We're Building A Better Tri-State Together
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Life and death is such a fine line': PJ Harvey on creating in a place between worlds

PJ Harvey's latest album is <em>I Inside the Old Year Dying</em>. It's a knotty musical expansion of the world she created in <em>Orlam</em>, the epic poem Harvey published in 2022.
Steve Gullick
Courtesy of the artist
PJ Harvey's latest album is I Inside the Old Year Dying. It's a knotty musical expansion of the world she created in Orlam, the epic poem Harvey published in 2022.

Polly Jean Harvey is indisputably one of the most adventurous musicians of our time. In fact, to call her simply a musician is inaccurate: She is a visual artist and a multidisciplinary performer who has worked in theater, film and video and published two books of poetry. She's released 10 studio albums under the name PJ Harvey, two with her longtime collaborator John Parish, scores for the film All About Eve and the TV show Bad Sisters and three video albums.

In 2022 Harvey published her most ambitious written work, the epic poem Orlam, written over eight years as she learned to be a poet and mastered the dialect of the English coastal county Dorset, where she grew up. She uses that almost-lost dialect throughout Orlam as she chronicles the journey out of childhood of a 9-year-old girl named Ira-Abel. Her heroine encounters ghosts and other supernatural beings — her oracle is the all-seeing eye of a dead lamb, the Orlam of the book's title — as well as humans who fail her, leading her to assume a new self. The plot matters less than Harvey's evocation of a landscape that teems with every kind of life. Part hero's journey, part almanac, part ode to a lost tongue, Orlam, like PJ Harvey's music, creates an artistic realm of its own. It runs on the rhythms of the seasons and captures the beauty, fantastical rawness and occasional horror of English rural life.

PJ Harvey's new album, I Inside the Old Year Dying (out July 7), further illuminates the world Orlam brought to the page. Originally Harvey planned a theater piece to expand upon the work, but these musical expansions of her poems came to her in a three-week rush as she practiced piano and guitar. Enlisting her "musical soulmate" Parish and longtime producer Flood, she concocted a sound that evokes the natural world without sounding at all like what we now think of as folk music. It's ragged, yet highly crafted — a key element is the field recordings Adam "Cecil" Bartlett brought to the studio, which the team distorted to add eerie atmosphere — and as immediate as it is mysterious. Voicing phrases in the Dorset tongue, Harvey becomes an every-creature, part Ira-Abel, part ghost, part animal, always herself.

From her home in Dorset, Harvey spoke with me about working to make her music stranger, adopting characters throughout her career and the value of a good joke.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ann Powers: In the song "Prayer at the Gate," which opens I Inside the Old Year Dying, you have a line: "Speak your wordle to me." "Wordle" here is not a popular American puzzle, but the term for "world" in the Dorset dialect, which you use throughout the album. The phrase serves a purpose inside the story that the song is telling, but it also describes what you've done with this album, with the book Orlam that you published last year and the drawings you've made depicting the landscapes in these projects: You have spoken a world.

Can you talk a little bit about how you've woven together each practice that you've employed to do so — writing, drawing, making music, even performing the poems as a reader — to bring this encompassing narrative to life?

PJ Harvey: It quite quickly took its own shape, and then felt like it was leading me. But one of the keys that opened up this world for me was the Dorset dialect. As a poet, it gave me such another lively form to work with, because it gave the words a kind of double meaning. For instance, you're pulling the word "wordle" out. Although it means "world" in Dorset dialect, you've also got "word" in there — and, of course, the word of God. It carries such an enormous capacity for wrapping everything together.

That was a journey I went on with the whole of the dialect within the book. Initially, I was just aiming to write my second collection of poetry. I was working with Don Paterson, who was my mentor, on a three year poetry course, and it was on my coursework that the first few poems of Orlam were written and Don and I quickly saw that something was beginning to take shape. I've always been someone that draws and creates music, and as I've got older it's become more and more natural for me that they all just sort of bleed together: If I'm a bit stuck on a poem and I can't work out where it's going, I'll often spend time drawing it as a way to help me understand more of what I'm trying to say. Likewise, I might also play it through the piano — sort of "play" the feeling. And therefore, this work kind of morphed into drawings, and then into music as well.

It's almost like you're accessing different parts of your body, your own sensory system, to bring this to life.

