PJ Harvey talks to PopMatters about her haunting new album, learning piano by ear, limitless imagination, and why she decided to do a string of solo shows to bring White Chalk to her fans.
Over the last decade and a half, PJ Harvey has amassed one of rock music's most passionate and original catalogues, working in lacerating rock and pure pop, arena rousing anthems and lyrical personal statements. From her early defiant singles ("Sheela-Na-Gig" and "Dress") through her abrasive and noisy rock phase, through her pop-leaning Stories from the City to the subtle swampiness of Uh Huh Her, Harvey's work has always included a good dose of the blues.
For all these reasons, it's a surprise when her seventh solo full-length White Chalk drifts out of the stereo, its moody melancholy derived more from late classical composers than Delta bluesmen. And, moreover, Harvey is playing piano, harp, autoharp... anything but the guitar. It is, perhaps, the most startling departure yet in a career that's been full of them.
"I was trying to not cover the same ground," explained Harvey in a recent phone interview. "I was looking and looking to find out, therefore, what that new process was going to be. A lot of the time, I was just playing by ear, not doing anything that I felt like I'd done before."
That search for the new extended to every aspect of the album in progress, from the lyrical content to the keys she played in to the musical instruments she chose. "I was writing a lot on anything other than instruments I felt familiar with, really, so I didn't write much on guitar," she said. "I was reaching for little harps and autoharps and harmonicas and pianos. And wrote an enormous amount of songs. I mean, the songs that ended up on the record were just the ones I thought were strongest. But there were many that were written on different instruments."
Harvey said she wrote these songs mostly over the three-year period following her last record, 2004's Uh Huh Her. "I think I'd become, as a writer, I'd become concerned with ... or excited about certain sounds or instruments that I would just dive right into and explore for as long as I feel excited by them," she said.
Harvey explained that she'd had the instruments around the house for years and had always meant to explore them more thoroughly. She was methodical, she said, about trying out new sounds and ideas, crossing things off only when she felt that she'd really gotten the best out of them. She has a long list of instruments she wants to try, and she admitted that she's nowhere near finished with it. "Sometimes I panic because it's more than I'll be able to get through before it's time for me to leave," she said.
For White Chalk, one of those instruments was the piano, whose cascades and flourishes can be heard on "Grow Grow Grow" and the anxious, percussive "Piano". Harvey says that she taught herself to play, by ear, during the three years she was writing. She was listening almost exclusively to classical music at the time. "It was everyone from the old favorites like Beethoven and Bach and Handel to lesser known artist like William Laws, who was a 16th Century medieval writer," she said. "I listened to people like Vaughan Williams, Arvo Part, Erik Satie, Samuel Barber."
The fact that she was writing on piano and harp rather than guitar allowed Harvey to venture into new keys, primarily the flat keys that are so difficult to play on six-string. "That was very inspiring," she explained. "I think that each chord, each key has a certain character and atmosphere to it."
Harvey also developed a different way of singing for White Chalk, airier, without vibrato and higher than before. "That came out of the experimentation and the nature of the songs," she said. "I was just looking for something that was new, something to excite me because it was new, because it was unknown, because it was frightening. Anything like that that I was out of my depth with."
Yet while the singing style was different, Harvey says she found it easy to perform. "It's a very pure and very easily accessible voice. It doesn't involve much, other than mind placement. If you place your mind in that area of singing, it happens," she said.
That high pure vocal tone gives the album a decidedly spooky tone, which is only reinforced by its surreal, fairytale imagery. "Particularly, with my lyrical writing, I wanted there to be no holds on anything," said Harvey. "I wanted the gates to be free in the imagination. And to me, that is quite a childlike, fairytale-like world to inhabit."
She added, "It's an incredible imagination that we have as children that can take us anywhere, build any world we desire. I was very much wanting that to be the case with this piece of work. I wanted to let my mind ramble or go wherever I wanted to be ... whether it made logical, adult sense or not."
The title track, for instance, has an almost haunting simplicity to it, just the steady strum of guitar and keening, swooping vocals. There's a sort of mythic quality, though, to the imagery, which describes daunting natural beauty that is utterly indifferent to human sentiment. "White chalk snap against time / White chalk cutting down the sea at night / I know the valleys by the surf / On a path cut 1500 years ago... and I know, the chalk hills will rot my bones," sings Harvey, a lyric that is larger and more resonant because of its indefinite-ness.
Harvey said that she decided to name the album after this song because of the simple, consonant-defined heft of the words white chalk. ""I felt like it reflected the music on the record, which I think is quite simple," she said. "And also, it conjures up many images for me, everything from childhood and blackboards to the actual quality of it as a substance. It's something that's hundreds of years old but can be erased in a second. I like that sort of timeless idea about it. But mostly it's the sound of the words. They're very succinct and simple, with hard consonants. I like the way it falls off the tongue."
Harvey worked with long-time collaborators Eric Drew Feldman, John Parish, and Flood on the album, but she is performing her work lately all by herself. "Well, I always just go with where my heart is at any given moment. I didn't feel like playing with a band. I didn't feel like making lots of loud noise," she said. "I didn't feel like touring as such."
"But I do thoroughly enjoy performing. I absolutely love it," she said. "So I tried to think of a way that I could do this thing I love, but in a way that I would prefer, which would be to pretty much play about a show a month and be at home the rest of the time."
On a practical level, she explained, it's impossible to assemble a band and crew and expect them to show up at gigs only one day a month. "So that's what began to lead me down this path of playing on my own. But I'm thoroughly enjoying it." Her sets include not just the new material, but songs from every album of her career, all performed in stripped down one-person arrangements. Does she miss the big kick of electric guitar, the pounding of drums, in her older rock-oriented songs? "No, not at all," Harvey said. "I'm a songwriter, so the way they ever first enter the world is with me and one instrument."
Meanwhile, in the days between gigs, Harvey spends her time as she always has, trying out new instruments, listening to music and working on new material. She's finished writing a new album with Parish, a long-delayed sequel to 1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point. They hope to record the material together in January. "I'm always writing," she said. "That's what I do."