PJ Harvey, of Dorset, has published this year a novel, her first. In verse. Utilising Dorset dialect. As you do. Well at least as you do if you’re a poet with one book under your belt (2015’s The Hollow Of The Hand), a painter and sculptor (an illustrated edition of her poems is due in October), and some three decades as a songwriter and performer of note.
The novel is called Orlam, it’s dark and funny, is centred on a nine-year-old girl, an all-seeing, all-knowing lamb’s eyeball, and cycles of life and death. And this month she is publishing a “standard English translation” of it. Which is kinda funny too.
Harvey’s also announced that there will be a new album, probably mid-2023. Her first since 2016.
That’s more than enough reason for Wind Back Wednesday’s purposes to dip into the archives for this 2004 interview with Harvey, conducted not long after her appearance at Splendour In The Grass, a little longer after the release of the album Uh Huh Her, separate from a longer conversation, but ahead of an Australian tour later in that year.
We can but hope there might be a tour in 2023. In the meantime …
IT’S POLLY JEAN HARVEY rather than PJ Harvey who’s come into the room today. The quiet Dorset girl with the big eyes and the soft voice, not the highly charged be-strider of stages who exudes power and sexuality like expensive scent.
Polly Jean is small framed but large featured, her strong face ringed by dark blow-away hair and a solid fringe. Her narrow shoulders are encased in a zip-up leather jacket, her hips covered by a denim mini which is a long way away from bright orange ankle boots. And when she turns away you can see on the backside of the skirt a series of what looks like coloured tape, with handwritten words on them.
The words are a poem written by the daughter of Harvey’s friend and video-maker, Maria Mochnacz, who is the co-conspirator in the often bold fashions Harvey sports on and off stage.
It was Mochnacz whom Harvey entrusted with the look of her recent album, Uh Huh Her, with its sleeve full of self-portrait photographs that, along with a stripped-down sound, could lead you to thinking you were getting an intimate look at the Polly Jean behind PJ.
Of course, if you thought that you’d be wrong.
“I certainly never go about trying to tell anyone about myself,” says Harvey, her slim fingers framing her mouth. “That doesn’t interest me at all. Although this is self-portraits and made at home it’s no way nearer than the other records to who I am. As a writer, and a fictional one of sorts, it’s filtered through me but the stories are there for me to get emotions across.”
As those who saw her at Byron Bay’s Splendour In The Grass festival at the weekend (or those who will see her when she returns to Australia in October/November) would know, PJ Harvey’s ability to transform not just herself but those stories into raw emotional messages on stage is quite often stunning. And not just for us.
“It’s a lot to give,” Harvey says as she squeezes out the green tea bag. “I do feel quite empty after a performance. I do feel like my feet aren’t on the ground for a few hours after a show and it’s a fragile time for me. It’s a lot to put out and most nights I do feel very transported and let it take me.”
Although her blues-based songs, with their women on the verge – of love, pain, madness, intensity – are never lacking in emotional weight, Harvey admits that without seeing and connecting with an audience directly she can be left feeling unsatisfied.
Have you ever looked into an audience and thought that’s a scary, disconcerting thing?
“No,” she says, after a pause. “I’ve been taken aback by audiences though. I remember very specifically after the twin towers [attacks] we were on tour in Washington and the shows immediately after that were hysterical in the true sense of the word. Everyone had the fear that anything could happen at any moment. That was quite something to behold, a whole group of people on the verge of hysteria and losing it really, in tears … lost.
“I can remember the first three or four shows [after September 11] the band and I trying very hard to be strong enough to hold a show together because of the amount of emotion about in the building: huge amounts of fear and grief. As a performer you’re super sensitive at that time so you go on stage as a raw nerve ending. And then to absorb all of this grief is overwhelming.”
How were you and the audience at the end of those shows?
“The audience and I were spent after it. Nothing left really. And still a great sadness around,” she shakes her head ruefully. “But I felt more than ever in my life the importance of music. That was a wonderful thing to happen: it gave me great faith in what I do with my life as important to people and how music can be such a giving, loving, strengthening thing at really difficult times.”
Orlam is published by Picador.