PJ Harvey War Stories
Published Feb 20, 2011"I don't really think of myself as much of a musician." Coming from the mouth of Polly Jean Harvey, those words are a startling admission. Considering the distinguished career she's led over the last two decades, it's impossible not to disagree. One glance at the instruments Harvey has employed over the years ― guitar, zither, violin, cello, saxophone, she even taught herself piano for 2007's White Chalk ― and it's pretty clear that she's either modest or delusional. But over the course of writing her new album, Let England Shake, she lost the desire to, as they say, jam.
"I only wrote words for two and a half years, I didn't touch an instrument," she explains. "I very rarely play instruments unless I have to. I'm definitely more interested in words and use music as the vehicle for those words because I do enjoy making songs and singing them to people. But the words have become my greater love over the last few years. That might change again, these things forever change."
Change is a habit PJ Harvey can't shake. The Dorset, England-born and based singer-songwriter has built her repertoire by perpetually transforming both her sound and appearance. Emerging in 1991 during the alternative rock boom with a stripped down blend of raw punk and blues, PJ Harvey was originally a trio that released two albums ― 1992's Dry and 1993's Rid of Me ― before Polly decided to go solo. From there PJ Harvey established herself as one of the most fascinating artists on the landscape, tasting both critical and popular approval while repeatedly experimenting with her music and image.
From the wildly successful foray into sultry, snaking blues dressed as "Joan Crawford on acid" for 1995's million-selling To Bring You My Love, to the straight up New York City rock chic of the Mercury Prize-winning Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, to the Victorian-inspired frocks and ingenuous piano waltzes on the underrated White Chalk, Polly has proven time and time again that she is anything but insipid.
"It's a natural desire to experiment," she reasons. "Because in that experimentation you find newness and in that newness you can uncover things as if it was the first time, but also deliver things like it was the first time. Hopefully then with the reader or listener it will also open something new."
For her eighth studio album, Let England Shake, Polly has shed her skin in a completely different manner. Often described as one of the most intimate, inward-looking songwriters of her generation, the 41-year-old set herself a personal challenge to look outward.
"With this record, the change really was that I had reached a point as a writer where I had more language at my disposal to address other subject matter that is more entrenched in the world, instead of my interior landscape or using a character to just talk about that," Polly says. "I wanted to approach using character on a grander level. It's something I've avoided up until now because I didn't feel that I had the craft to do it very well. I found that I could try to address things that matter to me a great deal, because it's the world I'm living in and the world you're living in today, now."
Recorded in a 19th century church on a cliff-top overlooking the sea, Let England Shake, as the title suggests, pays tribute to English history, but without any concrete specificities. Harvey's words are as representative of the country's position in Afghanistan today as they are of 1915, when British troops invaded the Ottoman Empire in Gallipoli during the First World War. And despite obvious references to the latter battle in songs like "On Battleship Hill" and "The Colour of the Earth," she feels war is a universal and timeless issue everyone can relate to.
"I deal with conflict every day," she elaborates. "We deal with war every day. We deal with our feelings towards our own nation every day and wrestle with that. These are the things I felt I could now begin to try and talk about within the framework of song."
Unlike her previous songwriting experiences, though, Harvey saw this undertaking as an opportunity to feed her hunger for education through extensive sessions of research over the course of "two to three years."
"This album was something that I had to do a lot of research for," she says, "through the internet, historical reference materials and also trying to find as much current, first-hand account as I could. It was a long, drawn-out process. But as I get older, history interests me even more, because I realize how very relevant it is to what's happening now and why things are like they are."
Her exhausting studies proved that finding a voice for Let England Shake was trickier than expected. To recite words as tellingly horrifying as the ones found on "The Words That Maketh Murder," for example ― "soldiers fell like lumps of meat/blown and shot out beyond belief/arms and legs were in the trees" ― she would have to explore the range of her voice.
"I'm using language of a brutal world, which is what we live in," she explains. "It was very difficult to find the right tone of voice for the narrator for these songs because there is a delicate balance. The words had a great deal of weight to them already. They didn't need the music to be weighing them down any further. If my voice was delivered in too strong a way it could so easily trick the words into becoming self-righteous or self-important or as if they're telling someone how to feel and I didn't want that. They had to be very ambivalent, almost detached and purely serve the role of the narrator."
