PJ Harvey on White Chalk
‘The world doesn’t need any more art that’s just alright’, says Polly Harvey. ‘It only needs mind-blowing, inspirational, life-changing stuff’. It’s a Thursday afternoon on a sunny afternoon, and Harvey is sitting outside a pub in her native county of Dorset. She’s here to tell the story of her album entitled White Chalk, and eleven songs that probably mark the most radical departure she has ever taken: putting guitars to one side, using arrangements built around the piano, and exploring stripped-back music that succeeds in sounding timeless. Now and again, echoes influences from centuries ago; just as often, it sounds as if she is pushing into completely virgin territory. ‘To me, it’s 100 years old and 100 years new, all at the same time’, she says. ‘And it didn’t really come from memory; it’s more about making new things by releasing the gates on the imagination. Not tying yourself to what you know, but what you don’t know’. Co-produced by Flood and John Parish — who last worked together on 1995’s To Bring You My Love — White Chalk is Harvey’s eighth album, and arrives some sixteen years after the release of her first single. It took two and half years to make, as she first cloistered herself in Dorset and acquainted herself with creating songs using the piano, and a method she calls Writing In The Moment. She thinks it’s among the best things she’s ever done – the first of her records, moreover, that she feels compelled to listen to – and she’s not wrong. By turns haunting, unsettling, raw and poetic, it throws forth all kinds of questions. How did she get from the last album, Uh Huh Her, to here? How it will sit in a world in which formulaic indie-rock and the demands of the mass market are more dominant than ever? Somewhat inevitably, the last point doesn’t bother her at all. What’s important, she assures me, is much more simple: that having set on a completely new direction, she ‘absolutely followed my vision’.We begin back in 2004, and the fleeting possibility that she might have called time on music altogether.
When I was reading through some of your press cuttings, I found an Australian interview from the end of 2004. You were coming to the end of touring Uh Huh Her, and you said, ‘I might go back to college and study English literature, or I might just move into something different. I’m not sure yet.’ Did you really mean it? ‘I was seriously considering that. Definitely. I always do, actually [laughs]. At the end of a long tour, I tend to feel like I certainly don’t want to tour again, but it’s also, ‘Am I doing the right thing with my life? Is this the best thing I can be doing with my potential as a human being?’”
In the distant past, you’ve also mentioned volunteering in Africa.
‘Yeah, yeah. I’ve been through that phase. Nursing, being a veterinary surgeon… at the end of a long tour, that’s what tends to happen. By the end of 2004, I didn’t feel like going on a giant tour again, and I don’t intend to: at the moment, I’m just doing solo shows when I feel like them, because it can be so much more flexible. But [pause] it was a different time then. I wasn’t feeling like I’d done good work for quite a few years – or not as good as I wanted it to be. I think that’s quite natural; that people go through phases of great creativity and not-such-great creativity. And I felt like I’d been on the lower end of the curve for a while’.
When do you think you peaked?
‘Probably with Is This Desire. With that record, I felt like everything came together and hit the right spot at the right moment. And then it sort of passed again. Maybe that’s a natural process. It seems to be: this cycle of things converging and working at the same time, and then just … missing each other for quite a while’.
It’s a little strange to hear you say that, because Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea sounds like such a bold, confident record …
‘It definitely did what I was trying to do – which was to make an album full of great pop songs. But that’s not really where my heart is. It was more of an experiment with the craft, rather than an experiment with the heart, if that makes any sense. This album – and I think Is This Desire and To Bring You My Love – were times when I felt the craft and the heart married well. Other times, I just go through phases where it’s more of an exercise in exploring something, but it’s not really where I want to be in my soul. I feel passionate when I’m doing it, but if I was to unravel why that is, it’s probably because I’m more passionate about the idea I’m trying to achieve, rather than what the music’s actually making me feel’.
How did you get from calling time on Uh Huh Her to beginning to work on this latest record? All your albums have tended to be very different from the last one, but this one really is.
‘I think I was even more adamant about that desire I always have to try and not repeat myself. I saw that through with this; I didn’t let anything slide. Sometimes I can be really strict with myself about that, and other times I might like a song, so I’ll let it go. Even if it’s like something I’ve done before, I’ll think, ‘I like it, so I’ll let it go.’ With this album, I didn’t do that at all. These days, I feel so despondent about the way so much artwork is going. I’m not just talking about music, but art, and literature, and films. It just seems that the quality is going down and down and down, and I struggle so hard to get excited about (i)anything(i). I don’t understand what the reason is: all I know is that everything I hear or watch seems to be of poor quality. There are certain cracks of light that come through and you think, ‘Thank God for that’, but they seem to be less and less. I just feel like I don’t want to be contributing any more nonsense, because there’s plenty of nonsense already’.
How quickly did you come to the decision that you were going to make a record so stripped-down and piano-based? There’s hardly any guitar on this album at all.
‘Well, when I started working towards this body of work… I guess, overall, it was two and half years of writing. I wrote (i)loads(i) of songs. There’s eleven here, but there were fifty-odd. Just (i)tons(i) of them. Some were dreadful, just dreadful. And I was trying lots of different instruments: piano, and crazy guitars made out of cigar boxes, and harps and autoharps, and tiny little keyboards – everything I could lay my hands on that wasn’t a guitar. And I did try some on guitar, and some weren’t so bad, but I decided not to use them. It was important to have an extremely different sound that was a unified sound in some way. That led me to choose what I thought were the stronger songs, but also the ones that weren’t on guitar. It was odd, because there were some songs that I thought were some of the best things I’ve written. But they were on guitar, and I wouldn’t use them, because I wanted to make this particular group of songs very, very different’.
What draws you to the piano?
‘It’s entirely different from the guitar. It’s like arriving at a giant beast, really. It’s quite daunting. I had a piano sitting in my house for about three months before I even dared touch it. It’s like a giant body: it’s got a ribcage, teeth, tongues — everything. It almost feels like it plays you rather than you playing it’.
Listen to the PJ Harvey track, When Under Ether, off her White Chalk album.