Interview: PJ Harvey

Maura Johnston

By Maura Johnston

on 02.16.11 in Interviews

PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake is an explicitly political album, but “explicit” treatment of lyrical subjects from Polly Jean Harvey is different than it is for other lyrical writers. The world she paints with her words is one that’s endlessly gray, with images of murder and soldiers crumpling to the ground, but it’s cast against an autoharp-heavy, loop-assisted musical landscape that feels as if it exists on another plane.

Harvey spoke with eMusic’s Maura Johnston in January about her writing process, why she felt like now was the time to get political, and how she was influenced by Harold Pinter and the Doors during the album’s gestation.

The record’s really autoharp heavy. I wanted to know how that affected writing process, and what made you decide to use the autoharp as the guiding musical force for a lot of the album.

Well, I began to play the autoharp around 2007-08. At that time, I was playing solo shows in support of the album White Chalk. I was trying to find new ways of playing some older material, and I thought about trying to play “Down by the Water” on an autoharp, and it turned out really beautifully. I began to really love the sound, and wanted to explore that instrument more. It worked really well for this latest album, because I wrote the words first over a period of about a year and a half. I only concentrated on writing the words, almost like poems that had to work on the page. And then when I had edited down those works to what the words were that I thought were working – because it took me a long, long time – I think there were probably 30 or 40 pieces, of which I got rid of about half. And then I just sang the words for a long time. Again, not using instruments, and so the words formed the melody, but obviously the words already have their rhythm, so then they helped form the melody. When I had the melody, the autoharp worked very well, because then I only had to find the chord that fit with the note I was singing. Being that the autoharp is a chord instrument, it was the perfect writing tool for this record, and that’s why it very easily became what half of the record was written on. On the others I’ve used the more known chordal instrument, which of course is the guitar, but the autoharp has this beautiful orchestral slant at your fingertips. It’s a very wide breadth of notes and many different octaves and it has great fullness and melody to it already and quite inherently.

I heard you used three of them that were tuned to different progressions.

Yeah, I bought three old autoharps and I took them to a wonderful little musical repairman who lives around here in Dorset and who can do anything with any acoustic instrument. And so I took them to him and said that I’d like him to put them into the strangest chord configurations he could possibly think of. You don’t often come across autoharps that are tuned in very unusual keys. But that’s what I was looking for because, again, it lends a very strange quality to the music. It takes it into a slightly different world.

I love how there’s a dreamlike feel over a lot of the music on the album. I think the autoharp really lends itself to that feeling.

Yes, it does. Also, the little loops of music lend themselves to that dreamlike quality as well. And I’m really glad that you’ve picked up on that, because it was something I kept in the forefront of my mind throughout the entire writing of that project. I was very much after that dreamscape and to create music that was quite difficult to pin down. Almost like it didn’t have an anchor, but it was ongoing and had a timelessness to it which I think it works very well with the nature of the words.

When you incorporated the loops from other songs, how did those come into play? What brought those bits into your process?

There would often be a line, like for instance the “blood and fire” line in Niney’s song, or for instance, “What if I take my problems to the United Nations” in “Summertime Blues” by Eddie Cochran. Those lines would court me; I’d think of them so much, because they were very much in tandem with what I was trying to create lyrically and in my poetry. And then I began to weave them in, so I would almost hear the rhythm of the line as I was writing my words. Then, therefore, sometimes it would also have a place within the music whether it was me singing it or whether it was actually introducing a section of the song into it.

This project has a lot of talk about the world at large. What inspired that? Did you write it when you were in England or did you start writing when you were on tour?

I was in England, I was in Dorset throughout the writing of this record. I’ve always been profoundly affected by what’s going on in the world and what’s going on politically. But I’ve never felt that I was okay in my abilities as a writer to be able to put that into music as words and do it well. Because I think it’s a very, very difficult thing to do well in music. Some people do it well but very few, I think. And I didn’t feel I had the qualities yet as a writer to do it. And I think now I’m a bit older, I’ve been writing for longer. And I feel in the last few years I’ve worked very hard on my lyric writing and for the first time felt that it was something I could approach in my own work. I really haven’t had the confidence to do it before, even though I’ve always felt very, very affected by the contemporary world that we’re living in. So it really was a case of for the first time feeling the confidence to begin to try to approach subjects such as these, coupled with becoming more and more frustrated, impassioned, and angry at these things I see happening the older I get. I certainly don’t seem to be getting more used to it. It makes me more angry than ever. It was almost like, “I have to begin to try to address these things in my own work.” And having been given this wonderful position that I can sing and my voice gets heard, I felt like I wanted to start trying to make my voice say things that are hopefully meaningful and things that will last.

