‘I can’t take Michael Bublé seriously’: Mick Harvey on songwriting, staying straight and ‘survivor’s guilt’

‘I can’t take Michael Bublé seriously’: Mick Harvey on songwriting, staying straight and ‘survivor’s guilt’

Mick Harvey is looking back on the show reel of his life. It’s the video for his song When We Were Beautiful and Young, where startlingly intimate images – of his parents, back yard cricket, through to lifelong partner, Katy Beale, and their children – are mixed with footage of old friends, collaborators, the much missed and dearly departed. Over the top, we hear Harvey softly crooning a song marking their passage:

And the seasons offered up the extremities of hope
The circles in a spiral of those who could, and couldn’t cope
And there were some who came undone
When we were beautiful and young

For decades, Harvey – Nick Cave’s long-serving right-hand man in the Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds – was the man who kept his head when all around were losing theirs. The video remembers them all: Birthday Party bass player Tracy Pew (died 1986) and guitarist Rowland S Howard (2009); Bad Seeds alumni Conway Savage (2018) and Anita Lane (2021), producer Tony Cohen (2017), as well as more occasional collaborators Brian Hooper and Spencer P Jones (both 2018).

Harvey is now 65, with a grey but impressive head of curls. “People tell me I’m still beautiful, which is very kind of them,” he says from his home in Melbourne. “You know how it is – yes, thanks, I’ll take that on board!”

He is promoting his first solo album in a decade, Five Ways to Say Goodbye, which takes mortality and loss as its theme. I ask him if he suffers from a kind of survivor’s guilt. “Not guilt, no, but awareness,” he replies. “Now I’m in my mid-60s, you realise you must have dodged a few bullets. So yeah, I feel lucky in that way, but I don’t feel survivor’s guilt. It’s not like being the only survivor of a plane crash.”

It’s a typical Harvey response: wry, self-deprecating, pragmatic. It makes the lyrical and visual directness of When We Were Beautiful and Young even more striking, and Harvey admits to feeling slightly uncomfortable with mixing what would normally be private images with material already in the public domain. “I’m a bit of a softy, I think,” he says. “I thought people are going to find this too mawkish and kind of manipulative.”

The Birthday Party in a Leeds hotel room in Leeds in 1981. (L-R) Mick Harvey, Tracy Pew, Phill Calvert, Roland S Howard and Nick CaveView image in fullscreen

Harvey is at an age where it’s hard for him to look back – and hard not to. “There’s a high attrition rate in the music community, unfortunately,” he says. “There’s a lot of people who are a bit unhinged, or unstable, or unsettled, or just unemployable, who end up in music. And they are also the sorts of people who tend to push things to the limit, so an awful lot of musicians end up with health issues rather early.”

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Harvey, unlike most of his peers, stayed straight. Partly, he says, he just wasn’t that interested in getting out of it; his focus remained on keeping the ship afloat. He also didn’t enjoy surrendering control: “A lot of the drugs that were around made me feel nervous about my condition.” Instead he took the edge off the anxiety with his main vice, nicotine, which he quit more than 20 years ago.

Australian musician Mick Harvey in 2024View image in fullscreen

He has an enormous work ethic, despite not being a prolific composer of original material: When We Were Beautiful and Young is one of just three self-penned songs on Five Ways to Say Goodbye. “I often quote Jimmy Webb when it comes to this sort of thing – if you have a title, and you know what the song’s about, then you can write the song,” he says. “I suppose I should work on titles more, and ideas, then I might write more songs.”

Harvey is better known for his rearrangements and reimaginings of other people’s songs, including four albums of English-language translations of French idol Serge Gainsbourg. Five Ways to Say Goodbye features new interpretations of material originally recorded by the Triffids’ David McComb, the Saints’ Chris Bailey and Ed Kuepper, Australian actor and singer Lo Carmen, Neil Young and Marlene Dietrich.

Mick Harvey and Nick Cave in London in 1981View image in fullscreen

Just don’t call them cover versions. First, in a literal and historical sense, it’s inaccurate: the term was coined when local bands would faithfully rerecord an overseas hit, releasing it with a new cover on it: “That’s why it’s called a cover version, and that is not what I do,” he says. He blames the Beatles for the fixation on songwriting credits. “Nobody picks up Nina Simone’s or Johnny Cash’s catalogue and says, oh, they’re just doing cover versions.”

What he really objects to is copyists, citing Michael Bublé as an example. “I can’t take Michael Bublé seriously. He’s got absolutely zero original to offer anything, so why does he even exist? Just re-rehashing songs in a big band style, exactly the way that Sinatra or Dean Martin or whoever else did them originally anyway, and who gives a damn, you know? To me, that’s the epitome of a pointless career.”

Source: theguardian.com