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PJ Harvey's Netherworld: How She Tamed Her Growl and Dreamed Like a Kid for "White Chalk"

November 2, 2007 6:57 PM ET

PJ Harvey has played only a handful of U.S. shows in support of her gorgeous new album, White Chalk, but she blew audiences away with her one-woman-band approach to the gigs, holding down guitar, piano, autoharp and synths while unleashing her beloved growl and the new vocal style she's only recently embraced: "my church voice." Though the album is largely piano-based, Harvey says didn't know it would take shape that way until she'd completed forty or fifty songs -- and that her primary goal for the record was simply to not repeat anything she'd done before. Here's more from Harvey's interview with Rolling Stone's Evan Serpick, where she discusses interpretations of her lyrics, finding an imaginary world and rediscovering Bob Dylan.

When did you start to write on piano?
I didn't start to play until early 2005 when a friend was looking for a home for a piano, and I quite simply had never owned one before. [To learn to play] I'd pretend to be a piano player. No, I'm serious. I pretend quite a lot in my head anyway, so I'm sitting there and I think, "How would a piano player play?" And I shut my eyes and improvise with myself, like I was giving this concert.

Did you study the instrument in any structured way before you wrote White Chalk?
I was thinking about what is it one loses as you go into adulthood, that capacity to imagine that we have as children, and I can remember having this crazy imagination where I would make anything happen -- create an invisible friend, create a castle to live in, and anything could happen. And I just learned to play again, I just threw away any sort of adult rules I created and imposed upon myself, and anything was possible. I can remember one of the early songs that I wrote, I discovered these other vocals -- high, almost sort of childlike vocals -- and thinking, "That sounds about five years old," and that really excited me. As I was beginning to sing in this childlike way, I was beginning to think in that open way that children can, and make anything happen.

Some people say the album has a Victorian feel. Do you think it is of this time, or the past?
I feel like it's out of time. It doesn't feel like it's present, it doesn't feel particularly like it's past or future. I'm not sure where it is. To me, it sounds like a different world, it sounds like it's a netherworld.

Is there a reason you were so strenuously trying not to replicate your past sounds? The whole reason that I'm making work is because I'm a creative artist, I'm not trying to sell records, I'm not trying to find one thing that works and repeat it. It's definitely not what I'm interested in at all, it never has been. I come from a background of being at art college, and the process of making things and exploring, I feel more like an explorer than a rock musician. It's about experimentation, that's all it's about. I can't keep living if I just do the same thing. I have no interest in that at all, and I want to see what I'm capable of and what beautiful things I can make whilst I'm here on the planet, and hopefully, in the process, make things that other people enjoy, as well.

It seems that several songs on the album deal with abortion.
That's your interpretation, but it certainly wasn't ... it was nothing as specific as that. It's become a theme that's blown out of all proportion. "While Under Ether," it's very much about life and death, really, but that whole beautiful process of moving from one world to another. I wanted that song very much to be about the kindness of human beings and what kindness people can show in the face of adversity at very difficult times. I'll be the last person to say, "This song means that, this song means this," because to me, that defeats the whole point of making pieces of artwork, anyway. It's about giving it away so that people can use it. You know how music can become a soundtrack to our lives, and the memories that it triggers of being in love or being in that country, or "I remember I was doing that when I loved that song," and that's music at its best, when it's used in your own life. I never want to try and explain songs.

Is it difficult to sing in that higher voice you use on this album?
It's actually natural -- much more natural than any of my other Polly voices. I wasn't interested in that to begin with. I was interested in loud rock music and aggressive music and violent music and just to sing that sort of music with that voice, it just doesn't work. There was a B-side from '96 where I was singing in that voice. I'm singing it in the concerts at the moment, it's called "Nina in Ecstasy." It's a tiny little hymn-like tune, but that was the only time before now that I'd used that very high voice.

What are you listening to now?
At the moment, I'm just on this whole exploration of Bob Dylan's early Sixties albums. For some reason, I've been familiar with his more recent records, and I've not really gone in there and listened to what was going on then, and I've found that very inspiring. When I was writing White Chalk, I listened almost exclusively to classical music, no words, just classical music, and I think that did influence me in the fact that there seem to be no rules in classical music. Now with Dylan, it's made me think a lot about what is one actually saying in a song and trying to work on strengths through words and actually say something of relevance.

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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