It does feel like that. I think when I was younger, I used to try and keep them in their separate categories. But now I realize that you really can't, and it's actually detrimental. The whole of the work flows better if I just let it be what it's gonna be; I've realized that I'm just an artist that makes things out of words and music and images, and I'm never quite sure what I'm going to end up with. Even in the early stages of writing a song, I very often see things very visually: I might see a scene, almost like a scene from a film, and I'll see the colors and the time of day. The images, the words, the music — they all feed each other.

As a child, we can create anything out of nothing, and do, on a daily basis. And I find that in order to remain an active and creative artist, I have to keep tapping into that same place.

Can you explain the story and the world of Orlam and the new album, for those who might not have yet had the pleasure of entering them?

The book Orlam is my second collection of poetry. It took me eight years to write. It's basically a year in the life of a 9-year-old in a rural part of the west of England, in a non-specific era. And it documents her year, month by month, paying particular attention to what's happening in the natural world around her, observing nature and its cyclical patterns. It's just what happens to her in that one year, and it's fantastical, nonsensical, but sensical at the same time.

I loved reading Orlam. It's both linear and nonlinear; as you say, it runs on kind of a seasonal clock and collapses things together. For example, Gore Wood is a real place in Dorset that contains your imaginary village of "Underwhelm," where the child hero Ira-Abel lives.

In one way, this is very personal work: It reflects your home, the place you know best. In another way, it's absolutely mythic — fantastical, as you say. It makes me want to ask you, Polly, where are you in this work? Where is the self? Are you standing apart, or are you there with Ira-Abel? Or are you Ira-Abel herself, in the forest pulling bark from the trees?

I think it's a mixture, Ann. As far as I can tell, pretty much every artist draws on what they know; there has to be elements of experience in order to really reach deep inside of you. But I also have a playful imagination, and I think that the work of an artist is to really keep the imaginative capacity alive that we have as children. As a child, we can create anything out of nothing, and do, on a daily basis. And I find that in order to remain an active and creative artist, I have to keep tapping into that same place.

I read several interviews with you in which you talked about this idea of collapse, as a kind of aesthetic or action that runs through these works: the collapse of time and space, blurring of genders, of myth and reality, life and death. How do you convey this within these songs? I was thinking of "Lwonesome Tonight," which is also a poem in Orlam, and blends images of Elvis, Jesus and the natural world. How does collapse work for you as a principle in this music and in the book?

Coming back to poetry, you can make the language work really hard for you: Often words carry double, sometimes triple meanings. You've got things like Elvis, who was also known as "The King," appearing on Maundy Day, which is a religious festival celebrating the last supper. So, we've got Christ, we've got Elvis, we've got a king — do you see what I mean? We can bring lots of threads in, but the beauty of poetry is that you can have those layers existing all at the same time. It can mean a lot of things, depending on what the reader or the listener wants to pull out of it and make theirs. I very specifically wanted to set out to do that, to have this nonlinear, no-era, every-era world going on.

Also, going back to the nonlinear collapsing of time and space, I sort of feel that on a daily basis anyway. Particularly simple things like dream or wakefulness, going into sleep, day and night — like, where do we go when we sleep? You enter this whole different parallel universe, and I feel that we're sort of there anyway. Life and death is such a fine line. Marrying that with the way the seasons change year after year, the way one year collapses into another — what is the line between male and female, or child and adult? That's what I was very interested in, that place of a threshold where you're in a sort of between worlds, a shadowland.

Another artist might have turned to identifiable folk sounds for this album, with its rural setting, its connection to old stories. You did not. This is a PJ Harvey record; it's recognizable completely as part of your various but unified body of work. But I wonder if you were thinking about folk traditions at all as you were creating the music.

I very much wanted to avoid tipping into predictable folk music, which these words and this subject matter would have lent itself to so well, so I went the opposite direction. Other than the main instrument and the voice, I really wanted everything to be quite unidentifiable and strange, because of that need to create this magical, mystical unknown universe that I wanted the words to inhabit. It was a very hard thing to do. So often, we would jettison a sound because it was too familiar to us. And Flood and John Parish, who I worked very closely with in creating the sound, we were all on the same direction: trying really hard to not sound predictable, but also not to sound like anything that we felt that we'd done together before, because we've worked together for 30 years now.

We're all very interested in continuing to discover new things and create new sounds, and that gets harder the more work that you've made, because there's more to avoid. But I really feel that we pushed ourselves into quite new places — certainly with my singing, I feel like I haven't sung before like I do on this record.

