Paul Muldoon: In the poetry business, which is the business in which you are now rather wonderfully functioning, we’re used to small crowds. In fact, this is a huge crowd. The publication of a book of poems, as some of you will know, is referred to as the calm before the calm.
Is poetry something that has fired you throughout your songwriting career?
P.J. Harvey: No, it’s a relatively new thing for me, I first became interested in poetry when I was beginning to work towards writing Let England Shake which I think I started writing for that album in 2008, and because I knew I wanted to deal with the subject matter of war, it seemed like there would be so many pitfalls. To try and enter into that as a lyric writer, how do you get the balance right, and I could hear where I thought the balance had been got wrong in so many other areas. By the balance I mean I didn’t want to write songs that felt like they were going to be preaching or wagging your finger and telling people what to think and what not to think, or giving across a particular point of view. I needed to find a way to be impartial, and paint a more oblique picture for people to make up their own minds. I knew that I needed help as a lyricist, I needed to begin to understand more about words and how they work, and there just so happened to be a poetry seminar group run in Bridport in Dorset, where I was living at the time, and it was run by Greta Stoddart – a poet that we both know. It was a once a month gathering, and you’d just bring in your poem and everyone would dissect it and discuss it. And, I joined this group and slowly began to learn of the vast difference between poetry writing and lyric writing, of which I really had no idea quite how big the difference is. I just thought: ‘go to a few poetry classes and help my lyric writing’. But, it didn’t, it just opened up a new world, an entirely different world and I had to start all over again.
PM: And that’s one of the things we are going to be discussing tonight, are those two related worlds that are kin but which also are quite separate.
I was struck, as I’m sure I always am by the influence, am I right in thinking there was a Blakean component to some of the songs on that fabulous album? Did you go back to Blake, for example?
PJH: I did, but I was mostly, actually, looking at the First World War poets when I was writing that album and I was also looking at the soldier’s songs for the First World War – I had this very old hardback book of the songs they had sung – and they were all very funny and very rude. Taking very well known tunes but putting funny lyrics with them, but it was all to boost their morale of course.
PM: Could you remember any of those lyrics at all?
PJH: Oh, I wish I’d brought that book with me.
PM: Inky Winky Parlez-Vous?
PJH: Yes, things like that. Then of course, the heartbreaking song We’re Here Because We’re Here, that’s all it does for about six verses, to the tune of Auld Lang Syne.
PM: It’s an indicator, if no other indictor is required, of actually how… in a strange way, how very sparse a lyric may be. Which is one of the facts about a lyric which I think many people find surprising, people are taken aback actually by how short the lyrics of many songs are.
PJH: Yeah, I’ve read a lot of Stephen Sondheim’s writing. He’s got that wonderful book out called Finishing the Hat about his experience of being a lyricist. He talks quite a lot about the difference between poetry and lyric writing, and he uses a great example of an utterly brilliant lyric which is:
“Oh what a beautiful morning,
Oh what a beautiful day,
I’ve got a wonderful feeling,
Everything’s going my way.”
You can’t get a better lyric that that. It’s so simple and yet it soars, and the melody soars with it because of its simplicity. Yes, I think song lyrics do have to be very simple.
PM: Do you have a favourite song of his? We’ve actually not prepared this…
PJH: I’ve chosen There’s Something About a War from A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
PM: That’s the show it was in but, in fact, I think it didn’t actually get into the finished show…
PJH: Did it not?!
PM: I’ve a feeling it didn’t…
PJH: Well, this is one of the lyrics in the Finishing the Hat book – that when I was writing Let England Shake – I read this lyric and thought: ‘that’s amazing’, and I used to keep it pinned up to look at it.
PM: Would you mind, terribly, reading that to all of us this evening?
PJH: No, I’d love to.
[Performs There’s Something About a War.]
PM: One of the things about it is it’s highly ironised, and I wonder – and I don’t know enough about this, I’m sorry I don’t – but I’d be fascinated to know why it was dropped from the show, and yet it has been collected in the little known ‘Sondheim cuts’ as it were. But, it could be – I was going to suggest to you and I wonder if this would mean anything to you – is it possibly a little too smarty pants?
PJH: I wonder… I find it’s quite risqué as well… I mean we go into:
“Priestesses to violate, children to annihilate, farmers to be decapitated.”
I wonder if it was just a step too far.
PM: At that stage in his career it may have been. This is, after all, the composer-writer who wrote a musical about the series of assassins of US Presidents. So, no subject is off limits, as it were.
