PJ Harvey: The Fresh Air Interview British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey watched hours of war footage before writing the songs for her eighth album, Let England Shake. Here, she describes how she translated what she saw into a mournful elegy about the bitter brutality of combat.

PJ Harvey: The Fresh Air Interview

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest is musician, songwriter and singer Polly Jean Harvey, who's also known as PJ Harvey. She was named Rolling Stone's Best New Artist in 1992 and Artist of the Year in '95. In 2001, her band won England's top music award, the Mercury Prize. She's just released her eighth album, called "Let England Shake."

Harvey has said that she dislikes repeating herself, and this album takes her in a new direction. She's written many songs about love and obsession. "Let England Shake" features her new songs about war and about her country, England. Musically, she's drawn on folk ballads and rock in ways similar to Nick Cave, who she's collaborated with, and Richard Thompson.

Before we talk, let's start with a song from "Let England Shake." This is "The Words that Maketh Murder." Harvey is featured on autoharp and saxophone, as well as vocals.

(Soundbite of song, "The Words that Maketh Murder")

Ms. PJ HARVEY (Singer): (Singing) I've seen and done things I want to forget. I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat, blown and shot out beyond belief, arms and legs were in the trees.

I've seen and done things I want to forget coming from an unearthly place, longing to see a woman's face instead of the words that gather pace, the words that maketh murder.

These, these, these are the words, the words that maketh murder. These, these, these are the words, the words that maketh murder. These, these, these are the words, the words that maketh murder. These, these, these are the words, murder...

GROSS: That's PJ Harvey from her new album, "Let England Shake." Polly Jean Harvey, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like this album. It's a pleasure to have you here.

There's an image in the song that we just heard of arms and legs in the trees, and I wonder what inspired that image, if you'd seen a photo like that, or if somebody had described it in something that you'd read or somebody who had witnessed war described that to you.

Ms. HARVEY: Well, I did enormous amounts of research for this album. I needed to. And the more research that I did, it would keep leading me into different areas. There seemed to be so much to uncover.

And much of the most valuable research that I did came from firsthand accounts, from the eyewitness, from the person on the ground, whether that person was a soldier and regardless of either side of what was the action that was taking place, or whether it was a civilian again, on either side. It was those firsthand accounts that I drew upon most.

GROSS: You have a big range in your singing voice. Some of your songs are really deep. Some of the - by deep I mean in a low range. And some of them are in a high range. And some of the songs on your new album are in a high range, and I think that that's kind of interesting because it's a more female - you know, a range that is more associated with women than men, but you're singing about men in war, in a more female kind of voice, like, than some of your other recordings. I don't know if that's making any sense to you, but some of your...

Ms. HARVEY: No...

GROSS: Some of your recordings are really in a very deep voice but not so much this one.

Ms. HARVEY: It makes perfect sense, what you're describing. With each body of work, with each album, or with each song, actually, one has to find the right voice with which to deliver the song at its best.

Now, with this new record, it was very, very difficult to find what voice to deliver such words with, because obviously these words have a great deal of weight. They have very strong narratives. They're very much action-on-the-ground storytelling, the witness to the action on the ground.

I needed to find a voice that didn't add more weight to the weight that was already there, and it took a lot of experimentation to find the voice. To begin with, I tried approaching singing it with what I would call my full voice, which is a 41-year-old adult woman voice and it destroyed the words. It was far too strong, much too weighty, because the words already have that.

So gradually, through a process of elimination and mistakes, I finally came across the voice that you're hearing, which you're rightly describing as a very high, very simple voice. It was - I was looking for something that was almost characterless, that could just be the narrator of the story, almost disembodied from the action, just relaying what they can see happening, and that voice had to be very, very simple, very pure, very high, to inhabit almost a characterless place within the scene.

GROSS: It sounds as though almost like you approached this album as music theater.

Ms. HARVEY: Well, I often see the songs as I'm writing them in - maybe in the way that you might see a specific scene in a film. I can often see the action and see the colors, and I can focus on that as I'm writing the song, and then it brings to me all of the descriptive words and language that I need.

GROSS: My guest is PJ Harvey, and she has a new album called "Let England Shake," and it's war songs, songs that come out of different wars, songs she wrote about different wars.

And I want to play another song. It's called "All and Everyone," and if you don't mind, I'm going to just say the first few words of the lyrics of this song: Death was everywhere, in the air and in the sounds, coming off the mounds of Bolton's Ridge.

Tell us a little bit about this song and the battle that you're writing about.

Ms. HARVEY: Well, I would like to interject and just say that the album is not solely about war. There are other songs on this record that are much more to do with one's nation, and although as an Englishwoman I sing about England, I tried to use words that were dealing with the emotional quality that any human being could recognize in the way that they felt about their country as well.

