MOKB Interview : Polly Jean Harvey

Polly Jean Harvey has been actively redefining the role of women in music for nearly two decades, and she’s showing no sign of slowing and/or softening. Whether with her original trio, collaborating with John Parish or alone at the piano, Harvey is a performer who can shame or silence audiences at the drop of a hat. On February 15th, Vagrant will release her newest record, Let England Shake. Compared to the rest of the PJ Harvey discography, Let England Shake is a very different animal, at least on the surface, and sure to cause a stir among long-time fans and critics alike. Ms. Harvey was sporting enough to take some time recently to talk with MOKB about the album, as well as Prince Harry’s impending nuptials.

MOKB: Let England Shake is an interesting title. Is that a call to arms?

Polly Jean Harvey: Well, I’ve always been somebody who likes to leave interpretation up to the listener, really. I think it can spoil a song for people if I explain what it means to me. I’m not really interested in that. I’m much more interested in stirring up ideas or situations where people can make up their own minds. So I don’t go into detail trying to explain meaning. I just like those words, I think they’re provocative.

MOKB: At what point during making the record did you begin to realize you wanted collaborators?

PJ: I realized that when I finished demoing all of the songs. It took quite a few years to write. I’m someone who needs a lot of time to write, so I took about two years on this record. The first year and a half, I concentrated on words and nothing else. Just writing the words, seeing them on the page. Finally, I began to sing those words, then put music to them and made demos at home of just the main instruments and my vocals, and other vocal parts. I pretty much mapped out all of the vocals and the arrangements, and that’s when I realized that I wanted quite a communal feel to the record. A very energized feel to the record. It needed the people I chose to work with; John Parish and Mick Harvey, but also Flood and Jean-Marc Butty. People I thought could help bring my vision of the record to fruition.

MOKB: You seem to be using a lot of anthemic lexicon, but juxtaposing it with dark imagery. Juxtaposing “wheat and corn” with “deformed children,” for example. Is that something you did consciously?

PJ: Certainly not consciously. I’m quite an intuitive writer, and I follow where the words take me. But at the same time, I know I try to use language that will make people sit up and listen. In some way, you have to find a new way of using language. I’ll certainly try to turn words on their head to make people take note.

MOKB: The record seems almost like a sister record to The Pogues’ If I Should Fall From Grace Of God or Rum, Sodomy And The Lash. Did you have any touchstones when you started recording this record or writing the lyrics?

PJ: I was looking for the right kind of music, and it’s very interesting that you mention The Pogues, because they were one of the bands I listened to a lot when I was writing this record. They capture a keen sense of spirit. An energizing, unifying sense of spirit. And they deal with social topics, like war and poverty. All manner of those things. And the music they perform is largely traditional folk music. I think Shane MacGowan is an amazing lyric writer. They were definitely one of the bands I listened to a lot. I also listened a lot to The Doors because of their association with the time of the Vietnam War, but also because their music was quite indefinable. Quite hard to pin down. I wanted to achieve something like that myself, music that was timeless in a way. To me, The Doors’ music never really feels anchored. It’s a strange mirage of sounds. I also listened to The Velvet Underground because I love the energy of their music. It’s very uplifting, even when they’re dealing with serious subject matter.

MOKB: Speaking of influence, what about the Eddie Cochrane allusion at the end of The Words That Maketh Murder?

PJ: [singing] Take my problem to the United Nations.[laughs] I picked that line in particular. All of the samples I used add meaning to the song, and the lyrics I’m singing. So many things were happening when that song [Summertime Blues] originally came out, and I want to draw on that.

MOKB: The songs on Let England Shake address major societal ills, but often from the standpoint of individuals, not unlike Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?

PJ: That’s certainly what I was trying to do. I want to talk about huge things, like war, but I need to find a way in lyrically. I have to find a narrative from which I can begin to approach such huge subjects. And the way in for me was the commonality of being human and having the capacity to feel emotions and empathy. Imagining one’s self in that situation. That was really my starting point. I needed to try to be the witness on the ground, and tell the stories that way. I didn’t want to be stuck as an English woman; I wanted to deal with human emotion. I think all the things I sing about are universal. I want to find that common ground. That humanness.

MOKB: Whose idea was it to have Seamus Murphy create videos for each song on Let England Shake?

PJ: That grew from my friendship with Seamus. I pursued him after I saw an exhibition of his in 2008 in London. I actually went to it while researching this record. The exhibit was 10 years of his photos from traveling in Afghanistan. And the photos; I was so moved by them. I felt what he was doing with photos was what I wanted to do with this record. There’s a lot unsaid, I think, in his photographs, and therefore they have a lot more power to them. And that’s something I’ve always tried to do with my songs.

MOKB: Are you planning a North American tour?

PJ: Yes, we’ll be coming over in April to do some shows.

MOKB: You seem like a very deliberate artist. Are you already planning your next project?

PJ: Yes, I already feel like I know where I’ll be heading next, and it’s quite crucial for me to know that at this stage because I write all the time. I concentrate on my lyric writing, or my poetry. I have to have that focus to know where I’m heading. It’s not something I would disclose yet because I am not far enough down that road to know if it is something I’ll be able to do. Right now, it’s still something I’m going to try to do.

MOKB: What do you think about the upcoming royal wedding?

PJ: [laughing] I can’t say I’ve given it a great deal of thought.

MOKB: That’s good.

PJ: [laughing] In fact, I’m a bit embarrassed. You asking me that is the first I’ve thought of it.

MOKB: Don’t worry, we’ll get through it. So, do you have any influences that people would be surprised to learn of?

PJ: The Canadian writer, Dylan Moran. I’m not sure how familiar people are with him, but he’s an Irish comedian that I really like. I really think that he gets the balance right between saying profound things with just the right amount of irony and cynicism and great comedy. I really do like comedy, and he’s my favorite comedian.

MOKB: I think that might surprise a lot of people.

PJ: I hugely enjoy comedy. Black Adder is another one of my favorites.

MOKB: I love Black Adder.

PJ: Particularly Black Adder Goes Forth, which you know has to do with World War I. I think the balance struck was perfect. Brilliant. I have real admiration for that. Another is Harold Pinter. His essays and poetry particularly, but also his plays. Musically, Philip Glass or Steve Reich. Maybe they’re not so unusual given my music, but I’m drawn to them. William Lawes, who’s a medieval musician, I really like.

MOKB: Any modern musical artists you like?

PJ: I’ve always felt a connection to The Fall and Mark E. Smith’s lyrics. I think he’s wonderful. And recently I’ve been just enamored of Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra. He was a large part of The Specials, and when I saw Jerry Dammers’ Spatial AKA Orchestra perform, I was speechless. It was so good. My jaw was on the floor.

MOKB: So, if you get up on Saturday morning and have to clean the garage, what do you want to listen to?

PJ: I guess there are no Saturday records for me. It depends on what I’m inspired by or working on at the time. It’s always changing.

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