“I Feel Like I’ve Just Begun”: An Interview With PJ Harvey

Ben Hewitt meets Polly Harvey to discuss singing about things that really matter and avoiding self-righteousness on her new album Let England Shake

A dark, sleek mahogany table separates Polly Harvey from The Quietus. Bookended by a cup of green tea on her side and a Dictaphone on ours, it’s a physical gap of roughly eight feet; at times, though, it feels closer to 80. She’s long been cast as a reluctant interviewee, loathe to give away any detail which might pin down her work with a definitive interpretation or allow unfettered glimpses into her private life. Today is no exception. A probing into the meaning behind the words of her new album Let England Shake is easily deflected. "I’ve done my part, really," she says softly. "I don’t feel I have to explain the intentions behind anything". Another question – this time about the personal significance of the 19th century church the album was recorded in – is knocked away with a straight bat, too. "I knew the area very well," she answers simply. "It wasn’t a church I went to, but it’s quite near my house and it’s on a place I often walked through". A diminutive figure swathed in black and sat on a vast settee, she’s determined – as ever – not to give too much away.

Harvey’s shy persona is at odds with the figurehead who emerged in the early 90s at the forefront of the PJ Harvey trio with bassist Steve Vaughan and drummer Robert Ellis. Following the release of their skin-flaying debut Dry in 1992 and the even more abrasive Rid Of Me the following year, the trio disbanded and Harvey continued working under the same moniker. Her subsequent record – 1995’s To Bring You My Love – marked two enduring distinctions in her career: the genesis of working relationships with producer Flood, John Parish and Mick Harvey (all of whom helped to record Let England Shake), and a predilection for theatricality and constant aesthetic and musical reinvention. None of her incarnations, though, were as startling as 2007’s White Chalk, which was built around brittle piano (an instrument which Harvey learned to play for the record) and featured artwork in which she resembling the deathly spirit of a Victorian child.

Unsurprisingly, then, Let England Shake is vastly different to its predecessor. Like White Chalk, it was recorded in Harvey’s home county of Dorset, but the ghostly, gothic aesthetic befitting of a bleak rural wilderness is gone, and in its place is a warmer and fuller sound. Less prevalent, too, are the personal themes of loneliness and isolation, replaced with meditations on heritage, nationhood and patriotism. And violence – lots of violence – death and bloodshed. With images of blood-sodden battlefields and fallen soldiers strewn throughout Let England Shake, her steadfast territorialism seems somewhat apt.

Why did you decide to record this album in a church? And why this church in particular?

Polly Harvey: Well, it wasn’t planned; I didn’t set out that way, to record in the church. I was actually setting out to work in Berlin, as that was a city I was finding quite interesting at the time and wanted to work there. But I went over to Berlin and couldn’t find a place that felt right, so I was still looking for places – and then, just coincidentally, the man who runs this church as an arts centre approached me and said if I ever wanted to use it for rehearsing I could, because he liked my music and knew I lived nearby. It wasn’t predetermined, but it actually lent itself really well to this record… to the nature of the words and the music, it was perfect for it.

In the past, I think location has always been really prominent in your work; the sense of landscape is always quite apparent, whether it’s New York in Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea or Dorset in White Chalk. Did you feel like that with this record?

PH: I didn’t, particularly, because this record travels through many different countries, and I wanted that. I wanted a sense of moving through different times, different eras, different countries – for it to be a journey, not particularly routed anywhere. Although the route would be the sound; it’s a very unusual sound that goes throughout the whole record in the telling of the narratives and the stories. So that’s the link.

Was that pre-determined?

PH: Mmmm. It was little more in the forefront of my mind, because I needed to find a way to narrate the words, and do it well. The words are quite weighty on their own, and I knew I didn’t want to add more weight to them. The person that was delivering the stories had to have the right voice, and the music containing that voice had to inhabit the right place in the stratosphere, if you like [laughs]. I didn’t want to add more weight to the words, otherwise they would have just fallen down.

It took quite a long time to find out how to sing these songs. When I finally found the voice, I knew how the music should be. But it really was stages in a process. I wrote the words first… for about two years, I did nothing but words.

Is that the longest you’ve spent just on the words?

PH: Yes, yes. Because it was very important to get it to get the balance right. I knew I didn’t want the words to tip into becoming too dogmatic or self-important, and I wanted to leave them very open to interpretation. And then I just began to sing those words for a long time, until the melody revealed itself. I knew I wanted the overall sound to be quite uplifting, so the melodies had to be conducive to want to sing, and for other people to want to sing. For a long time I just sang a cappella.

I was trying to find a voice that was not particularly of anything… just a voice, a narrator. To keep an ambiguity about the nature of the voice, to keep it very pure, and very simple.

One of the most startling things about White Chalk was the sound of your voice, which sounded infantilised, almost childlike. Does something about working in Dorset make you reconnect to childhood?

PH: Not so much the childlike quality. I can see what you’re saying, but that wasn’t the aim. More a purity of voice – not trying to adopt anything, particularly. And not trying to adopt any sort of role other than the narrator of the story.

WHATEVER Harvey says, it’s always been difficult to extricate her from her own words. Even embracing a more narrative approach to her lyrics, most notably with To Bring You My Love, hasn’t stopped over excitable critics trying to glean autobiographical meaning from her work. Let England Shake is too hazy historically and geographically to be pinned down solely on her, shifting throughout different time periods, countries and perspectives; it’s too conflicted. ‘England’, for example, espouses a love and hate relationship with her country, claiming "I love England" one moment and bemoaning its "bitter taste" the next.

