Since her debut album, Dry, a dozen years ago, PJ Harvey has earned both incessant critical praise and a devoted fan base thanks, primarily, to her feral take on the blues and her commanding live performances. Though incredibly guarded in her personal life, Harvey’s onstage persona is flashy, highly theatrical and feckless. Touring now behind her rollicking new album, Uh Huh Her, Harvey’s latest live incarnation is more outright punk as she alternates between roles as band leader — unleashing some flinty guitar strumming — and musical interpreter, stalking the stage and delivering her songs in her feisty, trademark fashion.
Before she kicked off her U.S. tour Friday night in Minneapolis, Harvey spoke about her new band, her new material and her often-overlooked sense of humor.
How did you put together your new band?
I was very much looking for a band that had a lot of charisma and could be front-people in their own right. And I came across these two guys: One is a bass player I saw play with the Fall — his name is Dingo — and the other is a guy called Josh Klinghoffer, who was recommended to me by Vincent Gallo because he played with him. And, in turn, both Dingo and Josh have freed Rob [Ellis, Harvey’s longtime drummer] and I up a lot. Because I think Rob and I can be quite conservative players. But we ended up becoming a lot more spontaneous, and the whole essence of the live set became just more in-the-moment.
You’ve said that you approach recording each new album in opposition to previous work. Was that the case with Uh Huh Her?
When I’m working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself. And not all the time do I succeed in doing that. Even with the new record: obviously, it’s very much a “PJ Harvey record,” as much as I want it to be as different as possible. But that’s always my aim: to try and cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I’m in this for learning.
While some of your songs may be about loss, it seems like that’s also balanced by a sense of humor, especially on songs like “Who the Fuck?” Even the title of the record seems like a humorous jab.
Oh, definitely. I think most of the time people see no humor in what I do at all. Even a song like “The Letter” is full of happy energy. Most people take it all so seriously and interpret “Who the Fuck?” as being a very angry, angst-ridden song, and it’s not. It’s just having a laugh. I think humor is incredibly important in music. I grew up listening to Captain Beefheart, and he’s always been my hero and my kind of something to aim for.
What about that title?
Of course it’s having a laugh. It’s one of those unpronounceables. I like saying “Uh Huh Her,” because you get my Dorset accent coming out [laughs]. But it came from the chorus of a song, actually — there’s a song called “Uh Huh Her” that I play live but I chose never to record. The chorus is: “Don’t marry uh huh her/Don’t marry her her her.”
People assume that songwriters always draw from their own experience, but you’ve maintained that you don’t always write about yourself.
I never feel that any of my songs are purely autobiographical. I think of myself very much as a songwriter and a storyteller in the old tradition. I use stories to weave emotions into, emotions either that I have felt or seen in other people. I just try to tell the stuff of life, really, and I haven’t experienced enough in my life to purely write my songs around [myself]. I very much use my creative imagination in the way a novelist would.
You’ve made a point of keeping your life private. Does people’s curiosity ever bother you?
I’m not — by any stretch of the imagination — a sought-after celebrity. But still, even the amount of attention that I receive I would much rather not have. I’m just a very private, very quiet person, and I just don’t choose to do the kind of things that would draw more attention to myself. I spend a lot of the time just out and about on my own and never get bothered.
PJ Harvey tour dates:
10/6-7: New York, Hammerstein Ballroom
10/9: Boston, Avalon
10/10: Philadelphia, Electric Factory
10/11: Providence, Lupo’s at the Strand
10/13: Washington, DC, 9:30 Club
10/14: Detroit, State Theatre
10/15: Toronto, The Phoenix
10/17: Kansas City, Uptown Theater
10/18: Denver, Odgen
10/19: Salt Lake City, In the Venue
10/21-22: San Francisco, Warfield
10/23: San Diego, Soma
10/25-26: Los Angeles, Wiltern Theater
10/29: Portland, OR, Roseland Theater
10/30: Vancouver, Vogue Theater
10/31: Seattle, Showbox