Image: Michael Morris and PJ Harvey discuss the forthcoming project inside the space at Somerset House (2014). Photograph: Seamus Murphy
Michael Morris: Polly, I’d like to begin by asking you about the importance of place in your past albums and the role of place, both in the writing of your songs and where you choose to record them.
PJ Harvey: In terms of writing songs I’ve learnt over the years that it doesn’t really matter where I am. I wrote almost all of White Chalk, which is largely about the Dorset landscape, when I was living in LA at the top of a skyscraper amongst hard lines and glass. Maybe I was pulled back to the landscape because I was away from it. I don’t think that for writing it actually matters, because at that stage I’m exploring my imagination, and that can be anywhere. You carry that with you.
MM: I suspect that the creative process is something that emerges from within. So that makes sense to me, that the landscape where you grew up is inside you, it’s part of your inner world. So it doesn’t really matter if you’re in Iceland or in LA or in New York – you take the landscape with you.
MM: Does the same go for where you record sets of songs or is that different?
PJH: Recording spaces are quite different for me and hugely significant. The acoustics of a particular space are inevitably captured in the sound of the recordings – but more than that, the resonance of the building on a different level – its atmosphere, its character. We made the last album, Let England Shake, in St. Peter’s Church in Eype, Dorset. It is magical, on a clifftop looking over the sea, battered by the wind, surrounded by graves and bent trees. There was something very special about that place and you can hear it on those recordings. We felt it every day. The magic of that building graced every note. To Bring You My Love was made in one of the old Townhouse recording studios, no longer in use, near Battersea Power Station. Again, I can hear that room, I can hear the journey that we would take every day, driving past that beautiful power station. I can hear that place on those recordings, in my singing, and affecting everything we played. That’s why I choose where I’m recording really carefully.
MM: Which brings us to this new record and the choice of Somerset House. It’s not only a special place for reasons which we’ll discuss, but there is the added element of recording in public which will inevitably give another layer to the outcome. What drew you to Somerset House?
PJH: Somerset House feels right because of its resonance. It’s that word again. Acoustically the room sounds right to me, the journey to the room has a particular atmosphere too – you have to walk through the Inland Revenue’s old rifle range to get to their former staff gymnasium. The Tax Office was here since the late 18th Century until fairly recently, and a range of different offices regulating public life, from The Stamp Office and The Navy Office to the registry of births, marriages and deaths. After the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell’s body lay in state at Somerset House, and before that it was the residence of royalty and nobility. The Thames ran right underneath it – there was no embankment – and barges could sail inside directly. All that history will fuel me and help tap into a different level of consciousness. When you’re making music with other people in a space, you connect on a very primal level in a musical conversation, communicating emotionally and musically. There’s very little barrier and you’re not only letting in the other musicians and the music, but also the surroundings and being open to everything that’s ever gone on in and around the space.
MM: Yes, it’s striking that since we identified Somerset House as a potential place to record, we discovered things about it that seemed to connect with the preoccupations of your new album, preoccupations that I wasn’t aware of to do with the presence of water and death, the beginnings of civic regulation and the attempt to impose order on our individual lives. And finally discovering only yesterday that Somerset House is built out of Portland stone from England’s Jurassic coast, which of course is where you grew up.
PJH: Yes, I agree. I feel very connected here at Somerset House – you’re in the heart of the city, and by the artery of the river.
MM: And you’re also connecting by inviting the public in. When we first talked about this idea you always had it in mind that we would do it in the form of an exhibition, with the public in the role of visitors to a gallery or a museum. And where do you think that stems from, this desire to let the public become part of the process?
PJH: I was looking for a space to record in London and knew I didn’t want it to be a conventional recording studio. I often go to see exhibitions and began to wonder if we could record in an art gallery – and if that were a possibility, then how could we be viewed by the public but at the same time have the space to record our music? Then the opportunity of recording here at Somerset House came about through you and Artangel. Now I’m familiar with this space I can sense that it will be a good campus in which to work.
MM: I’m mindful of the fact that there was a point at which a fork in the road could’ve taken you to art school to study sculpture.
PJH: Yes, that’s right.
