I walked to Somerset House almost every weekday for three years. I’ve never been as excited for that walk as I am today.
That isn’t to say I was never excited. I would never have chosen to study at The Courtauld Institute of Art if the prospect didn’t excite me - but a lot has changed in the years since, least of all the route needed to get there.
In 2006 my feet took me from Hughes Parry Hall in Cartwright Gardens, (redevelopments in the area mean the cradle of my late adolescence is now more scaffolding than building) down past Valtaro (the terrible café that gave me food poisoning and that all my friends inexplicably returned to every hung over morning), beyond the stretch of London where Black Books was filmed to the accidentally discovered Queens Square shortcut. Central Saint Martin’s lay directly ahead before Holborn turned onto Aldwych and the Strand, where Somerset House’s impressive courtyard entrance welcomed visitors with open arms. This was the route that delivered me to my first day of University, my third day of London living.
Yes I was excited then. I’d somehow not totally screwed up my interview and they’d let me in to this incredible place. I wanted to learn about Cubism, about Dada, about the conceptual revolutions of the 20th century and everything Gombrich’s The Story of Art could never tell me. Everything was new, the people too of course; the people who quietly backed out of the room with me 2 hours after arrival because the slide librarian began explaining how to use paperclips. I suppose we couldn’t be expected to tackle the big issues on our first day.
Relocation to flat on Old Street round about followed in 2007. It is a mere 10 minutes from where I live now, though back then rent was only £500 a month. 2007 also bought a new soundtrack in PJ Harvey’s seventh studio album White Chalk. I’d loved Uh Huh Her before it particularly intensely because it was the first time I really became aware of PJ Harvey. I knew about Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, but in 2000 I was far too pre-occupied with the likes of Blink 182. Sometimes things get lost if the moment is missed. Still, the distressed, highly charged nature of Uh Huh Her had me hooked, and a fiendish devouring of her back catalogue soon began.
I listened to White Chalk a lot that September. I was impatient and tempestuous and wanted to love it more than I initially did (I realise this could equally describe my learning experience). Typing this as I stare at the record sleeve, PJ Harvey’s composed, white dress draped frame tugs at a memory: there’s a clipping upstairs with my name beneath the words “PJ Harvey – White Chalk”. I daren’t read it. I listened to White Chalk all winter, and as my second year bedded in, so did the record - its skeletal piano structure gaining muscle with the backs of my calves. I was moving away from the study of Victorian art (and finally towards the modernism I was interested in); she was, in her own way, moving towards it in drama and instrumental choices. I remember reading an interview she did with the BBC in which she said the record didn’t feel of this time right now, that she wasn’t sure if it was a 100 years in the future or a 100 years in the past. I wonder if she is any surer now. Not just of that one point, but of her self. I find myself surer because of her.
Deciding to record your album in front of an audience certainly communicates a level of confidence, especially from an artist as reportedly shy in person as she is. And that’s what draws me to Somerset House today. A new reason brings a new route and a new excitement.
Perhaps it’s the neoclassical cut of the building’s Portland Stone walls or the traditionalism of the subject matter once taught therein, but I never felt the presence of anything as contemporary or urgent as this. Perhaps it’s because I simply turned left into the University library more times than I turned right into the gallery itself but ultimately, I think it’s because PJ Harvey is a living, breathing artist – one who is more relevant to me than most adorning those walls. There’s something about witnessing history first hand, rather than just being surrounded by its imposing shadow, that elevates my pace.
Discussing her decision to record the new album in Somerset House, Harvey has said it felt right because of its “resonance”. Speaking to with Artangel Co-Director Michael Morris she explained that she’s not just talking acoustically, but of how the history of the space would help “fuel her up”, and tap her into “a different level of consciousness”. I find myself in odd alignment with her statement. Somerset House means something to both of us, but coming here today I feel the gravity of two worlds colliding and they suddenly both mean more to me because of it.
Turning into the New Wing for the first time – it had been off limits during my undergraduate stint, home to the Inland Revenue rather than an extension of the artistic institution – I feel consumed by the hubbub of well to doers lunching in the cafes that line the corridor. Snippets of conversations waft through every half open door … “it never really pays to read The Stylist does it?!”
