At a crossroads, PJ Harvey went back home to rekindle her imagination

PJ Harvey

There was a moment after PJ Harvey released her ninth studio album in 2016 when she wasn’t certain if she even wanted to make music anymore.

“I really just wanted to really step back a bit and think, ‘Okay, what do I want to do with my remaining years? Is it this, still?’,” she tells World Cafe during her visit to WXPN’s studios.

In the subsequent years, Harvey found her way back to songwriting by rediscovering a part of her past. She rekindled that playfulness she used to feel when she first started making music. Harvey’s latest album, I Inside the Old Year Dying, lends itself to the sort of fantastic imagination that allows us to construct entire worlds as children.

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Harvey drew further inspiration from her epic narrative poem, Orlam, and its use of the Dorset dialect she grew up hearing in South West England. Hoping to capture the otherworldliness of her prose in her music, Harvey returned to Dorset to collect audio recordings of the natural world around her childhood home.

“I would walk around Dorset with my Zoom microphone,” she said. “I’m lucky enough that my mum still lives in the house that my brother and I grew up in, from babies. And that’s quite rare, isn’t it? That your parents stay living in the same house. So I knew of different haunts that I could go on, where I would find the right sound of the river I wanted to record or the right sound of leaves in the trees or the right sound of the bells ringing from the local church.”

Those found sounds give I Inside the Old Year Dying an air of magic and mystery. In this session, Harvey talks about creating the world of the album by reconnecting with her imagination. Plus, she performs live with a special guitar.

“It was my first guitar that my mum bought for me when I must have been about 16,” she said. “She bought it from someone in the village for 100 pounds.”

Interview Highlights

On the guitar she brought to World Cafe

“It’s a Yamaha acoustic. It’s just beautiful. And this was the guitar I would have written my very first songs on. Some of the really early songs were written on it. ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’ was written on it. It’s before I had an electric guitar, and I think my mum knew because I remember my mum teaching me recorder when I was about 4. I was able to play better than her within, like, the first lesson. I would sing melodies back from the radio as a tiny child.”

On using visual references to help her write

“I took a lot of photographs just on my phone, but I also had reference images from many other different sources. Artists’ work that I felt captured the magic of the landscape or old Celtic drawings. Lots of photographs that I’d taken of leaves on the forest floor and trees. Lots of sheep’s eyeballs and things that I pulled off the internet. And I’d have them sort of all around me on my desk, on my laptop.

“I’d often be making drawings that were compiling these images whilst writing a poem because that would often help me unlock the key to the poem, especially if it wasn’t working. I think drawing, for me, is a way of bypassing the intellect, which can often be a way into a solution for a poem. Sometimes, if you’re just using your intellectual conscious capability, you can’t get there. Sometimes, it’s much better to just use instinct. And the way to get there, I find, is through drawing.”

On writing in the Dorset dialect of her childhood home

“They are such beautiful words, aren’t they? Because they sound like what they are. ‘Twiddick’ sounds like a twig, which is also why I felt like it wouldn’t be too much of a barrier for people, because, I mean, again, going back to songs, there’s so many songs — even people singing in English — I can’t work out what they’re saying, but it doesn’t matter because you make that word your own and it means something to you and that’s different to what it means to other people.”

On working with producers John Parish and Flood

“It wasn’t what I was setting out to do in my head, but this is why I love working with John and Flood. We arrived at Flood’s studio, and there were microphones everywhere I looked. They were, like, under my seat, above my head, behind me, hidden under the amp. I thought, what is going on? Because that was when I realized that, okay, he’s going to want to take everything live. We hadn’t talked about it, we hadn’t discussed it, but Flood always likes to be fully ready. He records everything because he knows that there’s often magic when you’re just sound-checking something. The whole album sounds like it’s in an intimate, sheltered space.”

On how she inhabits different characters with her voice

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with a theater director in England for many, many years. He’s called Ian Rickson. And I work with Ian in composing music for his plays. I’ve done that for, like, 14 years now, but Ian also works with me on my live shows with my band. He coaches us as he does his actors.

“One of the things that Ian had taught me — and this is such a wonderful help — is that if I see the scene, then the audience will see it. If I see it, you’ll see it. It’s the same with hearing. If I see the scene as I’m singing, you will see it as you hear it. It’s as simple as that. So as I sing the songs, I am almost seeing it as a film of all the action that’s happening, I see it in front of me. And that is the key to getting the right emotion.”

On the changes in her voice as she has gotten older

“I think, as we get older, we become more self-accepting. We get a much greater idea of who we are. There’s less fighting going on within oneself. There’s this greater openness, and I think with that openness, also means you have greater access to a wider energy, like a wider support, and the voice thrives on that.

“The other thing is it’s really just the physical changes that happen. We know that our body just changes, and that’s not just the body, it’s every single tissue and muscle. The vocal cords are controlled by the muscles. They’ve changed, and the way I use them has changed. It’s both of those things. It’s the emotional landscape, and it’s the physical landscape meeting that gives this voice a different richness and clarity.”

This episode of World Cafe was produced and edited by Kimberly Junod. The web story was created by Miguel Perez. Our engineer is Chris Williams. Our programming and booking coordinator is Chelsea Johnson and our line producer is Will Loftus.

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