20 + 20 Covers Project: PJ Harvey

England's finest songwriter on music, fashion, art and the last 20 years of pop culture

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Winning the 2011 Mercury Music Prize for Let England Shake may have cemented PJ Harvey’s reputation as one of Britain’s most influential songwriters of the last twenty years, but her approach to storytelling and musical innovation remains firmly focused on the future. 

Dazed & Confused: Have you become more impassioned as an artist over the years?
PJ Harvey:
As I’ve got older I’ve become much more aware of what’s going on around me, and, yes, more passionately wanting to put words around that. I certainly felt a greater sense of urgency to try and deal with some of these things on this new record. That’s how Let England Shake come about, because I felt quite impotent in not being able to say or do anything and this was the only way that I could think of to try and put some feeling around what was happening around me. Through song.

D&C: Why did you feel that now was the right time to become vocal about war and politics?
PJ Harvey: 
The reason that it’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve started to write about what’s going on in the wider world rather the interior monologue is because I knew instinctively that I wasn’t ready as a writer. War and nationhood; that’s weighty subject matter. I would have to do it very well or don’t do it at all, and I knew that I wasn’t ready in terms of my skills with language up until a couple of years ago to even begin to try and write about these things.

D&C: What was the change in you as an artist, as a lyricist?
PJ Harvey: 
The change in me really was through hard work. And I work everyday at my writing and I just try and improve and study. I write, and rewrite, and rewrite again. That’s the only way to improve at something. And so the reason that I felt that I might be in a position to try and write about these things now is just through the experience that I’ve gained through a lot of practice.

D&C: You once said in Dazed & Confused, “Sometimes I wish I didn’t feel so deeply. I wish I could let things ride a bit more.” Do you still feel that way?
PJ Harvey: 
As an artist, no matter what field of work you’re in or medium, you have to feel things deeply in order to then process that and turn it around and put it out someway in whatever art form you are using. So it’s a mixed blessing. Obviously, you need to be extremely sensitive as a person in order to absorb all of these feelings and in order to process them and that has its downsides. It can be extremely draining, but at the same time if I didn’t have those qualities myself, if I wasn’t able to feel these things on a very deep level, I couldn’t write about them and I feel very lucky to be able to do the work I do and I really enjoy doing it.

D&C: How do you think you’ve evolved as a writer over the last 20 years?
PJ Harvey: 
Well I always want to keep experimenting. I think the ways that I’ve evolved as an artist come about because of my desire to keep learning. Always, every day, I want to learn something new, whether it’s a new word or whatever. I want to learn something and that is why my work changes in mood, it’s because I’m moving on to what I can learn next. It’s not actually so pre-planned as to think of it about in terms of image change or implied direction, it’s actually quite a natural process for me to reach for something new; reach for a new instrument; reach for a way of writing I haven’t tried before. And that’s how the music evolves in the way it does.

D&C: So you’re always on a quest for the new?
PJ Harvey: 
It’s very interesting what there is to learn from our lives and I would like to know as much as I possibly can during this relatively short amount of time that we have here. That’s what keeps driving me.

D&C: What did you learn from making Let England Shake?
PJ Harvey: 
The thing that I learned the most from all of the research that I did was really that the language that is used to describe human suffering is and has stayed the same for hundreds and hundreds of years. When I looked back 200-300 years and I was reading about what happened in these lands before Afghanistan, Iraq, the language that was used then, or even the earliest forms 2000 years ago, it’s still the same to describe warfare, to describe suffering, to describe bloodshed. That really struck me - the great waste of it all and this feeling that nothing is going to change, it’s always been like this, it always will be. Such huge loss of life - but also just accepting that, ok, that’s how things are. But I did feel that it was something that I wanted to write about and make other people aware of.

D&C: Your songs are like condensed novels. Do they come from a visual idea to begin with?
PJ Harvey: 
Yeah, I come from a visual arts background and I would have gone to art school had I not moved into music. So it’s very natural for me to think in visual terms. Very often a song will actually begin as something that I can see. It’s more as if I can see a scene from a film; I can see the colour, I can see the setting, the light, the character or characters involved, the time of day that it is, and I just describe that picture that I can see. And that picture, that image, would have first been generated by a general train of thought or something I know I want to explore within lyrics, within writing. And I usually at this stage tend to work on lyrics purely alone first of all so it’s just a matter of documenting the visual image that I can see.