I have no idea which way I’m supposed to be going but the corridor leads me to an imposing doorway, one of the only not half ajar. There’s a soft pink light illuminating the pale green walls ahead, turning the corner I see the source of the room’s warm colours – a bright red neon doorway standing proud in the centre of the entrance hall I was probably supposed to come through.
PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress, 2015. An Artangel Commission. Photograph by Seamus Murphy.
When the time comes, the dark, imposing, wooden door opens and a group 20-or so excited ticket holders shuffle through. Outside the window the main courtyard can be seen, above the old fireplace lies a sign confirming what we’re here for. There are lyric books on sale behind the desk where they take your phone from you in exchange for a white wristband. I turn one book over to read the back cover:
Sight Seeing South of the River
The Ministry of Social Affaires
The Revolving Wheel
There are pages from the book framed on the wall above, detailing PJ Harvey’s changes and notes. More people shuffle through, gleefully consuming the pages of the booklet as they wait with increasing tension. Some try and second-guess which way we’ll be lead out of the room, no one except for the couple with a green wristband from their earlier visit really know what to expect viewing wise - so to be first into the recording room seems like a safe bet.
We’re soon led down the corridor and down the stairs, ones that distinctly echo the lecture theatre stairwell in the building opposite. My body sighs - an old reflex action born from years of tackling three flights in break neck speed so as not to be late. As we walk through the old Rifle Room the sound of drums can be heard rumbling in the near distance. It feels odd to be a place at once familiar and unfamiliar; I smile at the irony of experiencing the “uncanny” in the very institution I learnt the philosophy behind that word. But it is unsettling, existing in this space in the present and confronting past paths that were once open to you. Not in a regretful way, but in the inevitable way that not every possible future gets played out. It’s a strange sensation.
An illuminated red and white sign welcomes us to the old gymnasium; it reads, “Recording in Progress”. Stepping into the room we’re greeted by an internal white-walled structure, pierced by a series of one-way mirrors that afford a direct view of PJ Harvey. Sitting opposite the corner I opt to prop up, she sits dressed in black on a gleaming white leather couch. The room inside would be nothing but a crisp white colour if it weren’t occupied by a serious collection of weird and wonderful instruments. I can’t help but think about the Stuckist opposition to the sterility of the white wall gallery system - deemed to be artificial and vacuous. PJ Harvey is far from artificial or vacuous.
I don’t really notice what anyone else is doing. I’m nervous in a way. Is there a musical equivalent of explaining how to use a paperclip? Who would back out of this room with me? Would anyone? A two-time Mercury Prize winning artist, Harvey is a revered artist just as The Courtauld Institute of Art is a revered institution. But I don’t just love PJ Harvey because I revere her; I love her, well, because she’d probably find a way to make paperclips mean something to me. I fear she may have already.
I also can’t help but think about how the independence of radical art has long been threatened - institutionalised, gripped by established measures of wealth and popularity, and recuperated in favour of acquiescence. Something vital often gets lost on the way. By placing herself inside the establishment, I wonder what PJ Harvey might lose. But then I think – despite what the programme says - this isn’t really Somerset House presenting PJ Harvey, this is PJ Harvey presenting Somerset House. This is PJ Harvey opening the space and her process for all to see. As an audience we feel deeply involved somehow, though there are physical barriers in our path. It’s as transparent a process as you can ask for really, an inclusive gesture.
My focus returns to the room in front; there’s a hurdy-gurdy propped up next to an empty recording seat, a green accordion in front of my feet, a collection of African drums strewn across the table and a string of red cables that appear to feed everything into everything else. There is a heraldic crest painted on the far wall above a White Chalk-era rose harpsichord; it depicts a ram entangled with a two-headed creature (a coyote perhaps) – their feet supporting arrows and what appears to be a rifle. I take a little time to make a sketch but it’s never completed.
It feels a little claustrophobic, and certainly a little voyeuristic in here. The snare drums rattle and the bass drum rolls as Harvey gets up to take seat by the hurdy-gurdy. She taps her feet in time to the beat, commanding the room with the smallest of movements. After a while drummer Kenrick Rowe takes off his headphones and says: “sorry, I’m just trying to get in the right headspace” before he goes back to rolling the same, wonderful beat cycle again and again. “Hopefully it will fit with the track,” he adds. Producer Flood – the most animated man present - looks across the room and says “If not, we’ll make the track fit you.” Everyone around me smiles, we agree Rowe’s in one hell of a groove right now.
