Monday, February 06, 2006

An interview with Mick Harvey

Mick Harvey, co-founder and, besides Nick Cave, only constant member of The Birthday Party and later of The Bad Seeds, released an excellent album in 2005, called "One Man's Treasure". I saw him performing its songs in one of the five concerts he gave in Europe, together with Robert Ellis and James Jonhston, and asked him a couple of questions, which he kindly answered by email.

- How did you choose the songs you covered?
Mick Harvey: Mostly I endeavoured to record songs with which I felt a strong personal connection. Sometimes this connection was as much from a historic link or event as from a personal empathy with the precise contents but for the most part I do feel that empathy.
- They are not exactly on everybody's lips. Was their obscurity a criterion? (I knew only three!)
Mick Harvey: Certainly, some level of obscurity was a persuasive factor. To record very well known songs carries with it its own baggage. Also, the public not being so familiar with the material gives me a stronger sense of having made them mine to some degree which I suppose was intentional. So yes, their obscurity was attractive for a number of reasons.
- Could you please give me a short description of when you discovered each one of them, which version, your personal attachment to them etc. Do you have a favourite?
Mick Harvey: I certainly don't have a favourite. My son listens obsessively to "Hank Williams Said it Best", but then he doesn't LIKE any of the other songs.

"First Street Blues" I first heard at a Cabaret show by Meret Becker, she did a fantastic, overdramatic rendition, quite spellbinding actually. But of course I was really attracted to that laconic Lee Hazlewood melody (can a melody be laconic?) and eventually came across Lee's version and recorded mine almost immediately.
"Come Into My Sleep" is one of Nick Cave's songs which was relegated to a b-side. I think we (The Bad Seeds) felt we hadn't quite nailed a version of it and it actually wouldn't have fitted very well with the album we were recording at the time anyway (The Boatman's Call) or at least that was the feeling. I always loved the song and was most pleased when my take on it popped out without warning a few years back.
"Louise" is by Don Walker and was released about 10 years ago on an album by Tex, Don & Charlie in Australia only. It always struck me as a beautiful study of futility and hope wrestling with one another, the importance we place on love and whether or not it's all meaningless. A bit gut-wrenching really, but very brave. Maybe Don didn't mean it that way.
"Come On Spring" is on a one off album project by a group called 'Antenna'. My friend Kim Salmon was in the group and a co-writer (the singer of it too). It's a simple idea but a very charming one and I felt it deserved a non-electronic version.
"Demon Alcohol" is a country song by a friend from Denver called Bambi Lee Savage. She has one album out but this song isn't on it. I have it on an old demo on a fuzzy cassette tape.
"Man Without a Home" I wrote. The music and chorus about 6 years ago. The verses about 2 years ago... I think.
"Planetarium" belongs to Bruno Adams and his band 'Once Upon A Time'. I helped produce the album it was on back in the early 90's and it has stayed with me ever since.
"The River", a Tim Buckley song. His version is very light and meandering, the lyrics carry a very strong, specific feeling and I felt I could do a version which married the sense I got from the lyric with more concise music. That's what's there I think.
"Hank Williams Said it Best". A cute and clever song idea (on which I changed some of the words) about a song NOT written by Hank Williams about something which Jesus said, anyway. My son's favourite as I already said.
"Bethelridge" comes from an obscure-ish American guy called Robbie Fulks. There are a couple of really eerie songs on the album this is from. I didn't so much relate to the specific loss in the lyrics as I did the general atmosphere of loss which the whole creates.
"Mother of Earth" is an old Jeffery Lee Pierce song which has long been a favourite of mine and many of my friends. I'm still not so sure what it's about but as with 'Bethelridge' there is a very strange and unsettling mood created, in this case by the words more than anything else.
"Will You Surrender?" was written by me about 10 or more years ago.
- Is it one of your aims that people go and search for the originals after listening to your album?
Mick Harvey: I couldn't care less. My only aim is to make an album or songs which are affecting, from which people can take something for themselves. Research is the individuals’ prerogative.
- How did you feel as a frontman on stage? Did you enjoy it?
Mick Harvey: Actually doing the singing and having to communicate verbally with the audience between songs was at once challenging and surreally absurd. It was a very different position to take up after all these years sitting on an instrument but at the same time I'm so used to playing shows that I felt quite comfortable in many ways. I was barely nervous about the situation either. I'm not sure why not but it could have something to do with not feeling I had anything in particular to lose. I was just going to sing the songs and if people didn't like it, I could go back to something else, or just keep doing it anyway. I just didn't really care. I think that worked in my favour, and I think people could see I was just interested in presenting the songs and appreciated that.