As the singer P.J. Harvey prepares to record her new album, we decided to publish this slightly abridged version of the article about Harvey’s last album, Let England Shake, and about her friendship with Ann Demeulemeester and Patrick Robyn. The full version appeared as the cover story for our print volume 2.
When you come to Dorset, a region in the southwest England, the cab drivers complain that the things aren’t what they used to be. There is a specter of that grievance in the work of another Dorset denizen. PJ Harvey’s album, Let England Shake, is a lament for a country that has lost its way. Polly Jean Harvey was born and raised in Dorset, and unlike many stars that flee to the bright lights of big cities, she is happy to remain there. “I’ve lived away a few times, in London for a while, in New York, in LA for three years, but I always end up coming back,” she told me over a cup of tea in a restaurant of a local hotel, whose cozy quaintness was endearingly stereotypical. “This is where I grew up. My family is still here and all of the friends that I grew up with and went to school with are here, and the landscape is beautiful. I find that the older I get the more it starts to draw me back. In the end it has to do with your soul. I feel lucky to have grown up in this part of the world.”
Harvey’s voice is soft and her demeanor introspective, which is not quite the image you may get from her enigmatic, daring, and forceful presence on stage and in videos, especially from her earlier career. She is more petite in real life than in the photos. At forty-two, she looks as if she just turned thirty.
PJ Harvey is better known for the jagged, raw sounds of her electric guitar and for singing unabashedly about being a woman in love. On stage, she is relentlessly charismatic because of her ability to pick up a guitar and, well, rock out.
But that was before her 2007 album, White Chalk, came out. On it, the ear-straining distortion of the guitar and the cascading drums gave way to piano, and leather mini-skirts, and high heels were discarded in favor of buttoned up dresses. With Let England Shake, Harvey has pushed her career further in two directions – experimenting with sound and finding new ground for her lyrics.
The songs on the new album mark a radical departure from the personal nature of Harvey’s work and firmly plant her in the realm of the political. They are urgent in rhythm, yet not overwhelming the listener with their aggression. The change in both her sound and lyrics is clear and reflective of Harvey’s maturity as a person.
“I think it’s been a gradual change,” Harvey told me when I asked her about the new sound. “I think my first few albums were much more brutal in their sound, much more unleashed. But then, as I’ve gone on to become more experimental with sound, which started with ‘To Bring You My Love,’ I’ve always continued to want to use different instruments, combinations, and see what kind of atmosphere they create, to find the right sounds for the words that you have. And I’ve continued to enjoy doing that. I think of it more as painting pictures using sound. So, I select the sounds like you would select the paint and see what happens when I combine them. And it’s a bit of trial and error.”
Her desire to experiment and push forward comes from her background as a visual artist. Harvey started writing songs at sixteen while studying sculpture in London. There, she was encouraged to experiment and evolve. Harvey transferred that lesson into her music. “It would serve me no purpose at all to continue to use one formula,” she said. “I would just die inside, because as an artist you have to keep challenging yourself and keep trying to find new ways of telling truths. You have to evolve as time evolves.”
Harvey signed her first record deal while in college, after putting together what she describes as a first rock trio. She thought that she could always go back and finish her degree if she failed at music. But she didn’t. Her first album Dry was an astonishing success, and she has not looked back since. Harvey was the first female solo artist to receive the Mercury Prize, the most prestigious UK music award, for her 2001 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. And with Let England Shake, she became the only artist to receive this prize twice.
The transition from personal to political did not come easily. “For a long time I wanted to write a record like Let England Shake,” Harvey explained. “Because I’ve always been very engaged with what’s going on in the world. But I didn’t feel like its time has come. And I did not feel that I have reached that level as a writer, possessed the skills I needed to do such an album. I think such writing requires a great degree of experience and poise with which to get the balance right when you are dealing with weighty subject matter, and for these reasons I’ve put off trying to write such an outward looking album.”
The sparseness of the lyrics on the album does not reflect the degree of rigor that Harvey had put in creating them. It took her two and a half years to write the lyrics alone. “I was very wary in the beginning to try and write this record because I myself find it very heard to find a musician that can deal with such political subject matter and do it well. There are very few of them who do it well. There are some, but it’s a very difficult line to walk.”