So it's to do with the world we live in. That world, as you know, is a brutal one and full of war. It's also full of many wonderful things and love and hope. And I tried to offset the brutal language with very beautiful music all the way through, but also bringing love in the form of relationships between the people in the songs, and that was equally as important to me.

Of course, there are songs specifically referencing war and very brutal language because that's a huge part of our world today. I found that in order to make more sense of our contemporary wars, I had to learn quite a lot about history because it all gets passed down the line. It has repercussions. It's in collective memory in all of our different countries, of all of the wars that have gone on there before.

And so I looked a lot back through the ages, and one of the conflicts that affected me a great deal was the Gallipoli campaign in the First World War. Something about the dreadful mismanagement and the shocking waste, needless waste, I thought about it a lot and really affected me, because to me it had such resonance with the wars that are going on today.

The basic language that human beings use to describe the emotions that go with such conflicts don't change. That language, those words are the same, when human beings are just trying to describe what it's like. And that's what drew me in.

And then in some ways the record is timeless. It doesn't matter what war it was. The language of war is the same.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Polly Jean Harvey's song "All and Everyone" from the new PJ Harvey album, "Let England Shake."

(Soundbite of song, "All and Everyone")

Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) Death was everywhere, in the air and in the sounds, coming off the mounds of Bolton's Ridge, death's anchorage. When you rolled a smoke or told a joke, it was in the laughter and drinking water. It approached the beach as strings of cutters, dropped in the sea and lay around us.

Death was in the ancient fortress, shelled by a million bullets from gunners waiting in the copses with hearts that threatened to pop their boxes. As we approached into the sun, death was all and everyone, death was all and everyone.

GROSS: That's "All and Everyone" from PJ Harvey's new album, "Let England Shake." So the song we just heard was - is about how death was everywhere after this battle, and I know your mother is or was a sculptor, your father a stonemason, correct me if I have that wrong. Is it right that one of them made tombstones?

Ms. HARVEY: Well, my father and mother have most of their lives quarried stone. There's a specific quarry in Somerset, in England, called Ham Hill, and this quarry range has a very particular type of stone, and there's only two different people that quarry this. And it goes throughout the world. It goes to many different countries because it's a unique stone.

They've quarried this particular stone for the last 40 years, I think. So they work in that together, and quarrying stone, you know, that's a manner of actually hacking it out of the ground. Enormous quarry faces and huge blocks of stone come out of there, and out of that the stone is broken down for housing, paving, house names, tombstones, fireplaces.

And there are many different workers at all different levels. Some of them are cutting the huge blocks out of the ground, and others are slicing down the stone, and others are engraving, letter-cutting into it.

My mum does a lot of letter-cutting. She also does more sculptural pieces. Often people want something carved into a headstone or into a fireplace, which can be quite detailed.

GROSS: Now, you grew up on a farm, didn't you?

Ms. HARVEY: I grew up on a small holding. I wouldn't say it was a farm because my dad's primary occupation is stone quarrying. But we did have animals, and we lived off our animals, and my mother and father still do.

GROSS: What kind of animals?

Ms. HARVEY: Sheep, cattle, chickens.

GROSS: Wow, so you grew up in a pretty rural place in England.

Ms. HARVEY: Yes. Yes, yeah.

GROSS: So how were you exposed to music? What was in your parents' record collection? I imagine you weren't going to a lot of concerts growing up in rural England on a - you know, with a lot of animals?

Ms. HARVEY: No, quite the opposite. I was going to concerts all the time.

GROSS: Seriously?

Ms. HARVEY: Yes, because my mother and father are very involved with music. It's completely part of their soul. And they have an incredible record collection, all vinyl, of some of the best artists, in my eyes, that you can come across - I mean, people like Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, John Lee Hooker, Nina Simone, Captain Beefheart.

All of these artists were what I grew up listening to every day of my life. And there's a very healthy music scene in the West Country of England, where I grew up. Many people, not just my mother and father, were involved in bringing a lot of bands to play in our local areas, and often there would be bands staying at my house. Every weekend there was live music to go and see.

GROSS: No kidding. Really? Who stayed at your house?

Ms. HARVEY: Many different bands from the London era in the early '80s, a lot of rhythm and blues bands, Juice on the Loose, Diz and the Doormen, bands that you wouldn't be familiar with but at that time were big on the scene, and bands like Rocket 88, which was Ian Stewart's jazz formation, Ian Stewart being often termed as the sixth Rolling Stone.

But he was a great friend of my mum and dad's, and he had some wonderful bands. Rocket 88 was one, of which Charlie Watts played in quite often, and they would stay at our house as well.