I'm so glad you brought that up — I've been thinking about your voice on this record and how it does reach a new place, but carries with it the voices you've given us in the past. Many people might mark the beginning of your intense vocal experimentation at the album White Chalk, when you first focused on your higher register. But throughout your career, you've distorted your voice, both as it emanates from your body and using studio effects.

It's almost like your voice is more a channel for all of these different selves — Polly, the characters you create — than simply "your voice." Was there a point when you realized, about your singing and your music in general, that you were able to channel all of these selves and worlds?

I think on the first couple of albums, Dry and Rid of Me, I was just doing it naturally, but I wasn't really aware that I was doing it. For me, it was trying to inhabit the character of the song: Who's the narrator of this song, and how would they portray that song. As I've become more consciously aware of what I'm doing, probably from To Bring You My Love onwards, I would dive into that even more — like, really inhabit the character. A song like "Working for the Man," I think Flood had me singing underneath a blanket with a microphone taped to my throat, in the process of trying to find that claustrophobic, terrifying voice.

The more that I've worked in the world of theater and film, I've come to really enjoy and appreciate watching actors and how actors inhabit a character. That's not to say that I feel like I'm leaping into a different character — I often don't. It's more like just opening the doorway for something to come through you in a really pure way.

Speaking of actors, your good friend Ben Wishaw appears on this record — he does some vocalizing. He was a sounding board for you for this record, right?

At one stage we were thinking about putting Orlam onstage, and so I'd been experimenting with read-throughs and workshops with Ben Whishaw, the actor Colin Morgan and a wonderful theater director called Ian Rickson. It just didn't really come to life; we all felt that it's not at its best in this form. But then it grew into a musical piece, which has become this album. And so because Colin and Ben had already been on quite a lot of the journey with me — they'd been reading the poems with me, I'd been showing them the poems as they've grown — it made a lot of sense that they'd be involved as the other voices on the record, and I knew that they had great voices. When their voice steps in, it adds a completely different dimension — like when you hear the male characters stepping in the choruses, or Ben's voice stepping in to sing "Love Me Tender."

Is he the Elvis of this record?

I think he is, yeah. [Laughs]

He might be the Elvis of a lot of people's hearts.

Having said that, I do think Colin's singing some parts in "I Inside the Old I Dying," which are also the Wyman-Elvis character's, so I think it's kind of a combination of the both of them.

I really wanted to ask you about the incorporation of field recordings, found sounds, distorted elements, to build the world.

When I was first thinking that I might put Orlam on stage, I began to just collect field recordings, recording them myself. But then also, because I've worked in the theater world a lot, I had a lot of great sound designer friends. And sound designers for theater have just about any sound you can think of at their fingertips, just a sort of library of sounds which are open for sound designers to use. So I could be as specific as to say to somebody, "Can you find me a November wind, blowing through barbed wire at dawn?" And they would have, like, three different options for me.

When it turned into a musical album rather than a theater piece, I still wanted to make use of these natural noises. But in the same way that I wanted to avoid using a stereotypical folk sound, I wanted to avoid these natural sounds as being stereotypical "nature" noises. And so we fed them through lots of very basic analog gear, which was manipulated by hand in real time, so the album actually was basically recorded live. We were all in a room together — myself, John Parish, Flood and Cecil. Cecil was operating the field recordings, playing them in real time — through tape recorders that you're speeding up, slowing down, or playing on keyboard after programming in the natural sounds. John and I would improvise with him: Sometimes I might be on bass, or I'd be on guitar or piano; John might be on drums, or he might be on guitar or keyboards. And then Flood, very often, would set up some sort of mic that he'd feed back into one of his really early synthesizers, from when they were first built. I mean, these synthesizers, I'd never seen anything like it — they look like an old wooden dresser or a sideboard, crossed with a telephone exchange.

It was all wonderfully sort of homemade, you know? We were just feeding off each other in the moment. My vocals were done at the same time, so my voice has the drums and all the other sounds going down it, which leads to this beautiful sort of world that you enter. Everything was recorded in the same room together; all of the sounds are going down every single microphone.

I know you call yourself a maker, and this feels like very much a maker's project. It fits in with, you know, people who are hand-dyeing quilts made from marigolds.

