Category: PJ Harvey

Coachella 2011: 'When I stand on the stage, I want to give the truth,' says PJ Harvey

00coachellapjharvey During PJ Harvey’s Sunday night set, one of the repasts offered by Coachella before festival headliner Kanye West commanded the main stage, a fan waved a homemade sign that got caught on camera. “PJ Harvey,” it read, “is the REAL closing headliner.” The crowd cheered, the sentiment validating the feverish loyalty Harvey’s listeners trade in, the kind that almost feels sealed by blood oath.

Outfitted in a white dress corseted at the waist like a parlor-bound Victorian wife, her sculptural feathered headpiece shooting back from her obsidian hair, Harvey looked ready for the Wild West’s dreamscape, ready to hitch her covered wagon to the trash-strewn grounds. Cradling an autoharp in her arms, Harvey, in her Coachella debut, assessed the crowd with a benevolent gaze that seemed as if it could snap into menace if provoked.

Coachella 2011 in photos: The acts and scene | 360° Panoramas | The faces

Harvey played with her old pal and frequent collaborator John Parish at her side, and her set marched out war-scarred testaments from her latest album, “Let England Shake,” and a few older songs, such as “The Sky Lit Up,” played with more chug than the original, a sense of certainty replacing the near-hysteria.

“When I stand on the stage,” Harvey said, in an interview earlier in the day, “I want to give the truth.” We were speaking in her cavernous artist’s trailer on the Polo Grounds, about how she tried to avoid repeating her work. Over the course of eight albums, Harvey has cut a snake’s trail through heartsick alienation, and now with her latest, a nation’s embattled history. “It wouldn’t be honest of me,” she said, “to keep drawing from my past.”

With songs such as “Rid of Me,” Harvey whispered and screamed a message: It was acceptable to be difficult, brutal even, in love. But it’s a feeling that’s distant to her now. “I still love that song, but I wrote it many years ago,” she said. “There are other things I want to play now.” Has she moved away from writing personal screeds? “I would hesitate to say that any of my work is personal… you step into characters.”

For “Let England Shake,” two years in the making, Harvey was drawn to the characters of her country, particularly voices lost to time or the patriotic machine. “I wanted to use human language,” Harvey said, “not overt political language. I wanted to inhabit the lives of those who have been affected, not the political leaders.”

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Album review: PJ Harvey's 'Let England Shake'

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Most supernatural tales are marked by that moment when a double walks in — a longed-for loved one, usually, whose presence makes our terrified heroine relax for a beat, but then recoil in horror at this stranger in familiar skin. The doubles may be demons or revenants, or humans driven so utterly out of their minds that they can no longer recognize themselves. In the scariest instances, the double is the self: Natalie Portman facing the dance-studio mirror in “Black Swan,” watching her own face go dark and her limbs grotesquely twist.

Doubling deepens horror stories by forcing us to confront the ways we ourselves are cracked: the inching decay of every human body, the lunatic edge in every human mind. Rock-era pop music also taps into this force, though more triumphantly. Unleashing both the sexuality and the ugliness others repress, rock stars double themselves as heroes, not demons: human, but wilder and freer. Only occasionally does a rock artist make that uncanny transformation the very essence of her work, revealing its process, confronting its consequences.

Polly Jean Harvey is rock’s master polymorph. For 20 years she has pulled herself through the ectoplasmic core of whatever musical style currently fascinates her — blues, post-punk, gothic rock, Victorian piano ballads — to show us how music can reshape the person performing it. Her lyrics, too, often dwell on violent acts of self-uncovering. Imagining herself as a man, a mother, a gargoyle or a ghost, lining up those identities within the singing and other sounds that best fit them, Harvey has created a body of work that serves as a resonant hall of mirrors, where listeners can go to explore the way music, and life itself, dissembles and renews them.

Harvey’s eighth studio album, “Let England Shake,” transforms her and her music in a groundbreaking way. On this album, which explores how nationalism both binds us and blows us apart, Harvey becomes a “we.” Love of country is her subject; the muddy fields where nations baptize themselves in blood are, mostly, her settings. And the music, at its core, is patriotic folk — some the battle cries sung in pubs or as soldiers plod forward; others the sentimental ballads shared by those left behind to record loss and justify its cost.

“I wanted the music to have an energy and sense of being uplifting, of energizing, of unifying, of … gathering together as people,” Harvey recently told the English magazine NME. “I wanted it to be communal. So the melodies had to be something that were conducive to wanting to sing along with.… Many voices could sing these words.”

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PJ Harvey and John Parish's artistic marriage on 'A Woman a Man Walked By'

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Musicians Polly Jean Harvey and John Parish don't believe in compromise, but they do believe in marriage -- a creative union in which ideas must be 100% agreed upon by both parties. It might sound laughably utopian for traditional matrimony, but that philosophy has yielded the near-perfect artifact of an album in "A Woman a Man Walked By," released this week.

Prickly, wicked and tender, the 10-song collection sounds wrenched from mythical landscapes and the fiery imbroglio of the id. It surely will stand as one of the year's best rock efforts.

The two British toughs split the work in an orderly way: Parish writes all of the music, and Harvey pens the lyrics and vocals. The set-up allows her to focus on her favorite task, she explained in a rare interview with both musicians in Hollywood before their mesmerizing El Rey show last week.

"Over the years, I've become more interested in writing words than anything, really," said Harvey, spider-black hair falling in tendrils around her shoulders. "So to be in a situation where that's all I have to take care of, to really explore what I can do with my voice, is a joy for me."

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Live review: PJ Harvey at El Rey

She delivers an evening of theater with John Parish, delving into their collaborations 'A Woman a Man Walked By' and 'Dance Hall at Louse Point.'

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Three out of the four musicians backing up Polly Jean Harvey on Monday night at the El Rey Theatre wore fedoras onstage -- encouraging news for those who mourn the death of millinery, and that's setting aside Harvey's own white Art Deco headpiece, which called to mind a crowned rack of lamb.

Since her emergence in the early 1990s as one of the most daring voices in alternative rock, Harvey has become something of a style icon. Yet the English singer's love of clothes always has seemed less a devotion to fashion than an interest in costume, another way to embody the characters she describes in her songs.

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