PJH: I think I kept it pinned up, as well, because of – what you’re saying about irony, because how do you deal with such serious subject matter – and also, going back to your thing about the soldier songs – because of the way they dealt with it too was through dark humour. I was looking to see if that might help me find a way into it. As it was, a lot of the lyrics in Let England Shake they weren’t black humour, but they did trip the line of irony.
PM: I suppose it’s an area, as you say, when one is concerned about seeming to be, almost, using the material for slightly worrying reasons. It’s a difficult area with which to engage, but ideally in some sense, the song that would be the real ground breaker in a war song category would be the pro-war song, that would set people thinking.
Is there another poem you’d like to read, that is something you hold close to your heart?
PJH: When I was thinking about the subject matter for tonight, discussing poetry and song lyrics, I immediately thought of Autobiography by Louis MacNeice – because I think it’s a very song-like poem. I don’t think that happens that often. It’s something that we’ll talk about more probably… the refrain, that songs use a lot of refrain / the chorus / the refrain, not so much in poetry certainly now. But, I think this is an example of refrain being used beautifully. Early on, when I first became interested in poetry, when I was looking to write Let England Shake I was very drawn to this, probably because of the fact I could almost sing it in my head.
PM: I want to ask you about: ‘singing it in your head’… Yeats, who was very fascinated by this point in which the song lyric and the poem were indivisible as they so often were in the Irish tradition, used a term of his own delivery of his song-poems – which was chanting, or a version of chanting. As you were reading that Sondheim – is reading the word even? As you were performing that, perhaps even singing to some extent…
PJH: Well, it’s to be sung. It’s so obviously to be sung, you hear the rhythm all the way through. You can’t really just read it without feeling that rhythm or pulse, I don’t think.
PM: It’s instructing you almost to break into song, or at least to perform it in a certain way. That’s something which I think is true of the more conventional lyric poem also. It’s telling one how it needs to be in the world, in perhaps less obvious ways because it’s not so ‘singalong-ish’ I suppose.
Let’s hear that MacNeice poem…
PJH: [Performs Autobiography]
PM: It’s meaning shifted ever so slightly as it went from stanza to stanza, and in this case there’s something quite troubling about the cumulative affect.
PJH: Depending on what’s gone before it, what’s been said in the stanza before, the meaning of, ‘come back early or never come’, feels quite different. It becomes more chilling as it goes through, I feel. That’s what fascinates me with that one line that’s repeated over and over – keeps changing the quality of its feeling.
PM: The burden of it. Burden, as you know, was the term that was used for the refrain. Yeats’s couple of poems that refer to three songs or four songs to the one burden.
May I ask you, as you sit down at your desk – if you sit at a desk – are you conscious of limbering up to write or song or write a poem?
PJH: Yeah, I am now. When I first started to look at words in depth, which was only around the time of Let England Shake; that was actually the first time I ever sat at a desk and just worked at words. Prior to that, I’d only ever brought words together in tandem with the music. I worked on them at exactly the same time. So, that was quite a new thing, to just sit there and I knew I had to do it that way because of what I was saying earlier about tackling the subject matter of war. I had to get the words right first or everything was going to fall down because it was such a weighty topic. So, that’s why I wanted to make the words work on the page to begin with. I knew that whenever I added I already had a good starting place.
PM: So, that’s one theory about how to go about this most effectively. Of course it varies from case to case. The second is writing words and music simultaneously, as it were. The third which is espoused by some very successful songwriters – Paul Simon springs to mind, for example – he writes the music first on the principle that if the music isn’t effective and doesn’t grab you on one level or another it actually doesn’t matter about the words. Have you gone down that route at all?
PJH: Yeah, it didn’t work for me. I remember when I’ve concentrated on the music first it’s never worked for me, I’ve never been able to fit words in that seem to fall naturally. It always felt a bit forced, like I forced the words. Another interesting thing with Let England Shake is that I wrote all the lyrics first but then I sung them, I didn’t play an instrument, I sang them. I’d go for long walks beating the rhythm with my feet and I’d sing the words, and if I remembered the melody when I got home it was a strong melody and then I’d keep it.
PM: So, that was Wordsworth’s method, a tried and true method.
Let me ask you a question, I hope I’m not presenting this indelicately. Were you using what used to be known, perhaps, and perhaps still are, as dummy lyrics, or lyrics that are not going to be there at the end of the day? The famous case, of course, being: ‘scrambled eggs’ that became ‘yesterday’. Do you use that device at all?
