PJ Harvey – Interview

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PJ Harvey

‘Uh Huh Her’ is the seventh album from PJ Harvey and the follow-up to the hugely successful ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ which won the 2001 Mercury Music Prize. After a summer of live dates – including appearances at the V Festival, the Eden Project and the first rock concert at Tate Modern – Harvey finished work on the new record in the autumn of 2003. The album was written, performed, recorded, mixed & produced by Harvey, who chose Head to assist in additional recording and mixing and Rob Ellis, long time collaborator, to play drums and percussion on the album. Multi-instrumentalist, Harvey, played everything else.

Check out an interview with PJ Harvey!

Was this album written over a short or long time period?

PJH: The time period that this album was written over was very large really because I’m somebody that, I write all the time so I end up with quite a backlog of songs. So when I come to record an album, I just select which songs feel right according to how I’m feeling, what kind of a record I want to make, what songs are interesting me most at that moment. So some songs for this new record were pulled from being two years old. Some songs were written a couple of months before I started recording, so it’s quite a mixture and of all different times in my life. Two years ago I might have been living somewhere entirely different [than] where I am now but I like the fact that songs coming from different eras have very, very different qualities. So I think on this record in particular there’s a lot of very different moods going on, but the common thread being that they were all finally finished off in the same environment, and maybe brought up to date with the additions that I made. But these songs came from over a couple of years of writing, really.

Which is your preference: writing, recording or performing live?

PJ Harvey: If I had to put in order of preference, writing, recording or performing, I think, without a shadow of a doubt, that I would say performing because that is for me where the music makes sense. For me music is something that is intangible and I like the beauty of the fact that its moving in time and you can’t nail it down and you can’t pin it down. And I always think that songs are at their most beautiful when they are performed live and it just passes by you in the air and then its gone. And you have one of those sensations that that was a beautiful moment in time and it passed through and its gone. And sometimes when you are just driving around you have a sensation like that, of just being overwhelmed by something beautiful and that feeling, like a taste in your mouth, is just gone. That’s why music is endlessly fascinating and untamable to me. So that is why the performance of music would come first but also because it is such an enjoyable thing for me and to see the enjoyment that it can give very directly. You know, when you make a record, you don’t actually see the reaction of people when they are listening to that record or what it does for them, but when you are playing in front of people that are visibly getting lost in the moment and you are too, it’s really an uplifting and life affirming experience. It can be for everyone, I know that if I’ve gone to see a live performance and it’s been an incredible one I feel changed afterwards, I feel like I want to change my life, I want to make my life take a different path in some way because that person I saw perform inspired me so much and opened up my heart to all these possibilities that I never had before. So that’s why performance is at the top of my list of what music is about. And I don’t like the word performance, just the happening of music at that moment in time, rather than playing a recorded piece of music. And so, second on my list would be writing. Again, because it’s something that happens in a moment in time when an idea is forming, it seems to come from nowhere and it seems to pass through you and you miss catching it and it’s gone. And if you catch an idea like with a butterfly net or something then it kind of moves through you and changes and becomes something else and all that is so exciting as a writer because you are moving with it in time so this idea is, you’re moving with it, making it happen, shaping it, and then the time is gone and then it’s finished. And then you’ll never write that piece again, that quality of life and death of a piece. Whereas recording would come last for me because I find it a very painful experience, very difficult, very draining. I lose all my energy, my whole, everything is channeled so that I find it hard to concentrate on anything else. It’s wracking in the sense that you have to keep questioning yourself over and over again, is this right? Is this the best it could be? Was this right? And then the fact that you finally arrive at something you think you are happy with, and then you think, because you are never one hundred percent sure, or I’m not, then you have to at some point stamp that in time and say okay, it’s the best I can do for now and forever live with that piece, you don’t ever get to change it again. So, yeah, that would come the last of those things for me. I’m notoriously bad at making final decisions anyway so having to make a final decision on something being as good as it can be can be very difficult.

How important is the role of a producer for you during the recording process?

PJH: The role of a producer in a recording is a very, very important one, and I’ve worked with two or three producers in my time and they have an enormous impact on the way a record turns out. Obviously, a lot of it is with me I’m thinking of producers I’ve worked with in the past which is Flood, Steve Albini, and then with Mick Harvey on the last album, Stories album. Having a producer is having someone to bounce off of, so if you are unsure of something you can really ask their opinion, or if you are tired one day, you can lean on them, just say, ‘Look, can you steer the ship today because I’m exhausted and I can’t think straight.’ But they’re a sounding board for your ideas, they are a suggester of ideas that you never would have thought of yourself, an eye opener when you can’t see for mist. So they are a very large influence. And not only that but different producers have very much their different sounds. Flood has a sound that I can recognize. [I can tell] he’s produced something before I’ve read that he had or anything. Brian Eno is another one. Daniel Renoir. You can hear, ‘Oh, that’s a Daniel Renoir production.’ And I’ve always, since I started making records, which was twelve years ago, my ambition was to one day feel confident enough to produce my own album without anyone else’s help. And this was the first time I felt that I had reached that position, that I felt confident enough in myself as a human being that I could carry out my ideas and hopes and wishes for a record. I did have quite a role in the engineering of the record as well because I, many of the songs were recorded at my home on my four track or my eight track, both of which are quite simple machines. I’m somebody who likes using very simple machinery, nothing particularly very technical. I like the beauty of simplicity, so most of the recording I had taken to a point where they were finished, apart from the drums, basically. And then I took that into the studio, transferred it onto a twenty-four track machine and worked on top of it, adding drums, maybe redoing some vocals if I wasn’t happy with the sound. Rewrote a couple of songs. Two of the songs were started from scratch, because it’s very difficult for a drummer to play on top of things that are already played, particularly if they’re done without a click. A lot of the songs weren’t, they were just sort of free-floating, and poor Rob Ellis, would have to try and free float with me on this thing that was already recorded, so there was a couple of times where that didn’t work out, and we had to start from scratch, but most of the songs were already almost completed by myself at home and then the finishing touches were done in the studio.

