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PJ Harvey's British Invasion

Interview: the reclusive rocker on her new album, rural upbringing, and dicey relations with the press.

| Fri Feb. 11, 2011 6:00 AM EST

MJ: Just after high school, you were playing in bands and also studying art and sculpture. Were you hoping one thing or the other might pan out as a profession?

PJH: I was actually thinking that I would become a visual artist. When I was in art school I was playing in bands and putting my own bands together, but it seemed rather preposterous to think of that as a way of having a career. I think I was trying to move into an area where I thought I might be able to teach, or have some kind of career. I didn't know that music was a possibility, although it was a great love. I didn't know where my life would take me, because it's a very difficult avenue to get into, really.

MJ: Early on, you joined John Parish's band, Automatic Dlamini, and have been collaborating with him ever since—including on the new album. How would you describe your relationship?

PJH: It's very valuable as a writer to have somebody who can be honest with you, whom you respect greatly in their own right. I think that's why John and I work together well. We're very honest with each other, and very critical of each other's work in a very productive way.

MJ: Is it hard for you to take criticism?

PJH: I don't find it hard at all. I find I gain a great deal from constructive criticism from people, and I value it enormously.

MJ: Now, you started your own band in 1991. I've read that at your first show somebody actually offered to pay you to stop playing. Is that true?

PJH: [Laughs.] Yes, that is true.

MJ: But you recovered pretty fast. By 1992, Rolling Stone was calling you the year's best songwriter, the critics were raving about Dry, and record labels were knocking down your door. Were you kind of blown away by the pace?

PJH: Yes, it was a surprise, and it happened very quickly. It was a wonderful surprise. I was taken aback by it.

MJ: So this very private person is all of a sudden launched into the spotlight. Did you find that difficult to deal with?

PJH: It was something that I adjusted to. Initially it was very difficult. It took me a while to find my footing with it, to find a way to be with it.

MJ: What sort of problems did it raise for you? Were people approaching you in the street?

PJH: I'm not recognized very often at all—even now, actually. I find interviews very difficult, but again, it's something that you adjust to. Also entering into the world of the music business, where it's not just about playing the music. If you want to put out records there's an enormous amount of administration that goes alongside that, and that was something again that I had to learn about.

MJ: Well, I hope I'm not making the interview process too difficult for you.

PJH: No, I've had some time to acclimatize at this stage in my life. [Laughs.]

MJ: What question would make you want to hang up the phone?

PJH: Well, you can keep trying and you'll find out!

MJ: I hope not. To change the subject, your approach to music has been sort of in the David Bowie mold, where each record is a new incarnation. What motivates that?

PJH: I have a great desire to learn, and that's always been with me. I want to explore and keep trying to find new ways of saying things. Because in that way you can almost hear something for the first time, or see something for the first time, and then it can have a great deal more meaning.

MJ: What are some of your muses—people, places, artists, that inspire your writing?

PJH: I've been reading a lot of Harold Pinter, particularly his poetry and his political essays. Musically, I tend to listen to the older artists like Nina Simone or Neil Young, Bob Dylan, the Doors. In terms of contemporary artists, I really like The Fall. And Jerry Dammers; I was really struck by a recent performance by his Spatial AKA Orchestra. It left me speechless. It was absolutely incredible. Visual artists: Again and again I get drawn into Francisco Goya, Velázquez, Salvador Dali—I come to these people again and again. And the films of Stanley Kubrick, I've watched those many, many times.

MJ: Your new record feels very different, vocally. It feels like you're experimenting. At times it's almost Kate Bush-like.

PJH: With this particular album, with these words, it took me a long time to find the right voice: I didn't want too much weight in my voice, because it made the words too self-important. I finally found the right way in which to sing them, and often that voice is quite small and quite volatile, and can move all over the place.

MJ: Yes, there's an ambiguous lightness to it.

PJH: That was very intentional. It needed to be. What I said earlier about needing to leave the songs open for people to come in with their own ideas.

MJ: Do you ever listen to your old stuff?

PJH: Very occasionally, not very often.

MJ: Is it hard for you to hear your past incarnations?

PJH: Not at all, because I feel quite separate from them and I can view them quite objectively. So it's pleasant. But it's not something I naturally do, because I'm too interested in making new things.

MJ: When you do look back, what are you most proud of?

PJH: One of the highlights for me was actually playing "Let England Shake" on the Andrew Marr Show in front of Gordon Brown, who was then our prime minister. That was something I'll remember for a long time. If I look at bodies of work, I still feel very proud of Is This Desire? and To Bring You My Love. I think they were strong pieces of work for me, and they stayed with me over the years. I felt I was working very well and very strongly, and that's something that one always aims for but you don't always get. It requires a lot of different parts coming together at the right moment in time, and both records were blessed with that. And I'm proud of White Chalk because I feel like that was a very unusual record, and I don't tire of that one either.

MJ: For the record, my wife says you were her idol. But she's exactly your age. Do you feel like you're still reaching new audiences, especially younger ones?

PJH: I'd like to think that that's the case, I don't know for a fact. But I would love for people to hear my music, for new people to come across it. I'd like people to enjoy it of all ages, and I'd be thrilled if that was the case.

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