GROSS: So when you were listening to, for instance, Howlin' Wolf, the great blues singer, he's from another era, he's from another country, and you know, African-American music - what did you relate to about his music as a young girl growing up in rural England?

Ms. HARVEY: Well, it's very hard to put into words, and this is where I constantly struggle with trying to describe music in words. But the best I could do is to say the soul, the spirit of it touched my soul and spirit in a way that I under - felt understood and understood it. And I can't describe it better than that.

GROSS: My guest is musician, songwriter and singer PJ Harvey. Her new album is called "Let England Shake." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is musician, singer and songwriter PJ Harvey. Her new album is called "Let England Shake." When we left off, she was talking about being influenced by the blues albums in her parents' collection.

I thought I'd play a recording of yours from 1995, a great recording called "To Bring You My Love." And I feel like I hear Howlin' Wolf and other blues singers in this. What do you think?

Ms. HARVEY: I think you're absolutely right.

GROSS: Good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I'm so glad you think that. Okay, so we should hear it. Do you want to say anything about singing this? This voice is so different than the one that we've been hearing from your new album. It's a real, like, guttural voice. It sounds like you've met the devil.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARVEY: Well, again, like I said earlier in the interview, for each song I take I take that song individually and I look at what is the best way for me to deliver this song to its maximum strength. And that was the voice that I uncovered that this song needed to be delivered with.

GROSS: Okay. So this is PJ Harvey in 1995, "To Bring You My Love."

(Soundbite of song, "To Bring You My Love")

Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) I was born in the desert. I been down for years. Jesus, come closer. I think my time is near.

And I've traveled over dry earth and floods, hell and high water to bring you my love.

Climbed over mountains, travelled the sea, cast down off heaven, cast down on my knees. I've laid with the devil, cursed God above, forsaken heaven to bring you my love, to bring you my love, to bring you my love, to bring you my love.

GROSS: That's PJ Harvey, recorded in 1995. She has a new album called "Let England Shake."

So we were talking about how you grew up in a house not only with sheep and cattle but surrounded by music. Musicians stayed at your home. Your parents helped bring the musicians to town to perform. They had a great vinyl record collection.

When did you know that you wanted to be a musician, that you wanted to perform?

Ms. HARVEY: There wasn't really a point that I can recall. I was a visual artist primarily and a writer. Even from a very young age I wrote a lot of stories and poetry, and likewise I had a desire to create always with painting and drawing, and I still do that daily.

And I always had a desire to show my work. I'd want to read the stories that I'd written, I'd want to show the drawings that I'd made. That was just purely natural. And so I knew that I wanted to go into the arts in some way and that I would like to show that work in some way. That's all I knew.

I didn't know what territory specifically it would be in, whether I'd be writing or acting or singing or drawing. And as I grew a bit older, I actually was prepared to go into fine arts school and do a degree. And I was all - I had my place. I was going to go and do that. So that was what I was actually settled upon when I was first offered a record deal, because I'd put together a band at art college, and we'd just begun to play in London.

And I think it was our, maybe our fourth or fifth gig ever, and I was offered a record deal, and that's what happened. That's just the way that life took me.

GROSS: My guest, PJ Harvey, will be back in the second half of the show. Her new album is called "Let England Shake." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with musician, songwriter and singer PJ Harvey. Her new album "Let England Shake" features her songs about war and her country, England.

I want to play an early song of yours, and this is "Rid of Me." And would you say a few words, if you remember, about writing this?

Ms. HARVEY: That time of writing the whole body of work that became "Rid of Me," it was my second album. It was the first time of writing that I knew what I was writing would be heard. And so I, for a long time, felt quite crippled by fear and unable to write, and gradually, gradually worked through that and just remained true to myself and my instinct. And, therefore, you have a record that is a very difficult record. It's not easy to listen to. It's certainly not what some - what would get played very much on radio, and probably not what my record company was looking for at all at that time. But that's the case in point. It's what I needed to make, and that's all I had to stick by. I had to stick by what I needed to create as an artist, no matter how that came out.

GROSS: Well, "Rid of Me" is actually really catchy. And in this song, you alternate - you know, we've been talking about the different voices that you use. You alternate between a higher voice and a lower voice in this.

Ms. HARVEY: Yes. Yeah, again, all to do with the song and dramatic effect that you can achieve.

GROSS: Okay. So here's Polly Jean Harvey from 1993, I think this is? Is that right?

Ms. HARVEY: I think it is. I think so.

GROSS: Okay. Okay. And this is "Rid of Me."

