PJ Harvey took poetry classes and learned to play the autoharp for her stunning new album Let England Shake. And it’s only now that she’s had the confidence to take on the world, penning songs that take in battlefields, bloodshed and bleak landscapes – but with a mercifully upbeat backing. She talks to SINÉAD GLEESON.
In a London boutique hotel on a drizzle-filled day, Polly Jean Harvey is perched on a sofa that almost swallows her up. She’s tiny. Petite. Diminutive. All of the above. Then there’s her disproportionately huge eyes. She is dressed in black, friendly and relaxed, with a hint of wariness. Far more striking in person, she, like most artists, is professional about publicity chats with journalists. She is here to promote her exceptional new album, Let England Shake, a whirling dervish of a record and a very distant relative of predecessor White Chalk. The latter was an eerie, painfully introspective record, but these songs are much more about the external world and feel less personalised.
“Yes, I think it would be fair to say that. It’s certainly a record that’s looking outwards at the world around us. In the past, I’ve been more interested in the external landscape of emotion and relationships and the way we deal with each other. This time, it’s still those issues I’m addressing, but in much more tangible, concrete language. I wanted the record to be communal, so that it was open for other people to come in and take hold of it.”
This shift from the inner to the outer world is represented by the themes she explores. There’s war – from Gallipoli to Afghanistan – immigration, England and Englishness. Months before the record was released, she performed the title track on BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, a programme more synonymous with politics than music. Is she political? “Always. All my life, I’ve been profoundly interested in what’s happening in the world we live in. When I talk about England, I wanted ambiguity, so that I could talk about emotions that anybody might feel regardless of what country they live in. I tried to describe those feelings of love/hate and push/pull that you have with your country of origin. All of the disappointments and hopes that you have.”
Harvey admits that despite her lifelong political leanings, she couldn’t have written a record like this before now. “I’m an instinctive writer, and there was a sense of urgency about tackling issues – and with the right language – that affect me now. It’s taken me a long time to gather my confidence in my writing. If you’re going to deal with such weighty subject matter, you have to do it well or don’t do it at all. I didn’t have the confidence to try to write like this until three or four years ago.”
That confidence possibly came with a change in her songwriting process, something she has altered over the years. Where once it was led by guitars and even her voice, she says that words are now her “primary concern”. Harvey writes every day, not just songs but poetry that sometimes mutates into lyrics, short stories or even plays. The words that became the backbone of Let England Shake have been percolating for years. “It took me a long, long time to write these lyrics. I worked on them for nearly three years. Just words. No music. I had to discard a lot of it that wasn’t working, and would only save one line from 20, but that’s just part of the process.”
The discipline of writing every day makes sense for a writer. I ask about a rumour I’d heard that, while the album was in progress, she took a poetry class to learn about rhyme and metre. “Oh yes, I have done. Over my years as a writer, say the last 20 years, I’ve always kept learning. It’s very important to me, so I often go and do writing classes or painting or drawing classes. Even language classes. I’m always doing night school.”
She puts this down to a curiosity for new things. For the new album she learned to play autoharp, just as she’d learned piano for White Chalk. “The autoharp is linked to what I said about learning. I like to try new experiments in terms of sound and language. Ones that will lead me into new areas. And there are lots of ways of playing an instrument I’m very familiar with, like the guitar. Physically you can affect it’s sound just by how you play it.”
Harvey lives in rural Dorset, not far from her parents. When she’s not making music she paints and draws, but thinks of herself as a full-time writer. It’s interesting she chooses this word over “musician”. “They’re all linked, they’re all inter- connected. Painting, music, writing: they’re just different ways of articulation.” This expression extends to her physicality and the way she represents herself on stage. The once-garish make-up and Stars and Stripes sequinned bra were pure theatre and a playful take on persona. “What I wear on stage, the lighting, where people are standing – all of that is quite important to me. I’m a visual artist, so I think very visually even when I’m dealing with sound. Often I can see the way a song should sound before I make the sound. I can see it, almost in colours… ”
She trawls off and I ask if perhaps she has synaesthesia. “Yes, maybe it is a bit of that all right. Sometimes I know the subject I want to discuss, but I know it more by essence than by words.” At this points she bursts into “what am I talking about?” laughter. The huge eyes that dominate her face light up. Harvey is quite shy and fiercely protective of her privacy. Her relationship with singer Nick Cave is well-documented, but questions about her private life are not entertained, although she will admit she’s a big reader (she loves James Joyce, Harold Pinter and TS Eliot). People’s urge to know more about her often leads to a rush to interpret her songs as autobiography, which irks her, especially when it’s clear she hasn’t drowned a daughter (‘Down by the Water’) or killed any soldiers (‘The Words That Maketh Murder’).
“It’s still a relatively new phenomenon that songwriters sing their own songs. So many songs are about first-hand experience, but a lot are much more about adopting perspectives or different lives purely as a way of articulating points of view that aren’t your own. There are a lot of voices on this record, and I was fearful that people would think it was me being preachy or dogmatic. I tried very hard to make the narrator of these songs impartial, to merely narrate the action.”
That action takes in battlefields, bloodshed and bleak landscapes, but the musical backdrop is upbeat. There’s a rousing bugle on the title track and a swirling rush of sounds all the way through. There’s even a sample of Niney the Observer’s reggae classic Blood Fire (“I love reggae!” she says, but doesn’t elaborate). Long-term collaborators John Parrish, Flood and Mick Harvey are all involved, and it’s a credit to their collective creative partnerships that through years of working together they’re still able to reinterpret and reinvent Harvey’s sounds.
“I always like working with a variety of people, and I knew these players were the ones that could bring the songs to their fruition. I wanted the music to be quite fluid and indefinable and I was after that swirling sound that you talked of. For me, there needed to be a certain confusion about the music, to echo the times we’re living in. I also wanted them to have a big melodic quality, and to be songs that would lend themselves to being sung by many people, many voices.”
The album was recorded in a cliff-top church close to where the singer lives. It took just five weeks (as opposed to White Chalk’s five months), and she says it was recorded live, with everyone playing together.“It had to be recorded like that because it’s a record about community. I needed the musicians to react to each other to get that energy on the record. Most of the songs were recorded with two or three takes of everyone playing them.”
Let England Shake is another triumph in Polly Harvey’s career. It’s an immutable piece of work, brilliant in its range and inventiveness. “With this record, I’ve been thinking about the fact that we’re all from all over the place, and we’re all interconnected. It comes back to the way human beings relate to each other, which I’ve always done as a writer, in all my songs.”
This article originally appeared in The Irish Times on February 4th, 2011.