenly felt incredibly voyeuristic and very intimate – we were witness to a sight few fans have had the privilege of seeing, an accomplished band creating an album of entirely new songs. It was very striking indeed. We didn’t see anything like this, but here’s PJ at the mixing desk.

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I was most intrigued by the instruments in the room – PJ’s autoharp, which was used throughout her album Let England Shake, was in plain sight, along with an assortment of acoustic and Spanish guitars, a beautiful antique upright piano, a sackbutt and a trombone, various saxophones and, most wonderfully, a glorious-looking hurdy-gurdy, amongst dozens of other instruments, of various shapes and sizes.

They were all in discussion about a song, with PJ sat down, chuckling and chatting with the others. Flood was talking about ‘just having the singing with the claps to get an emotional feel which was missing from the first take’ and went on to discuss chanting and clapping along with it. PJ claps in demonstration. Mick Harvey then pipes up from behind his bank of machines that ‘some form of pulse’ would ‘stay on the nail a bit’ and that he wasn’t sure about the structure. He says this whilst gently meandering around the neck of an acoustic guitar. PJ turns to John Parish and says ‘the backing vocals sound quite stodgy’ to which Parish replies ‘I like those’. She goes on to say how she wants a young boy to take the lead and that she would shadow him on this track. We then suddenly hear a brief blast of music, a brilliant-sounding track which certainly seems like a logical progression from Let England Shake. ‘Claps, no drums’ she says after it’s switched off, ‘not even the rhythm, just the clapping’, and turns to pick up a fender jaguar. She plays the chord sequence of G D E A C Am C Am Em with several strums of each chord. ‘Does that sound right?’, she asks Parish. ‘No’ he replies. ‘I knew it was in the wrong key. How could you tell John?’ she asks. ‘By looking’ says Parish. After a brief moment of chuckling, she adds a capo to the second fret of the guitar and plays G D F#m A E. She then asks for double time 118bpm clicks and plays D E D G D E D G and then D A D G Bm E F#m G (it would have been, and still is a challenge to read all that, even broken up. I apologise, but for those who might be interested, there it is). All through the 45 minutes we were there, Seamus Murphy was taking photographs of everyone, from various angles around the room.

After this sequence, I honestly felt the urge to applause, as being so used to concerts, tis the norm to applause. I quickly realised that this was probably definitely not allowed, so I rapidly refrained.

‘Is that right?’ asks PJ.

‘I don’t know’ replies Flood.

‘I don’t know either!’ retorts PJ.

She goes on to describe how she wanted the guitar to be stuttering, in a bid to try and replicate the stuttering of children suffering from post-war trauma.

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She then played the chord sequence and sang the following lyrics to it. I know that the lyrics were all stuck around the room, but I wrote them as she sung them, so here they are:

They swept across the land

They did not leave a thing

They did not leave a person

A stone or a tree

A brief pause here as PJ coughs. ‘Excuse me’ she says ‘you’re not supposed to do vocals at this age. Fuck’. She makes a reference to ‘all those gin and tonics’ as well. Was PJ a bit hungover? She continued with the song:

They did not leave anything

They did not leave anything

All they left is sand

All they left is sand

I remember father

I remember him

Every minute I remember

Every moment

Now I hate everyone

Now I hate everyone

Before I used to love

One day God shall grow

One day God shall grow

From their graves

When they return

PJ sings absolutely beautifully. She has the most wonderful, dexterous vocal range, which is so incredibly unique.

‘Cor blimey’ she exclaims, clearing her throat.

Over their graves

I will be waiting

And when they return

I will be waiting

I will not leave a person

Standing

I will not leave anything

I will not leave anything

All I’ll leave is sand

All I’ll leave is sand

And then God shall grow

And then God shall grow

From their graves

When they return

God will be growing

Over their graves

I will be waiting

When they return

pjsax

Thus marked the end of the musical segment, as the rest of the session was in discussion of the song when it came to the percussion – more specifically the clapping. I took this brief interlude to write down the song-titles and some of the notes written on a piece of paper tacked to the wall. They read as follows:

River Ana costia

Medicinals

Chain of keys (swing feel?)

Near the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln

A dog called Money (man to sing)

The ministry of social affairs

The Age of the Dollar

The Community of Hope

The Wheel

Homo Sappy Blues (man to sing)

Imagine this

Ministry of Defence

The Boy

A line in the sand (clapping)

Dollar Dollar

I’ll be Waiting

The Orange Monkey

Guilty (next to it was a rather odd picture. Here is my interpretation:)

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I tuned back into the conversation they were having. They were discussing having layers of clapping, using as many people clapping as possible. I wrote down the clapping sequence but my interpretation of it is somewhat unintelligible. Everyone in the room clapped a rhythm to the song that PJ had sung and played guitar to. Everyone seemed very relaxed, everyone getting into the rhythm of the clapping. The song stops.

‘Ow’ says PJ. ‘I’ll have to clap in a different position next time’

There is a brief discussion about how ill the assistant producer/editor who was sat on the sofa looked. PJ removes a very dainty handkerchief from her black cargo-pants and wipes her nose. They then re-record the clapping beneath the song. What was most remarkable at this point is how human they were. It sounds extremely odd, but so often these musicians are over-glorified and practically deified, with most people’s interaction with them being in a venue, separated by a barrier and a stage. But here, they were separated by a pane of glass. You could see the whites of their eyes. It was truly remarkable.

The song finishes and the cease clapping.

‘Groovy’ exclaims Mick Harvey. ‘I suggest a throb’.

Then the sound cut out, and we were no longer in a studio but a white room, being ushered out quickly and quietly. It was a very abrupt end to a wonderful and absolutely fascinating experience. Up the musty stairs we go, towards the sunlight and the gift-shop. In quite a daze, we stumble out onto the street, laden with purchases, towards the seedy streets of SoHo. It was a truly incredible event and I personally can’t wait to hear the album. It sounds similar to Let England Shake (from the song we heard) but with a bit more to it – in my opinion it is comparable to the difference between Grizzly Bear’s album Veckatimest and Shields, in that Shields follows the rough blue-print of Veckatimest but has more going on, more experimentation. Lyrically, PJ Harvey is also becoming more political, which is clearly visible from the song-titles themselves. Overall, it’s going to be a very exciting album (as are all PJ Harvey releases).

Thanks everyone, Hare krishna.

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