PJ Harvey is about to read a poem from her new book, Orlam – we are in her publisher’s offices which are strangely empty (are they all working from home?) and have the top floor to ourselves. She is perched daintily on a chair and looks out, at intervals, at a panoramic view of London with Saint Paul’s as its centrepiece. She divides her life these days between London and Dorset, and is wearing familiar, trendy Londoner uniform – all-in-black with plain ankle boots – clothes that give nothing away but draw attention to her face, to her extraordinary hazel eyes and elegant eyebrows that look like bold brushstrokes. Her bow mouth has an enigmatic character as if she judges it wise to keep her best jokes to herself. Her wavy, jet-black hair goes, as it always has done, its own way. She is effortlessly beautiful – in no way manufactured or overdone. The first impression, this morning, is of a shy, warm, natural Dorset girl and it is a stretch to believe that she is also a glorious chameleon of a singer with an international following, one-time muse of Nick Cave and double winner of the Mercury prize – it is an incongruous double-take – as if Patti Smith were revealed to be Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Yet PJ Harvey is not like anyone else. The photographer Giles Duley, who collaborated on the video for her single The Camp, notes that she “reinvents herself and embraces each new project completely. She is dedicated to her craft. I’ve never seen a more powerful presence on stage.” Michael Morris, associate director of the arts organisation Artangel, with whom she has also worked, goes further: “She is an artist for whom thought, feeling and a powerful sense of place merge to make singular worlds. All artists are explorers, but she ventures into uncharted territory, beyond the foothills of the imagination.” Sasha Frere-Jones, reviewing her last album in the New Yorker, is no more restrained in suggesting that her singing voice is nothing less than “an ambassador for the libido”. It seems unfeasible that PJ Harvey should now be 52 – and it is wonderful to see how undeterred she is by age. She lets slip that she has a new album coming out next year and, although not supposed to be talking about it, allows herself to say: “I’m really pleased with it – and I’m my own harshest critic.”
Orlam, our reason for meeting, is not her first attempt at poetry (she published The Hollow of the Hand, an accompaniment to photographs by Seamus Murphy, in 2015) but it marks her debut as a poet of stature. I confess I was surprised to find the poems extraordinarily good – it seemed unreasonable to hope for a double helping of talent (or triple helping, actually – for she is also an artist, the illustrated edition of her poems will be published in October). Orlam has been eight years in the making, overseen by her mentor, editor and friend, the poet Don Paterson. The rhyming narrative is not autobiographical yet the poems centre on nine-year-old Ira-Abel Rawles growing up in Dorset – as she did herself. Orlam is an all-seeing lamb’s eyeball and Ira’s guardian. It is an absorbing, singular, profound tale, set in the imaginary village of Underwhelem, and the first book in decades to make use of Dorset dialect (each poem is accompanied with a standard English version on the facing page). Much of the writing has the rhythm of a spell – as if to stir cauldrons as well as hearts. I close my eyes as she starts to read…
Once a spileful seed was sown.
All must be cut down once grown.
Men shall vall beneath the elm,
Under ethly overwhelm.
Freen from fleshy, freen from bloods,
All our shades flit to the woods.
Evemen holds em in ’es gloam,
Chalky children take em hwome,
Merge em with the meesh, an’ leaves,
Conjure us to silent sheaves.
It comes as no surprise that she knows how to perform this perfectly: her voice hushed, precise, with an unforced sense of rhythm (spileful is barley, fleshy is flesh, meesh is moss). It is a poem with a steadiness about death that would not have shamed Dorset’s greatest poet, Thomas Hardy. I tell her I disappeared into her poems as though into an unsafe wood and wish we could be meeting amid the stitchwort, moss and ferns she describes. She laughs, agrees and says she has carried the book’s landscape with her as if in “a parallel universe. Every moment of my day, it was running alongside me. I was so involved in the journey it was taking me on that everything I did, everything I saw, was tinged with this other world I’d entered.” I love the way she pronounces “world” with that rolling “r”. I could listen to that Dorset burr for ever – or until the sheep (there are flocks of them in her book) came home.
“There is a huge difference,” she has discovered, “between composing lyrics and writing poetry. Poetry needs to create an entire world on the page without musical accompaniment, through form, rhyme, metre and tone. A song lyric can be a very light brushstroke because the music is supplying emotion and atmosphere, and helps the lyric come across.” When her album Let England Shake (2011) came out, the Guardian’s critic Alexis Petridis ended his review with the judgment that it might be a “creative peak” and mused, “Where she goes from here is, as ever, anyone’s guess.” The album was an exploration of Englishness with harrowing insights into war and she now explains the pull to retreat into poetry: “I needed to bring back the scale of my writing to something more interior. With Let England Shake, I’d been looking outwardly to explore what was happening in the world. On an emotional level, I felt this great need to rest and nourish myself.”
