“Warts and all”. That’s what Artangel, PJ Harvey’s collaborators on the public recording sessions for her ninth studio album, promise punters will see. You buy a ticket, you make your way to London’s Somerset House, you gawp at Harvey and her band – trapped behind a glass window, like zoo animals – for 45 minutes, and then you shuffle out, the magic, mystery and myth of the creative process having duly been blown apart.
Breaking the magician’s code is a risky business. It’s great to learn how they really pull off those tricks, but it’s disappointing when you discover the rabbit was in the hat all along. Artists are supposed to be unfathomable, and that goes double for Harvey, who’s largely snubbed the oversharing clutches of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram for a life in the shadows. She’s flitted from persona to persona throughout her whole career, defying anyone who tries to fully pin her down. It’s why she was able to be the punk priestess of ‘Rid Of Me’ and the war poet of ‘Let England Shake’ and be totally believable in each guise. Once upon a time, folk were terrified of PJ Harvey: after she released ‘Down By The Water’, some fans thought she genuinely was a baby-drowning maniac.
Pop along to Somerset House and you might just see how she pulls it all off, but you might pluck out some of her mystery, too. As St Vincent’s Annie Clark asked last week, when discussing her love for David Bowie: “When did it become more authentic to just stand onstage with no lights or costume or theatricality and just stand up there with a beard and your feelings?”
But then, I think you trust PJ Harvey at your peril. Guests are warned they might come away with no real insight at all – you’ll turn up hoping to see the lesser-spotted Polly but you might have to settle for an engineer tinkering with sound levels. “There will be some visitors who experience longueurs, the tuning up of a bass guitar,” admitted Artangel co-director Michael Morris.
There’s also a question over how much these album sessions will resemble regular recording sessions – which, as most music journalists can tell you, tend to be as pacy as your average cricket match. The venue, for a start, is not a regular studio: it’s an old rifle range within the splendour of one of London’s most beautiful buildings. Artangel have revealed they’ve been talking about this project with Harvey for at least a year. How many songs and ideas has she dreamt up in that time? How much preparation has she done? How much scripting?
Harvey’s way too canny to be caught doing anything she doesn’t want you to see. Like her old collaborator Nick Cave, she’s spent 20-odd years cultivating myths. People thought last year’s excellent Cave documentary, 20,000 Days On Earth, would reveal his secrets, but instead it added further layers of fug and smoke to the mystery. This might just be Harvey’s way of doing the same thing: an elaborate piece of performance art masquerading as an exposé. She’s dangling the prospect of unprecedented access but stage-managing the whole affair. Sure, the window you’ll spy on her through might be transparent, but Harvey’s bigger picture? That’s still opaque.