Phil Harvey is a member of Coldplay, one of the most popular rock bands on the planet. He also is an aspiring psychologist and a volunteer for a small mental health charity in London. Harvey talks exclusively to Adam James
Six years ago an application to do voluntary work dropped through the letterbox of Upbeat, a small community mental health project in Camden, London
But this request was different. It was from someone called Phil Harvey. And he just happened to be a member of Coldplay, one of the planet’s most popular rock bands.
Harvey’s wish to do voluntary work was not part of some rocker’s creepy PR strategy. It was an application from a man recovering from genuine misery and strife.
In 2001, Harvey, Coldplay’s elusive fifth member and creative director, had become overcome with depression and anxiety. For three years Harvey had been working single-handedly for 16 hours a day in a “shithole office” to manage the group fronted by his school chum, Chris Martin. Harvey had elevated the band to international stardom. But the long intense hours had shattered Harvey. By the time Coldplay strolled up to collect the 2001 Best British Album and Band in the Brit Awards, Harvey, then aged 24, was a wreck. All he wanted was to seek refuge in bed. His GP even feared he would slip into a coma.
“I was feeling like death when I should have been on top of the world,” wrote Harvey in a Coldplay newsletter.. “I certainly thought about giving up then. It crossed my mind that I simply wasn’t tough enough.”
Harvey tells me: “I remember this all as being an isolating experience. I normally think of myself as, literally, an upbeat kind of person – it was all quite a shock. Regardless of how the world might perceive it [a mental health problem] can strike any person.”
Harvey took months to recover. Afterwards he decided to venture on a new path – immersing himself in studying psychology with a view to qualify as a clinical psychologist. First he completed a foundation course in psychotherapy and counselling at Regents College, London, then a psychology degree from the University of Melbourne in Australia. A doctorate in clinical psychology is Harvey’s next target.
And when Harvey decided to search online for voluntary work, he was struck by Upbeat, a charity which helps people with mental health problems and who have an interest in music to network in an understanding environment. Upbeat offers modern production equipment, rehearsal space, music workshops and lessons, and assists bands with promotion, recording and performing live. Over the last eight years it has contributed to Camden’s cultural scene by organising and participating in dozens of local arts and music festivals. All the bands on Upbeat’s books – from Palestinian dance group Al Zaytouna to industrial-punk artist Lil’ Lost Lou – are people with mental health problems, ranging from schizophrenia to depression.
On receiving Harvey’s application Upbeat’s founder Drew Jensen and director Lucia Way invited Harvey for a chat. There was instant rapport. “There was a spark between the three of us,” remembers Way who – not surprisingly – asked Harvey whether he would assist with the promotion and management of Upbeat’s bands. Harvey agreed. Infact, he was exhilarated. “Meeting Lucia and Drew reminded me of the chemistry of being in a band,” he says. “I knew I could do something good. I felt I had a natural empathy and experience in the [mental health] area.” In return, Upbeat had a dream-ticket volunteer.
Like all community arts organisations Upbeat’s history is marked by an eternal struggle to find premises, attract funding and stay afloat. When Jensen first set up Upbeat in 2001 it operated from a room in a Camden mental health day centre. Since then it’s been based in an Ethiopian centre and another mental health day centre. In 2007 Upbeat moved again to share the Camden studios of another community arts project, Overtones. But Overtones lost its funding later that year and closed.
This was when Harvey stepped in with £40,000 to top up Upbeat’s other grant. He also became Upbeat’s vice-chair. And Harvey asked the rest of Coldplay if they would agree to the band becoming Upbeat’s patrons. It was a yes. “The other members of the band were very happy to support something I was so enthusiastic about,” remembers Harvey. In so doing Harvey had pulled off a coup that a charity of Upbeat’s size could normally only fantasise about.
Infact, having Coldplay as patron would be PR heaven for any organisation. But Upbeat has, until now, purposefully downplayed Harvey’s involvement. Ironically, this is largely down to Harvey who has always kept a wary distance from media attention. He admits to enjoying the comfort of relative anonymity. Coldplay themselves refer to Harvey as their “mysterious” member. This is his first extended interview with a journalist. “I just prefer it this way,” says Harvey.
But Upbeat faces new challenges. Funds are running low.. So, perhaps now is the time to play the Coldplay publicity card. What about the band taking a tour of Upbeat’s studio? “There’s no plans as yet,” says Way. “But having Coldplay as our patron will mean possible funders will take as more seriously. We will seem more viable,” she adds.
Meanwhile, Upbeat prides itself on continuing to offer music and studio facilities for vulnerable people which is outside a traditional mental health service setting. Jensen, as much as anyone, has benefited from this. The 39-year-old singer/songwriter fled to England from America during a nervous breakdown, ended up homeless and shuffling between hostels and mental health day centres until, with support, he set up Upbeat and started ringing round other Camden service users who fancied a jam.
“Music and Upbeat has been my road to recovery,” says Jensen. “It has meant I have been able to do recovery away from mental health services and outside the world of medication, psychiatry and doctors. I have been able to find myself again. Upbeat still continues to help me. And it’s really inspiring to see people embrace their talents in a safe environment..”
As for Harvey, he is again busy with rock duties. Coldplay has been thriving in more global success since the release of their album Viva La Vida or Death And All His Friends.
Nevertheless, Harvey’s passion for a life away from music remains strong. “My psychology career is definitely something I hope to continue with,” he says. “But it is going to have to wait until Coldplay life dies down abit.”
It could be a long wait. But what Harvey demonstrates is that belonging to an almightily successful rock band is no barrier to also being a hands-on mental health volunteer.