Into the woods with PJ Harvey

Words by:
Photography: Steve Gullick
Clothes: Todd Lynn
Hair: Kieran Tudor, Artist's own styling

PJ Harvey was midway through the stateside leg of the tour for her ninth album, when it suddenly occurred to her; the thought every musician dreads: “What am I doing?”

The album she was touring, 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, was, arguably, the most ambitious of her storied career. A project displaying an auteur’s eye for scale and vision, and perhaps some of the auteur’s hubris, too. Even the record’s creation, a process usually hidden from listeners, was gilded with significance. Behind a purpose-built, soundproofed box within Somerset House’s disused rifle range, Harvey and her collaborators toiled in full view of ticketed observers. The endeavour was called Recording in Process.

By late 2016, though, the humdrum greyscale reality of life on the road had dimmed that creative spark, that – whisper it – genius people had queued up to witness unfurl. “I think being on a more-than-year-long tour didn’t help,” Harvey reflects, matter-of-factly. “As an artist, I was feeling lost.”


Polly Jean Harvey is sitting at a table in The Magazine, the cafe-restaurant that adjoins London’s Serpentine North Gallery, hands folded in her lap. Harvey rarely gives interviews and we’re promised a quiet corner, but the Zaha Hadid-designed eaterie, by dint of being both lozenge-shaped and bathed in natural light, is not forthcoming. No matter; a cursory scan of the daytime clientele – gallery workers and freelancers beavering away at laptops  – suggests no imminent threat of interruption. It helps that Harvey is blending in. Sure, her unruly hair is neatly pulled away from her face, revealing those expressive, striking features, but her clothes (muted, elegant, earth-tones-and-black) and her conversation (precise, softly spoken, and littered with the names of filmmakers and poets) establish her as just another artist passing through.

One such artist, Steve McQueen, can take credit for helping Harvey get back on track seven years ago. The Turner Prize winner and film director was shooting in Chicago, where Harvey was playing a show, when a mutual friend put the pair in contact again after they met briefly in the 90s. “I had a really wonderful talk with him. A real philosophical chat,” she smiles, stressing the word philosophical. “He encouraged me to stop thinking about songs as having to be the form of an album. McQueen counselled her to focus on the things she loved about art: words and music and images, “and to ask myself what can I make with those three things. It seems so simple, yet it blew my mind wide open. I felt utterly free.” She pauses, smiles that crooked smile. “And it also turns out we share the same birthday – same year.” 9 October, 1969.

That deep and meaningful became, in a circuitous way, the first step towards Harvey’s new album, I Inside the Old Year Dying. That’s because there could be no I Inside… without Orlam, Harvey’s highly praised narrative poem published last year – which in turn grew out of her finding refuge in poetry, to words, to images in those hotel rooms, on that tour. Written under the mentorship of poet Don Paterson over a six-year period, Orlam is a work of magic realism written in the Dorset dialect; a story of innocence lost set in the fictional village of Underwhelem, and featuring an intricate microworld of grotty pubs, bestiality and sheepdip. The new album builds out this strange universe, and acts as a kind of resting post, a course correction after the political complexion and scale of her previous work; not just The Hope Six Demolition Project, but 2011’s harrowing meditation on conflict, Let England Shake, an album widely considered her masterpiece.


“I needed to restore myself, but also refresh my imagination,” she explains. “I really needed to draw back into the forest floor – what’s under the leaves.” She makes a little squirrelling motion with her hands.  Make no mistake: this is no rhapsody on the arcadian idyll. With its gnarled roots in the earthy world of Orlam, I Inside the Old Year Dying is a strange beast indeed; a West Country gothic steeped in folklore, a Maypole dance around central pillars of sex and death. Despite the political turmoil of the years since Harvey’s last album, her unflinching, socially aware gaze has been replaced with something far more insular – a rich but opaque narrative language.

Recorded over the course of several weeks alongside her regular collaborators John Parish, Flood, Rob Kirwan and Adam ‘Cecil’ Bartlett, many of the songs are loose adaptations of her poems put to music, some sung from the point of view of Orlam’s nine-year-old heroine, Ira-Abel Rawles. Though the overall effect is much more immediate and red-blooded than that makes it sound, it’s hardly an album of bops. In fact, Harvey wasn’t even sure it would be an album. These songs, she tells me, could have wound up being a soundtrack to a book, theatre piece or site-specific sound installation. “I also didn’t know if [it would be] any good,” she laughs.

