x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Cocker's curious collaboration

It seems that diversification is the key to long-lasting success in today's music industry and Jarvis Cocker has done just that, most recently with a collaboration with The National Trust.

Jarvis Cocker plays music with passers-by under a railway arch in 2009.
Jarvis Cocker plays music with passers-by under a railway arch in 2009.

That beardy ex-Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker is delightfully eccentric is surely beyond debate. But his increasingly bizarre extra-curricular activities haven't just raised eyebrows, they've confirmed that it's not enough, these days, to be a musician who records music, an author who writes books or an artist who paints. Diversification is the key to long-lasting success. So, last year, Cocker might have released his best post-Pulp album, Further Complications, but he also encamped himself under a railway arch. Apparently, it was art. He was a panellist - not entirely successfully, if truth be told - on the BBC's Question Time, telling the gathered politicians that the proof of Michael Jackson's genius was that he invented the moonwalk. Come 2010, Cocker's warm Yorkshire tones lent a voice to a puppet in Fantastic Mr Fox, and within the first two hours of a new radio show on BBC 6 Music he'd "played" the Sir John Betjeman poem Licorice Fields at Pontefract. Four months later, he'd won a prestigious radio award.

So, what does the man for whom nothing is too odd do next? That's obvious. He meets with the none-more-English National Trust, takes a tour of their historic properties, and records a clock striking at Blickling Hall, birds twittering at Fountains Abbey, and waves lapping gently on the shore at Brownsea Island. The results are now available as a free download on The National Trust's website, and have been described by Cocker as a "holiday for the ears". Even he had to concede, though, that "it's not really meant to be listened to intently, like a piece of music, but more as something to have on in the background".

Cocker is probably the most multifaceted pop star we have right now, but he's certainly not the first to try his hand at, well, whatever takes his fancy. Indeed, Brian Eno was probably chuckling with glee at news of The National Trust project collaboration. His 1978 ambient work Music for Airports was conceived by the minimalist sound artist as a response to the growing irritation he felt while waiting for a delayed plane at Cologne Bonn Airport. The record was meant to be incidental and soothing rather than, er, memorable and, though it wasn't actually adopted by the German airport, for a while it was the soundtrack to departing the Marine Terminal at New York's La Guardia.

Of course, musicians are used to having their work tied in with the positive public images companies wish to portray; every single day new commercials are made using pop songs that fit the brand. But sometimes such tie-ups are somewhat grasping. You can forgive Cocker working with The National Trust simply because it's the kind of thing you can imagine him doing for free. But there was something slightly wrong about James Murphy's hip New York band LCD Soundsystem teaming up with Nike for 45:33 in 2006. Ostensibly a continuous album mimicking the peaks and troughs of a workout, it was suggested that the record was actually conceived on a treadmill - despite Murphy not being the most athletic of frontmen. Thus it wasn't so much of a surprise when Murphy admitted a year later - presumably having banked the cash - that the whole concept was a complete lie. "I don't even jog," he said. He just wanted to make a long, continuous record, and somebody at Nike, rather amusingly, paid him for it.

So Cocker, Eno and Murphy's experiments with stately homes, airports and invisible treadmills are interesting oddities. But for a laudable collaboration that isn't a joke, look no further than the author and philosopher Alain de Botton. Last week, he teamed up with some of Europe's foremost architects for a new building project, but this wasn't some high-concept housing scheme that would only be experienced by the wealthy. Instead, the author of The Architecture of Happiness has commissioned five new houses from Swiss, Dutch, Norwegian and British designers that will be let out to holidaymakers for a week at a time. The idea, he says, is to "help people get over the dichotomy that modernism equals awful and antiquated equals great".

Tellingly, this incredibly cool holiday letting agency will be not-for-profit. De Botton has, too, got enough clout behind him - these are world-class architects and construction is being overseen by the man responsible for the summer pavilions at the Serpentine Gallery - for it not to be mere folly. But, as Cocker has more than proved, sometimes mere folly is just jolly good fun.