I've always felt like that. I don't know why. I've tried so many times to step into the digital world with equipment that actually works when you press go, but I still go back to my analog equipment. There's just something so tactile, and I love that it makes mistakes and it makes hiss and it goes wrong. There's something so wonderful about that haphazardness.

Well, in this world of all of these hand-hewn elements, the central one for me is the Dorset dialect. You were so diligent in learning this dialect, employing it within Orlam in remarkable ways. It's a nearly lost language, and you use it throughout your poetry, mixing it up with standard English and what I like to call "the PJ Harvey language," which also exists.

In some ways, this recalls for me the work of poets like George Mackay Brown, who I know you love, or more currently, someone like Doireann Ní Ghríofa in Ireland, or Martin Shaw, the storyteller — who are not exactly preserving lost stories and lost languages, but revivifying them by changing them. I wonder how you first made the decision to use the Dorset dialect — and then, as they say in the most corny way, how did you make it your own?

One of the poems I wrote early on in my mentorship course with Don Paterson had been leaning into some of the words I'd remembered from being a child — I remembered the elders in the village using those words. And they're still used to this day in rural parts of England and Wales and Scotland. You know, there's a lot of dialects still running through people, and it's precious. I was just so fascinated in it because it still felt alive within me at some level. I sort of knew the words, but they've also got this guttural sonic quality that you sort of understand the word, even if you don't in a comprehensive way. You feel it through the sound. You understand it through the sound of the word.

Because I'd begun to use it in these early poems, it was Don that said to me, "I think this could be a really fantastic direction for you to go." And that led me on to reading poets like William Barnes and Thomas Hardy, both of whom used dialect in their work. William Barnes collected together the Dorset dialect in a glossary, and that sort of became my bible. But you were very right to mention George Mackay Brown: Even Shakespeare invented his own words, but the thing about Mackay Brown is that he also invented his own iconography. He'd build his characters. I was very interested in building my cast of characters as he did, and inventing my own words. When I couldn't find the dialectal word for what I needed, then I just made it up. And that is the way that dialect was built anyway. There's no wrong way of doing it.

Is there a favorite word or phrase in one of these songs that you can single out? Something you'd love to sing, something you'd love to have roll off your tongue?

Well, I think that the song title "Seem an I" is a great example, because "seem an I" means "Well, it seems to me ... ." I just think it's beautiful. It's so elegant and so beautiful and so moving, really. And that started off that whole song.

In "Seem an I," you have the wonderful Dorset phrase "bedraggled angels" to describe wet sheep, and then this image of Ira-Abel's ripped fingernails from pulling clay from the riverbank. As a woman who grew up a country girl, I imagine this imagery came naturally to you. So much writing about nature can be sentimental, or gauzy; how do you keep it dirty?

I don't know if it makes sense to say a "sense of humor." But I think I have a great sense of humor, and a lot of people don't know that. There's a lot of darkness in our world that we deal with on a daily basis, and I think to see the humor in really dark things can be a lifesaver. You can see a wet sheep at dusk, you can see a bedraggled angel, and there's humor but it's also serious at the same time.

I think I also refer to the ewes as "shabby mothers." Again, it's kind of conjuring the actual image too. This is the other thing I learned with Don Patterson in my poetry mentorship: Every single word you use in a poem has to work really hard for you. So by saying "bedraggled angels," we think of the whiteness of the fleece, but you also think of the fleece wet and heavy. Fleece kind of gets pulled off by brambles, and they always look a bit shabby with their wool coming off of them. So you've got a lot of different images going hand in hand with the actual meaning of the words that you're using.

When I'm in the moment in music ... I don't feel one thing or another. I don't feel alive nor dead. I don't feel man nor woman. I just feel the music.

Once when you were asked about your penchant for dark themes, you said you have a natural inclination to look under the surface — which gave me an image of you lifting up a log and seeing all the creepy crawlies under it. From this view, darkness is truly illuminating; it's a source of growth. I wondered if it's been frustrating to you over the years when you've been pegged as a sort of goth wraith, when in fact you're someone out there poking around in the life cycle.

Yeah, it's exactly that, Ann. I learned early on to not get frustrated by feeling like people didn't fully see what I was trying to do. I just continued to just go about my work. But it is that. I mean, I've always just been so curious as a person. I love learning. That's also why I don't want to do the same things over and over again — seeing where I can go next just so excites me. So yes, exactly: I love seeing what's under the surface when you lift it up. I love seeing where something might lead me if I've got the courage to follow it. And I've always been like that. Life is such a wonderful thing to just keep exploring.

