02/11/2011 03:45 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

PJ Harvey: Artist at War


Let England Shake is the eighth proper album from PJ Harvey, and I dare you not to take it seriously. Released on February 14th, this is an arsenic-laced valentine to her beloved Great Britain, and in a way, the entire Western world. This is epic music, fucked-up folk songs meditating on centuries of bloodshed and imperialism, and putting our current military conflicts in perspective. The songs are as catchy and cheery as anything in a nursery rhyme, but you find yourself singing lyrics about fallen soldiers, burning homes and blood-soaked soil, and that's exactly Harvey's aim. The sugar-coated sound helps the hard truths go down.

In her 20-year career, Polly Jean Harvey has always been the kind of artist that reinvents herself on every project. She switches up the instruments she plays, and even the very voice she sings in, from the raw rocker on "Rid of Me," the oversexed blues singer on "To Bring You My Love," to the ghostly saloon singer of her last acclaimed album, White Chalk. Forging her own unique path, she's been every bit as influential as the Pixies and Nirvana. We had a no-nonsense chat recently about the making of the album, current affairs, and I even tried to get her to talk smack about her prime minister. The little lady is far too smart to take my bait. She prefers to let her music and lyrics fight her battles.

When dealing with this subject matter, it can come off as heavy handed or preachy in the wrong hands. What did you do to avoid making your own personal "We Are The World"?

I knew I didn't want to use overtly political language, and to deal with feelings we all have. I wanted to avoid being too dogmatic or opinionated. I worked on the words alone to begin with. I knew that they had to be right before I took them any further. Gradually I began to find the language that worked and it kept coming back to the simplest language narrating what was happening. Like a journalist in a different country and trying to remain impartial.

There's lots of imagery in the songs of fallen soldiers and dismembered body parts. Can a country ever escape its bloody past and their spoils of war?

When I was researching this record I initially began with our current day conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I found quite quickly that in order to understand what is going on now I absolutely had to comprehend what happened 100-200 years ago and beyond...

Because we keep repeating that same history?

Yes, but also the collective knowledge is somehow in our systems as well, not just ours but in these countries of war, in Afghanistan. If you look at the history that has gone before, somehow it's all there as collective remembrance.

It was quite a surreal and subversive moment when you performed Let England Shake on Andrew Morton's talk show in front of your prime minister Gordon Brown. Were you tempted to have a go at him, rip his photo in half a la Sinead O'Connor?

Unfortunately there wasn't even a chance to talk with him, but I would've liked to have met him. I was very glad to have had the opportunity to play that very song for him and particularly at that time.

"Let England Shake" on the Andrew Morton Show

What do you make of Morrissey and Johnny Marr banning Gordon Brown from being a Smiths fan? Brown had said his favorite band was the Smiths and there was even joking about it on the Parliament floor, and Morrissey and Marr issued statements saying he was banned and not allowed to like the Smiths.

I wasn't aware that they had banned him, this is the first I'm hearing about this!

This is really the first time your writing perspective has shifted from the emotional interior to what is going on externally in the world. Why is that?

I've never written from a personal point of view, it's never been an autobiography. I always have been a writer who inhabits different lives as a vehicle to use imagery and perspectives to view the world we live in. This record is no different. I use characters to explore what it is to be a human being.

Do you find that when an artist champions a cause or speaks out for or against something, say like Bono or Sean Penn, that it can overshadow their own work, if they are too overt and vocal about their political leanings?

I think everyone follows their own path and that's a good thing. If people care that much to put themselves out there behind causes they believe in. I don't think it overshadows their work. Sean Penn is an incredible actor and I don't think his speaking out has diminished his quality as an actor or filmmaker at all.

How do you keep up with news and world events? What sources do you go to?

Newspapers, the internet, first hand accounts, and television but I'm sure as you know its very difficult to get the full picture with all the censorship in the media more and more so, frighteningly so. You have to do a lot of ground work to really find out whats happening.

What do you make of the uprising in Egypt? It's quite amazing and encouraging, isn't it? Its great to see the internet have a real impact on world events and politics, and it's not just for gossip and porn anymore!

Yes it is, and I don't think any of us could've foreseen what has happened in such a short amount of time. The internet can be used to great good. There are great possibilities, but as with anything there are downsides. It's up to each individual to use it well.


Let England Shake contains the line "England's dancing days are gone." What exactly are you saying with that line? Are England's salad days over, or is it simply a Led Zeppelin reference?

Again, I leave that line open to the listener. People will take from it what they will. That is one of the beautiful qualities of artwork is that the artist can present ideas, can provoke, can stimulate but ultimately leave it up to the listener to interpret it their own personal way. As far as Led Zeppelin, I wasn't conscious of that at the time I wrote it. (laughs)

The videos Séamus Murphy is doing for all the songs have been stunning so far. How did that collaboration come about?

I came across an exhibition of his in 2008 as I researched this project, of his 10 years embedded in Afghanistan. I was so mesmerized by his imagery... there was so much truth in them. I contacted Séamus which I don't normally do and asked him if he ever does work with people such as myself. We did some photos that developed into Séamus' journey, filming a road trip through England.

"The Last Living Rose" video by Séamus Murphy

More than any artist I can think of, with every album you do a creative 180, changing the mood, and the instruments you play and even the style of voice you sing in. Are you very conscious of not repeating yourself?

It is very natural for me to keep experimenting and learning in everything I do, it's not contrived, it's inherent. I always strive to find a new voice and new way of saying something because in newness you can then down the line open people's eyes and ears in a new way. That's what I aim for anyway.

Is critical praise important to you? This record is getting pretty much rave reviews down the line, except maybe for the grumpy review by Sasha Frere Jones in the New Yorker, who seems to be permanently locked into the Rid of Me phase of PJ Harvey...

(Laughs.) I don't judge my own work by it, because that judgment comes from myself at the point of writing it. There's really nothing I can do about the way people receive it and as long as I know in my own heart that I did my best then I am OK with however it's criticized.


Let England Shake is released on February 14, in the UK, and February 15 in the U.S.