Queen of darkness
PJ Harvey’s new album is a stark meditation on modern England. But there are still reasons for hope, she tells Eamon Sweeney
Here's some rather startling food for thought. Polly Jean Harvey first strapped on an electric guitar at the tender age of 17.
Ever since that fateful day, she's enjoyed a remarkably consistent career. What other contemporary British recording alternative artist, male or female, is still making such a similarly iconic and influential contribution? Apart from Damon Albarn and Thom Yorke, there's an extremely telling and gaping void.
Since leaving the moderately successful Bristol band Automatic Dlamini in 1991 to form the PJ Harvey trio, Polly has authored eight studio albums of dazzling diversity and ambition along with several other collaborations.
Choosing her best album depends on what PJ Harvey fan you ask. Some would plump for the ragged rawness of Dry (1992) or Rid of Me (1993). I know several who swear Is This Desire? (1998) is the overlooked masterpiece, while others fly a flag for White Chalk (2007) over the crossover success of the Mercury Music Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000). Truth be told, there isn't a dud in the entire batch.
Polly Jean Harvey hasn't lost her unique capacity to astonish on Let England Shake, a meditative song cycle about England, war, nationality and history with universal and timeless resonances. A pretty and impeccably polite Harvey is sitting opposite Day & Night in the library room of the Gore Hotel in Kensington, a room adorned with a huge portrait of Kind Edward VII and an intimidating wall of ancient dusty tomes. It's the perfect setting to explore the motivation behind this latest English-themed opus.
Let England Shake deals with the dysfunctions of modern Britain, society and all the other clouds hanging over early 21st-century life.
"I think we're beginning to all sense a building up of urgency," she reflects. "This feeling was coupled with having a new-found confidence that I was at a stage in my journey as a writer where I could be able to address these things properly. I hadn't felt confident enough before, not only in my language skills, but in my stage of life as a human being. I'm a bit older now and I feel a pressing need to really start using our own voices fully. Amidst all this gloom, there is something wonderful in the fact that people now want to start saying exactly what they think and feel."
Just as Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is sometimes lazily pigeonholed as her 'New York' album, Let England Shake shouldn't be regarded as the 'British' one. For a start, they're all British.
"Obviously, I was born in England, so I'm always dealing with that," she says. "I wanted to use ambiguous language and an openness that other people could fully enter into, no matter where they come from. We all wrestle with intense feelings of love, hate, fear, hope and disappointment for our respective countries. It's all intertwined and no matter what country you live in, you feel these things daily."
Let England Shake was recorded in the space of five weeks in a church in Harvey's native Dorset. "I had Berlin in mind and I went to see a few recording studios, but nothing felt right," she explains. "I was at loss where to record it. It was a pure coincidence that a man I knew, who ran this church in Dorset primarily as an arts space, offered it to me as somewhere to rehearse, so it found me so to speak. I think it lent itself very well to the record. Obviously, in recording in such a big stone building, you get a lot of space. I think there's a sense of space on the record, which helps with the subject matter. The soundscape I was looking for was something indefinable -- difficult to pin down to any particular style, era or country. I just wanted it to be quite rootless. The space of this church presented a wonderful opportunity to try and create that."
One person who loves Let England Shake, but sadly didn't live to see its release, is the great Captain Beefheart himself, Don Van Vliet, who died on December 17 just gone. Polly lost a massive source of inspiration, who'd also become a creative colleague, confidante and dear friend.
"I feel very, very lucky to have had that relationship with him, which started back in 1994," she says in tribute. "I always sent him the rough demos of each project. Later on, he'd get the finished album. I was always interested in what he thought. We had an ongoing phone relationship where we'd spend ages talking to each other for hours on end."
Jack White has just written a lovely and long poetic epitaph, which says the singing and painting Captain will be glad to see "his creations spinning in the living world of canvas and stereo".
Intriguingly, the PJ work that the Captain enthused most about was Uh Huh Her, an album that doesn't seem to enjoy a place of prominence in Harvey's canon. "All I can do is do my work and do it as well as I can," she reflects. "When it leaves my hands and goes out into the world, there's nothing more I can do with it. I don't spend time analysing how it gets received, as that'll drain my energy in a way that I don't want drained. I've just got to get on with it. Obviously, you always hope that it'll be recognised, but I learnt long ago there's nothing I can do about it, and nor would I want to."
PJ's favourite part of the whole process is being onstage. "I love playing live because it feels like the vital and most fundamental part to what I do," she enthuses. "The songs make most sense in that shared physical moment of their coming together in real time as opposed to a studio. People gather together in a room for music. It's a ritual that goes back to the very reasons that storytelling and songwriting ever began in the first place; it's all about a need for sharing and communication. I've loved playing the Olympia. It's got such a history in those walls that you really feel it and soak it up. I've very fond memories of the warmth and exuberance of Irish audiences everywhere and every time I've played."
As Polly rehearses a set for a tour of Europe beginning in February, which also takes in a couple of gigs in the US, she listens to her earlier work to compile a set list, the only time she ever threads on these musical records of the past and their towering 50-foot Queenies.
"I've a very odd relationship with my back catalogue," she admits. "I do find I can deal with it quite objectively, because it's a long time ago, but, then again, I'm obviously going to feel very affectionate towards all of it. I'm astonished at how remarkably different it sounds. I'm very glad and grateful of that. Otherwise..." she pauses briefly for thought. "Well, I imagine I would have started getting bored a very long ago."
Let England Shake is released next Friday. For further information, music videos and more, visit pjharvey.net
Day & Night