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PJ Harvey on 'surreal' Mercury Prize success

07 September 11 10:22
PJ Harvey
By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Idiosyncratic performer PJ Harvey talks of the sense of "urgency" that prompted her to pen her second Mercury Prize-winning album.

When PJ Harvey became the first woman to win the Mercury Prize on 11 September 2001, she gave an emotional acceptance speech over the telephone from Washington DC.

It's a moment she can barely remember.

"Ten years ago feels like such a surreal experience - I'm sure for everybody - that my only memory of the day really is being in the hotel room and watching television and seeing the Pentagon burning," Harvey said after accepting the prize for a second time at a ceremony in London.

Were it not for events in the US on that day 10 years ago, her winning album, Let England Shake, would be very different.

Her eighth solo record is a song cycle of visceral narratives about England in conflict, from World War I to fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"Obviously this record that I've won tonight with is largely about the wars that we are involved in," said Harvey.

"Contemporary wars - but also, in a way, I wanted it to be timeless because we've always been involved in wars.

"But I think the greater urgency that I felt to write an album like this now is because of the result of what has happened in the last 10 years."

The power of Let England Shake lies in the marriage of often brutal lyrical imagery with folk melodies and driving rhythm.

"I was writing in a very different way to how I'd ever written before - working largely on the words for a long time in advance and trying to get them to work in a strong way for themselves to begin with before even thinking of music," she said.

The strength of those lyrics is felt nowhere more forcefully than in The Words That Maketh Murder - performed by Harvey earlier in the evening.

"I've seen and done things I want to forget, I've seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat," it began.

Sonic bubbles

"Death lingering, stunk, flies swarming everyone," it continued as Harvey strummed along on her autoharp while her band provided a toe-tapping shuffle backing.

The singer, whose full name is Polly Jean Harvey, wore a white leather bodice and a headdress of feathers - designed, she said, to reflect the themes of her record.

Other performance highlights on the night included James Blake - described earlier on the red carpet by fellow nominee Tinie Tempah as the coolest man in pop - whose blissed-out song The Wilhelm Scream crescendoed into a climax that bathed the Grosvenor House Hotel ballroom in sonic bubbles.

Rapper Ghostpoet, meanwhile, energised a room full of music executives with a rocking rendition of single Cash And Carry Me Home that contrasted with the sparse minimalism of the recorded version of the song.

And it was inevitably left to Elbow's Guy Garvey to inject a large dose of sentimentality into proceedings as he pointed to the sky to implore "Let's build a rocket boys" on Lippy Kids, the track that gave the band's album its title.

Asked by host Jools Holland - as all the acts were - to speak to the audience after their performance, Garvey said the band had enjoyed "the best time we've had in the studio for 20 years on account of being honoured with the Mercury award in 2008" for The Seldom Seen Kid.

The only one of the acts who declined to say a few words was Anna Calvi - nominated for her eponymous debut album - who some have described as a younger version of 41-year-old Harvey.

Off stage, the 28-year-old is much quieter than Wednesday night's winner but, as proved by her performance of Desire, give Calvi a Fender Telecaster and a microphone and she exudes seductive strength.

Red carpet

It was a source of regret for all present that the single most powerful enigma in British pop music was unable to sing because of a chest infection that has led to a series of cancelled gigs.

Instead, Adele took to the stage to tell host Holland how "gutted" she was not to be performing from nominated album 21, swearing as she did so.

Speaking to the BBC News website earlier on the red carpet, PJ Harvey said Adele was her favourite to win.

But while Harvey is a big fan of her "very moving" voice, she is perhaps less likely to be as captivated by Adele's songwriting ethic.

The 23-year-old recently revealed she had not written a song since 21 was finished.

Harvey, in marked contrast, is "a writer that works all the time".

"I work every day and already my work's begun to develop into what will be the next project and I'd like to go even further into what I began with this record," she says.

"And I'd like to be back here again in another 10 years' time with another record."

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