PJH: For the early days, the first three albums were exactly that. I’d just make rhythmical noises and sing as I was playing and then they would become words. So, songs like Sheela-Na-Gig would’ve been ‘nee-nee-ne-nig’.
PM: Well, that’s also quite difficult perhaps. It’s not dissimilar from fitting words to music. But, perhaps slightly easier if there’s some vocalisation.
PJH: It’s so interesting, every way you can work. I think it depends what you’re interested in at the time. I’ve become much more drawn to words and their meaning. I find it fascinating. If you can marry the music and the words perfectly that’s such a satisfaction. It happens very rarely, I think, to get that beautiful balance between words and music, when they’re just supporting each other perfectly at their optimum.
PM: Any other songs you feel that might fit that description, from the canon?
PJH: Well actually, I did bring the Let England Shake lyric, because that was one of the first… I had to write a lot. I think I wrote about thirty songs towards this record just to get the ten or eleven that were on it. So many I had to throw away because I didn’t get the balance right because they ended up sounding like I was preaching, or telling people what to think, or a bit too pompous or self-righteous. This was one that surprised me because it was one of the most complex song lyrics I’ve written, in a way, and yet it still managed to sing.
PM: Is it possible that one could be slightly more ‘preachy’, as it were, in a song lyric than in a poem? There was that great line from Keats about how we steer away from poems that have palpable designs on us. But, in a strange way there’s a long tradition, one thinks of the protest song for example, of the song that very definitely has designs on us and that’s OK. So, it’s a delicate balance.
PJH: Do you still think it’s OK? This is a question I ask myself a lot. When you think about the peace movement of the 60’s and you had Dylan, you had Joan Baez and so many other great performers, there performing at the rallies… Could that still happen now? I ask myself this. Now, when I see a lot of political music it leaves me cold. I don’t know if it was just a that moment in time, everybody aligned for it to be very powerful and feel a very potent force. I, personally, don’t feel there’s much of that successfully going on any more.
PM: Well, who knows? There may be, one would like to think, that in our present era songwriters might actually begin to write some protest songs. It’s not as if we haven’t plenty to protest. It was part of what I was getting at with the ‘pro-war song’, in a strange way that would be the news… An anti-peace song… that’s the thing we’re all meant to feel the thing we’re all meant to believe, and I suppose artists tend not to go along with what they think people want them to think or say, and they’re fearful of seeming to cash in on things.
PJH: Let England Shake [performs Let England Shake].
PM: You started with, ‘The West’s asleep’, which I assume is a reference to, ‘The West’s awake’. I want to ask you a very personal question. As you were standing, performing that, did you not feel how wonderful it would be to have the band?
PJH: I do feel that that is at its best with music. Again, it’s very interesting, that’s not a great poem, that’s not a poem. That’s a song. That’s full, becomes full, with its music with it.
PM: What I find fascinating, and what I’m taking from what you’re saying is that your impulse now is to write the lyric where the pressure per square inch on the words is actually pretty high. So that, for example, when we read the Collected Poems of Leonard Cohen we are coincidentally reading the Collected Songs of Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen would be the prime example of someone whose poems and songs are going to withstand any kind of scrutiny or pressure that might be brought to bear on them. But, that is not, however, a requirement. It is not a defining characteristic of the song lyric. In fact, if anything, a defining characteristic – from what I understand of what we are saying, is that it could be there’s a sense that there’s something left out of the lyric and that lacuna, that gap is what’s filled in by the music. It becomes most itself when the band is behind you, as it were. Not to say that you can’t present it here, of course, you just have. But, we know what can happen.
PJH: That song, reading the words off the page; it’s actually quite sad. But, when it’s got the music with it, the music’s like a strange dancy shuffle and I sing it with a voice like a goat. It’s got this strange slant on it. In some way, going back to the black humour… I put very… almost funny music with a very serious lyric. The tune I reference is Istanbul (not Constantinople).
PM: Wow, I never realised that. It’s a revelation here.
So, what would the defining characteristics of a poem be? Something that absolutely doesn’t mean music?
PJH: I think a poem has its own music in it already.
PM: It brings its own score with it?
