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Polly Jean Harvey's methodology is to not have a method. Since her debut, 1992's Dry, the singer-guitarist (and now pianist) confounds expectations with each new release. But that appears more like evolution than calculation. According to Harvey, she has no idea where any of it comes from, which is terrifying, yet preferable.
With this year's White Chalk, Harvey puts down the guitar in favor of an upright piano, and sings in an entirely new voice—straining for higher and higher notes while her fingers move around the keys of an instrument she isn't entirely proficient with. It all serves the subject matter perfectly, which is to say it's discomforting, ethereal, and fascinating. Watching her recent solo shows in New York and Los Angeles felt like peering into an old, haunted house, with Harvey in a long white gown, moving around the stage from instrument to instrument like a character in a one-act play. The A.V. Club recently sat down with PJ Harvey to discuss fear, history, darkness, magic, playgrounds, and gowns.
The A.V. Club: People have been calling White Chalk "dark." Would you say that's accurate?
PJ: Well, I don't really concern myself too much with what other people make of my work. I think were I to do that, I'd very quickly not be able to write anything at all, and I long ago learned that you can't expect people to interpret the songs in the way they had meant for you, as the writer. So I really don't know what people think of it, and I really don't mind, because I feel like the actual, the most beautiful thing about a song is that it is something that goes out there in the universe and people use it in the way that they need it in their lives. In the same respect, I feel that people hear the record in different ways according to where they're at in their own life at the time. If you come at the record feeling really happy and optimistic, it can be incredibly beautiful and uplifting, and if you come at it in a bleak moment, it can feel like a very dark place to share. It's all down to the listener, I think is what I'm saying.
AVC: You've moved around a lot over the years—New York, Los Angeles, back to Dorset, England. Is that for your writing, or for yourself? Does your location find its way into your music?
PJ: Both reasons. I find that I'm in a lucky enough position where I can afford to move around, and I do that not only for my writing—because it forces a new approach—but also as a person, because it forces you to look with new eyes. I think that's always very valuable: to keep the mind open to receiving all sorts of information, which can then be used in my work, but also just as a human being.
AVC: Is Dorset a different place for you now than it once was? Does it feel like home?
PJ: I just really feel it when I'm there, in the moment that I'm in it. I can't say that it feels the same or it feels different. I just try to inhabit the place that I'm in at that time, try and be available to that place and that moment as much as I can.
AVC: In your Los Angeles show, you were alone with your instruments, and it seemed like the crowd felt more involved, and they were compelled to shout things like, "We love you!" How do you feel about the intimacy of these shows?
PJ: It felt so right for this record and this time in my life. I've been doing this for 15 years, and I was looking for a new way of challenging myself, and this is probably the most frightening thing I've done: to stand on a stage on your own.
AVC: It makes you nervous?
PJ: Yes, actually, it's terrifying. But then I think—going back to what you were talking about, with the audience being so warm—I think it's a lovely thing that's happened during these solo shows. I think it's because people know that you're in a very vulnerable position, and they're rooting for you, and it provides this lovely giving and taking between myself and the audience of mutual support. All of these shows have been just wonderful. Very, very different. No two shows have ever been the same. No two songs are the same. It all depends on the energy in that room.
AVC: There were a few odd items atop your piano. Are they there to make you more comfortable?
PJ: It's just all sorts of things I find beautiful and have in my house back at home. Everything from a lifetime's worth of collecting things. You know as we go through life, and something stays and ends up on your shelf and lives there until you die? Just those little things.
AVC: The stage seemed like a room in your house, like a playground for you.
PJ: It's very much like that. It pretty much is a replication of my house, and I do feel like I'm in a kiddies' playpen when I'm up there.
AVC: People have expectations of what they want from you, and you always seem to do something unexpected. Is that a conscious effort to keep people guessing?
PJ: It has much more to do with challenging myself as an artist. I come from an art-school background, and I still feel that in my music, it's about exploration and challenging myself, about putting myself in a place that's frightening because I haven't been there before. That's really what the driving force is. I've been lucky enough that an audience has stayed there with me, and are willing to hear what comes next, but I just feel I'm on this life's work of exploring what it is to be human through music.
AVC: Do you ever doubt whether the new stuff you're trying is good?
PJ: Oh, it's actually a terrifying position to be in. I'm sure you can imagine. I've been so used to being supported by musicians, and I don't class myself as a particularly adept musician on instruments. I think I'm a songwriter. I grab an instrument to make my body a song, but I'm not a player as such, maybe a little more on guitar, but certainly not piano. So it's very easy for all the natural human fears to step in, little voices in your head saying, "You're rubbish. You can't do it." You know, all of those demons you have to fight in order to go about doing the work I feel I have to do. It's very frightening, but the reward is a hundredfold. I feel like it's very important that I'm doing what I'm doing, and I want to keep honoring that and try and do it as honestly as I can.
AVC: Why do you feel like you have to do it?
PJ: I just don't feel like I'd be doing what I was supposed to be doing here on earth if I didn't. I never had any doubt in my mind. I've so much left to explore, it's enormously exciting to me. It's a passion. I just try and get better at what I do, and I study it very hard, like it is my life degree.
AVC: During the show, you played an older, unreleased song and mentioned regretting not including it on an album. How do you decide what songs to keep?
