Emerging from the musical laboratory
Polly Jean Harvey has had many musical personas. The English singer-songwriter has assaulted the world as a raging punk, howled from the mountaintops like an angry blues man, torn out her heart as a torch singer. She has retreated into whispered contemplation and celebrated romance from the rooftops. These guises all reflect her artistic mandate to keep pushing forward.
“I think of myself more as an explorer than as a maker of pop music,” PJ Harvey, 38, said while she was in town last week to play a sold-out show at the Orpheum Theatre supporting “White Chalk,” her latest album. “I don’t want to stick to any one plan.”
Thoughtful and upbeat during a conversation over tea at a West Hollywood hotel, the alt-rock icon was dressed mostly in black, her dark, chaotic swirl of curls resembling her onstage coif from two nights earlier. Perfectly mascaraed lashes framed hazel eyes that fixed you with an almost frighteningly intelligent gaze.
The glowing reviews for “White Chalk” often peg it as a departure from previous works. She wrote it, not on guitar as usual, but on piano and other instruments heard on the album, such as zither, harmonica and harp. Longtime pals Eric Drew Feldman and Jim White of the Dirty Three augmented the mostly hushed, atmospheric tracks with Mellotron, delicate percussion, guitar and banjo. The recording’s closest relative is 1998’s “Is This Desire?” -- also co-produced by Harvey, Flood and John Parish -- but “White Chalk” is even more ethereal.
The album still draws from the ancient forms that have always interested Harvey, this time more folk than blues. She sings in a high, wispy soprano that’s a far cry from the full-throated power of such highlights as 1995’s “To Bring You My Love,” 2000’s “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea,” and her previous release, 2004’s “Uh Huh Her.”
The Orpheum show (one of only two U.S. dates) represented another departure: She performed solo rather than in her usual rock-band configuration. It was different and exciting for her. Also, although she loves playing live, she doesn’t want to actually tour.
“I thought it would suit me to do about one show a month,” she said, “and the only way you can make that work is to be playing on your own.”
Concert presentation is key for Harvey, whose stage attire has varied from a crimson evening gown to dresses fashioned from her own promotional T-shirts. “How I’m looking [on stage] is how I want to feel, to convey the songs,” she said. “And it always comes back to what the music suggests in the first place.” At the Orpheum her flowing white gown scrawled with lyrics evoked the internal drama of these bare new songs.
For Harvey, trying on different musical roles is essential.
"[Each album] is like an experimentation, to see what I am capable of doing,” she said, adding that her art-school background -- she’s also a sculptor -- has contributed to this approach.
Yet “White Chalk” continues to sound out the emotional themes -- desire, friendship, love, loss -- that have fascinated Harvey since her 1992 debut, “Dry.”
“That is the consistent thing for me,” she said. “I’m concerned with the human condition. And that takes shape in the form of, not only what goes on in my life, but what I see going on around me, everything from an immediate level to a much more global level.”
“White Chalk” has been almost universally characterized as somber, desperate, isolated, beautiful but disturbing, even depraved. You could imagine the songs in a rock context, but as presented they effect a shut-in rumination suggesting mourning and regret. Harvey agrees that the tracks may reflect grief, insanity or betrayal, but said they also incorporate uplifting things.
“There’s a lot of joy and hope and belief,” she said. “I certainly don’t feel like I pursue [only] one aspect of being human.”
Often written in the first person, her songs convey such intense emotion and secret knowledge that over the years they’ve been mistaken for confessional. But they’re artworks, shaped as deliberately as her sculpture.
“It’s storytelling through song,” she said, mentioning that she wrote 50 or 60 tunes before whittling “White Chalk” down to 11 that stood both on their own and as one. “My life’s work is the study of that. When I’m not physically writing songs, all I do really is read about song craft, gather as much information as I can. I look at meter and stanza, I go back to all the poetic forms and shapes.”
“White Chalk” is also informed by the classical music she listened to almost exclusively while making it, from Beethoven, Bach and Handel to personal favorites such as “sacred minimalists” Arvo Part and Henryk Gorecki, to new interests including Ralph Vaughan Williams and medieval composer William Lawes.
The folk and classical influences feed a quietude that somehow ratchets up her gut-level emotionality. Even an experienced fan might be tricked into wondering if her mother died or she suffered a bad breakup.
Harvey laughed deeply at such notions. And then she gently turned the tables.
“So, what does it make you feel? Or were you just thinking?” That quizzical hazel gaze tells you that you can’t understand the songs by pondering alone. You must take them in. “The things that I’m singing about, everybody feels at some point,” she said. “It’s really very simple. I don’t see it as complex at all.”
Listeners have to believe in songs to internalize them, and Harvey said it “would be a shame in itself” if they paused while feeling the emotions to marvel at her song craft. Nevertheless, “it does actually confuse me why people so often assume absolute autobiography with singers, particularly what I would call the human-emotion-condition-explorer singers. Like Nick Cave or Thom Yorke or myself.”
To Harvey, her songs are like “paintings or film scenes,” visual vignettes more novelistic than confessional. A novelist, she mused, “is seen as a writer. And I see what I do in a similar way.” She added that maybe the difference is that “writers don’t stand on stage and perform their work.”
As a “visual person,” Harvey needs to regularly put herself in unfamiliar locations. She resides in rural Dorset, the English county where she grew up, but she’s lived in London, New York, L.A. and other places.
“It’s so easy to slip into not seeing your surroundings when you’re in the same place every day,” she said. Relocating can be frightening. “But it brings up all manner of ways of singing, speaking, writing, relating, in a way I just couldn’t [otherwise do]. It’s really important for us as human beings to try and keep moving ourselves into unknown territory.”