D&C: Do you ever regret not going to Central Saint Martins to study sculpture?
PJ Harvey: 
Part of me would have loved to have gone to Central Saint Martins and done a fine art degree. I would have loved that time of being around like-minded souls and at that sort of age, at that young age, and being in London. Just to have had that experience I think would have been wonderful. So I do feel sad sometimes that that didn’t happen, but then I only measure it by what has happened to me and in some ways I’ve received a wonderful education, I’ve seen many places throughout the world and I’ve got to play my music in front of hundreds and hundreds of people, you know? So I can’t regret it as well because I wouldn’t have missed what has happened to me for anything.

D&C: What were you like 20 years ago in 1991 when Dazed & Confused launched?
PJ Harvey: 
Well, yeah, 20 years ago in ’91 I wasn’t much different to how I am now. In terms of my work, whatever I was working on at art school I wanted it to be the best it could possibly be and I wanted it to be unusual and to be coming from a different angle to what had happened before. I wanted to almost shock people into having to pay attention. I could remember a lot of my art school projects were very large and would be hung from ceilings or hidden in places that you wouldn’t expect in order to try and get people to look at something differently; I mean literally to look up in an uncomfortable position. I think in some ways I’ve continued to do that. I’m always interested in uncovering something new or trying to find a new way of articulation and therefore get people to listen as if for the first time, to see something as if for the first time. Which is what I try and do myself, I always try and approach everything as if I hadn’t seen it before, and describe it in that way, and that helps me as a writer too.

DD: How important has fashion been to your career?
PJ Harvey: 
Well, it’s always been very natural for me to consider the visuals, I mean obviously going back to my art-school days. The way I present my work is as important to me to do well visually as it is to do it musically. So I’ve always been extremely interested in the way I present myself; what I’m wearing, the way I present myself on stage, the way the stage looks, the way it’s lit, everything. Because if it’s going to represent the music it has to feel right for that body of work. So that’s how I’ve always operated. I treat each album, each song, individually and look at what would feel right to present that. So if I’m making a video for one song, again I just think about what feels right to present this song, what should I be wearing, what is going on in this song, what are the lyrics dealing with, and work with it in that way.

D&C: How do you think relationship with your body image has changed?
PJ Harvey: 
Ah, I think as anyone grows older you… worry less about things actually. I don’t know what your experience is.

D&C: Definitely. Well you see the state of me today so…
PJ Harvey: 
(Laughs) As you get older, different things take on a greater importance than how you’re looking that day, you know? Other things become much more important than that, and I really welcome that as a part of the process of getting older. I think it’s wonderful to stop worrying about how you look or what you’re wearing or what other people think of you. You get to the point were you actually just don’t care ‘cos there are so many other things that seem much more urgent and pressing to deal with.

D&C: Do you feel indifferent to what’s coming out now or do you feel it’s getting exciting again?
PJ Harvey: 
I don’t feel indifferent to what is happening in pop culture but I can’t say that I feel it’s getting better. When I first came out in the early ‘90s, I can remember that time as feeling very vibrant and very exciting. There was a lot of new styles of music emerging and some great, great writers. You had people like Nirvana first taking off which I think took everybody by surprise. People like the Pixies were an astonishing band – still are. And everything felt very new and very experimental. I feel now, and it’s a difficult one to answer, because I also wonder if what is happening now doesn’t seem exciting to me particularly because I’ve already lived through that. If I was 14 now, what was happening right now musically would seem very exciting to me ‘cos I wouldn’t know of everything that had gone before. So I question myself on that. To me, now being 41, there doesn’t seem to be that much that’s interesting me because most of it I feel like I’ve heard before, and done better before.

D&C: How do you stay creatively inspired, then?
PJ Harvey: 
I just keep my eyes open every day to be inspired by what is happening around me, both in a very near level and a great level in terms of what’s happening in the news, what’s happening in the world. And I think the key is just to be alive to that; to listen, to look, and to process it all. Just to be alive to the moment that we’re living in, that’s where my greatest inspiration comes from. In terms of other arts, I actually find my greatest inspiration through theatre. I think there is some great theatre productions going on in the most recent years, and some great writers. Jez Butterworth being one example with Jerusalem, which I’ve seen twice now and would love to see again. Directors like Ian Rickson, those people I find extremely inspiring to be around.

D&C: Dazed have been celebrating our 20th Anniversary, so the inevitable last question has to be: how do you see yourself developing as an artist over the next 20 years?
PJ Harvey: 
It’s very hard to answer where I see myself going in the next 20 years, it’s a long time and I do take each day as it comes. I always follow my instincts creatively and I’m never ever really sure where that will take me. I don’t know whether it’s going to take me into theatre music more or whether it’s going to take me into becoming a painter. I’ll just have to see what happens.

Text Tim Noakes
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