The album artwork is made up of a collection of self-portraits, what was the inspiration behind this?

PJH: For a long time, I’ve wanted to have an album’s artwork that was purely pictures of me, me, me, me and me. No, since I was at art college, and I think it’s quite an art college obsession, of one’s self, and examining one’s inner self. I remember when I was at art college I was casting myself in plaster. I think it’s something that everyone in art college goes through, so since then I have always regularly taken pictures of myself in the mirror, I guess to document the changes over the years, and you can see yourself getting older and you can remember exactly that moment in time when you took that picture and remember how you were feeling. So it was sort of a tradition I started when I was at art college. When I was thinking about the artwork for this record – years before I thought I would just like to have this whole collection of my self-portraits for artwork, that would be really important to me. A document of my journey to this point. And, like I was explaining about how I’ve only just felt at the point in my life where I could produce myself and trust in that, produce my own record and make it entirely myself, then this felt absolutely the right record to document my journey to now. I’ve made it in a very simple way, that was something that I discovered making it that left to my own devices and my own production, I choose to make things sound simple, lo-fi, just not like how I even thought I might do. I thought that producing my own record, I might kind of, make them more sparkly, brush them up a bit, and I found that every time I tried to do that, I just took it all away again. I didn’t like it. Everything was like, get off, no, get away from the songs. I discovered that even when it comes to producing a record, they basically sound like my demos do, which is sparse, homespun, raw and sort of messed up. Not quite right, something not quite right about it. And that’s what I discovered with this is that actually that is how I like to hear things, I actually didn’t realize that before – I thought it was just the way I made my demos, and I put down that strange soundingness of them to the fact that they were not finished. But then this whole record has ended up sounding a bit like that and it’s a very homemade-sounding record and so then again the artwork being a mishmash of things that have been made over that last twenty years, some of the pictures are quite old, it felt entirely appropriate for it. Having said that, I chose as my assembler of my pieces, Marie, who I’ve worked with, again, for the last, well since I was eighteen – seventeen, eighteen. So she is part of my life and part of my journey and she felt like the person that I could safely hand into the lap all these ideas I had for the artwork and knowing that she knew me inside out as a person she could assemble it in a way that she felt presented the images best, because I think that’s something that I didn’t want to be, the producer of the artwork, totally. I felt that I did need an outside opinion to make it work for other people to view.

How do you know when a song is finished?

PJH: Basically, when the song is working its magic on you, you know that it’s complete and doesn’t need anything extra. Having said that, there were songs that were already working that magic on me, and for some reason I thought, ‘I can’t just leave it like that,’ because there would only be three things on it, you know, the keyboard, a voice and a strange plinky sound in the background or something. And I thought, ‘Well, I must try other things,’ and so there are a few songs where I tried putting everything on it, and then I just took it all away again just to leave it as it first was. And so, yes, you do know when a song is finished because it moves you in some way – it makes you excited or it makes you laugh or it makes you feel like you’ve gone right inside yourself. A song is finished when it stands up on its own as well, when it stands outside of you and it becomes something in its own right. It doesn’t have to be attached to you anymore, it doesn’t need an umbilical cord to you, it just suddenly floats off on its own and oh, there it is, it’s done, it’s a thing and it’s finished.

Where do you find your inspiration?

PJH: I think as a person and a writer I thrive on extremes and I feel inspired by extremes in life. That has often taken me to various parts of the globe, searching for something that’s going to throw me into the new and into the now, and taking me away from where I was born and where I grew up, and everything English that I know. So, I’ve often done that, and there’s many places I’d like to go see in the future. With the last record, for instance, I did spend some time in New York, which is almost the complete opposite to my home in Dorset, which is very quiet and very removed and surrounded by wonderful nature and scenery. So it’s almost the opposite to that. And then, here, again now, I find myself in Los Angeles, as an opposite to New York almost. Then again, it’s a mood that way and further and it’s inspired me in different ways again, it make me look in things in a different light. Next stop Russia, that’s what I say.

+ Published: June.07.2004

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