PJ Harvey is said to be interview-shy (and this is the first she has done for 10 years) but I am struck by how conversational, curious and amused she is – with a lovely ripple of a laugh. She shows no sign of sitting as if in a dentist’s chair waiting for the interview to be over. Yet she is private (as a young woman, she had a rough ride with interviewers pressing her on a possible eating disorder, a breakdown and her relationship with Nick Cave – all ancient history now). You could say the preference for privacy was evident from the moment, in 1991, that she opted to use initials for her band (P for Polly, J for Jean). I wonder how she accounts for the contrast between the extroversion of performance and the privacy of the page? “I need both.” So would she say she was shy? “Yes – I think of myself as an introverted person. A lot of artists are like this. If you’re not very good at expressing yourself, you need to find another way of doing it. My way has been through song, drawing and – now – poetry.”
The importance of Dorset to her – and to her work – cannot be overstated. She grew up in Corscombe, “a very small village”, on a smallholding with cows, sheep, chickens and dogs. Her parents, Ray and Eva Harvey, owned a quarrying business (in an artistic sense, she is a quarrier, too). “It was wonderful – my brother and I were free to roam and play. We lived in our imagination. Our wonderful parents encouraged this.” If I had encountered her at nine, I’d have clapped eyes on “a scruffy child, covered in straw or soaked from the waist down from falling into the river.” She was five when she wrote her first poem: “I wrote it at the bottom of the garden, by the river, in my little notepad, it was about a fox – and I was taking on the fox’s voice… I was the fox,” she laughs. “I still have it somewhere because my grandmother saved it. When she died, I found it and was so touched that she had kept it.”
But she is at pains to point out that her childhood was not merely a bucolic idyll: “You’re aware, from a very early age, of the cycle of life and death and quickly learn that rhythm.” And this is the rhythm of her poetry, too. There is a recognition of nature’s cruelty. And yet for her, as for many a poet before her, nature is “crucial – a restoration of my spirit”. She explains: “Dorset is light and dark, ecstasy and melancholy. If you stand at the top of Eggardon Hill, you feel your heart come open with beauty. But if you’re in a valley that doesn’t get much light, you feel this beautiful melancholy.”
It is refreshing to hear her acknowledge melancholy unquestioningly as part of the human lot. In one poem, she suggests melancholy can be “eased” by writing. She finds creating music a comfort, too. And whenever she feels overcast, she walks, sees art, reads Seamus Heaney’s poetry, listens to Bach or to Beethoven sonatas that “restore the soul when it needs restoring”. She also turns to friends. When she says “Friendship is my biggest strength”, I don’t doubt it. On the subject of the Dorset dialect, she shows me a copy of William Barnes’s 1886 glossary – her source for the poems – and talks about him as if he were an old friend. She is sweetly proud of his achievement in collecting a dialect that was, even then, dying out. “Dialect is a great tool for poetry because words take on different connotations,” she adds. And we home in on some old words such as “drisk” which means “mist” and has the strangest edge. “Isn’t it beautiful?”, she says.
Throughout her career, PJ Harvey has been an activist and it is striking how often in her projects, such as the film A Dog Called Money, in which she travelled with Seamus Murphy to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC, she prefers to be a respectful bystander, never jostling for centre stage. Duley says: “Her work in speaking out against the realities of war and foreign policy has been extraordinary in its scope and bravery.” I wonder, inevitably, how the war in Ukraine is affecting her? “It is terribly upsetting on a daily basis,” she says, adding that she is sure a need to express her “sadness, anger and frustration” will come out in whatever work she does next. “I’m frightened by the human capacity for cruelty. I think: how can that possibly be happening? And when you can’t understand something, it’s most frightening.” And this from someone who, as a performer, is not frightened at all: “I never think of performance as something I have to be brave about. I’ve always felt driven to do it. I have to walk this path. It might sound almost mystical but I see it as a calling.”
It is telling that she should touch on the mystical. Her poetry mixes paganism with Christianity. “I like to see the possibility of everything: no God – lots of Gods,” she explains. “I don’t dismiss anything as ridiculous or unbelievable. As a child, I thought of God as the land itself. I’d imagine a large hill was the tiny, moley bump on God’s leg…” She laughs. She is also an authority on ancient superstition (I am intrigued to learn from her poetry that carrying an ash leaf was considered lucky). But she is not superstitious herself except, as she concedes with a laugh, about the bad luck of breaking mirrors: “I suppose we’re afraid of it because a mirror is the thing we look at our image in and if it smashes…”
She does not finish the sentence but it leads me to ask about her image. What is it like to make her peace with middle age – having been such a siren? “It’s hard. It’s a process of acceptance. In your late 40s, you realise you have to start letting go of the way you used to be, the way your body used to be, the way your face used to look. It’s a humbling experience. But you need to embrace it. And I have to say I’m enjoying getting older – for the letting go. When you’re young, you worry so much about appearance and what people will think. You’re full of anxiety but, as you get older, you can let go of that and it is incredibly freeing.” She sounds content. And she starts to talk about a future dream in which, one day, she will live on a Dorset smallholding again – and will come full circle.
She knows about the importance of endings in life and in poetry: “When I’ve read the ending of a great poem, I catch my breath… In my own poems, I don’t want to tell people what to feel. I want to open the doorway so they can find out for themselves. It can be hard to know when a poem is finished. But once finished, it’s finished – it’s of its time and place. And I will have the desire – always – to move forward and to do something else.”
Orlam is published by Picador on 28 April (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism