Interview: PJ Harvey
Thu, 08 Nov 2007 15:14:36
Perhaps the most important and innovative female rock icon of the past two decades, PJ Harvey recently released her seventh studio full-length, White Chalk, to great anticipation. Ever unpredictable, Harvey followed up 2004's return to her rock roots, Uh Huh Her, with a hermetic, piano-driven collection of songs sung almost exclusively at top of her vocal register. While the album has been almost universally lauded by critics, descriptions often evoke the word "bleak" to capture its lonesome tenor.
We were lucky enough to track Polly Jean down for a chat while she was on a very limited US tour, querying her about her inspirations for her challenging new album, songwriting as a process of exploration, and her own forays into visual art and the work that feeds her imagination.
What was inspiring you as you were heading into recording White Chalk?
I was listening almost exclusively to classical music. Over the three years or so I was working towards the record, I can't remember listening to any lyrical music at all. And yet that was also an incredibly fruitful experience for the mind—I would find my mind writing the story to the music, so it was very inspiring in that sense.
Was there anyone in particular who you were listening to during that period?
Everything from the sort of well-known artists like Beethoven and Bach, to less well-known artists like William Lawes, a sort of medieval composer, Erik Satie and Samuel Barber. Listen to a bit of Handel and Vaughan Williams.
Your albums have all been pretty distinctly different. Do you feel like each one is a process of self-reinvention in a way?
Reinvention doesn't feel like the right word. I never feel like I have to adopt different characters. I just see what I do as an artistic exploration. I come from a visual arts background and all I ever did through art, I do now through music, which is exploring. I feel more like an explorer than a pop musician.
What were you going in art school?
I was specializing in sculpture, although these days I draw a lot.
Are there particular visual artists who you key off of for inspiration?
Probably [the film director] David Lynch quite a lot. I really like his artwork. In fact, I went to see an exhibition in Paris not long ago—purely a 30-year retrospective of his drawing and photographs and it was quite amazing. Francisco Goya, I like a lot of his drawings. Don Vliet, who was Captain Beefheart. Now I really like his painting. Other artists I'm always drawn to are people like Marc Chagall, Van Gogh. And just recently I came across Odilon Redon—I'd never seen his charcoal drawings before and when I saw those I felt like giving up. I felt like everything I've ever tried to do in music is done already in charcoal drawings.
What are you going to be up to next? And how much of an ongoing process is writing music for you?
It's ongoing continually. I write all the time, I draw all the time. I've already collected some songs I'm quite happy with that I'll use at some point. I've just finished writing a collaborative record with John Parish, which in some ways is our next step after Dance Hall at Louse Point, which we released in '98. So that will be coming out next year.
You were saying you draw quite a bit—when you have an idea, do you make a decision that it's more of a drawing, or more of a song? Or does it flow through both?
Sometimes it flows through both. I'll often draw what I'm writing as a song, or what I've just written as lyrics. And other times I might draw a dream, which will then become a song, or I'll just purely do a drawing and can hear a song in it. So, yeah, they all kind of go together.
Have you ever displayed your drawings to the public?
I haven't. I feel like maybe one day, when I'm about 50... I might have my retrospective. But I feel like at the moment my strength is my songwriting. I love drawing, but I feel like it's probably not where my greatest strength is. But maybe it would be good as a collective at some point.
I'll look forward that in a couple decades then.
[Laughs] Yeah, me too.
—Jocelyn K. Glei