MM: And here you are some years later, preparing to create an installation, which turns the recording process into a sculptural object. I can remember the first time we talked, we imagined a glass studio almost like a vitrine in a museum, so that the visitors to Recording in Progress could observe what was happening as it happened. It’s no longer quite a vitrine because ideas evolve and develop architecturally. But there’s still a strong sense of it being a sculptural object.
PJH: Yes, a sculptural object in motion and on different levels, because we’ll be sculpting in sound. I come from a visual arts background. I took a foundation course after leaving school and was expecting to become a visual artist. I’ve always had a strong desire to create and I wasn’t sure what form that would take. I became most interested in sculpture and got a place to study at Central St. Martins, and at the same time I was offered a record deal. So I deferred my entry to St. Martins for a year while I made Dry. The record went well. I was told I couldn’t defer any more, so I lost my place. I chose sculpture at the time because I’ve always had a great desire to perform – I am a performer. The sculptures I used to make, even when I was a lot younger, were concerned with audience interaction. I’d hang things from the ceiling and put things in unusual places. I think I could have developed that further, but I moved deeper into music and musical performance. I still paint and draw all the time. Going to view artists’ work is probably one of my prime sources of inspiration, along with seeing films and theatre performances, and staying connected to what’s going on in the world through research, reading, news, travel, discussion…
MM: In some ways I’ve always perceived you as a visual artist. I suspect you have quite a fully-formed vision of the scenario of a song at the outset. The songs are, as we’ve discussed, rooted in place. Take one of your new songs, the one set in Washington called Throwing Nothing, I heard a demo of it for the first time last night and right away I could see it. I don’t know if I see what you see and it doesn’t really matter. But I think that your impulse to visualise and write songs is a very similar impulse to that of a visual artist.
PJH: Yes, it’s very similar. When I’m writing a song I visualise the entire scene, as if it were a scene from a film or a painting. I can see the colours, I can tell the time of day, I can sense the mood, I can see the light changing, the shadows moving, everything in that picture. It’s just a matter of getting that down on a piece of paper and then performing it as a song to capture it.
MM: Given that the writing of a song is a solitary process generated from within, how is the emotional and intellectual life of that song changed by the collaborative process of the recording studio?
PJH: In the recording studio a song will grow and change only as much as I’m prepared to let it. So if we’re working on a song, improvising with each other, I’ll listen to what the other players bring to it. If I feel it’s straying too far from the spirit of the song then I’ll rein it back a bit and somehow steer us back to its essence, but as I get older I’ve learnt to let go more – often what the musicians I work with can bring to a song may turn it into something quite different, and completely unexpected, which can make the song stronger.
MM: You’ve worked for many years with musicians and producers who know you well, and who instinctively know what might be right to deepen or enrich the work.
PJH: Although I’ve worked with many different people there are a few musicians and producers with whom I can operate on a similar wavelength. I’ve worked with Flood and John Parish for over 20 years, and I don’t have to explain anything to them. We understand each other.
MM: When you’re writing lyrics do they emerge as spoken or sung? Do you write text down first and then find a way into song? Or does the language come out sung?
PJH: My writing has changed over the years but these days I make the words work on a page first. Lyrics have become extremely important to me. Often when I’m crafting words and looking at them day after day, slowly editing, they’ll begin to sing themselves – I can hear the melody, I can hear the rhythm that’s contained within them. When I actually come to pick up an instrument and open my mouth to sing, much of the work’s already been done.
MM: Later this year a book of your poetry, The Hollow of the Hand, will be published, and I gather that some of the poems have another life as songs, and sometimes they have different titles. How do you see the difference between poetry that is destined for the page and lyrics that work in a song on an album?
PJH: Poetry and song-writing are very different, which I didn’t realise to begin with. Poems have to create their own world entirely. Everything has to be contained within those words, and that’s it. They don’t have the support of music to create atmosphere. They don’t have the support of the music to say what is unsaid. The words alone have to make that world.
MM: So poetry is sculptural too.
PJH: Yes, absolutely, a form in a blank space. Black ink in a shape on a white page. For poems to become songs I usually have to edit them. Song lyrics need to be very, very simple because the music and the rhythm do half of the work for you.
