Cultural Commentator

How PJ Harvey’s Demos Made Me a Writer

Cultural Commentator

How PJ Harvey’s Demos Made Me a Writer

+

On Wednesday, Spin published an oral history of PJ Harvey’s Rid of Me, one of the most powerful albums of the ’90s. But it wasn’t the most important PJ Harvey album to me, at least not when I was a teen. That was 4-Track Demos, a collection of recordings she’d made by herself for what would become Rid of Me. She recalls them with some affection in Spin:

Harvey: I moved to a flat that was right by the sea, the English Channel. It had a wonderful view. It was above a restaurant. I knew the restaurant owner and he was letting me rent this flat at a good price. In return, they could use my spare room for wine bottles. It worked out well. I’d help myself to the food bar, and then they’d get the wine bottles as they needed them. It was a wonderful space to write in. If I listen to the demos of Rid Of Me now, I hear that room so clearly. I remember everything about the room: The way it smelled, the way it looked and the view from the windows.

I didn’t know Harvey had recorded the album there, but it didn’t matter: I could hear the room, too. It sounded like my own bedroom a bit, there in my small northern New York town. Hearing PJ Harvey do what she did in a room like mine was heartening to a weird kid like me — one who was very proud of himself for liking music like that. (By British people!) Of course, liking PJ Harvey makes you about as unique as liking Monty Python, but what would teenagers be if they didn’t assume no one else in the world has ever known this thing that I am thinking? I once put on a cassette of 4-Track Demos in the communal boombox in my high school’s art room, and it was quickly turned off. “What is this shit?” someone said. You can imagine the righteous indignation I felt internally, and you can just as easily imagine how I kept it to my damn self. (You don’t want to piss off the art kids; they had X-acto knives, and smoked.)

4-Track Demos fed that fantasy, but in a productive way. It sounded like someone making the thing she wanted to make, regardless of what was around her. That’s why it meant more to me than Rid of Me, which is wonderful but closed-off, finished. On Demos you can hear the construction, hear the pieces and the surroundings, the bow hairs against the cello strings and the speaker of the guitar amp rattling in its case. (A common quality of demos, like Feist’s demo for “Mushaboom,” in which you can hear the traffic outside.) In audibly trying things out and succeeding, it was a great encouragement. I used it to make half-baked songs on my own 4-track recorder, and to form a band with a very nice guy who would go on to play thumb piano for a group in Colorado that I’m pretty sure was an actual cult. And, sure, eventually write things like this, for the internet.

I don’t have the confidence that Harvey displays to the world, of course, and so while she was able to hole up in a seaside restaurant and produce a masterpiece, I need constant feedback and encouragement in order not to end up curled in some dark corner of my house, eating potato chips and refreshing my Tumblr feed in the hope that someone will have “liked” my Photoshopped picture of Kanye West in a balloon chair. I really only came into myself as a person who writes things with the advent of the internet, which let me get my work out to people with my same weird set of interests. These invisible peers could tell me when things were good and when things were bad, and when things were so fucking wrong I don’t even know where to start — which is still better than the blank confusion I used to get.

The art that gets called masterpiece tends to be finished, closed-off ones like Rid of Me. But those works with space for you to fill in your own ideas about how it could be, like 4-Track Demos, are often the ones that prompt us to make something on our own. The internet, for all its problems, has been an absolute gold mine for seeing how art gets made. While once notebooks, sketchbooks, and letters were only of interest once the masterpiece was completed, now we can follow our favorite creative across social networks and see what they’re thinking in something like real time. And by seeing their process, we can get ideas for ours. There’s a clear majesty in the precision of Rid of Me. But there’s an energy in all that other stuff — demos, experiments, collaborative public works, jokes, notes, reading lists, sketches, appreciations, outbursts of pique — that’s absolutely vital to continuing the business of creation.