TAS Interview: PJ Harvey
Polly Jean Harvey
It would be erroneous to call PJ Harvey's brilliant new album, Let England Shake, a mere collection of anti-war, protest songs. Undoubtedly one of the best albums of Polly Harvey's 20-year career, Let England Shake is more a clear-eyed, poetic impression of war, national bellicosity and its aftermath. Every track provokes a strong emotional response, like gazing upon Picasso's Guernica, without hammering home an overt political message.
During her recent tour of the States, which included an acclaimed set at the Coachella Festival and two sold-out shows at Terminal 5, Harvey and bandmates John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty interpreted new songs, like "The Last Living Rose" and "Bitter Branches," with a wise and wistful air while infusing older material, like "C'mon Billy" and "The Devil," with a dash of defiance and wile.
Harvey embarks on a European tour on May 25 in Lisbon, with appearances at Barcelona's fast-approaching Primavera Sound Festival (May 28), Roskilde, the Werchter Festival, Electric Picnic, Bestival and many more festivals planned this summer.
Harvey's songs are quietly powerful and enigmatic, as is Harvey herself, and she recently chatted with The Alternate Side, in a cinder-blocked green room in the basement of Terminal 5, about her tireless research on battle-weary soldiers and civilians, the evolution of this album and her affection for the autoharp:
Kara Manning: We were just talking about the conflict photographer Tim Hetherington who was killed in Libya [on April 20]. He was someone that you were actually corresponding with around the time of the release of “Restrepo.”
Polly Jean Harvey: Yes, I’d read about this film, “Restrepo,” and it sounded so interesting. I went to see it and was also given, for my birthday, the book that accompanied the film with all of the photographs that went with that film. After seeing it, I wanted to send both Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington an album because I was moved by their work. So I did and we had a correspondence. I didn’t meet him, but he had sent back a note and I’d invited him to the shows as well and he said that he couldn’t come, he was working, but said thanks. So I was really shocked to hear the news. Very sad.
Kara: After your last album, you wanted to take the time to figure out what you wanted to do next. The ideas behind this new album had been simmering for a while. Was there a particular catalyst, a poem read or a person who you met, that gave you the impetus to say, yes, now is the time to work on the poetry that you'd wanted to write?
Polly: I do remember a time, actually. I’ve always been very politically interested from a very young age and I hadn’t felt that was something I could begin to bring into my songwriting because I hadn’t felt I’d reached the stage, that I had the skill with language enough, yet, to do that. I think you have to be very careful getting the balance right if you’re going to talk about grand themes like war, death and nationhood. You need to use the right language or don’t do it at all. I hadn’t reached the point as a writer where I felt confident enough to do that or do it well until the last couple of years. I think just being a bit older and having some more experience of writing [helped]. Writing is something that I practice at every day to get better at and I thought that maybe I could try to do this now, coupled with realizing how passionately moved I am when I see any footage to do with contemporary warfare and how it affects me so much. I wondered if it was now the time I could put words around that and later, put music with that. Is there a way I can somehow put song to this feelings?
Kara: It was interesting to read that you were debating what was a poem, what a short story, what is a song. Did you read some of the great war poets like Siegfried Sassoon or, say, Harold Pinter’s Nobel prize speech? There’s also Jez Butterworth’s play, Jerusalem, which also touches on similar ideas of England as the pastoral home ... and also the brutality in Britain's history.
Polly: Yes, all of the above that you cited. Harold Pinter’s work, particularly his essays and his poetry, I looked at a lot because I think he’s someone who gets that balance right, that I was talking about. Likewise Jez Butterworth who is a wonderful English playwright and I saw Jerusalem at the Royal Court. I did a lot of research, I read a lot of history books, but mostly I was looking for the eyewitness accounts, the man on the ground. What did they have to say, the people who were there? Any of these contemporary war situations, whether civilian or soldier on either side - that’s what I was interested in. The people who are being affected. Not so much the political speak at the top of the food chain, but the people who are affected by it on the ground. What did they see? What did they hear? What did it feel like?
Kara: Did you talk to any soldiers or make the effort to correspond with anyone? Did you emotionally put yourself on the frontlines by touching base with these people?
Polly: I tried to get as much first-hand information as I could, both through soldiers and people who worked out there. I know of a wonderful photographer, Seamus Murphy, who is working with me on this record. He spent his whole life in war zones, documenting that on film, so he was a wonderful person to speak to as well. Other than that, I was watching anything I could see where people were describing things, what it was like.
Kara: In your family, was there anyone who had gone to war? Everyone of a certain age in the UK remembers World War II, which was a far different experience in Britain as compared to the States. Is that something that you also mined, talking to family members?
Polly: Yes, in the past members of my family on both my mother’s and father’s side have fought in the war, in the first and second World Wars. Unfortunately, they’re dead and I wasn’t able to speak to them, but that was in our family history too.
