PJ Harvey by Maria Mochnacz
PJ Harvey has always been an artist who's created and delivered her work honestly and on her own terms, consistently driven by a desire to challenge herself, which in turn makes immersion in her art both rich and immensely rewarding. The strength of her soon-to-be nine album strong discography hinges on Harvey's ability to tap and harness her emotions in song—from her earlier material like the searing "Rub 'Till It Bleeds," to the softly strummed "The Desperate Kingdom of Love" (from 2004's Uh Huh Her, an LP on which she played all the instruments), to the often brittle brilliance of 2011's Let England Shake (for which she won her second Mercury Music Prize—the only artist to do so).
At the top of last year, 3000 lucky ticket holders descended into the bowels of London's Somerset House to watch Harvey and her collaborators—namely producer Flood and John Parish—through a one way pane of glass. In collaboration with Artangel, the project was titled, Recording in Progress, and took place over a period of five weeks. Also frequently in the purpose-built studio documenting the entire process, photojournalist and filmmaker Seamus Murphy. Harvey first approached Murphy several years ago after seeing his 2008 exhibition A Darkness Visible, which chronicled his experiences in Afghanistan. This then lead to Murphy directing 12 short films for Let England Shake.
We now know that the fruits of these "Recording in Progress" sessions have been collated for her opus, The Hope Six Demolition Project (out this April)—a clutch of songs directly inspired by Harvey and Murphy's travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C., all of which took place over a four year period.
"When I’m writing a song I visualize the entire scene," explains Harvey. "I can see the colors, I can tell the time of day, I can sense the mood, I can see the light changing, the shadows moving, everything in that picture. Gathering information from secondary sources felt too far removed for what I was trying to write about. I wanted to smell the air, feel the soil and meet the people of the countries I was fascinated with."
Many of the songs from The Hope Six… were given their first public airing back in October at London's Royal Festival Hall, performed against the arresting backdrop of Murphy's photos. And it's not the first time these particular travels have provided grist for her art: she poured her experiences not only into this new LP, but also her first poetry book, 2015's The Hollow of the Hand, her words here again complemented by Murphy's images.
YouTube recordings from the Royal Festival Hall performance aside, on January 21st Harvey debuted "The Wheel," a bluesy maelstrom of brass, ferociously pounded drums, and insistent handclaps. She's echoed and responded to by an incantatory choir, her refrains of "and watch them fade out," as the song hurtles towards its close, are hypnotic and unsettling too. Below we're premiering the Seamus Murphy-directed video for "The Wheel," plus read Murphy's thoughts on inspiration, the song and video, and the project as a whole below.
"Polly and I wanted to initiate a project together working in places we thought interesting and relevant. We met through her seeing my photographs from Afghanistan, and I later showed her more work, including some from the war in Kosovo in the late 1990s. I had experience and contacts in both places and Polly had long held a fascination for Afghanistan and was caught up following the events in Kosovo when it was topical. Both had troubled histories and because of the news were familiar in name to everybody; the detail and nuance was maybe lacking or forgotten. I had returned to Kosovo in 2004 when the conflict erupted again, finding unresolved disputes and a deep frustration on every side with the pace and handling of events. "An invitation came to both of us early in the summer of 2011. We were asked to attend a screening of the complete 12 Short Films I had made for the Let England Shake album, and to be part of a Q and A afterwards at the Dokufest in Prizren, southern Kosovo. Not something Polly would normally do, yet there was something inevitable about it all and it would get the project started. So we went.
"The song 'The Wheel' has the journey to Kosovo at its center. Who is to say what else has influenced and informed its creation? The sight of a revolving fairground wheel in Fushe Kosove/Kosovo Polje near the capital Pristina is the concrete reference point for the title. I can tell you its date—4th August 2011—from the piece of footage I made as we walked up the street to our parked car near the train station. It was a passing observation of a commonplace image, one of many that day. While Polly took notes I might have been more interested in something else happening across the street and not bothered to shoot or even have seen it. That day we were gathering material in a blind, optimistic endeavor; characteristic of the way we tend to work together. We had no idea if any of it would ever be seen, heard or would make sense.
"Was that sight alone the inspiration for the song? Without being told the stories of people who had suffered during the war, without visiting villages abandoned through ethnic cleansing and cycles of vengeance, without experiencing the different perceptions of people with shared histories, could the song have been written?
"I made a return trip to Kosovo in December 2015, armed this time with the knowledge of how the project had developed. In addition to Kosovo, there had been journeys to Afghanistan and Washington D.C. A book, The Hollow of the Hand, had been published of Polly’s poems and my photographs and a words/images/music launch on the stage of the Royal Festival Hall over two nights. A recording session turned art installation in Somerset House which I filmed. The album was mastered and on its way. Disparate elements finally coming together of a project that started with the premise of curiosity and interest.
"Making the film for 'The Wheel' involved a mix of footage from the first trip in 2011, rehearsals I shot of Polly in London and the most recent trip to Kosovo. The enormous refugee crisis in Europe had been news for months. I spent some time on the Greek and Macedonian borders, and in Serbia, before traveling into Kosovo. It was happening in and through territories associated with recent conflicts in Kosovo and the wider Balkans. The idea of cycles, wheels and repetition once again being all too apparent and necessary to make.
"We salute the life of Nesim Kryeziu (1938-2016) the wonderful man in the film performing a traditional dance with a glass of water on his head at a wedding in his village of Brezne in the Opoja region of Kosovo."
PJ Harvey will be hitting the road at a select number of international festivals this year—alongside her new nine-piece band—dates below.
PJ Harvey Tour Dates
06/04/16 – Barcelona, Spain – Primavera Sound
06/04-05/16 – Paris, France – We Love Green Festival
06/12/16 – London, UK – Field Day
06/17-18/16 – Helsinki, Finland – Sideways Festival
06/20/16 – Berlin, Germany – Zitadelle Spandau
06/22/16 – Zagreb, Croatia – INMusic
06/24-26/16 – Beuningen, The Netherlands – Down The Rabbit Hole
06/29/16 – Gdynia, Poland – Open’er Festival
06/29-07/02/16 – Roskilde, Denmark – Roskilde Festival
07/02/16 – Werchter, Belgium – Rock Werchter
07/03/16 – Herouville St Clair, France – Beauregard Festival
07/07/16 – Trenčín, Slovakia – Pohoda Festival
08/11/16 – Oslo, Norway – OYA
08/11-13/16 – Gothenburg, Sweden – Way Out West