Her main challenge was to write a balanced album, one that was mature and free of dogma. “It’s extremely easy to write a bad protest song, which I did not want to do. So, I was prepared to fail. It has happened a few times already that I’d begun to write this record and realize that it isn’t right and put it aside for a few years. I was prepared to do that again, but this time the writing did come together.”
So, what changed? Many of the songs are about war, and it came as no surprise to hear that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the brazenness with which the politicians in the US and the UK pulled their countries into the wars despite the protests from the public have made a deep impression on Harvey. “There were many people that objected [to the wars] and that objection was overridden,” she explained. “I felt a great sense of impotence after the enormous demonstration that happened before the Iraq war. So many people did not want that to happen, and none of that changed anything. I felt a great sense of despondency. What can we do if nobody is listening? It was the first time I felt that the things have changed, that even if you use your voice now, no one will listen to it.” And yet, using her voice is exactly what Harvey did.
Along with evolution in sound came Harvey’s evolution in dress. When she sang about just wanting to see you undressed, there were the leather miniskirts, high-heeled boots, and bras. With the introspection of White Chalk, her slender figure was now sheathed in buttoned up dresses. And when the time to choose the clothes for Let England Shake, Harvey needed armor. She looked no further than her longtime friend, the Belgian designer Ann Demeulemeester.
The first time Harvey and Demeulemeester met was in 1995, when Demeulemeester went backstage at a Harvey concert in Belgium. By a way of introduction, Demeulemeester gave Harvey a black leather coat, which she wore to our meeting. It had a slightly asymmetric cut and clean lines. In it, Harvey looked protected.
Harvey and Demeulemeester found kinship and mutual respect in their work, and over the years their friendship has flourished. “It’s very hard to define,” she said when I asked Harvey about why she likes Demeulemeester’s clothes. “It’s something to do with the soul of the work, the soul from which the work comes from. There is something in Ann’s soul that I see transferred into her work. I am drawn to that. It’s a likeness I can recognize because I have that in my soul also. It’s why I feel right in her clothes, and it’s why she feels right listening to my music. An understanding, a common language that you can find strength from.”
Indeed, you could trace a common thread between the work seemingly so disparate as music and fashion. Both Harvey and Demeulemeester are fiercely independent. Both are intrepid. And both have an undeniable sense of confidence in what they do. “Strength” is the word that they use to describe each other’s work.
One could see how the poet-warrior silhouette that Demeulemeester has perfected could be alluring to Harvey, who describes style in terms of comfort not in the conventional sense but a comfort of the soul. “For me it’s about the ability to meet the world,” Harvey explained. “And it is a second skin, isn’t it? It’s protection, as well. It’s a very big part of clothing, the feeling of protection, particularly in Ann’s clothes.”
She wanted to work with Demeulemeester for a long time, and the new album, with its political and war bents, seemed like an ideal opportunity to combine their talents. “The music was perfect for marriage with her work,” said Harvey. “I could see so much in her work that was so right for this record, for myself, and for how I wanted the band to look. I knew that Ann would understand the songs that I had for Let England Shake, and that she would help to find a way in which it could be best presented. I had no doubts at all that there would be that understanding, and of course there was.”
One day, in the middle of writing Let England Shake, Harvey came to Demeulemeester’s studio in Antwerp in order to pick the clothes for the album and for the subsequent tour. The studio is located on the outskirts of the city and is a part of a two-building complex built by Le Courbiser. I met Demeulemeester and Robyn there shortly after interviewing Harvey.
Demeulemeester’s clothes are often mislabeled as punk, goth, or military-inspired. All these elements are there, but they are merely concrete expressions of Demeulemeester’s character. This is why Demeulemeester constantly resists categorization – classical music can be as thunderous as punk rock. It is also why Harvey is comfortable tackling different music styles and subject matter in her lyrics.
Music is essential to Demeulemeester’s universe, especially when it comes to her shows. The music, the clothes, and the venue must match in order to create a coherent mood. “Choosing music for my show is always about trying to explain better what I want to do,” she said. “There is always a link. Actually, if the link is not perfect, I cannot use the music. Sometimes, I am looking for a certain energy; sometimes a song can inspire me to create something. It can be so strong that you feel it in your stomach, and I feel like I must do something with this energy. If the results are good, I put the music back on the runway afterwards.”