Kara: April 25 marked an anniversary of the beginning of the Gallipoli campaign [in World War I] in 1915 from which you drew at least three of the songs on the album. What was it about that particular campaign, that terrible misjudgement and catastrophe of a military maneuver, that became a focal point for you on this record?
Polly: Like you said, it was so badly managed and resulted in such catastrophic loss of life. I was overwhelmed reading about it. Astounded. At the same time, the language that was used to describe these battles - and I was reading a lot of first-hand accounts again - when these men were still alive. There’d been many interviews with people who had fought there, that’s what I was reading. It just struck a chord with me and I realized, through all of my research for this record, that the language that the people actively involved in the situation used doesn’t change, no matter if it’s 100 years ago, 200 years ago, 3000 years ago. You go back and look at some of the ancient writings that exist throughout the world about wars and it’s the same; the human beings’ articulation of events is the same. That really fascinated me.
Kara: In the song “On Battleship Hill” there a beautiful refrain about the smell of thyme in the air, over this Gallipoli peninsula where many thousands of soldiers died. Did you actually go to Turkey to that site?
Polly: I didn’t. It’s something I still want to do. But I drew a lot from other writings about that place and from reading history books. Even tourist guide books. I could get quite a good picture of it, look at pictures and feel what it was like.
Kara: You recently played Coachella - which I stayed up very late to watch on the webstream - and thing that intrigued me was the voice that you needed to find to narrate the testimonial on this record because it is about war. To do so with a dire tone of voice would remove people from what you wanted to do. Can you explain what you chose? It’s a voice of great wonder, but not a child’s voice.
Polly: After I’d finished writing the words I realized that anything I now added to them had to not be adding any more weight. The words had a lot of heaviness and weight to them and I needed to lift them up and transport them off the page into the ear in as smooth a way as I could. I began singing the words before I touched an instrument. I’d sing them and I knew I needed the voice to be an unbiased narrator, purely delivering the story as anyone would read a story, but try to read it with no particular inflection. In the way that a foreign correspondent would try and bring back a story in an unbiased fashion. That’s the way that this voice needed to be and I had to experiment for a long time. To have sung the words in a heavy or too-impassioned voice would have immediately tipped the songs into the wrong area; they might have ended up sounding too dogmatic or telling people how to think or feel and I didn’t want to do that.
Kara: Was there any song that might have been more difficult than the others to find how you wanted to enter into it?
Polly: I think the very first song that I approached with music, the first lyric, was “Let England Shake” and I can remember looking for days to try to find the voice with which to sing it and I could not find it. I got to the point where I thought that I might have to ask someone else to sing this record for me; I’d just write it and I’d get another singer in. Just by not giving up and experimenting, I finally found it. As soon as I found the voice I knew, that’s it. That’s the voice this record needs.
Kara: Is it fair to say the Let England Shake is a beautiful, but brutal album?
Polly: Yes, it is brutal. It uses very brutal language, but I think if you’re an artist who is interested in talking about the world we live in today, then that’s the language you have to use because it’s a brutal world.
Kara: What was it about the autoharp that became the instrument of choice for this record?
Polly: It was an instrument I began to play around the time of White Chalk and when that record came out I was just playing solo shows on my own and I was trying to make a solo set as interesting as possible. So I’d move around on a lot of different instruments - piano, guitar, autoharp, keyboards, drums - singing all the time. This time, I was playing “Grow Grow Grow” and “Down By The Water” on the autoharp and I just really enjoyed playing the instrument and knew that, whatever came next, I’d like to experiment on that a bit more. It just lent itself very well because, as I was saying earlier about not wanting to weight the words down with heavy music or heavy singing, it’s a beautiful, light, melodic instrument. It just sings and harmonics sing off it. It’s full of melody. It’s like a whole orchestra, just at your fingertips. A huge breadth of sound, but very delicate. Very beautiful.
Kara: You also created an interesting persona for your stage performances. It seems as if you assume a character with every album that feels right onstage. For this, your hair is wreathed in feathers and you wear a white, flowing gown. There’s a benevolence to you, an aspect of being a "mother earth" figure for this run of shows. Do you create specific characters?
Polly: I’ve always been very interested in the visual aspect of what I do. I’m a visual artist myself and always have been so it’s very natural for me to be very concerned with presentation, whether it’s artwork or onstage. The way the stage is designed for this show is what I felt was right for the songs. It’s always my starting point and the way that myself and the band look is based upon what I felt was right for the music. I never feel that I have to adopt a character. It’s more the way I choose to present the music and that’s always based on what is right for the song. Going back to what we were talking about, finding a voice for the record, again I think the way I present myself onstage and position myself is again tied int with being the ambivalent narrator. That’s the way I chose to put forward the visuals for this record.
