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pj harvey interview
Piano magic.Artists are notoriously wary of describing their work with anything as helpful as an adjective, but even PJ Harvey is forced to use the word “ethereal” when discussing her remarkable seventh album, White Chalk. “When I listen to the record I feel in a different universe, really, and I’m not sure whether it’s in the past or in the future,” she says, laughing quietly. “The record confuses me, that’s what I like - it doesn’t feel of this time right now, but I’m not sure whether it’s 100 years ago or 100 years in the future. It just sounds really weird.”
Ectoplasmic piano, high-pitched vocals, lyrics of Faustian pacts, blighted seeds and bleeding hands: not only do such songs as Dear Darkness and Grow Grow Grow unsettle the listener, they were, admits Harvey, designed to pitch the singer herself from her “comfort zone“. Playing an instrument that she is “just not very adept at” was just the start. “I’m still quite frightened of the piano. It’s such a giant part of human life, I think, because pianos are so often part of the furniture. Most people at some point play the piano or have lessons - a lot of children are almost made to. And I had none of that, so I think an enormous amount of people play the piano really well and much better than me - that’s really frightening in itself.“
“It’s so easy to repeat yourself, and particularly the more work you’ve done; it’s easier to write a song you’ve already written ten years earlier but slightly differently. Over the years you know how to make even a not very good song work okay and I didn’t want to do that. I found the best thing to do is put yourself in quite a fearful situation. I so easily could have put drums and bass all over this and shaken a tambourine in choruses, and it would have been completely different.”
“Fearful situations” are ingrained in White Chalk, not just in the strange folkloric narratives that Harvey describes as “cinematic”, but in the process of writing itself. “I’ve never felt songwriting is a… relaxed sport," she laughs. “It’s something I live in complete fear of through respect, and through not knowing if it might leave me tomorrow. I always find songwriting extremely difficult and time-consuming and heart-engulfing and everything - it’s completely a ride of terror. Even when I’m seeing songs coming into being in my head, it’s a state of almost panic as I think ‘oh my God! Oh my God! Am I really going to do it?’”
PJ Harvey - White Chalk, out now on Island.
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