During her illustrious 20-year career, the chameleonic songstress PJ Harvey has done everything from appear topless on the cover of the NME, to scoop up a Mercury Music prize for her 2001 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. And with nine albums under her belt, Harvey’s astonishing propensity for experimentation is Radiohead-esque in its capacity to confuse and excite the listener. But in preparing for battle this time around, it appears that her creative priorities have changed entirely.
On this latest album, tracks like ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ and ‘In the Dark Places’ may allude to an overriding gothic sensibility, but are in fact a far cry from the anguished introspection of To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire? Leaving behind the desolate, folkloric landscapes of 2007’s White Chalk, Harvey swims towards uncharted waters with this probing study into the vulgarities of war.
Recorded in a church in Dorset, Let England Shake grapples with weighty, universal questions about nation and identity, swapping insular narratives about self-exploration for more digestible socio-political commentary. Her live performance on the Andrew Marr show (appearing in front of a bemused Gordon Brown) was a subtle act of political subversion, reminding us all of the power of the protest song. Born from a sense of frustration and disillusionment with the world around us, this latest album captures the discontented spirit du jour, as Harvey accordingly addresses the nation with her autoharp in tow. Dazed Digital meets the enigmatic singer in a central London hotel to talk about the new album, ‘Englishness’ and the sorry state of British politics...
Dazed Digital: The first thing that strikes you about this album is the artwork; iconic images of yourself have been replaced by words. Is this indicative of a shift in direction or perspective?
PJ Harvey: Michelle Henning created the design because when she listened to the record it made her think of swarms. When I listened to the music it didn’t feel right to have a picture of myself; there needed to be more than that.
DD: You performed title track ‘Let England Shake’ on the Andrew Marr show in front of Gordon Brown. Did you know he was going to be there and was this politically significant for you?
PJ Harvey: I knew he was going to be there about three or four days beforehand but I didn’t know when I was initially asked. I think it was one week before the elections and there was so much going on so it was an incredible opportunity for me and I was very aware of the significance of it all.
DD: There are specific historical references in this record like the Battle of Gallipoli for example. Was research an important part of the process?
PJ Harvey: It always is. For this record I looked at Salvador Dali’s paintings from the Spanish Civil War and Francisco de Goya’s Disasters of War series. I read a lot of Harold Pinter’s poetry and political essays as well as TS Eliot’s. I looked at a lot of Stanley Kubrick and Ken Loach films. I did a lot of historical research and looked into firsthand accounts, trying to find as many blogs as possible from people who were involved in our contemporary world.
DD: The imagery on this record is quite provocative, “Soldiers falling like lumps of meat”, for example. Did anything in particular trigger you to put these anti-war sentiments into song?
PJ Harvey: I wanted to try and articulate some of the feelings engendered by the world we live in. I kept coming across instances where there would be officially appointed war artists, war correspondents or war poets but I couldn’t find the officially appointed war songwriter anywhere. So I thought in my head, if I was put in that role how would I do that, how would I report back from the front line in song.
DD: Why did you choose to remove the sample from ‘Let England Shake’ and what’s the significance of the other samples on the record?
PJ Harvey: When I performed that song on the Andrew Marr show it was still growing. Later on along the line I found the sample tied it down too much and didn’t let it breathe. There’s the Nimey sample on ‘Written on the Forehead’ and there’s a Kurdish folk song sung by an Iraqi woman on ‘England’. It’s actually a love song and I liked the idea of marrying her love song with my love song to a country.
DD: What’s the relationship between the sound and the words?
PJ Harvey: When I had finished writing, the words didn’t need any more weight added to them because they were about huge subject matter. I knew that I wanted the music to be energising and uplifting and to lift up the words and carry them up high into the stratosphere.
DD: On ‘England’, you sing about the country that you love leaving “a bitter taste.” What does it mean to you to be English?
PJ Harvey: Of course I reference England as an English woman, but with the whole album I was trying to use what I can only describe as the language of a human being. We all have these feelings of being attached to the country we’re born in, shame, optimism, love and hate, but I’m very aware that we’re all immigrants. I only think about it all in terms of how we all got here and that we’re all somehow connected.
Let England Shake is released on February 14 on Island Records
Follow April Clare Welsh on Twitter here @AprilClareWelsh