Kara: I was intrigued to read that you’d originally considered Berlin to be the place that you wanted to record the album. Was that tied in at all with World War I or was that a coincidence, to consider Germany as a place to begin? And you ended up in Dorset, correct?
Polly: Yes, it wasn’t particularly tied in with the history of Berlin, to want to make this record there. It was more that I find that city very stimulating and intriguing and when you are in an act of creation, it’s good to feel excited by the environment you’re in. As it turned out, I couldn’t find a recording space that felt right and when I returned to England, purely coincidentally, a man who runs the local church center now, approached me and said if I wanted to record there I’d be very welcome. That’s how it happened.
Kara: You were in the studio with John Parish, who you’ve worked with so many years, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty and producer Flood. When you all found yourself converged in the studio, what was most important for you as a group to do in bringing these songs to life?
Polly: I knew I wanted it to have a very energetic, uplifting, communal feel so we set about recording everything live. We set up our stations where we were going to be. Everyone could interchange whatever instrument they wanted so there was a keyboard station, a drum station, guitars. It happened very quickly. We wouldn’t play any song more than two or three times. The boys in the band, I’d given them demos so they knew roughly how the song went. The demos were as far as I’d got with the songs which would be the main chords, the melodies, the vocals and the harmonies, but there were no drum patterns, no bass patterns. So we’d just run with it and see where it would take us. There was an excitement about that; we were all very inspired because it was exciting and new. We didn’t know what each other was going to do. A wonderful feeling of creativity permeated the whole session.
Kara: Given even the darkness of what you were singing about, there’s great joy and hope in this record. A fascinating juxtaposition.
Polly: I knew that I wanted to bring in beauty, hope and love and I think all of these aspects are there as well, particularly through the music. But a lot of these songs are songs for many people to sing and I looked right back through the whole tradition of how music began, as storytelling really, and as songs in the fields. Folk music was to strengthen and unify people, whether it was through an uprising and rebellion or whether is was through hard work, bringing in crops. But it was to strengthen each other and that’s still what music is about today.
Kara: There’s a great deal of reggae and dub that sifts into some of these songs, like “Written On The Forehead.” Given Thatcher England and there were many musicians, like Gang of Four and The Clash, outspoken about politics, who delved into reggae and dub. Was there a specific reason why you were drawn to Niney The Observer’s track “Blood and Fire” which you sampled?
Polly: The lyrics were written over a period of a couple of years; I hesitate to say lyrics because they all started out as short pieces of prose or poems, really. Not song lyrics. A lot of the words that I wrote didn’t make it onto this record, but will remain as prose. Whilst I was working on these words, very often there would be a piece of music that I would be listening to that would have more resonance with me for some reason and I wasn’t sure why. Sometimes a line would seem to be on a loop in my head, as with Niney The Observer’s “Blood and Fire.” I was writing the words that went to “Written On The Forehead” around that and I could just feel it. I could feel how it could marry very well with this writing that I was doing at the time. That’s the way it happened with all of the other pieces of music that I used on the album as well.
Kara: Was there anything you discarded or left off the album?
Polly: I did originally use a sample from The Four Lads’ “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” but that’s the only one that I did take off in the end because it was holding the song back too much. But you can hear the ghost of it in there [on “Let England Shake”], through the way that we’re playing.
Kara: Didn’t you play that in front of [former Prime Minister] Gordon Brown on a chat show in the UK?
Polly: Yes, I was on “The Andrew Marr Show” which is one of the best political, Sunday morning programs in England and I happened to be invited on that show at the same time that Gordon Brown was on there. It was the week before the election so it was his last week [in office]. So yes, I performed “Let England Shake.”
Kara: Did he say anything to you?
Polly: He didn’t no (laughs).
Kara: Raised eyebrow, anything?
Polly: No! I couldn’t spot anything, really (laughs).
Kara: You’ve also been doing illustrations for Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine, Zoetrope, that accompany the songs. Are you going to be doing anything with those illustrations?
Polly: Yes, I paint and draw all the time and I plan, within the next few years, to start putting out regularly small collections of my paintings, poetry and writing. Pieces that never become songs but are my extraneous work outside of my main work which is songwriting.
Kara: I’ve read that your parents have an extraordinary record collection. What songs are you listening to right now? What’s on your iPod?
Polly: Neil Young.
Kara: Why Neil Young?
Polly: I don’t know. Throughout my life, and I’m sure other people are the same, periods of your life where you need one artist more than anything else. Right now I only listen to Neil Young.
Kara: We always do a guest DJ pick - is there any Neil Young track you’d like to hear right now?
Polly: Oh God, I’ve got it playing in my head (she hums it). Is it “Sugar Mountain?” Yes, that’s the one! It’s in my head right now.