For the last 16 years, Polly has surrounded herself in the company of three collaborators you could call her "go-to team": producer Flood (Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins) alongside multi-instrumentalists Mick Harvey (the Birthday Party, the Bad Seeds) and John Parish, who not only released two collaborative albums with Polly, but also spent three years with her in his band Automatic Diamini between 1988 to 1991.
"The songs dictate who I choose to work with," Polly says. "I knew that with this body of work, these musicians and Flood as a producer would be utterly right for them. They're people I trust and who I respect enormously and who I know to be such great craftsmen at their own work that I know they're capable of anything I would want to be asking of them."
Like their invaluable contributions to her previous recordings, the trio helped Polly establish a sound unlike anything she'd done before, but one that's unmistakably hers. One of the contributions asked of Parish and Harvey was to feature their vocals more prominently in order to help convey the music's gravitas. Hearing their vocals as well as those of singer Jean-Marc Butty complement Harvey's range gives Let England Shake an immediate contrast from her other albums.
"I wanted there to be a communal feel and energy that comes about from people playing and singing together because these songs were from many voices," she says. "And I knew right from the start, writing the words on the page that they could be sung by other people."
Aside from new voices, Polly also found herself attracted to incorporating other types of music from outside sources. Let England Shake contains samples that at first seem incongruous, but eventually fit into the music like the remaining piece of the puzzle. A military bugle belts out a reveille off time on "The Glorious Land," a sample of reggae legend Niney the Observer's "Blood and Fire" sneaks up on "Written on the Forehead" and the exquisite voices of Iraqi women back up "England."
"When I was writing the words I was listening to many different types of music and I did a lot of research into military music from all eras and all countries," she explains. "I also listened to a lot of variations of folk music and other things in between ― from the reggae samples you hear, to Iraqi women singing. Sometimes a song I'd be working on would become entwined with a piece of music I was listening to in my head. There would be some resonance of the music somewhere in these words I was trying to create. Then it felt quite natural for me to incorporate them if I could."
Just like she learned piano to compose the majority of her last album, White Chalk, Polly also challenged herself with unfamiliar instruments, such as the saxophone and autoharp. That she doesn't view herself as a musician only encouraged her more to improvise.
"I used to be able to play the saxophone very well, from age 11 through to about 17," she admits. "But I put it away in a box for 20 years. So I don't play it so well anymore, but I actually prefer it being played badly to being played well. To me it sounded like the right instrument, very instinctive.
"I was also using autoharp, which I hadn't played very much, and experimenting with soundscapes on the guitar. I hadn't done much of that before, using different styles to decorate the sound of the guitar, but it encouraged me to play with rhythms that I hadn't played with before."
Twenty-four years from when she first began making music, Polly Jean Harvey says she is still learning. Whether it's how to play autoharp or how to completely reinvent a songwriting style, she is an anomaly in an industry that allows few transformations at this stage in a career. But Let It England isn't just another strong artistic statement, it's the work of Harvey hitting her stride ― again. Notwithstanding the weighty themes and blood-soaked lyrics, it's also her most approachable and even melodic work perhaps to date. And she's happy to hear that.
"You always hope as a writer that you can do your best each time, and that's what I try to do but it doesn't always work out that way," she explains. "Occasionally there are times where you know that I couldn't have done any better at that time, and I do know that with this album. That doesn't often happen. For me it's as important as every landmark album, which for me would be To Bring You My Love, Is This Desire, Rid of Me and [Let England Shake], times when I underwent great change and found a new, strong direction and came out with some very challenging work."
With all that said, however, an artist's best work doesn't always render them relevant at the time of its release. Harvey, though, is in some rare company where relevance, quality and longevity all work hand-in-hand. The mere mention of this brings out humility in her voice.
"All I've ever done is stay true to my instinct and take my work seriously and put in time and effort," she admits. "Because there's nothing else I want to do. I believe in the relevance of words and music and trying to make something meaningful that will last. That's what I dedicate myself to. Just keep flying my belief, my conviction and my love, which is my words and music.
"I've been doing this for almost 20 years now and in those years there have been times where I've questioned if I'm doing the best I could be doing with my life. And I think that's quite a natural thing to do as a human being. But where I find myself right now, there is no other place I'd rather be. I hope I've got more time because there seems to be so much more work to do."