As anyone who has ever spent time in a recording studio with an artist will tell you, the vast majority of the time, very little happens. Hours can fly by as a team of engineers painstakingly toy with different drum and microphone configurations. What feels like several days can pass as a semi-conscious guitarist endlessly replays the same riff, each time making the most minuscule of changes, before eventually deciding that maybe a guitar solo is not what the song needs and picking up a bassoon instead. And then they break for lunch.
With this in mind, it’s hard not to approach PJ Harvey‘s Recording in Progress project — in which the two-time Mercury Prize winner records her forthcoming ninth album inside a glass walled sculptural installation, as ticket-holding spectators watch on — with a mixture of excitement and trepidation.
After all, how often do you get to witness a world-renowned artist create new work before your very eyes? By the same token, there’s probably a very good reason why this type of thing hasn’t been done before, and it isn’t public apathy. All tickets for Recording in Progress sold out within minutes of going on sale, and on the day of Billboard‘s visit to London’s Somerset House — a magnificent 18th-century building overlooking the Thames, which once housed the offices of the British Admiralty — there’s a small group of hopeful fans inquiring about returns (there isn’t any).
For the 30 or so people in possession of a ticket for today’s morning session, our visit begins by depositing all phones and bags at reception (recording devices are understandably not allowed) before a guide walks us through a series of descending corridors that leads to a large white-walled basement containing another, smaller cubed room, two sides of which are lined with one-way glass.
Inside stands Polly Jean Harvey, dressed entirely in black, dark hair framing her face, deep in conversation with Alain Johannes (cradling a battered cigar box guitar) and producer Flood (cradling a cup of takeaway coffee). Also present in the soundproofed recording studio/art installation is co-producer and Harvey’s regular collaborator John Parish, percussionist Jean-Marc Butty, former Nick Cave cohort Mick Harvey, as well as a phalanx of recording equipment, computers, cables, guitars, brass instruments, drums, vintage keyboards and a pristine white sofa.
Over the next 45 minutes a rotating procession of male musicians enter and leave the studio, and although they cannot see or hear anything outside the room, the audience peering in can listen to every word uttered and note played within it via external speakers. The lack of privacy extends to Harvey’s plans for her yet-untitled new album.
Pinned to the far side of the studio wall are several sheets of flip chart paper detailing work in progress. Eighteen songs are listed in total with “A Drug Called Money,” “River Anacostia,” “Medicinals,” “Chain of Keys,” “The Ministry of Social Affairs” and “Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln” among the more memorable titles. Outside the studio, framed, first-draft song sheets line the basement walkway, detailing everything from scribbled-out handwritten lyrics to chord sequences (the verse for “River Anacostia” is C/Dm/Em/F/G, if you’re interested).
For the visitor, the chance to immerse yourself in this normally off-limits world is both fascinating and initially unsettling, with the abundance of white walls, clinical setting and artificial lighting adding to the sensation of participating in a voyeuristic social experiment in which Harvey and friends are the willing lab rats.
In keeping with the glass aquarium/human zoo theme, the piece of music that the group is working on is coincidently a haunting, dark-hearted lullaby that appears to be titled “The Orange Monkey” and contains the see-saw vocal hook: “Restlessness holds my brain/ Questions I could not hold back/ An orange monkey on a chain.” Progress is, however, painfully slow as the band tries out several subtly different percussion tracks to seemingly no one’s satisfaction.
“Let’s try the guitar to get the feel,” says Flood, indicating a change in approach. For the next 20 minutes, Parish picks out a bluesy, reverb-drenched melody on his guitar that incrementally builds, mutates and evolves into something resembling a solid backing track.
“That’s really great. That’s brilliant,” responds a suddenly animated Harvey at one point, although Flood is less impressed. “It’s not quite right, is it? Try something more subtle,” he says to no one in particular. The guitarist duly strips the rhythm track down to its bare bones, and having played it from beginning to end half a dozen more times, suggests a full run-through. Unfortunately for the audience peering through the glass, this is not a live performance in the traditional sense, but simply Parish playing over a previously recorded vocal.
The audio feed cuts out, signaling the end of our audience session, with Harvey sat in silent contemplation, her head tilted back and her eyes closed. For those inside the studio, their work continues away from prying eyes. For us on the outside, a tantalizing glimpse into the artistic process comes to an abrupt and appetite-whetting end.