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PJ Harvey's latest album unfolds out of an epic narrative poem

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

For PJ Harvey, words, music and images all come from the same creative wellspring.

P J HARVEY: In the early stages of writing a song, I very often see it in images and colors. And 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.

KELLY: Harvey is best known as a singer-songwriter. She first broke out in the early '90s with hits like "Rid Of Me" and "Dress."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRESS")

HARVEY: (Singing) Put on that dress. I'm going out dancing.

KELLY: Along with the songs, she has always written poetry and created visual art, too.

HARVEY: I think when I was younger, I used to try and keep them separate, in their separate categories. But as I've got older, it's become more and more natural for me that they all just sort of bleed together.

KELLY: Her latest project bleeds together those elements intricately. Last year, she published a narrative poem called "Orlam," a vivid work of magical realism, which has now evolved into a new album called "I Inside The Old Year Dying."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I INSIDE THE OLD YEAR DYING")

HARVEY: (Singing) Drush repeats 'enself, over underwhelem.

I only set out to write a collection of poetry, but this work kind of morphed into drawings and then into music as well.

KELLY: NPR's Ann Powers sat down with Harvey to hear more about the album, which is out now.

ANN POWERS, BYLINE: 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?

HARVEY: 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, and it documents her year, month by month, paying particular attention to what's happening in the natural world around her. It's playful in its imagination, I would say. It's a mixture of seriousness and humor and Dorset dialect, which adds another layer to the meaning of everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LWONESOME TONIGHT")

HARVEY: (Singing) Hark the greening of the earth.

POWERS: I wonder how you first made the decision to use the Dorset dialect. And then how did you - as they say in the most corny way, how did you make it your own?

HARVEY: One of the poems I wrote early on had been leaning into some of the words I'd remembered from being a child. I mean, I remember the elders in the village using some of 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 dialect still running through people, and it's precious. And, you know, I was just so fascinated in it because it still felt alive within me. I think, you know, at some level, I sort of knew the words anyway. 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LWONESOME TONIGHT")

HARVEY: (Singing) Beech and aller, woak and birch, biddle, bull-head, squirrel’s drey.

POWERS: Another artist might have turned to, you know, identifiable folk sounds for this album, you know, with its rural setting, its connection to old stories. You did not. I mean, 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 with your collaborators.

HARVEY: 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. And it was very hard thing to do. So often we would jettison a sound because it was too familiar to us. But I really feel that we pushed ourselves into quite new places. And certainly, I think with my singing, I feel like I haven't sung in the way that I've sung before quite like I do on this record.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRAYER AT THE GATE")

HARVEY: (Singing) As childhood died the old year, made the soldier reappear.

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

HARVEY: Yeah. I - when I was at 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 theatre 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, which is just a sort of library of sounds which are open for sound designers to use. And then when it turned into a musical album rather than a theater piece, I felt like 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 leads to this beautiful sort of world that you enter because everything was recorded in the same room together. So you feel like you stepped into a particular world of sound because all of the sounds are going down every single microphone, if that makes sense.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ HARVEY SONG, "THE NETHER-EDGE")

POWERS: I know that you were at something of a crisis point about making music when you started on this album. You've 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 are just, you know, more holistically creative? And do you think this is more possible today for artists, for artists to not necessarily identify as one thing as maybe it was, you know, before the various entertainment industries took over? Is it more possible to simply be a maker?

HARVEY: I think forever, artists have been doing this - many things at the same time. For me, I temporarily felt that I had lost my connection to music. And then 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, like, more full of joy and that anything is possible again than I've felt in absolutely years.

(SOUNDBITE OF PJ HARVEY SONG, "THE NETHER-EDGE")

KELLY: That was PJ Harvey talking with NPR's Ann Powers about her new album, "I Inside The Old Year Dying." You can hear an extended version of their conversation on NPR's podcast All Songs Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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.
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