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Q&A: PJ Harvey on Acid, the Bible, and Singing the Blues

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You recently took a break from performing. What do you do with your time off?
Music doesn't have time off for me. It's what I do. I love music. I feel pretty weird today because I haven't had a chance to sing or play guitar. So the last three weeks for me was very much making music more than anything. Time off just means not having that pressure of knowing I have a performance every night, which is a huge amount of energy and really directs my whole day. Suddenly having three weeks without having to perform, I was able to go around smoking and drinking, staying up till late.

I mean, no. That's exaggerating, but I did a lot of just seeing friends and being a normal human being that socializes with them. Did a lot of walking, a lot of weeding. A lot of things you don't get time for on the road. Cooking. Lots of cooking.

I've always wondered what you did between albums. For example, how do you make the jump from dealing with very narrow topics that seemed directed at specific people on Rid of Me to the immensity of To Bring You My Love, in which you're dealing with God and the devil, water and the elements, myth and creation?
It was the way the music was going. When I begin to write lyrics, it's usually after the music is starting to form itself. I just listen to what is being suggested to me, atmospherically and emotionally. And I was aware of myself becoming tired of constantly looking into myself. So I looked outside of myself instead, and I think it was a healthy thing to do. Lyric-writing is a very, very difficult thing, and like any writing, there's a very free line between something working and not working. I'm thinking about it again a lot at the moment. Where do I want to take my next writing? I don't want to write the same song in just a slightly different way.

Did you feel a lot of pressure on your last album for your singing to live up to the scale of the things you were singing about?
I wouldn't have written those words if I didn't think I could carry it off. If you write words like that and sing it in the wrong way, it's a complete disaster. So I had to be very sure of what I was doing. I'm not saying I got it right all the time. There were a lot of things that got ditched or that didn't work. Luckily I'm good at knowing what's bad and what's OK. I do have very, very high expectations of myself, and I'm very hard on myself with regard to whatever I'm making. Even when I was at art college, it was like that. Somebody once described that as my biggest gift. I think they called it my shit detector.

Didn't you take voice and opera lessons to help with this album?
There's so much I want to learn. Vocally, I haven't begun, really, and being on tour all this time, I haven't been able to have lessons. So as soon as I get off tour, I'm going to go straight back to having vocal tuition again. I would love to learn to play the drums properly, and I've had a few lessons but not enough.

There are also so many sculpture ideas I want to do. I really miss that. Even these last few weeks, I've been doing quite a lot of painting and sculpture.

What materials do you use for your sculptures?
Well, I have a new house, and I live right on the beach. Literally, you step out onto gravel, and so all of my work that I did the last few weeks was just what I'd found washed up. I made a few mermaids and a few fish and things like that. I've got a bit of a sea theme going on.

You only used objects from the sea?
Yes. I like to set myself parameters to work in, and I do that all the time when I'm writing music as well, and I've always been like that. So I would say, "Right, whatever I find on my walk today, I will have to make into a piece of work by this evening." In the same way, when I'm writing, I will set a goal for myself of "By tonight, I would like to have worked this song through to this stage and started on this one." For instance, with the last album I knew I wanted all the songs written and demoed within three months, and I knew that I wanted to write at least 21 or 22 songs and get them all done. I'll probably do the same again next time. I need a target like that, otherwise I find it all a bit too daunting, There're too many possibilities, and I get stopped by the fact that there're too many different ways to go. I need to narrow it own all the time in order not to panic.

Do you think you could collaborate?
Yes, well, I'm quite open-minded. In fact, I've just done a duet with Nick Cave. In the song I stab him with a penknife and throw him in a 50-foot well – no, a 100-foot well – because he doesn't love me more than he loves his girl back home. I've also written a song with Tricky, and I've just finished an album on which I collaborated on all the songs. All the music was written by [PJ Harvey guitarist] John Parish, and I wrote the words. I learned a great deal about my ability as a lyric writer by using somebody else's music.

Also, next year I'm writing music for a dance project that's going on here in London, and I'm taking one of the three major roles in a theater project. So next year for me is a branching-out time and a time for trying out as many different mediums as I can.

Do you believe the old cliche that you have to have lived a hard life, mentally or physically, to sing the blues?
I'm not going to sit here and say I've lived everything I've written about. I'd have to be 90 and have lived all over the world and probably on planet Mars as well. But I am a very sensitive and emotional person, and I have the capacity to feel things, and if I can put those feelings and emotions into music, that seems like a very worthwhile thing to do. I am kind of aware of other people as well. I don't know if compassion is the right word, but – I feel like I'm blowing my own trumpet – I do get very upset by other things as well and am trying to use that in my music. I'm quite a solitary person. I probably have been too much so in the past, and I'm only really just now finding the kind of strength you can get from being with other people and hearing what they have to say.

Blues is also what I grew up listening to. I was very lucky to have parents with a fine, fine record collection. God knows what I'd have turned out like if I didn't. I was brought up listening to [John Lee] Hooker, to Howlin' Wolf, to Robert Johnson and a lot of Hendrix and Beefheart. So I was exposed to all these very compassionate musicians at a very young age, and that's always remained in me and seems to surface more as I get older and have more experience myself. I think the way we are as we get older is a result of what we knew when we were children. More and more so, I see that. Those early learning years shape your whole life and your whole person, your being, the personality you become.

It's fascinating, because when I'm at my parents' house now, they'll put a record on that I don't recognize the name of and I think I don't know. Yet I know every single word on that album, because maybe when I was 3, they were playing it all the time. It's just all gone in there [points to her head], and that shows me just how much my music is shaped by what I was listening to and experiencing as a child.

And you never had the tendency to rebel and like the exact opposite of what your parents liked?
I think that happened as well, when I was in secondary school and all my friends were going through the rebellious time of not liking anything their parents liked. I rejected all of the music I'd listened to and went out and bought Duran Duran records and Spandau Ballet. And I'm probably influenced by that, too. Soft Cell singing "Tainted Love" is probably one of my favorite songs of all time.

The isolation of where you lived also probably helped you strengthen your ties to your parents.
Where we lived was very remote and cut off from other people. I lived in one of those very, very tiny villages, named Dorset, and we don't have a shop or anything like that. We just have one bar. That's it. And everybody that goes to that bar has been going there for the last 17 years. So I lived quite a quiet lifestyle and didn't have that many other children in the village when I was young.

Do you still dislike London?
No, actually I quite enjoy it now. I think I went through my phase of disliking it. It just wasn't a good place to live since it was the first place I lived away from my family. Since then, I've lived in Chelsea for a few months, which is quite nice, and I'm planning to get a flat up here and have one in Dorset as well and sort of commute.

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