PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey
I read a recent quote of yours saying: "I wanted to make a new sound that I hadn't heard before. A new kind of music.” Do you think you’ve accomplished what you set out to do with White Chalk?
I do actually. I feel really pleased with this record. I think it’s always something I try to do but with varying degrees of success really. I’ve just tried very hard not to cover ground that I’ve already covered, because that’s not interesting to me. Sometimes I really do manage to do that, and I feel that I did it with White Chalk; it feels like a very new kind of music to me even though I made it. I find it difficult to find any reference points. It’s quite a timeless sort of piece; it doesn’t feel like it belongs in this age — it could be a hundred years in the future or a hundred years past [laughs]. It just feels like a different world and I find it really exciting.

The album cover definitely plays a big role in this as well. It looks like a photo that was taken about 120 years ago.
Yeah, and equally I sometimes feel like I’ve just stepped out of a spaceship. There’s something odd about the light, so for me, it is a timeless sort of thing.

White Chalk is very subdued but at the same time, lined up next to your other albums, it strangely feels like the most radical album you’ve done. Would you agree with that?
I would! I’m really pleased that you say that. I feel the same. I think I had to have a lot of courage to put out this record the way it is. It’s a very peculiar and difficult piece. And I would completely agree that it is one of the most radical things that I’ve done. If I had any references in my other work I think I had a similar feeling with To Bring You My Love, as being a real about turn when that record came out, and a totally difficult direction. The same with Is This Desire?, I mean I think those two albums I felt were the most I was able to realise my idea for that particular piece of work. Sometimes I don’t see it through as well as others, but with those I really did manage to see through what my intentions were. And I feel the same with this one.

You’ve been known for saying you like to challenge yourself and consider making a record a learning experience. What did you learn making White Chalk?
I found that my writing gradually moved into a different area. As a writer I’m very responsive to instinct rather than intellect. I don’t really analyse an idea, I just follow my gut most of the time. And I just found I was writing from a much more visual perspective than I’ve ever done. That really shouldn’t surprise me because I did come from an art school background, but more than ever I always visually seeing the themes, the stories, the atmospheres and then translating them musically. That was quite a new development for me. What I’ve probably learned most in making this album is translating music from visual ideas, almost like little movies that I conceive and feel the atmosphere of, even things down to scenarios and the way the light is falling — it’s quite a new thing. I think I also learned about freeing up the gates of the imagination. I thought consciously at the beginning of this writing period about trying to get back to seeing the imagination I had as a child, which we all had this incredible capacity to make anything happen in our minds as kids. And I thought, "Why does that have to go? Why does becoming an adult sort of push that away?” At first I consciously tried to access that and then it became more and more natural, and then my imagination was really able to take flight. I’m still working on that, but that was all something I’ve done tapping into this record.

I’m so used to hearing you play the guitar. What attracted you to the piano?
I was searching around for inspiration, basically. I knew I didn’t want to bore myself with just using similar instruments, and so I stumbled across the piano as being a useful instrument, after trying it in many different ways already. I wrote an enormous amount of songs on many, many different instruments before I found the songs for this record. I found that the strongest among that group were the piano songs. That’s how it just sort of revolved. Again it wasn’t a conscious decision up front; it evolved out of many different experiments.

Is this something we expect in the future? Can we expect you to pick up an oboe or the maracas to write an album down the road?
Never rule it out! I’d like to keep an open mind [laughs]. I feel dedicated to what I’m doing: trying to grow and explore and continue to produce work that’s interesting, not only for myself but for other people. More than ever it feels utterly pointless to me to do work that that is somehow replicating something that I’ve done before in a slightly different way or something by other people. I find it so tiring when I hear so many pieces of music that are just slightly modified versions of something that’s happened before. I feel that if I’m going to contribute more music to the world – there’s so much of it anyway – than it has to be worthwhile really.

What you’re saying about modified rehashing though, it’s happening by artists that are considered innovators even, like Kanye West, who’s basically borrowed from Daft Punk, who consistently borrow from many different sources…
Yeah, it’s just a personal thing because I know that everybody feels differently – that’s the beauty of music. Personally, I don’t get excited about that at all. I really want to feel inspired, ultimately that’s the best that art can give the world in whatever form it is. It’s such a wonderful thing to inspire people in their lives some way, and I don’t feel inspired by something I’ve heard before.