(Soundbite of song, "Rid of Me")

Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) I beg you, my darling. Don't leave me. I'm hurting. Lick my legs. I'm on fire. Lick my legs of desire.

I'll tie your legs, keep you against my chest. Oh, you're not rid of me. Yeah, you're not rid of me. I'll make you lick my injuries. I'm going to twist your head off, see.

Till you say don't you wish you never, never met her? Don't you don't you wish you never, never met her? Don't you, don't you wish you never, never met her? Don't you, don't you wish you never, never met her?

I beg you my darling...

GROSS: That was PJ Harvey on the title track of her album "Rid of Me," from 1993. She has a new album called "Let England Shake."

You recorded the new album in a 19th-century church on a cliff overlooking the sea. Why did you choose to record the album in a church, as opposed to a London recording studio?

Ms. HARVEY: It was the way things fell, because initially, I was looking at recording in Berlin, and I looked at studios there. I couldn't find a studio that I liked the feel of, so I came back to England not really knowing where I was going to record. And a man who lives locally and runs this church as an art space - it's primarily used for exhibitions of paintings and classical work. It's not really a functioning church, as such, anymore. He approached me and said if I ever needed somewhere to rehearse, the church was available. And that's how it happened.

GROSS: What felt right about it?

Ms. HARVEY: The location was beautiful and weather-beaten and full of space and air and energy, and the building itself with high ceilings and stone walls and full of possibilities for recording sound. And I went there with Flood, my producer, and I sang a bit in the church for him to listen to, and we instantly knew it was the place to do the record.

GROSS: Did it help, too, that it was a 19th century building, that it was old?

Ms. HARVEY: Well, I think it added to its beauty and spaciousness, and it just felt good in there. And that's all I ever look for. And sometimes a recording studio can feel good. I'm sitting here in Maida Vale in London, speaking to you. This studio has always felt good to me. Every time I've come in here over the years, I like it here. Now, and that doesn't go for any studio, and I might have walked into a different church and not liked that church. So it's really hard to say why, but this church felt good.

GROSS: I want to close with another song from your new album "Let England Shake." How about "The Glorious Land?" Would you say something to introduce it?

Ms. HARVEY: Well, again, I think too much is made of this being an album about England and war. You know, it's not as simple as that. It's about the world we live in. And this song, "The Glorious Land," illustrates that rather well, I think, because it's nonspecific, particularly. It's not - it could be anywhere that I'm singing from. And even the songs that refer to England or the glorious land, referring to America, it's the emotion behind. It's the core. It's the person. It's the individual, who we are, that is the voice here.

And I try to use, throughout the record, language that carried a certain ambiguity, a certain ambivalence. And I tried to remain impartial in some ways, in the way that any news correspondent might try and remain impartial. I just wanted to deliver the action. Here's the action. This is the story. This is what's going on on the ground, and people make up their own minds about things.

GROSS: After doing an album like "Let England Shake," which is about feelings about country and war and lost friends and - where do you go from there? Do you know?

Ms. HARVEY: Well, what I've always done is just follow my instincts. And at some point, my instincts as a writer will take me into another area that I feel is strong enough that I want to concentrate on for while. And at the moment, being a writer that writes every day, I'm in that familiar territory for me, after one body of work has just been completed, though I'm feeling around. It's like feeling around in the dark, and I'll write something here and I'll write something there, and I'll think hmm, that's not really it. Nope. That's not it. That's not it.

And then after a period of time, you have to work through that time, and it's a very uncomfortable time to be in as a writer, because it's not nice to not know exactly where you're heading, what your focus is. Eventually, the focus comes, and then you just honor that. And that's the period that I'm in at the moment.

GROSS: PJ Harvey, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

Ms. HARVEY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "The Glorious Land")

Ms. HARVEY: (Singing) How is our glorious country ploughed? Not by iron ploughs. How is our glorious country ploughed? Not by iron ploughs. Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet. Feet marching. Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet. Feet marching.

Oh, America. Oh, England. Oh, America. Oh, England.

How is our glorious country sown? Not with wheat and corn. How is our glorious country sown? Not with wheat and corn. How is our glorious land bestowed? How is our glorious land bestowed?

Oh, America. Oh, England. Oh, America. Oh, England. Oh, America. Oh, England. Oh, America. Oh, England.

GROSS: That was "The Glorious Land" from PJ Harvey's new album "Let England Shake." Today only, you can hear the entire album on our website, freshair.npr.org. Harvey will give a few performances in the U.S. in April, including at the Coachella festival and a second show at New York City's Terminal 5, which was added because the first sold out so quickly.

Coming up, we listen back to an interview with jazz pianist and composer George Shearing. He died Monday at the age of 91.

This is FRESH AIR.

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