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PJ Harvey

Almost twelve months ago Polly Jean Harvey stood on a BBC soundstage swathed in black feathers, autoharp in hand, performing the title song from her new album, Let England Shake.

This haunting appearance on UK current affairs program The Andrew Marr Show was significant not only because it was the first glimpse fans had been given of Harvey’s latest musical transformation, but, in a moment that seems eerily coincidental in retrospect, she was watched by Marr and his special guest Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Three weeks later Brown would be kicked out of office, no doubt with Harvey’s lyrics “The West’s asleep. Let England shake. Weighted down with silent dead” ringing in his ears.

There couldn’t have been a greater introduction to Harvey’s latest record, which at its very core is an effecting observation of her homeland, humanity and war. It is an album on which Harvey has reinvented herself once again, showing off a new voice, dark extrospective prose tangled with lush melodies and a new found love for the autoharp.

When I reach Polly she sounds content and, in her unnervingly polite West Country accent, talks with much passion about her latest album. A record, which may well be her most defining piece of work yet.

Congratulations on finally having the album out – how does it feel to be handing it over to the world after such a long gestation period?
Oh it it’s a wonderful feeling actually, it’s almost a feeling of relief that I can finally let it go. Also because it took such a lot of preparation not only in terms of writing and creating it in the first place, but in terms of the way it was presented, all the artwork, and then setting up the dates we were going to play live, it was an enormous amount of work. So when it has actually gone out to the world then it just starts its own life really, its journey, its out of your hands and it’s a good feeling really

It must be, as I understand you were working on the lyrics for this album for two years before you even begun writing the music?
I write every day anyway and I have done for years, so that’s not abnormal as every day I spend time working on certain pieces and working on trying to improve my use of language. And so it was very natural for me to approach this album in that same way. And yes, I spent a long time gathering words and working and re-working them so I felt they had a clarity and a simplicity I was looking for. And once I felt that I had enough strong bodies of work, in terms of words, it was only then that I went about making a bed of music for them to lie on.

The themes you have chosen to write about on this album, are very big “human themes” – war, homeland, patriotism – have you always wanted to write an album that encompassed such grand ideas?
I think, and many writers as well, are very instinctive. You follow what you feel is gathering your greatest interest at that time and that changes every day. It was just very natural that my instincts lead me into the thing I was most interested in, which was what is going on today in the world that we live in, in all aspects. And it was a time also that I felt that I has more experience as a writer and more experience with language in what I could express through song – actually more coherent and more lucid ideas. And I needed to have that quality if I was going to begin to speak about such huge subject matter.

In an interview you gave last year, you mentioned there was a time when you felt like you didn’t have those words at your fingertips – what changed?
They are just words; you just have to work hard. I certainly do, writing doesn’t come easy to me I have to study and I have to re-work things. Take them apart put them back together, get outside opinion which is invaluable when you are writing and just keep on not giving up and make something as strong as it could be, and that just requires hours of work basically.

Three of the songs on the album address specifically the battle of Galipolli, which is very much a part of Australia’s history. What drew you as an contemporary English woman to this particular battle?
The sheer scale of the disaster and the dreadful mismanagement and the huge waste just moved me so much that I found I really wanted to try and talk about it. And I got to that point because I started looking at our contemporary wars, Afghanistan and Iraq for example, and as I began to research more into the background of these countries I got lead, as I said earlier you get lead by your instincts, and I knew that in order to understand our contemporary wars I’d have to go back in history to what had gone wrong before. And of course Gallipoli was a part of the First World War and I just got lead back in time and then I came to the Gallipoli campaign and I was just stopped in my tracks. I was quite overwhelmed by this story. I read a lot of first hand accounts and I was so moved that I felt a great need to try and put across some of those emotions.

Beyond non-fiction accounts, did you delve into art that has been inspired by this battle over the last century?
Yes I looked at many different angles around the Gallipoli campaign. I looked at accounts from both sides. I also looked at how other artists had dealt with it through film or poetry and indeed in the way other artists had dealt with such subject matter – how they’d dealt with war. I dealt with songs that had done that, poems that had done that, writers, painters, and film makers. Just to get an overall view of how one can deal with these things.

That is an extremely dark headspace to spend a lot of time inside of I’d imagine, yet while the subject matter on the album is at times very dark the melodies and the instrumentation on Let England Shake are very light making for an interesting juxtaposition. Was this intentional?
Yes it was completely intentional. I knew that I didn’t want to weight the words down anymore; they had enough weight as it was and I wanted the music to be something that was very communal, very uplifting, very energising and that also had elements of beauty and hope with in it to offset the darkness of the words. It was very important to me.

