Tim Whitby, Getty Images The speculation is all over. PJ Harvey has won the…
- Posted on Aug 16th 2011 12:00PM by Stephen Dowling
When Spinner recently caught up with her backstage hours before her supporting set for Portishead at the latter's All Tomorrow's Parties festival in London, it was a few months into the touring behind the reflective album. Some might say it takes a brave performer to take the testimonies of soldiers and civilians, as Harvey has, and turn them into music gracing Europe's music festivals, concert halls and arenas, but she has built an enviable reputation as a live performer. If anyone's able to make a thrilling festival set out of the memories of long-lost combatants and Great War memories, it's her.
How has it been taking this album out on the road?
The songs are going down really well. I didn't know how it would work in large open spaces, outside in festivals, in the rain, but they have been. I'm finding a lot of people are watching, they're not leaving. They're staying there and a lot of people are singing along, that do know the songs, and the ones that don't are still standing in the rain.
It feels absolutely right. It feels like it always has been and always will be. It doesn't feel astonishing, it doesn't feel peculiar, it just feels like it's natural.
Has it been hard translating that record into a live set?
It requires a lot to perform these songs, but I've always been a performer that inhabits a song to perform it well. For me personally, to perform a song as well as I possibly can requires me to enter into the event of it. And that means travelling with it on its narrative to give each word its meaning. I don't just want to stand there and recite something by rote, I want to describe the scene and the picture I'm seeing within the song to the audience. That requires a lot of energy to do that. But I'm willing to do that. Because it makes the music become alive in the moment and that's the beauty of live performance. You can't find that anywhere else.
It's a wonderful unifying experience for everyone there. You're all sharing something to make something happen. That should be valued. I certainly value it.
'Let England Shake' is an album that demands to be listened as a whole. Is that out of step with the way people consume music now?
I was aware that people now choose to listen to one song at a time. I wanted each song to work individually, but at the same time the way I went about recording it, in a very short space of time, five weeks, in one building, using very specifically selected instruments and nothing else, meant it has a very cohesive feeling throughout the album.
But that's also why it has an atmosphere from beginning to end. It feels like it was a short time to me, it's a group of people playing together in a space, you can hear the instruments they used and that was important for the nature of the words on the record, which are largely for groups of people to sing. It has a collective spirit to it and I wanted that to also come across in the music.
The themes on the album -- of conflict and suffering and the self-destructive streak in humanity -- are ambitious.
It had been something I'd wanted to try and write about for a long time, the contemporary world basically, on a political level. I've always been profoundly affected by what is taking place every day and I always follow the news daily. It affects me so much in a very emotional way. I knew it would be ripe subject matter for me to write about, but I was also fearful of not doing it well. When you're dealing with really giant subject matter, I knew I wanted to feel I had the skills as a writer before I began to go near it. And I really hadn't had that confidence until the last three or four years. I've learned more about songwriting. I practice my writing every day. I try and improve at it. I try and learn the skills. Whatever your interests in life, the more you work at and learn about the thing that interests you, the better you get at it. It's like flexing muscle -- you have to work at it.
Painting, photography, literature and poetry have all helped convey the suffering war. Rock music seems to have fallen short before.
In the early '60s, the whole protest movement in New York at that time, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and then Nina Simone writing about the racial prejudice and the whole of the black movement, that was done really well. Some of Dylan's early songs are phenomenal, untouchable, which is why also I was nervous to try and wrap words around current day conflict and politics. I was aware it has been done very very well, and it has been done very badly. I knew there were enormous pitfalls waiting. But I knew there was a way to navigate it in a different way, to come up with a fresh way of presenting something that would be provocative and make people think, but not be in any kind of dogmatic way. I didn't want to tell people what to think or feel.
You spent a lot of time reading testimonies, interviews, recollections from veterans and civilians. Was there anything more personal too? Something from your own family?
I had grandparents on both sides of the family who fought in the war, plus their brothers. They were from large families. At that time that was normal; there were 11 in one family, of which four brothers died in the war.
There was definitely interest in that, looking at their photographs and their uniforms, and luckily my grandparents had saved a lot of photographs. That was fascinating for me. But I did a lot of research along all different wars and contemporary wars as well -- as much firsthand witness accounts as I could find I would get hold of, from both sides of the fighting and from both sides of the civilians too.
Is it easier taking those themes from a conflict long ago? The veterans are dead; emotions don't run so high as they might in a current conflict.
Something I learned doing this project was the language used to describe these extreme situations by the people actually in them, both civilians and soldiers from both sides of the conflict, is the language used now. You can go back to the earliest records ever, still written on a slate tablet and it's the same. The feelings people go through, the descriptions of what they've gone through is the same.
That was really fascinating to me -- the suffering is the same. The timescape doesn't really matter, but an acknowledgement of suffering, or listening to the stories and telling the stories so they can be heard. To present these stories to other people to hear, it's just as relevant now. It doesn't matter what time it is. I find that now daily with the news reports we are hearing, and I'm standing on the stage singing these songs and they seem to be about the event that's just happened. In some ways it's not rooted in any particular time, but it is rooted in human emotion and human suffering.