Both Harvey and Demeulemeester mention kinship of soul. “It’s very difficult to find somebody that you can really talk to on a creative level,” said Demeulemeester, describing why she treasures their friendship. “If you meet somebody like that, it’s so refreshing. We can ask each other, how do you get an idea, do you have this problem, do you know this feeling, and you discover these feelings linked to creativity are very similar. It’s just another medium that you choose, whether it’s writing, making music, making clothes, or taking photos, but the process of looking at the world and translating certain things you capture from the world; what’s important is to use your talent. It’s very nice to talk to people that use their talent to give something back to the world or to somebody else and then hope that you enrich somebody’s way of thinking or living.”
“First thing that attracted me certainly was strength,” Demeulemeester said, describing Harvey’s music. “She composed and recorded the songs by herself first. To me it was a work of a real artist. I was also intrigued by the things she talked about. You know how it is that you can automatically be attracted to the work of other people, that they are a soul mate. You don’t really become attracted to things that are far away from you culturally. I felt immediately that I wanted to know more about her.”
Demeulemeester has used Harvey’s music in several of her shows in the 90s, as well as in the last decade. And now it was time for Harvey to use Demeulemeester’s clothes to enhance her work. She called Demeulemeester and asked if she would be interested in outfitting her and her band for the album’s artwork and for the tour. Demeulemeester agreed to help, and Harvey sent her the lyrics and the demos of some songs.
After a long conversation about the record, Demeulemeester invited Harvey to her studio in Antwerp. Demeulemeester hates imposing her tastes on others and she finds it more natural for the wearer to pick the clothes instead of styling them. She simply wheeled in a bunch of clothes on the racks, and then, she and Harvey played dress-up.
Demeulemeester invited her husband, Patrick Robyn, to help them out. Robyn is usually described as a photographer, but he is really a jack-of-all-trades. Besides photography, which Demeulemeester has used for her clothes and for show invites, Robyn has been helping her with designing the men’s line. The couple is a rare breed of a creative tandem, and although Robyn shies away from the spotlight, without him Ann Demeulemeester, the fashion line, would not be the same. “We’ve been working together on everything,” said Robyn, “and sometimes it’s impossible to say when she stops and I begin.” Naturally, Demeulemeester wanted his opinion on Harvey’s dress.
Then, at one point in the day, with Harvey standing in a long black dress and a leather corset belt, everyone in the room sensed that they had hit the mark. “The belt that I wore, it was like a shield of armor,” Harvey recalled. “A lot of Ann’s clothes are very protective. There is a lot of closing over in the chest part,” she added putting her hand over her heart, “and that’s what gives you strength to meet the world or to present to the world whatever it is you are putting out there.”
Robyn decided to preserve the moment and pulled out his camera. “We all felt the magic in the room, and Patrick wanted to capture that, just for himself,” said Demeulemeester. “After that it was clear where we should go with this record and how it would look visually.”
“I did not have any intention to take photos. It came naturally,” added Robyn. Although Robyn’s way of speech is contemplative, he loves spontaneity, and it is not in his nature to do a premeditated fashion photo shoot. But this was different. “Unfortunately, you cannot have everything spontaneous, but when these moments come, they are such beautiful surprises.”
Besides the corset belt and the dress, Harvey liked a feather wrap and a dress with many little bells that rang as she moved around, which, unfortunately, she could not wear on stage. In order to alter the mood, Demeulemeester also made a white belt and dress for the Let England Shake tour. Harvey wore one of these two outfits virtually every night.
After Harvey picked out her outfit, she asked Demeulemeester to dress the band. Just like with Harvey, Demeulemeester did not want to impose her tastes on the men. “A garment is dead until it is worn. It’s the person that brings it to life. I have so much respect for other people that I would never try to dominate somebody,” she said. “Only then it can work. Because if you say to somebody, ‘Put on this and that,’ and he doesn’t feel right in it, it will never work. It will always look like a costume.” So instead of picking out outfits, Demeulemeester filled a big box with clothes and sent it to Harvey, so the musicians could decide for themselves. “It was a study of their character and the idea of the record and of how we could make something that not only looked great on stage, but that looked real, that had the right emotion for what they were singing,” she said.
Demeulemeester and Robyn went to see Harvey in concert last year. “I saw her backstage sitting, this little girl,” she said, “and then she comes out on stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, in front of thousands of people…”
All photography © by Patrick Robyn and may not be reproduced without expressed permission.