I think a lot of the lyrics are really striking in just the way that they portray war and sadness – it is a dreamscape but it’s a very sad dream in a lot of ways.

Well, yes, I use a lot of visceral imagery because that’s the world that we’re living in. You can’t avoid it if you’re dealing in the real world. This is the world that we’re living in. And although I talk about a dreamscape in the music, I feel like the words themselves are not a dream at all. This is actually happening, and has happened, and what always happens. When I talked about a musical “dreamscape,” I was meaning more sort of indefinable quality. I listened to the music of the Doors quite a lot when I was writing this album, specifically because I find their music so hard to pin down. A lot of that comes from the instrumentation. They didn’t use a bass guitar particularly, but the Fender Rhodes, the keyboards, they were moving all the time. That wonderful playing gave it such a fluidity. That was something of the quality I was trying to get into the music that I was making as well. And I also associate their music with the Vietnam War in particular, and how that whole war was almost so terrible it seemed like it couldn’t possibly be happening, but it was. I wanted to create in music this sense of timelessness in the fact that this would always be. This is the cycle. This terrible cycle, of war and conflict and hurting each other, that we do.

So the church that you recorded in: is that near where you grew up?

It’s quite near. It’s about a half an hour drive away from where I grew up. It’s by a stretch of coastline that overlooks the channel. It’s in a wonderful position. It’s quite a remote church on the top of a hill. These days it’s not particularly used for services other than funerals and baptisms. It’s mostly used as an art space for oil paintings and for classical music.

Earlier you said that there were some people who you felt wrote political songs well. Are there any who particularly stand out to you?

Yes, and not just musicians, but poets as well. I’ve been affected by the work of Harold Pinter lately, particularly Harold Pinter’s political essays and his poetry. A wonderful, wonderful poet, who is somebody I think speaks about these things very well, and gets the balance right. In terms of music, Neil Young, obviously, throughout the years has written a great many songs, many of them political and many of them getting the balance just right. I’m always interested in what Neil Young is doing. And I’ve been thinking of also Captain Beefheart. I came across the song “Dachau Blues,” and I thought, “What an amazing song, what a brilliant protest song it is.” Those are just a few examples of people who I think do get that balance right that I was trying to achieve, because I didn’t want to just come across as almost preaching or protesting or chest-beating in any way. I wanted to find a different kind of language that was still very provocative but leaving a certain amount of things unsaid, and I think these people do that very well.

Right now I feel that musical artists are pressured to say more than ever with the explosion of media and online outlets. How do you feel about the way that has shifted since you entered the industry?

Well, obviously it’s changed enormously since I first began in 1990. I don’t really speak for myself in that I’m not somebody that partakes in wanting to spread as much of myself around as possible. That’s just not the focus of my energy, and I just focus on trying to make my writing improve and hopefully get better at what I do. At the same time it’s the way things are changing and I hope that good things will come from it. It’s still relatively new and in relatively early days.

And then you’re also working with a photojournalist who has done war reporting for the visuals of the record.

Yes, a man called Seamus Murphy, who I came across through seeing an exhibition of his in 2008 which was an exhibition for work he’d done for the last 10 years in Afghanistan. I was so moved by this exhibition and felt something in it of what I was trying to achieve with this record. He mostly works as a photojournalist, and often in conflict zones.

And I read that he’s doing visual accompaniments for every song on the record.

He is. We’ll continue to release his films up through the rest of next couple of months, and then he’s going to be making a long-form film after that of some of the work that he’s done throughout this whole project. He basically did a road trip through England whilst listening to my album, and these are the images he came back with. And it’s very much his own interpretation, and I’m glad for that, because that’s what I wanted. The thing that first drew me to his work was his very unique vision and that’s certainly what I feel that’s what he’s bringing to this.

The first clip is really beautiful and striking.

There’s a lot of silence of it. Things that are unsaid, and that’s something I always admire and something I always strive for myself.