With its depictions of warfare, though, it seems impossible that current events weren’t a catalyst. The album is stained with blood throughout, whether it’s the "Young men/ Hit with guns/ In the dirt" on ‘In The Dark Places’ or the lands "ploughed by tanks and feet" on ‘The Glorious Land’. In particular, ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ – despite the antiquated language of the title – seems rooted in the present with its refrain of "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?".

Do you see this album as a love-letter to England, or is it much more complicated than that?

PH: I think there are many different levels to it. I knew that although, obviously, I’m an English woman and I live in England… what does that mean, anyway? We’ve come from all across the world, and descended from… you name it, we came from there. I wanted the songs to be open enough for people from other countries to find a way in. So I was trying to find words and sing from a very human point of view, because that’s something we all have in common. We all have this sense of love and hate with the nation that we’re born into and live with. So hopefully, it can cross [boundaries] and not just be particular to England.

You said earlier that you spent longer on the words for this record than any others. Was focussing that much on the lyrics something you found difficult?

PH: Well, I find writing very difficult. I always have done. And particularly after the last four or five years, I’ve become much more interested in writing words. Some may just be poems or short prose, some may become songs. Some don’t. But I’ve given it a lot of study and I work very hard at it. I work every day, because I’m not someone who finds it easy. I have to give it a lot of hard graft. So it was a difficult process, particularly when writing this record, because I feel like I’ve just begun on this whole different way of using words and addressing different issues. This, in some ways, feels like the start of a whole body of work yet to come.

As a way of working, or an aesthetic?

PH: I can’t say at the moment, because it’s early stages. I’m already writing, and the writing feels like a continuation at this stage, but by the time I’ve got the strongest words together it might go somewhere else. But I do feel at this stage of my life, it feels very important to give voice to things that really matter.

What kind of things?

PH: Things that I feel need to be said that aren’t being said. And addressing the issues of the day.

Do you think this is your least introspective record?

PH: I think probably, yes. And I think that it’s only now that I’ve been writing for this period of years that I have the confidence to feel that I can begin to tackle these things in language. I hadn’t had that confidence before.

Sometimes, it’s difficult to write about issues without becoming dogmatic. Is that something you were concerned with?

PH: Oh, absolutely. I knew that before I even began; that was at the forefront of my mind the whole time. I knew what I didn’t want. I didn’t want dogmatism, I didn’t want fingerpointing, I didn’t want self-righteousness or any of that. It had to be wide open. And it all ties together: the voice of the narrator, the music. I didn’t want anything to be anchored or tied down.

Conflict is obviously a theme on the record, which is interesting, because it feels as if there’s a constant conflict between violence and beauty throughout Let England Shake.

PH: Well, in the writing I knew there had to be a balance of light and shade. There had to be hope amongst disaster. And I think of myself as somebody that continues to carry hope. I mean, what would we have if we give up on that? So that was an important part. It had to have hope running through it. And love, which I also think runs through it.

The line "What if I take my problem to the United Nations?" – was that specifically inspired by current events?

PH: The whole of the album is. I always have been [inspired by current events], but like I said, I didn’t feel I had the language at my disposal to write about such things in song and do it well. [Laughs] Because I really didn’t want to do it badly, because there’s nothing worse than a bad song dealing with such things. But it’s very much today; I wanted to deal with the world that we live in now.

You learnt to play the piano to make White Chalk; how did you find a similar challenge this time?

PH: It’s very natural for me to want to keep learning, and so I always want to be experimenting and going into new areas because it stimulates me as an artist, and I can uncover new things. I think the endeavour is to keep finding a new way of saying something. And in order to do that, it’s good to put oneself in unfamiliar situations. And that might be as simple as an instrument you don’t know how to play, or it might be in terms of lyrically what I’m going to enter into. But whatever I do – and I’ve always been like this, and I am as a visual artist as well – I want to learn and see how much I can uncover in the short life-span that we seem to have. There seems to be so much to do, and I just want to keep uncovering things.

Is it still frustrating when people try to read autobiographically into your work? It’s odd, because if you’d done even half the things you’ve mentioned in your songs, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be allowed out on the streets.

PH: [Laughs] It can be frustrating, yes. It seems to be quite particular to songwriters, and I don’t know why that is. Maybe because we actually get up and perform our work… but then, that doesn’t hold water either because often playwrights or film writers are within their plays and films. So it does perplex me sometimes, as to why songwriters aren’t afforded the same way of looking at their work.

Well, there’s a reluctance to allow people to divorce the two, I think.

PH: Yeah. But why is that, do you think? Because we get up and perform them?

Maybe. Like you said, with a few exceptions, playwrights and film writers aren’t actually in their own work. But I also think people – for whatever reason – sometimes like to think that an experience a person is singing about actually happened to them.

PH: Mmmm. Yeah. But when you look at the history of the song, as well, it’s not so very long ago that songwriters even wrote their own material; it’s just the turn of the century, really, or even later than that.

It can be very frustrating, particularly when it seems almost preposterous that it could be autobiographical. I haven’t drowned my daughter in a river, and I haven’t crawled across the desert for 40 years either. People don’t allow the metaphor, the imagery, all the things that you work with as a writer… standing completely outside, as the narrator of a story.

Do you think that will stop with Let England Shake?

PH: I really hope so. I think it would be very hard for people to read it as an autobiographical record with this one…

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