PM: That certainly is the wide-ish idea about this, and I think there’s a lot in it. The poem and the poet is desperate to achieve a kind of perfection with the lyric itself, where there is no room for anything else at all. I mentioned Yeats earlier on. One of my favourite quotes from Yeats is: “One may refute Hegel but not a song of sixpence.” There is no argument against that. It is what it is. One way of thinking about the poem as absolutely successful, so far as we can point to such a thing, is that there is no refutation of it. It is complete in some way. It brings its own music and it brings its own score. It actually instructs one, perhaps in how it wants to be read. Although, that’s not always clear from the poetry reading where, there are cases where a style of reading is imposed upon the poem which is absolutely nothing to do with the poem itself.
Time for a poem or two I think…
One of the things I’m fascinated by, of course, is one of the ways a poem and a song might coincide. I’ll read one of my favourites, by Warren Zevon.
[Performs Excitable Boy]
It actually reminds me, as it happens, of the MacNeice poem. MacNeice, as you know, his Autobiography was an early-ish poem, early-to-mid poem. “This middle stretch of life is bad for poets,” he said. Of course he didn’t mention the earlier part, or the later part. His posthumous book: The Burning Perch, the poems there are described as nightmare nursery rhymes, and there’s something I feel there about that song lyric. When I began myself to think about trying to write song lyrics, in my innocence; as it happens I was lucky enough to be asked by Warren Zevon.
PJH: I was going to say, what made you start?
PM: What made me start, we wont linger on over this, what made me start was an invitation from Warren Zevon. I’d written him a fan letter, saying what a great songwriter he was and how in the discussions in songwriting that cropped up and the names that were mentioned, his name was one I would always mention. I expected no response from him, but he did get in touch. Anyway, we met up, had a chat, went for a walk around New York together. He said to me casually, as it were, “Would you like to try to write a song with me?” Of course, I was buzzing. I casually responded, “Maybe we’ll give it a go.” Or, something along those lines. In any case, I’ll read this song lyric we wrote together…
PJH: When you say ‘wrote together’. Did you sit down together, and did you do things back and forth between you?
PM: We did quite a lot of back and forth. Not quite as much, I suspect, as would be done nowadays, because – for better or worse – the era which brings so many problems on the electronic front also brings great Godsends and windfalls in that sending material around is so much easier, as you know. It was still comparatively easy but, when we wrote this just after 9/11 – which explains an energy to it – I wrote the first verse of it – he had a chorus for it which he used at various venues. I think he started off at a small-ish venue and an ambulance went by outside. It was such a small venue that one could hear it inside, and he said: “My ride’s here.” So, all we had to work on was the title of the song. So, this is the first bit:
I was staying at the Marriott
With Jesus and John Wayne
I was waiting for a chariot
They were waiting for a train
The sky was full of carrion
I’ll take the misuma…
Misuma’s not a word one hears much in song. Warren was the kind of songwriter that gave me and many others a lot of courage. One of his great coups, he though, was that he used the word brucellosis in a song, and was very proud of that…
The sky was full of carrion
I’ll take the misuma
Said Jesus to Marion
Plus the 3.10 to Yuma
And this was before the remake, by the way…
My ride’s here.
So, I wrote that and I sent it to him and he sent back a CD with the rest of the written music plotted out, and then we spent weeks and maybe even months writing the rest of it. And, that was a dreadfully hard lesson, because one imagines – largely because the lyrics of so many popular songs are… kind of insubstantial – the terrible discovery that actually so much work truly has to go into this to make it work. Anyway…
The Houston sky was changeless
We galloped through blue bonnets
I was wrestling with an angel
You were working on a sonnet
You said, I believe the surf with gather my pinto
And carry us away Jim
Across the San Jacinto
My ride’s here
Of course, that’s the moment when things get boring and we need a little middle eight or bridge, which is a different feel…
Shelly and Keats were out on the street
And even Lord Byron was leaving for Greece
While back at The Hilton last but not least
Milton was holding his sides
Saying, you bravos had better get ready to fight
Or we’ll never get out of east Texas tonight
The trail is long and the river is wide
But my mind’s here.
Then back to the verse…
I was staying at the West
And I was playing to the draw
When in walked Charlton Heston
With the tablets of the law
He said, it’s still the greatest story
I said, man I’d like to stay but I’m bound for glory
And on my way
My ride’s here.
Would you be good enough to read us one of your poems?
PJH: I’ll read something new, I think. When I started writing poetry it really was still lyric writing for a lot of it. The Hollow of the Hand, my first book; although it’s getting there, a lot of those are very simple… This is the new collection – working title The Forest – but it’s set on a sheep farm and a haunted forest in the West Country, and this poem is called The Forest.
