Interview Conducted by Ellen Donbeck
Amidst the artist’s very busy schedule, Mick Harvey electronically sat in for a few questions by Ellen Donbeck regarding the release of his first fully penned album, Sketches From The Book Of The Dead. We purposely skipped over the Bad Seeds stuff to focus on Harvey’s very personal work.
You have collaborated with a number of musicians over the years. This album is obviously very personal. While working on this album, did you have any worries about standing alone or revealing too much of yourself?
Not specifically. I feel I have worked gradually through my solo projects to this position of apparent personal exposure so it has been a comfortable transition. Certainly there were a few songs where the very personal nature of the material gave me pause and made me consider whether or not I was revealing too much. But in the end it was necessary to go with what I had written. After all, the nature of the theme itself requires some level of personal exposure so I had probably reconciled myself to that from the outset to some degree.
Being a tribute album to those who have passed, there has been much speculation about whom these songs are actually about. Did you write each of them with the intention of the audience knowing exactly who they were and is that important to you?
There has not been much speculation about the identities of the song’s subjects, no.
For the most part I was aware that the general public would not know who they were about and that is a better and more comfortable position to me. It’s actually also important, in my opinion, to allow the songs to have their own space and not be analyzed as factual information or to be dissected as being completed representations of the people concerned. A large part of the idea behind the album is that it’s about fragments of memory and misremembered events. These are actually what we carry on with us and the songs needed to be able to hold that condition within them. If too many people learned who some of the songs were about they could start challenging statements or notions about what they are saying about this person or that, or arguing that I’d got facts wrong and that would have undermined a large part of my intention with the project. It’s partly about the facts being wrong, they need to be wrong on some level or it’s a corrected version, at least of my memory.
However, it has been well established that the first song is about Rowland and I was fully aware that would be quite obvious. The song was written with an awareness that that would happen.
Many of the songs are about members of my family, sometimes distant relatives, but quite recognizable to my immediate family. So I had to deal with the notion that they would know about whom I had written the songs. From that perspective I can quite rightly claim that there was no overt attempt to hide anyone’s identity. They are almost all easily recognizable if one knew them personally. But it remains irrelevant for the general public or fans to be able to follow or investigate the real people. That would, in fact, be undesirable.
Much like a play or a movie, the music feels like a gentle companion to the strong dialogue. In fact, their is a cinematic quality to the album. What was your motivation on making this particular project lyrically focused?
Clearly the songs are about real people and memories or snatches of real events. To that end the words are playing the fundamental role. The concept and initiation of the album lay in the lyrics and not in some musical stylization or attempt to make a specific musical atmosphere. Each song necessarily required an individual and minimalist approach from the musical backing.
I felt “Two Paintings” was a pretty accurate metaphor for the project as whole. You come to place from the past and gather others belongings to be taken to the present. Do you feel it is your obligation to those you loved in your life to deliver their words and memories to the audience? To say what they no longer can?
It’s certainly no obligation or duty. These songs are as impermanent, in reality, as just about everything else. That’s all relative. It’s really about communicating I suppose, as it is with all art. If there were an obligation or the need to determine a purpose in art I suppose one could argue it would be to communicate and express things people can relate to. However, as an artist I think first and foremost one must simply put forward one’s own ideas without consideration of how they can be interpreted or understood. If one is trying to angle things towards being comprehensible to others or having a definable effect then there is an inherent risk of sullying any purity in the idea. If the finished product speaks to people or contains common ground or some kind of universal insights which other people can associate with or be affected or inspired by then, that is simply a fabulous and fortunate by-product. I’m not against things being likable or intelligible, I just don’t think it should be the objective. Firstly I must explain and perfect the idea in communication with myself. Of course, as I’m human and have common experience with lots of other humans it is likely to have areas which other people will understand or associate with. But again, this should not be the aim of the exercise.
The second you listen to the album, the atmosphere changes. You truly created an album that is confidently consistent, perhaps due to the fact that you had true creative control. What kind of atmosphere did you create for yourself while composing these songs?
Whilst writing the songs themselves I had no overall atmosphere in mind. I just approached each song, or rather the subject matter of each song, on it’s individual needs. When I came to compile the album I found that I wanted that consistency of atmosphere you are perhaps referring to. There is always the temptation to make an album listenable as a collection and make nice musical variations but my gut instinct was that this would be a betrayal of my initial intentions. Especially at the end stage, the final selection stage, I had to be strong and believe in the material. I’ve always been aware that much of the material is not an easy listen and I had to be true to that and believe in following through with that because it’s where the songs could actually support each other fully. A couple of the songs I left off the album were ones which could have been nice musical variations sprinkled through the album and it was suggested by a few people that ‘Famous Last Words’ could be good closer to the front or in the middle for variation’s sake. However, I decided that would be a mistake; that it would break up the atmosphere, which is deliberately somewhat downbeat. I felt that’s what the collection needed. And let’s face it, there’s no point pretending it’s an overly upbeat subject matter.
Do you have a particular track that was difficult to write in particular? And/or a track that is particularly close to your heart?
The only song which took a while and went through a couple of different incarnations was “Two Paintings.” I’m not sure why. It began as a somewhat prosaic account of shifting someone’s possessions with long interjections listing all the things that were thrown in the car, but that seemed boring even to me. It remained a deliberately prosaic account of what happened, it being a fairly mundane activity after all, but found a shape which, as you pointed out, is a kind of thumbnail picture of what’s happening in different ways throughout the album – observing what we have been left with from people who are no longer with us, those things which we still have of them in the present
Close to my heart would be “The Ballad of Jay Givens.” More than any other it’s probably the song that sparked the songwriting into action and gave me the confidence to carry the project through.
How do you think this album will translate in a live sense? How Important is it to you to perform these songs live?
Well, I’ve started playing live shows. As I suspected, some of the songs work really well in that environment. Had they not or had I not been interested to do that it would also have been fine.
Quite a few people suggested or suspected that I should play the whole album as if it were some kind of homogeneous piece, but I never saw it that way. In fact I could see the continuity with much of the material on my previous two albums and when I came to compile a live song list it was remarkably easy to choose the older songs from my repertoire which fitted with the songs from this album. Makes for a much more varied and interesting live performance too.
Mick Harvey‘s, Sketches From The Book Of The Dead is available now from Mute Records.