Would you say White Chalk is any more intimate than your other records?
Depends on what you mean by intimate really. I find it incredibly moving, but then I tend to feel that with a lot of my work. It doesn’t feel intimate in the sense if you’re asking if it’s incredibly personal; it doesn’t feel like that, no. In some ways it feels quite separate from me. Like I was saying earlier, it’s much more about storytelling than it is diary-telling, which I wouldn’t care to share with anybody. I do consider myself a fictional writer trying to express human emotion, which is common to all of us, I think. That’s all; I just try it for the poetry of being a human being in today’s world and the kind of conflicts that you come up against, and choose to tell them through stories. Sometimes I might do that third person, sometimes first person, but I would certainly never want to share a diary of my life. That is something very alien to me, I’m a very private person. It is much more about inhabiting worlds through which to express human feelings.

Whether it’s the press or your fans, everyone likes to read into your lyrics like they’re autobiographical…
Yeah, it’s quite a different form of art, music is, in a sense where if you’re a writer of music who also performs it, because that’s always the case you have some incredible performance, Marianne Faithfull for instance, who doesn’t sing a lot of her own work, but the work of other people. She does it quite brilliantly and you’re incredibly moved by it but there are other artists like myself who perform our own work and then I think it’s quite a difficult grey area for people because there’s always the association between the singer and the song, whether that song was written by them or not. I mean, in some ways it’s quite popular because it shows that you’re performing in a very truthful way to the feeling of the song and hopefully that’s going to be the most moving that song could be for other people.

For me, I found your voice to have changed on White Chalk. Did you try singing in a different way? You sound very liberated and open to exploring what it can do… At first I completely forgot I was listening to a PJ Harvey record.
Yeah, me too. That’s why I was so pleased with it. Again in the way that I said I was just looking for instruments to finally come up with something new, it was same with they voice — I explored all manner of singing. And one way would remind me of something else I’d before, I was just so completely sure that the only way forward was to find a new voice, initially for myself and then hopefully other people would enjoy that too. I finally was able to access this different, very pure voice, which has always been there; I’ve explored it in tiny increments in the past — they’d usually just end up as b-sides — but I have touched on this voice before. But for some reason on this record it seemed very appropriate and for some of the piano songs it worked really well.

Judging by each of their track records, even with your music alone, John Parish and Flood are very different from one another. What led you to work with both of them again?
Well, I knew that this album would be extremely hard to make. I knew it; it was extremely hard to write, it took me two and a half years where I threw away an enormous amount of work. I knew that at the same time the recording process would be long and hard, in order to keep on the right track and not let my vision falter. And I wanted to do it with people that I could trust absolutely, who were extremely good at their jobs and who I felt comfortable around. I knew I’d have to go into a difficult period of work and I wanted to feel safe and secure in the people I was going to do that with. So, not only are they dear, dear friends of mine, but I could be in that safe place because they’re quite incredible at what they do. I knew it wasn’t the point to be working with new people, experimenting on that level, I wanted to be with people where I know what they do.

Would you say each of them brought something different to the album?
Very much, and that’s why I feel that they work very well together, and I first experienced that on To Bring You My Love like you know. They inhabit very different spaces. I tend to be… the emotion or criteria of just trying to get the goods down on tape, so I’m usually an emotional, wilting wreck somewhere. [Laughs] And just trying to look after my creativity. Flood is somewhere in between, he’s have taking care of my creative baggage, and he’s half got an ear open for what works on a much more bolder, practical level. You can put all of that emotion and creativity into something and it just doesn’t sound very good, so he was on the look for that. And John’s the other side, where he listens to how well things are played and if something’s not working that might have to do with playing rather than an emotion, well, he’s very good on that side of things. We used to call him the "rhythm police” because if something was not rhythmically played well, it could actually be affecting the whole mood of the song and I wouldn’t realise it but he would.

You reinvent your sound with each album, but you also seem to reinvent your image. Do those two things go hand in hand for you?
Absolutely. It’s not even a conscious invention because sometimes before the song’s written I can visualise it, and that might be in terms of colour or light, characters or a place, it’s almost as if I see the thing I want to write links in with my art school background. I see what I want to create and then I have to try and make that happen. And my chosen medium being music, having already seen most of the songs it’s absolutely normal to attire myself in the way I feel this body works really. And it is something to do with light and of not feeling tied down; really, it’s sort of like inhabiting a different nether world in some ways, it’s not really feet on this ground. A lot of the photographic look of this record, I did working with Maria Mochnacz, who has been my art collaborator for over 20 years now. We talked a lot about how the record made us feel visually, and I’d already had that with the writing of the songs. And we looked at the way I might cover myself in clothing for this record and we’d come up with these very sculptural, structural plain shapes; I almost wanted to be a walking canvas, or a walking open book, really.