MM: And you want to be able to feel the meaning of the song as well as understand what it’s about.
PJH: With a song like Throwing Nothing that you mentioned, the lyrics came directly from a poem. They have an ambiguity, and the music adds to that ambiguity so that you’re not quite sure what’s going on, leaving room for interpretation.
MM: That’s what really categorises this new set of songs, that there’s a lot of space for people to bring their own meaning to it. It’s a much broader, more geopolitical record than Let England Shake, which was about a specific island’s historical experience of armed conflict, tragedy and destruction. This cycle of songs considers the major issues of our time – social inequality and injustice, the politics of poverty, anxiety and paranoia about terrorism and the way that hate breeds hate among generations in opposition. There’s a remarkable song called I’ll Be Waiting, which put me in mind of the work of William Blake in the way it frames complex, intractable situations in a profoundly simple way. In this song, by the subtle change of personal pronoun from ‘They’ to ‘I’.
PJH: Yes, Blake is wonderful at doing that. In Songs of Innocence and Experience, he often moves from third person to first person within the poem, so suddenly you as the reader are speaking with the voice of the person referred to before.
MM: And then you realise you’re implicated. Because very often in a song when someone sings ‘I’, they think oh, it’s about PJ Harvey. But of course you’ve often been a narrator in different guises as both commentator and witness.
PJH: Yes, and sometimes you inhabit other people’s lives in order to try and write that song that needs singing.
MM: Let’s return to the studio process, Polly. The big experiment in this Somerset House adventure is the invitation to the public to be part of a recording session. We’re having this conversation a little bit more than six weeks away. How do you think it will feel?
PJH: I want it to operate as if we’re an exhibition in an art gallery. This makes me feel both very excited and very scared. It’s a situation that I have not been in before and I’m not sure how it’ll affect us – will it make us step up our playing even more through the awareness that there may be an audience? Will it make us self-conscious in a way that could be really useful to the recording? I don’t know the answers yet. But what I do know is that whenever I feel scared it’s usually a good sign because it means that I’m doing something I haven’t done before, and stepping into the unknown is always frightening.
MM: It’s also quite hard to imagine what it’ll be like for the visitors.
PJH: I hope it’ll always be interesting no matter at what point they enter. When you’re making a record you go through different phases. Sometimes you might spend an hour listening to a bass drum that doesn’t sound right until everyone’s yawning. Or you might be running three songs live, improvising – boom, boom, boom, one after the other. You just go with the flow of what’s happening in the room that day, and I hope our visitors will too. I think what you will see is a process that has to be gone through. You have to go through dull moments to get to the goods.
MM: Because we’re living in such a product-driven culture where everything appears to emerge perfectly-formed from nowhere, this revealing of the process – dull moments and all – seems so prescient. I think it actually is interesting to open a window onto that.
PJH: I think so too. I hope people will see the attention and the labour and the care that goes into making a recording. I hope people will see the interactions between everyone involved. I’ve always loved watching documentaries about how some of my favourite works of art have been made. I like to see how artists make their work and hear what they have to say. I like to see the space that they’re working in and observe their process. So I think to actually see it live in real time could be interesting.
MM: I’m glad to hear you say that because the work we’ve been preoccupied with at Artangel for the last couple of decades has put a lot of emphasis on the process of an idea coming into being from the moment of conception to the point a work is evacuated into the world. I think this process that we’re inviting people to witness will be that midway point between it being yours – the songs inside you – and the record actually making its way out into the world.
PJH: That’s very interesting, I hadn’t thought of it like that. You’ll witness something that is passing in real time, and I feel the best part of any creation is the creating itself. That is when it’s most vital, most exciting.
MM: And somehow in the tracks that finally are pressed, the residue of this room will be there. How else will the room affect the recording do you think?
PJH: One of my requests is that the glass on the windows is one-way so visitors can see us but we can’t see them. I don’t want us to be overly selfconscious of people coming in, because I want the audience to see us at work, and for the work to be viewed. I like that idea of the vitrine, that you’re looking into a glass display case at a record being made.