Let England Shake, the brand new album from British rocker Polly Jean "PJ" Harvey, is an ethereal eulogy to her homeland: a dozen songs of militarism, death, and ambivalent patriotism delivered with uncharacteristic lightness. Harvey, of course, first rose to fame in the early 1990s on the raw power of her delivery. Performing with her PJ Harvey Trio, she released Dry, a highly acclaimed indie debut that led Rolling Stone to dub her 1992's best songwriter and best new female singer. Her follow-up recordings Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love, both on Island Records, brought forth a flurry of Grammy and Mercury Prize nominations, and yet more critical raves—both for Harvey's songwriting and her theatrical stage presence.
In contrast with her music, Harvey is guarded in conversation. Her publicist asked for my assurance that I would avoid "celebrity-type" questions, and I figure she's earned that right. After 20 years of performing, her musical accomplishments and collaborations with rock-and-roll luminaries (Thom Yorke, Josh Homme, Nick Cave) are too numerous to list. But suffice it to say that Let England Shake is pretty different from what her fans are used to.
Tackling such grim topics was a bold and risky move—as was performing the title track on BBC television in the presence of outgoing prime minister Gordon Brown. New Yorker pop-music critic Sasha Frere-Jones gave the album a tepid review, contrasting her relatively twee delivery with the grit of earlier Harvey incarnations, but Harvey told me she deliberately crafted her vocal style as a counterpoint to the very heavy stuff she's singing about. We also spoke about her rural upbringing, her disastrous first gig, and her dicey relationship with the media.
Mother Jones: I've been listening to your new album a lot. It's quite beautiful.
PJ Harvey: Thank you. I'm glad you like it.
MJ: There's this sense of deeply aggrieved patriotism, this mourning for England in its entirety—yet you don't consider it a protest album?
PJH: It's hard to say what that means, exactly. I knew that I wanted to address these matters, this very weighty subject matter, but I didn't want to do it in a way that felt too heavy-handed, and by that I mean I didn't want to come across as if I was preaching or becoming too self-important. That was very much in the forefront of my mind as I was writing these words, wanting to get the balance right between delivering words that were meaningful, but situated in a way that was also palatable enough for people to receive them.
MJ: There does seem to be more directness in this than in some of your past stuff.
PJH: I wanted to present ideas, but I also wanted to leave it open enough for people to bring in their own feelings to the songs, to the ideas being presented. I wanted a certain ambiguity.
MJ: Compared to your past albums, this one seems more reflective of the world and its woes. What inspired these images of war and death?
PJH: I've always felt that I'm affected by the world, by the way we treat each other, by the way different countries treat each other. I've always been very affected by politics, society, but I never got to a place as a writer where I felt like I could begin to deal with such things and do it well. I think I finally have the confidence to begin to approach such things. I'm not an autobiographical writer, but I am a writer who deals with human emotion on all levels. And at this particular point in time, it's human emotion in relation to the world and specific events.
MJ: I understand you're collaborating with war photographer Seamus Murphy, whose work is amazing. What's that project about?
PJH: When I was writing this record, in 2008, I was in London for an exhibition of Seamus' work, entitled Darkness Visible. That was work from the last 10 years in Afghanistan, and I was very affected by it. So I got in touch afterwards to see if he was interested in doing portrait work with me, or whether he'd ever done such a thing. And he hadn't particularly. He's mostly a photojournalist in conflict areas, but he was willing to have a go. I sent him the demos and the lyrics, and he was interested in working with me. He's made some films for the songs: "The Last Living Rose" is up on my website. The next film is for "The Words That Maketh Murder." We'll be putting them out regularly. Then he's going to edit a short documentary film of his own response to the music. He chose to make a road trip around England and make a photo montage of what he sees.
MJ: You said your work isn't autobiographical, but has your family been affected directly by war?
PJH: Yes, my family in past generations certainly has, on both sides.
MJ: Tell me more about your family. You were raised on a sheep farm in Corscombe, a little tiny village in Dorset. Was that idyllic or sort of lonely?
PJH: Well, that's actually got a bit out of proportion. My father is actually a quarry man—he deals in stone. He also at one point had a lot of sheep, he owned a sheep farm, but primarily the family business was in stone.
MJ: So the farm was incidental, not a working farm?
PJH: No, it wasn't a working farm, but I did grow up in the countryside being very aware of nature and the cycle of life, and I feel very grateful for that.
MJ: What was your family life like? Do you have siblings?
PJH: Yes, I have a brother, an older brother.
MJ: What sort of kid were you?
PJH: I'm not somebody that enjoys talking about my personal life, I'd rather you ask me about my current work.
MJ: Yes, your publicist said you have a distaste for what he called "celebrity-type" questions. Do you have kind of an ambivalent relationship with the press?
PJH: I'm a very private person, so obviously I don't enjoy talking about more personal matters. But at the same time I care very much about my work and I would like people to know that it exists. So I appreciate that there's a meeting point, where I would like people to know about the work that I'm doing, and that requires me to talk about it.
MJ: Do you have any pet peeves about the way you've been portrayed?
PJH: I don't hold onto anything, because it's a waste of energy to do so, really. There's nothing that I can do about the way people want to write about me. I just try and concentrate on my work and do that as well as I can.
MJ: I guess I mean, are there any misconceptions you'd like people to know about?
PJH: It seems rather pointless for me to go over everything and try to set the record straight. People will think what they will and that's the way that life is.
MJ: I did notice that people often ask you about feminism. Is that the lot of female performers, to be held up as role models for their sex?
PJH: I've never aligned myself with any particular cause other than trying to do good work and get better at it; it's not something that I think about very much.
MJ: Now, I gather your parents were very into music, especially the blues. Did they play, too?
PJH: They didn't play music; they weren't musicians. But they did have a great love for music and the house was always full of music when we were children—and it still is now.
MJ: Did they get you playing as a kid?
PJH: They were very supportive, so it was very natural for me to want to go into music. But at the same time they were very open to letting me and my brother do whatever we wanted to choose; we weren't made to learn instruments or anything like that. I started playing the saxophone when I was quite young, in school.
MJ: Did you sing in a choir or anything?
PJH: Not really. I started with the saxophone and then later guitar. And I wrote lyrics from a very young age, poems and short prose. It came very naturally then to marry that with the guitar—the guitar was a much easier instrument to marry words with than the saxophone.
MJ: Well, sure, you can't exactly sing and play the saxophone! Did you consider them lyrics at that point, or was it more like poems?
PJH: In the early stages they were just very much song lyrics. It's only in the last three or four years that I feel I've looked at words much more in the way that one would a poem, how they work on the page, to be read out loud separately from music. That's happened quite recently.
ML: Your mother was a sculptor?
PJH: My mother worked in stone, letter-cutting mostly, and carving—cutting letters for house names or gravestones. She did mostly functional, commissioned work. Myself, I've always been active artistically, painting and sculpting and drawing. For me it's purely aesthetical work, and it often goes hand in hand with what I'm writing.
MJ: I've never seen your visual artwork. Would you describe it a bit?
PJH: I designed a magazine the summer of last year for Francis Ford Coppola called Zoetrope: All-Story. If you go to the website, you can find the edition I designed, with a lot of my work in it. I just recently started oil painting, so I'm very interested in that at the moment. I'm hoping at some point in the next couple of years to put out a little book of some of my poems and some of my paintings.