PJ: I think it was actually that night when it occurred to me. It's so interesting to me how songs take on a shape and body of their own and grow, and that song's just grown into this really special, really strong song about life, death, and the meaning of everything. When I wrote it, I thought nothing of it. It's amazing to me. A song like "The Desperate Kingdom Of Love" [from Uh Huh Her] as well has just grown into this giant thing. It's a whole little world there. It doesn't need me, it never did. Going back to your first question, it was on the tip of my tongue at the time, but I wanted to say that it's important to not become confused between the singer and the song, and the writer and the song. Because I think I'm a maker of songs, and songs are like films or a picture: You put them over there, and they have nothing to do with you. They're this thing. They're their own world. They inhabit their own universe, and other people can come and step into them. But they're not me. The craft, the writing of a song, is about that. It's about creating a story, a life story, a world within three minutes, but that's the frame, if you like, the picture frame. That fascinates me.
And that is what I do, and what I concern myself with. I think I wanted to emphasize that you shouldn't separate the piece from the way it's intended. I always feel like words shouldn't be unraveled from the music. They're all linked so much together. That it's a song, it'll forget about you. It's not just the words, and it's not just the performer. It's the song. And those songs will live on way beyond me, some of them will. That's the beauty of it. You very occasionally write a gift of a song, which doesn't happen that often. Like "Desperate Kingdom Of Love." I don't know where that came from, but that feels like that's going to be around for another hundred years. I know I might be speaking like I've got a big head or something. But I know that song has got nothing to do with me. That's just a song that was maybe a hundred years old already. Does that make sense?
AVC: Onstage, you seemed more like a conjurer than a songwriter, moving around and bringing things out of the instruments.
PJ: That is so interesting. Some of my friends that were there said the same thing. They said it was like watching a magician. I thought, "Wow, that's lovely." A couple of my close friends were saying it was like some magical mystery thing going on there.
AVC: This idea of conjuring music instead of writing it sort of comes from the blues world, which seems to be an influence on your work.
PJ: I can agree with you on that, because I think blues music is music of the soul. Of course, there are other forms. You could call some classical music blues music in that way. Things that make you feel, that go into that innermost core. It's about being human. That's the stuff of the soul. If that means blues or country or whatever, it's just that. It's soul-to-soul business. I think that's enormously comforting, nourishing, and inspiring, and always has been.
AVC: So many of your songs are love songs. Do you keep pursuing that theme for any particular reason?
PJ: Ever since time began: What song is not about love? Whether it's about love from man to woman or parent to child, or grandmother to granddaughter It just goes on and on. Or whether it's the love of one's country. I think it's just something sung about a lot, because it's one of the strongest human emotions that we all touch on, every day of our lives.
AVC: There's a ghostly quality to much of White Chalk. A lot of the songs seem to be about looking for things that are no longer there, or trying to reach something you can't see, in the past, or even out beyond history.
PJ: I'd never thought of it until you put it into words just now, about it being about looking for something that's not there. That certainly hadn't occurred to me even as I was making it. I felt like the music I wanted—the music and words—I wanted them to inhabit a different world, almost. It wasn't particularly the world we know as planet earth, and it wasn't particularly heaven or hell or whatever—just a different universe. I was very pleased with the way the record ended up sounding. It sounds like it's from a different universe to me. Even myself as the maker of it, I feel a bit confused. "What I am hearing? Where is this from?" It does sound like it's from a different planet, really.
AVC: The photo of you on the cover of White Chalk, and the way you present yourself in these shows, there's a definite persona there that seems to coincide with the type of music you're making now.
PJ: I feel I'm the host of the song, and [my image] is a very important part of it. Like you said, the album cover felt right to me. I listened to what the music is and I get the visual picture. I wanted simplicity, almost to be like a walking painting, I wanted to be very covered. So I'm just this walking piece of artwork, really, in which I could covey the song. It felt absolutely right, even to be very covered, to be in a fitted and beautiful gown made out of rags, with graffiti on it. Again, getting into what we talked about earlier, these songs are there for people to project their own lives onto. In the same way, I wanted to be an open painting. People come at the album and get from it whatever they need, right now. I wanted it to be very simple, not too much suggestion other than the song.
AVC: You are the central image on every one of your album covers, but they could all be different people.
PJ: It always comes from the music. It always comes from how to hang the songs; how to present them best. And I'm the link in the chain between getting them to other people, so I have to try and present them in the best way.
AVC: You mentioned how your songs take on lives of their own—
PJ: That's endlessly fascinating to me.
AVC: Some musicians say the best part is the moment of completion, when the song is done and they're ready to move on. You seem like you're saying the opposite: that when the song is done, that's just the beginning for you.
PJ: I think that's something quite different. I think what you're talking about is the speed at which people produce material. Some people, like Leonard Cohen, write one album every 10 years, and labor over a song for five years at a time. Others, like Howe Gelb, a friend of mine, he can just write 20 songs a day. So I think that's a different thing. What I was saying is that once the song is written, then it's alive and it can grow or it can die. Some songs were right for that moment, and then they die. Other songs get bigger and bigger and bigger and just keep going.
AVC: As a listener, you can go through phases when songs come and go and mean more or less to you as time goes by.
PJ: I heard "What A Wonderful World" the other day, and I thought, "Jesus Christ, what a song!" That is just never going to die. That song is incredible, isn't it?
AVC: These days, its sentiment sounds pretty reassuring.
PJ: That's what I mean. They grow and they change. They become something different according to the world that we're living in, and they can take on this whole different shape and form.
AVC: A few years ago, when Uh Huh Her came out, you were asked how you felt about making music when so much horrible stuff was going on in the world. You said something like, "If anything, it makes it feel more important." Here we are again, you have a new album, and the same stuff is still going on. Do you feel the same way?
PJ: I couldn't change the way I feel. It's more important than ever, and all forms of human expression are in need more than ever at times like this, not just songs.