NAME: PJ Harvey
PROGRESS REPORT: Polly Jean gets poetic and political on her forthcoming Let England Shake.
When she’s not on stage performing or talking about her music, it’s almost impossible to imagine what PJ Harvey actually does with her time. Since wowing the universe back in her Rid Of Me days, Harvey’s work has become increasingly esoteric — and much more interesting — with each successive release, and Harvey herself has become increasingly inscrutable. One of rock music’s most private people, she seems content to follow her own increasingly thorny musical path and mostly stay out the spotlight, much to the delight and (sometimes) chagrin of her fans. Having already documented so much of her own private world on albums like Uh Huh Her and 2007’s White Chalk, the ever unpredictable PJ Harvey returns next month with Let England Shake — an album that appears equally inspired by poetry and politics.
“I found writing the words for this record very difficult,” says Harvey, calling from her home in Dorset, England. “I’ve always found it hard to write the words, but particularly this time — given the different subject matter — I found it especially hard. I spent a good year and a half only writing words. I didn’t write any music at all until I had words that could be read on a page, almost like poems. After that, the music came together relatively quickly. The recording of the songs was a fairly easy and enjoyable process. We recorded the album in less than five weeks.”
The subject matter in question on Harvey’s new record happens to be her English homeland. While the record contains many songs that are fairly overt criticisms of England (“I live and die / through England / it leaves / sadness / it leaves a taste / a bitter one” she sings on “England”), the record is, in it’s own weird way, a kind of swooning melancholic portrait of her home. Despite making a powerful and direct statement on the state of England and an admonishment on the horrors of war, Let England Shake is, ironically, the most gorgeously upbeat record Harvey has made in years. Recorded in Dorset in a 19th century church on a cliff overlooking the sea, the album captures the sound of an artist coming to terms — for better or worse — with the place that has created them.
“I like that you said ’upbeat,’” she concurs, “I knew I wanted it to have this very uplifting, communal feeling to it. I wanted it to be full of energy, music to get the blood running. I wanted the music to be almost indefinable — swirling and moving continually. Those were the things that were in the forefront of my mind when we began to record.”
“To be honest, I never had the confidence to try and address topics like these before” she says, “I’ve always wanted to talk about these things that have affected me profoundly and these feelings that I’ve always felt, but I never felt like I really had the right language to do so. My writing in the past has been more about emotions and less about political subjects. I hope people can relate to it regardless of their nationality. It isn’t just about England. It really touches upon these feelings I think we all have about our respective countries — love and hate, attraction and revulsion, terrible disappointment and also great hope.”
Let England Shake represents an interesting artistic leap for Harvey, which she attributes to focusing attention on the literary aspect of her work and not solely only on the music. “As the years have gone by, my approach to writing to writing has changed,” she says. “Words have become more important to me as I’ve become more and more interested in poetry as an art form in its own right. I’ve become very disciplined in my writing and I work on my poetry every day, just trying to get somewhere with it. That’s how it is to be a writer. You hope for the best but all you can really do is keep working at it. I’ve become more and more interested in writing as a vessel of great beauty and power. I’ve actually joined a couple of classes to study form and meter, but I feel like I got started quite late in the game. I wish now I’d gone to school and studied poetry.”
Despite the fact that Harvey’s musical output continues to become more meticulous and erudite as she grows older, there are those fans that will always yearn for PJ Harvey’s early power-trio days, back when she always played guitar and incendiary rock was the order of the day. The desire that she might one day return to her garage-rocky past is one that Harvey understands, but a notion that she’s quick to dismiss.
“I know what you’re talking about and I definitely felt that,” says Harvey. “I just don’t understand that train of thought. I’ve always just been interested in moving forward. It’s been very natural in me to keep pushing and trying to find a new way and a new voice with which to say things. I always like to make a record and have it feel as if people were somehow hearing me for the first time. I know that there are those people who really love a certain type of music and only want to hear that one thing … but I’m not one of those people. All I can really do is follow my own heart. With every record I’ve tried to do that. I’m sure I’ll just continue to do so.”
“There were times in the past — when I was much younger — when I wasn’t sure what my path was going to be in life and what might be the best thing for me to be,” she admits. “I always had doubts as to whether or not I was on the right path. But ever since the late ’90s, I’ve totally embraced it. I realized that this was the path for me and the place where I could give my best as an artist. I feel very lucky to still be here and still doing the thing I care most about in the world. I feel lucky to be able to try and make something meaningful with words and music. I feel so fortunate to be able to do that and I’m sure I’ll keep doing so as long as there are people who are interested in hearing what I come up with.”
While she is eager to play live again in 2011 (“I love playing for people. I love that moment of connection. I love the vitality of sharing a room with people and making music. It’s always been very important to me.”), Harvey seems happy with the creative and quiet life she leads at home in Dorset. When asked how she keeps busy when not making music, she only laughs.
“I work all the time and I write every day,” she explains. “I work very hard. You know, I work as anybody who has a nine to five job might, except my job is creating words and music. It’s quite a normal life in that respect. I keep to myself and work, really. That’s what I’ve always done.”