“I think with every artist, your route of understanding comes from what you know, but mixed in with the creative imagination. I often use the example of, well, I never drowned my daughter in a river”

The discombobulating sound worlds that Harvey and her collaborators created ensures I Inside… stands by itself as a piece of art. Employing field recordings twisted beyond recognition (the image Harvey paints of herself, field recorder in hand, capturing the sound of cows mooing and the “wind in the wires” is entirely believable) and synthesisers that looked like “a cross between a sideboard and a telephone exchange”, the net effect is one of destabilisation. The machine-like rumble that opens the first track on the album, Prayer at the Gate, could be a dot matrix printer warming up, or an ancient horn fanfare – which is entirely the point.

It’s natural to wonder how much of her Dorset upbringing seeped into the project. There, so the agreed-upon Harvey lore goes, she spent her 70s childhood mucking in with ringing lamb’s tails and balls, living a bohemian existence and – importantly – soaking up her parents’ extensive blues record collection. Today, she won’t be drawn on specifics. “I think with every artist, no matter what line of work you’re in, your route of understanding comes from what you know, but always mixed in with the creative imagination,” she says, before leaning back to deliver the kicker: “I very often use the example of, well, I never drowned my daughter in a river.”

As much as Harvey’s personal boundaries are unbreachable, I Inside… delights in languishing in liminal spaces and “netherworlds”. On The Nether-Edge, a track that marries a dampened glam stomp with a playground chant, Harvey sings: “Wordle zircles wider/ With the silence upside down/ Horse atop the rider.” It functions as something of a legend for the album as a whole. (Wordle, by the way, means world.)


“I was extremely interested in stirring up that feeling that there is really no clear delineation,” says Harvey, sipping camomile tea. “Life isn’t black and white. It’s all the nuances, all the greys in between.” She points to a book of poetry published in 1971, Mercian Hymns by Geoffrey Hill, as a key source of inspiration. “He dismantled the way of writing poetry and re-formed it. He broke down the usual rules of narrative stance, or history and time. He was mixing the old with the new, mixing gender, mixing eras. You didn’t know what you were reading, who was speaking – and it was so exciting”.

Which brings us to her own voice. Harvey’s ability to shapeshift, often to unsettling, dramatic ends, has been one of her most intriguing qualities. In 1993, Harvey performed Rid of Me on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Harvey, alone and strangely vulnerable on the studio stage, sings her own backing vocals in a strange, devilish mew. Then, on 2007’s White Chalk, she memorably switched her bluesy, feral growl for a haunting head voice. I Inside… sees yet another shift, the album urging her to explore the outer reaches of her comfort zone under the attentive ears of Parish and Flood. “[Flood] went to extreme levels to achieve something new,” she says. “He did this one tape where I had to close my eyes, and held the microphone and gave me prompts like a director might an actor.” Some of the prompts included embodying someone much older than herself (Prayer at the Gate) or to sing like a child going back to school (Autumn Term). The result is quite unlike anything Harvey has done before, which, she admits without a trace of irony, “gets harder the more I’ve done”.

Harvey’s career began in 1988 when she joined the Bristol band Automatic Dlamini alongside John Parish, who would become her most trusted collaborator. It’s a period she clearly looks back on fondly – when she finds out I live in Bristol, her eyes light up, and a recentish Instagram post showed a fresh-faced Harvey smiling enigmatically among her (much taller and older seeming) male bandmates. She left to form the PJ Harvey Trio with Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Oliver, and the double-punch of debut album Dry and its follow-up Rid of Me, propelled Harvey to stratospheric heights, bolstered by the fervour of the weekly rock inkies. This was all in spite, or maybe because, of writing songs which delighted in gender fucking as much as, well, fucking and generally complicating the rockist male gaze; songs like the monstrous feminine rockabilly roller 50ft Queenie (“I’m twenty inches long!!”) and the juiced-up Man-Size, in which Harvey embodies toxic masculinity, avant la lettre. Next up, another pivot in the form of 1995’s outstanding To Bring You My Love, ushering in her “acid Joan Crawford phase”.


I wonder whether all this subversive queer-not-queerness flew over people’s heads at the time. After all, journalists, then overwhelmingly of the male and leery type, weren’t exactly conversant in gender theory the way we are now. “I think people got it,” she says. “Imagery has always been extremely important to my work, particularly the stage visuals. I wanted to inhabit different characters and play with them. It’s all in the process of investigation and challenging myself, turning things on their head, and provocation. What happens if I do this? What happens to the sound? What happens to the art? What happens to the way something’s received?”