“Fuck” … “Can you come over here?” I can’t quite tell who is speaking but PJ Harvey moves towards the back room where the computer screen generates the recorded waveforms - watching someone watch a visual representation of the sound emerge feels apt somehow. She returns and they begin to play through a song, for the most part it’s recorded but now they’re listening back with the additional drums. I’ll never be sure if that “fuck” was a good thing, or a bad thing.
A deep burst of saxophone emerges as if from nowhere, I move around to a different window to see Mike Smith warming up for the afternoon. A couple of melodies drift over the song before its dark golden body struggles and splutters. Something seems to have gone wrong, Polly Jean goes over to investigate. “It’s really old,” says Smith. “But that’s what makes it so brilliant,” she replies. After a lot of indecipherable chatter it’s clear that the Sax is broken, they discuss the nearest place to get it fixed – there’s this place on Baker Street they’re going to try called Howarths. PJ mistakenly hears “Hogarths”, and everyone laughs at the idea of taking a Saxophone to be repaired by a painter. Perhaps the nature of recording inside an art gallery really has got to them. They accept defeat and move on.
PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress, 2015. An Artangel Commission. Photograph by Seamus Murphy.
I don’t really know it yet, but afterwards I realise I’m as disappointed as I am delighted by the mundane reality of some of this afternoon’s events: I could have simply told you that a saxophonist’s saxophone broke. Perhaps that’s the intent here – to demystify the process a little, to demystify PJ Harvey herself.
The same song comes back on, I move towards the lyrics sheets at the back of the room to discern what it is I’m hearing. Sonically it’s not far from Let England Shake – the charming melodic tone, the slightly disturbing lyrical content delivered in low frequencies, the scuzzy guitars and the rich textured layers. I make out, or think I make out, the words “Three little children, I heard it was more like 28,000” and find the corresponding sheet. We’re listening to “The Revolving Wheel.” Before returning to my position at the window, I clock the lyrics to a song referred to as “Chain of Keys”: “A key so simple and bright how can it feel so desperate?” As usual, PJ Harvey puts it best.
Back at the window and Harvey looks like she’s getting ready to sing but barely a note escapes her mouth, the vocals to this track have already been laid down. She takes off her jacket and rehearses a clapping rhythm with Alain Johannes. She can’t see us but she gives a knowing smile in our direction, hopefully finding it as surreal as we do that we’re about to witness a 5/10-minute clapping recording. Once they’ve got the pattern down, they begin. She starts sitting down, then standing, then sitting - her leg constantly changes positions, it’s clear she’s not particularly comfortable. The backing track winds down. The clapping is quite intense. “Mike, are you arms stronger than mine because mine are dropping off?!” She laughs, the clapping is too much of a strain! She splits the rhythm with Mike and they begin again.
Suddenly, the music stops and we’re told that’s the end. It’s an abrupt, jarring experience that drags you out of this intimate engaged state. The forced perspective is removed, and we’re left exposed as the voyeur – as exposed as those in the studio.
Dawdling as much as is possible when being ushered from a room, we see the song has finished and PJ Harvey is rubbing her arms and bent double laughing. There’s a chart on the wall with many songs names scribbled on it, not all matching those found on the book upstairs or the pages adorning these darkened walls. I can’t quite make them out.
On the right hand side, just outside the gymnasium, there is a little enclave with various instruments enclosed; the woman to my right whispers “cover me” as she takes a photo. I half wish I’d stopped her, but I half wanted to ask her to send me a copy. We re-emerge to the sound of clattering lunch service crockery, I wonder at what point the album recoded below those cafes would be played in through their speakers. I wonder if everyone knows what is going on below their feet.
Leaving the building I find myself humming “The Revolving Wheel”: At first it escapes subconsciously but then I find myself purposefully repeating it, wanting to prolong the experience. I can’t remember it any more. There is a strong chance of that track making it onto the new record but I’ll never hear what I heard today again because I witnessed something passing in real time. To PJ Harvey: “The best part of any creation is the creating itself. That is when it’s most vital, most exciting.” PJ Harvey has always been vital. The mark she leaves on this building is vital. The mark this building has left on us has been, will be and is vital.