[Performs The Forest]
PM: Supposing I were to come along to you, or a composer were to come along to you, and say: “Miss Harvey, I’d really like to set your poem to music.” One of the things composers really like is the short-ish poem. What would you say to them?
PJH: I’ve never heard it done very well. Apart from a wonderful album by Joan Baez called Baptism. Do you know that album?
PM: I don’t.
PJH: It was an orchestral composer, whose name I’ve forgotten, he wrote musical setting for all sorts of different poems. It’s all about war, it came out during the Vietnam War. It’s a wonderful, wonderful piece. So, I think that can work. She’s reading poems over music a lot of the time, but sometimes she sings.
PM: That’s a slightly different thing.
PJH: Well, I’ve personally never heard it done in a way I’ve liked.
PM: You know, Polly, I think we’re both going to get into a lot of trouble here. Are you ready?
PJH: Go on…
Me either, I was being gentle there. Whenever I’ve heard it done it’s nauseating.
PM: Tell me why it’s troubling to you…
PJH: Ah, it’s hard to unravel it…
PM: Well, let’s try, we’re amongst friends here.
PJH: Because you know that poem for what it is, and love it for what it is, the music changes words profoundly. If you’ve not got the right music for those words it can change the words in a really bad way. Suddenly the poem seems pompous, self-righteous, poncy in a way it never seemed before. It takes all the air away from it and it takes all the mystery away from it.
PM: We certainly are not involved in denigrating or downgrading an entire genre of music here, or are we? I think one of the difficulties is – and we wouldn’t want this to be taken amiss – but there is a terrible danger which is rarely overcome, that they all sound the same, they make everything sound the same. Anyway, I think we should probably move quickly along because, I value my life.
You describe the voice, the poem spoken with the musical… What do you make of the long tradition of the spoken word piece with music? There’s a long tradition… who knows, perhaps the Beowolf poet would have fallen into that category, Homer may have fallen into that category, as it were?
PJH: I’m very fearful of that genre, that it works well… Someone like Patti Smith, when she’s performing and she might do one or two spoken word pieces in amongst her songs, I think that works really well. I’ve seen her do solo shows that work brilliantly where she’ll read a poem then she’ll put her boots on and do a song, then she’ll just read a poem, but when she’s with her band, the band might be playing and she’ll recite – or improvise – over it. I think she can do it, and does it well. But, I don’t think a lot of people do it well like she does.
PM: In some sense Leonard Cohen may have been doing it. Is that possible?
PJH: Do you mean because he sort of half spoke, half sung?
PM: Partly, partly because of that.
PJH: Hmmm, I’ve haven’t thought of it like that. I’m a huge fan of his early work where he really was singing then. It was only the later work where he stopped singing as much. I wonder if he became just interested in words, or his voice didn’t enable him to sing so much any more, I don’t know. He seemed to drop a couple of octaves as he got older. I always preferred his singing, his early two or three albums, myself. Again, because the words sund with a beautiful melody come alive if they’re a song, if they were written as a song.
PM: I think we’re probably moving towards the end of our time. Shall we each read a little poem?
This is a little poem there; I’m not really sure what it is after all our conversation…
[Performs Sadie and The Sadists]
PJH: You choose, I can either read Down by The Water, or Ae Fond Kiss by Robert Burns
PM: I’m sure I speak for everyone here… Could you do both?
PJH: [Performs Down by the Water]
I immediately wanted to read something by Robert Burns – with the theme of tonight – because I think he is sombody who really understood the differences between poetry and song writing and seemed to get the balances just right a lot of the time. The language of his songs is often a lot simpler, the words are more monosyllabic. This is such a beautiful song, it’s called Ae Fond Kiss…
[Performs Ae Fond Kiss]
PM: PJ Harvey, thank you so much for your nuance, beautiful nuance in reading these poems and songs by others and yourself tonight. May I be bold enough to suggest that one of the things we have been missing here is the opposite of nuance. The opposite of nuance one hears in Polly’s fabulous band with its great cavalcade, I suppose, of drummers… What’s the collective noun of drummers?
Audience: A battery.
PJH: A battery…
PM: A battery of drummers, it’s absolutely fantastic. There’s this visceral thing… So, we going to leave you with a non-nuanced version of Sadie and the Sadists tonight, and we wish you a beautiful evening. Thank you all for coming tonight.
PJH: Thank you.