It checks out. When Harvey was young and first feeling pulled towards performance, she didn’t know in which field she would land. “I just knew I had a great need to make work and present it. I didn’t know if I was going to be a performance artist or go into sculpture” –  she was all set to study fine art at Central Saint Martins before signing a record deal instead – “but I knew that if I’d gone into sculpture, I would have wanted to be a part of the work in some way.” She speaks admiringly of her actor friends, and “their ability to inhabit another character in order to get a message across”.

“I needed to restore myself, but also refresh my imagination. I needed to draw back into the forest floor – what’s under the leaves”

As her career progressed, the stylistic heel turns became sharper, the albums more hermetic, iconoclastic; from the unheimlich piano songs of White Chalk to the violent, haunting Let England Shake, for which she picked up her second Mercury Prize to become the only artist to land the double (the first coming courtesy of the comparatively slick 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea).

Then came The Hope Six Demolition Project. Informed by travels undertaken by Harvey to Kabul, Kosovo and, most contentiously, Washington, D.C. alongside photographer and filmmaker Seamus Murphy, the project’s stark, unembroidered language perhaps made better sense when viewed alongside the album’s accompanying film, A Dog Called Money. Indeed, Hope Six found itself the target of heated criticism, with many – not least D.C.’s former mayor – taking issue with Harvey’s artistic decision to adopt the role of a neutral bystander, coldly distant or coolly disparaging of what she encountered. In short, where some saw an attempt to reconcile reportage with songwriting, others saw elevated poverty tourism.

Harvey rarely offers explanations, but she does here – kind of. “I can only speak from my personal preference,” she says, choosing her words carefully but decisively. “I am always much more interested in art that’s not telling me what to think or feel because I like to form my own opinion. I tried to make something beautiful – I think some of the music is very beautiful – and let people make up their own mind.” The subject isn’t dead, however. Minutes later, when asked how she felt seeing the catastrophic scenes of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan play out, having walked the streets of Kabul herself, she wishes to elaborate. “It was heartbreaking,” she continues, “I mean, I went there. I felt moved to go there to try and find more understanding. And I think, you know, that I felt that so strongly. That says quite a lot about what my intention was.”


Harvey, by her own admission, has become more open as she’s aged. She thinks back to when she was younger, back to her need for control, and how she’s since “learned of the beauty of trusting in whatever the present moment brings”. You can detect this mellowing elsewhere, too. In a 1993 interview with Melody Maker, Harvey once said of her lyrics, “It seems silly to me, ‘cos they’re not poetry, they’re not meant to be read.” A declaration that seems unthinkable now, not only because her literary work has evolved into an album, but because she finds it difficult to work out where one medium ends and another begins.

“It’s quite difficult to compartmentalise as a maker,” she says, her Dorset burr emphasising the homespun choice of a word she uses more than once, most charmingly when she’s describing the surroundings of the part of London where she lives when she’s not in Dorset. She rates it particularly because it’s a hub of makers: distilleries, breweries, artists.

Harvey credits her work on scores for TV and theatre, including works by Shane Meadows, Sharon Horgan and superstar Belgian director Ivo van Hove, for helping her discover a new kind of musical freedom. She also recalls drawing for days at a time to help her find her way into a song, and “the visual, aural, brain connection, and the body connection”, or of sitting at a piano and turning to her book of poetry, just for some “word shapes”. The same porousness applies to her inspirations. When asked what art she’s seen of late, she admits she was late to Triangle of Sadness, but enjoyed it, then reels off the directors whose work she never misses: Jonathan Glazer, Paul Thomas Anderson, Céline Sciamma, Joanna Hogg. “The beauty of imagery of movement, it all stimulates,” she says, almost swooning.

In fact, of all the making Harvey does, music is bottom of the list. “I tend to rarely write a song, unless I really feel the need,” she says. “I rarely play instruments, I only do if I need to practise. I practise piano and guitar to keep my hand in because I don’t think of myself as a very good player. Otherwise, I don’t. I just sort of drink the world in.”

Harvey has a memory of her garden when she was a child. Her mum, Eva, was – and still is – an artist in her own right, and filled the space with all kinds of art, much of it found, or salvaged. In a way, Harvey’s approach is similar. Always alive to the different ways in which she can reshape the contours of her creative universe, always alert to the next inspiration. When the interview wraps, she gathers her things – she has an appointment to keep; she’s heading to McQueen’s Grenfell exhibition in the gallery next door. A loop closing? Not quite. You sense, with PJ Harvey, it never does.

I Inside the Old Year Dying is out on 7 July via Partisan Records

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