It’s tough to be critical of Polly Jean (PJ) Harvey. As an artist, her place in history is secure: hailed as the world’s best songwriter by Rolling Stone upon the release of her first album, Dry, in 1992, Harvey is the sole dual winner of the Mercury Music Prize (first for Stories Of The City, Stories Of The Sea, released in 2000, then for Let England Shake, released in 2011). And she’s not just a critic’s darling – she bears the royal seal of approval, having been awarded an MBE for her services to music in 2013.
So a new release by PJ Harvey is a certifiable event. And the usually reserved singer/songwriter is making sure that the follow-up to Let England Shake will be noticed: she’s recording it behind one-way glass at Somerset House in London, turning the studio into an “mutating, multi-dimensional sound sculpture”.
In effect, PJ Harvey is turning herself into an exhibit, and hopes the audience “will be able to experience the flow and energy of the recording process”. London-based art commissioning organisation Artangel has said in a statement: “The working process of a project has always been as important to us as its public presentation, and here both can be fully explored and revealed at the same time.”
But while Harvey is likely to be lauded for her bravery and originality, in England at least, Australian fans will hear an echo bouncing off the glass walls of the prosaically named “Recording In Process” studio. For this has been well and truly, and very publicly, done before: Brisbane mavericks Regurgitator pioneered the concept by recording their fifth album Mish Mash for their Band In A Bubble project in 2004. The entire spectacle was filmed and broadcast by Channel V.
There’s a certain irony in this situation, for as their name suggests, Regurgitator are self-styled cultural cannibals: their biggest hit ! (The Song Formerly Known As) was named for its self-conscious approximation of Prince’s classic ’80s period. The line between cannibalism, plagiarism and homage is treacherous, but in the case of choosing to record your album in a glass studio, the difference seems fairly clear-cut. Regurgitator was never approached, and the concept has not been optioned, by either Artangel or PJ Harvey’s management.
Was Harvey aware of Regurgitator’s earlier project? Was her management? Was Artangel? Was Melbourne-based Mick Harvey, formerly of the Bad Seeds and a long-time member of PJ Harvey’s band? If they were, were they hoping her Teflon-coated reputation would protect them, or were they banking on Regurgitator’s relative lack of overseas recognition? (Both Artangel and representatives for PJ Harvey were contacted for comment; neither had responded by deadline.)
The man behind the original bubble idea is Regurgitator’s manager, Paul Curtis, who devised the concept himself in 1999 and has been trying – unsuccessfully to date – to involve Australian art galleries in further “recording in process” productions. And in fairness, as he points out, there are some significant differences in approach between the two projects. Unlike Regurgitator, Harvey and her band aren’t living in their “bubble”, aren’t on camera, and are performing behind one-way glass: they can’t see or interact with their audience.
Also, visitors to Somerset House have limited viewing “windows” in which to watch the artist at work: the sold-out 45-minute public sessions are from 3pm and 6pm from Tuesday to Friday, and 1pm to 3pm on Saturdays. “The only interaction is the actual awareness that at various points there is an audience present,” Curtis says, “and thus a potentially more contrived engagement around those moments of ‘performance’, versus continual exposure.”
Certainly, for anyone familiar with the long breaks, technical delays and numbing repetition that characterise the average recording session, a paying audience will be hoping to catch the rare moments where the magic really happens. Harvey, too, will be aware of this. In this sense, Regurgitator’s project was actually a far more radical (and certainly braver) experiment. However, the resulting album Mish Mash was poorly received, possibly a backlash against what was widely viewed as a gimmicky production: ironically, the band were seen as over-exposed.
Curtis is now hoping that Harvey’s album may lead to a renewed interest in building on his original vision, both in Australia and overseas. “We had proposed a re-envisioned art gallery version of the concept under the title Composition in Glass,” he explains. “This idea was much more extreme in approach than Band In A Bubble or Recording In Progress and more about an interactive installation, pushing both the art world and music industry into dada-ist experimental levels.”
So far, an underwhelming response from galleries, combined with scheduling difficulties with the band – singer/guitarist Quan Yeomans lives in Hong Kong and has just become a father; bassist/singer Ben Ely has returned to Brisbane, while drummer Pete Kostic lives in Sydney – have prevented a fulfilment of Curtis’ vision.
“All I can say is the music industry is a shallow bed more often remade with cheap imitation rather than fresh sheets,” he says. “What we did 10 years ago came from a place of experimentation, play and outsider attitudes. I know there were detractors at the time, but maybe now someone who is perceived as a ‘credible artist’ puts it in a different perspective.”
First published in The Guardian, 8 January 2015