Last night saw PJ Harvey collect the Mercury Music Prize for the second time in ten years, this time for her album Let England Shake. State spoke to her about the record over the weekend and we began by wondering if she saw each of her records as a separate entity…
“Yes I do in a way, with each album I’m interested in a different thing and exploring it through different mediums. That gives them all a unique quality”.
Does that mean you draw a line under each release and move on?
“Not always. It depends where my interests lie at the time. On White Chalk I was beginning to explore a different way with a narrative, I started with the words first which I’d never done before, but I did the same with this record. That style of writing carried through and I don’t feel I’ve covered this line of work nearly enough yet with Let England Shake. It’s going to take me forward even deeper into the subjects and themes”.
Was this a hard record to write?
“I knew because of the subject matter that I wanted to deal with – contemporary wars, sense of nation, all these giant weighty subjects – that if I didn’t get the words right to begin with then there was no point in even writing the song. It’s such a delicate balance to get right that I didn’t want to write lyrics that seemed dogmatic or chest beating. They had to be provocative, ambivalent and ambiguous and that took a lot of writing and re-writing. I knew that unless they were working there was no point of moving forward and it took two years”.
Did you always know what you wanted to say?
“I was aware of how I didn’t want to do it and that was the starting point. Not protest songs but something of great relevance to today politically. It would have been easy to tip into trite language and to say too much. You need to leave a degree unsaid so that the listener can step in and form the rest of it themselves”.
Has your view of England changed after making the album?
“No, but I’m not quite sure what that is. Part of the album is exploring many different ways of looking at something, I hesitate to say just England because I was trying very hard to use language that you could feel no matter where you came from. It’s a description of feeling a love and a hate towards the place where you were born, feeling connected to it but also embarrassed by what it’s doing. I hope that wherever you’re from you can relate to that. I think that attitude of questioning is a healthy one”.
Did the music fall into place once you had the words?
“Once I knew that the words had a lot of weight to them I wanted the music to offset that, but I also wanted beauty and hope too. Myself I always have hope, you have to otherwise you’d just give up, so I wanted to address that. I brought in beautiful instruments like the auto-harp and tried to use my voice in a way that was very simple and melodic, rather than pushing the words down”.
For an artist to attract such praise for their eight album is largely unheard of…
“I’ve felt that with this more than any record I’ve ever done, it’s what people want to hear at the moment. I could never have predicted that this would happen, the time just seems to be right”.
Let England Shake is out now on Universal