Especially on your past few albums, you have gone to places where other artists don't always go. You've confronted the absolute goriness of war. You've walked the streets of different cities to see the ugliness and the beauty in those places. And here, you bring us into these woods, into this village, where a specific darkness is happening.

One darkness you confront in this work is sexual abuse, and the sexual abuse of children: A key point in the story of Ira-Abel is when she is assaulted in a shed by a local boy. Other male figures in Underwhelm exhibit predatory behavior. I wondered why, for you, it was important to make this a linchpin in the story of Ira-Abel.

There's a lot of lightness and a lot of humor in the book — but there's also a lot of darkness, as there is in our lives. I wanted it to reflect that. But also, there need to be moments of transformation in order to move our narrative. And so there had to be also this tipping point in my story that was going to move the main character into a moment of transformation and towards her destiny. And this was part of the story, in context, that was going to do that.

Well, that transformation of which you speak — you use the term "unsexed," and there is a fascinating instability of gender throughout the story, and even of species. Orlam, we haven't mentioned, is an all-seeing eye of a dead lamb — an undead lamb, maybe. There's a way in which there's no separation between human and animal in this world, or human and spirit. So I wondered how the kind of, I don't want to say genderlessness, but the fluidity of gender connects with these other forms of fluidity.

Yeah, I think it ties back into what we were talking about earlier: the collapsing of era, and of time and of place. I also wanted to collapse, as much as I could, all of those other boundaries — of man or woman, animal or human, natural or man-made, all of it. I was interested in each character having a dual aspect to them — male, female. A lot of their names are hyphenated names, and each name has a meaning. So again, it was just showing the nonlinear quality of how I feel life to be. I just wanted it to be as open as I feel it is.

There's a way, when you're out in the woods, that that nonlinear quality takes over. I don't want to be corny about it or romanticize nature, but it makes sense to me for this story that you would challenge those boundaries.

I think at a subconscious level, I just knew that I didn't want anything to be pinned down. When I'm in the moment in music — not just my own, but even if I'm enraptured by somebody else's, whether live or just listening on a record — I don't feel one thing or another. I don't feel alive nor dead. I don't feel man nor woman. I just feel the music. And I think it was about wanting to tap into that really pure place where you just feel, and you just experience, and nothing yet really has a name.

Going back to what I was saying earlier about trying to keep the childhood imagination alive: When you're a child, nothing really does have a name, you know? We go around saying, "Why is that blue? What is blue? What does blue mean?" So it's sort of just seeing everything in use for the first time, and then really looking at it again and asking, "What is this?"

I just have one final question. I know that you were at something of a crisis point about making music when you started on this album. When you turned to Orlam as a book, you said that music had lost its primary hold on you. Did that feeling of music as the center return? Or do you feel that you, like Ira-Abel, have transformed — and now, as a whole maker, constantly making in different realms, you are just more holistically creative? Do you think it's more possible today for artists to not necessarily identify as one thing than it maybe was before the various entertainment industries took over? Is it more possible to simply be a maker?

I mean, going back to William Blake: He wrote songs, he drew beautifully, he wrote incredible poems. So I think forever, artists have been doing many things at the same time. David Lynch, he's a wonderful artist as well as a filmmaker. [The British director] Steve McQueen — filmmaker, sculptor. You could go on and on. So I think it's very natural for artists to move through different media.

For me, I temporarily felt that I lost my connection to music. And actually, going back to Steve McQueen, he was enormously helpful to me at that time, when I talked to him about this sort of heartbreak I was feeling, like I'd lost the joy in it all. He encouraged me to take the boundaries away, and just look at what I loved. He was saying to me, "Well, what do you love? You love words, you love images and you love music. Just think about what can you do with those three things. It doesn't have to be anything: It doesn't have to be an album, it doesn't have to be a drawing. You've just got these three things that you love."

It helped me re-find the joy in it again — that joy that I could remember having initially, when I first started writing songs when I was 17. It was just utter joy, and that was what I had lost. Through this journey, through writing Orlam, through spending years doing that alone, I sort of rekindled my love of everything and took away all those boundaries. And now I feel more full of joy, and like anything is possible again, than I'd felt in absolutely years.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.