That said, a lot of us look back into the past and often cringe at certain periods of fashion we chose. Does that ever happen to you with a certain look or record you’ve made, where you think, "Wow, what was I thinking?”
I do think as fond as I am of it and as glad that I tried, it was the To Bring You My Love era. I’m really glad I did it; it was quite astonishing, some of the costumes I was wearing at that time. It was much more of a theatrical performance. But sometimes I do look at images and think, "My god, I had the nerve to go out looking like that!” [Laughs] At the time it was great, and I look back on it quite affectionately, but in terms of completely cringing I think that was a bad idea. I can very specifically remember one time, it was in Seattle, and for some reason I decided that I wanted to go on stage dressed like mermaid and had spent about a thousand British pounds having this mermaid costume made. But I actually couldn’t move in it, because the fish tail was so tight. John Parish was in my band at the time and I remember him coming backstage and saying to me, "Polly, I really don’t think I can go on stage and play music behind you when you’re dressed like a fish.” [Laughs] So I think that was probably the ultimate moment of embarrassment and feel that was a bad move.

Is there a particular album that you’re most proud of?
I feel that as any artist goes through time you hit peaks and troughs; you have these times where somehow everything seems to converge in your favour. I’ve felt that probably three times, with White Chalk being the third time, and the other two being To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?. I felt somehow they were completely realised and they absolutely reached the peak of what they could have been. And I feel with this album; I’m very, very please with it. That moment is wonderful when it happens, and it doesn’t always happen and one can’t expect it to because you have to go through periods just learning all over again before you can gather energy and focus to reach that next peak, really.

You’ve said that you don’t like to think in terms of gender when it comes to music. Why do you think the gender issue, especially the concept of you being a feminist, is constantly mentioned with your work?
I can only presume that, especially in the early days and early those labels tend to stick, but I know that I really played with gender in my lyrics, and I might sing in the shape of a man or I might sing in the shape of a woman. Or I might be dressing women in a loving way as a man or as a woman, or sometimes as neither. Sometimes more as just an essence, a feeling or an atmosphere. And I think that feels quite natural to me, but I think for some people it’s not natural, and that’s where the gender issue seems to become quite important.

So when you’re chosen as the "greatest woman in rock music” by Q magazine does that feel like any kind of achievement?
Every accolade of that type, whether it’s greatest woman in rock or greatest guitar player of the year, greatest this, greatest that, it’s very flattering and I don’t disregard it, but I also don’t take it to heart as being something personal that I feel proud of. Again everyone has different opinions and feelings about what you do, that’s what’s beautiful about it. Some people think I’m dreadful and would never listen to me, or think I’m the worst guitar player in the world. What does it actually mean? Not very much. Obviously I don’t disregard it but I don’t take it to heart either.

It was nice seeing you compile your Peel Sessions last year…
Oh, that was a lovely, lovely body of work. I felt extremely attached to them because John [Peel] was a friend of mine and I really enjoyed putting that together for him, in honour of a great friend. I also think it’s a great body of work because you can see how I grew and changed over the years. And John was the first person ever to take notice of what I was doing, and he was the first person to place my music on the radio. He became my friend early on; I remember sending him my demo tapes before anyone had heard what I was doing.

You always seem to have some collaboration lined up. What is it about working with others that appeals to you?
The capacity for learning to help my own work, that’s the bottom line, really — exploring the creative process with other people, in every field of work. There’s so much to be learnt; it’s a matter of growing really.

Just recently Josh Homme [Queens of the Stone Age] told me the exact same thing.
Yeah, it’s very true. I learned an enormous amount from the Desert Sessions. I went into that completely terrified; I’ve never really collaborated with a lot of people and totally improvised. That’s what it was, it was going into a room, full of people I’ve never met before, you grab any instrument that’s nearest to you and you improvise together and make songs in ten days. It was a tall order and I was absolutely mortified, and I came away from that feeling liberated. I realised that I can write around other people, I played loads of piano on that session that I’d never done before, I watched other people in the process of creativity. You have to be so disarmed to do that around others. The studio in the desert is tiny, it’s only two rooms and everyone’s in the same rooms together. You’re right next to somebody who’s in that moment of creating something, and to watch that happen at such a close proximity is quite wonderful.