You have included a number of samples on the album, one in particular Istanbul Not Constantinople which was used when you performed the track Let England Shake on the Andrew Marr show didn’t make the cut – why did you leave it off the album?
Well songs tell you what they need and what they don’t need, particularly when you move towards the final representation and I found that the sample actually hampered the song, it was actually draining it in and not letting it slide of its own accord so it had to go. But I’m really happy that I had that record of it on the Andrew Marr show.

That was such an interesting appearance in itself with the former Prime Minister Gordon Brown watching on – were you aware he was going to be there, especially given that you were performing Let England Shake?
I was only aware that he’d be there just beforehand, Id already chosen to play that song before I even knew Gordon Brown would be there because it felt so current and it felt very relevant to what was happening here in England at the time with the election. And I had already chosen to perform that song, and obviously when I knew that Gordon Brown was going to be there that was such a wonderful opportunity, it’s one of the highlights of my career so far to be able to be on that show at the same time as our current Prime Minister, it meant a great deal to me.

You’ve chosen a very considered style of singing on the album – did you put a great deal of time into how you wanted your vocals to sound on the album?
Yes I had to and I do so with every album; I have to find the right voice for each song and sometimes it takes a long time and it is a process of trial and error trying different things that aren’t working, to eventually find a thing that does work, and that was the case for this record too. Going back to what we were saying about the music, it is similar in that I had to find a voice that didn’t weigh the words down or make them tedious, dogmatic or self-important. So I had to find a voice that was actually quite light in the way that it delivered the words.

Is that why you chose to work with the instruments you have on this album as well? You have picked up the autoharp for most of the songs – what drew you to using this?
Well I began playing it when I was doing solo shows around the time of White Chalk and I loved playing songs on the autoharp and at that stage I was playing Down By The Water and Grow Grow Grow and it worked very well. And it is such a beautiful, melodic, harmonious instrument; it’s like having a miniature orchestra at my fingertips. It’s so delicate and so beautiful it felt absolutely right for adding a certain beauty and lightness that I really wanted to mellow these difficult words.

You also picked up the saxophone for this album, much like you wrote White Chalk on an instrument you hadn’t played before – is this habit of picking up unfamiliar instruments the way you are finding inspiration to create records these days?
Funnily enough, I was very adept on the saxophone and I use to play it from the age of nine until I was seventeen and it would be the one instrument I would play, but I packed it away and didn’t play it for twenty years which is why it sounds badly played – because it is. But going back to what you were saying, I actually quite enjoy a certain naivety in ones relationship with an instrument, that’s how I feel. I like to pick up an instrument and respond purely by instinct not by intellect and I feel I get more in touch with the song, in terms of the emotion and the quality that I’m trying to convey so I never really practice. And I quite like it that.

With that in mind, could you ever see a PJ Harvey record where you just picked up the guitar and went back to that being your foremost songwriting tool?
Well, if you’re asking if I would just pick up a guitar and write an album like the first few again of course no; I can’t do that because I’ve moved on as a person. And every single day you move forward and to just repeat something you’ve done before just doesn’t interest me at all, it’s not what life is about. Life is about learning and moving forward and challenging yourself and seeing what you are capable of and that is always going to take me into new areas.

With White Chalk you performed shows in a solo capacity for the first time which I imagine would have been quite daunting – are you looking forward to going back to a full band to perform this album?
Yes it has been very enjoyable, I’ve already played some shows with this band that are on the record which is just four piece band – myself, Mick Harvey, John Parish and John Watson. And they are just a delight onstage and it is wonderfully enjoyable to be playing with them again.

You recorded with those men in an amazing space, in a church overlooking a sea which seems a perfect setting for this album – how did that come about?
Purely by coincidence that came about, I’d been looking at studios in Berlin and I couldn’t find one that felt right because I was originally wanted to make this record in the city, in a city that I was unfamiliar with but interested in. And because I’d come back home and hadn’t found anything, purely coincidentally a man that runs the local church as an arts centre these days said that if I ever wanted to rehearse there I was welcome, and that’s the way this came about. It planted the seed that maybe I should record in there and that’s how it happened.

Are we going to see you in Australia any time in the next year do you think?
Yes most definitely, I very much plan to come and play in Australia its always a place I really want to come to and I love playing to people there. So that will happen, I’m not sure exactly when but it will happen sometime in the next year or year and a half.

Let England Shake is out now through Universal Music and you can read the FasterLouder review here.

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jpol said on the 22nd Apr, 2011

Fantastic interview. Well done.


sarahanne said on the 28th Apr, 2011

Thanks, she was a gem to interview!