vendredi, septembre 28, 2007

PJ Harvey interview

Songs of innocence and experience.

PJ Harvey sings like a child on her new, stripped-down album, but it's full of grim subject matter. John Harris hears how the elusive singer-songwriter was just trying to get the soul back in her music.

Friday September 28, 2007
The Guardian

Polly Harvey's latest single is called When Under Ether. You may have heard it, perhaps on the occasions when Radio 1 DJs - usually, it has to be said, after dark - have decided to treat their listeners to the unbelievably sparse, gorgeously unsettling sound of a solitary voice and the barest of piano accompaniments. Its chorus, if such a word is appropriate, amounts to the occasional recitation of the words "human kindness", and it concludes in just over two minutes. If the prevailing sound of 2007 - chumbling indie-rock, of the kind associated with, say, thePigeon Detectives, or the faux-yobbery purveyed by the ubiquitous Hard-Fi - has an antidote, this is surely it.

"The funny thing was," she says, "the other day, I knew that Zane Lowe was going to play it. I'd been told: Radio 1, seven o'clock - so I was out in the garden listening. I never listen to Radio 1. So I put it on, and there was all this kind of noise happening, and all of a sudden he played When Under Ether, and there was something absolutely shocking about it. And that's great, isn't it?"

I meet Harvey in the garden of a pub in the Dorset village of Abbotsbury, close to her home, and only a short drive from the farm where she grew up. The last time I briefly interviewed her - in the autumn of 2000 - she was in New York and sporting the sleek, manicured look that went with the Mercury Prize-winning album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. By comparison, she now looks nigh-on unrecognisable - her hair has grown out into a tangle of curls, and she is dressed in functional attire that's uniformly black, a colour scheme that carries over into her chosen means of transport: a gleaming, jet-black utility vehicle that looks rather like a souped-up Land Rover.

In the context of her eighth album, the location is pretty much perfect. From its title onwards, White Chalk seems to be an evocation of the surroundings in which she was raised, and the mess of memory, love and loss that goes with them. As has long been the case, to ask her what particular songs are about is to invite a display of Olympic-standard evasiveness, and any attempted forays into her personal life will be politely stonewalled. Whether any given song is the stuff of fact, fiction or something in between is thus left unresolved, and her music - as she seems to see it, anyway - thereby retains a closel guarded integrity. That said, from the recurrently bucolic imagery to a pointed reference in the title track to a place where "Dorset cliffs meet the sea", it's obvious where the new album is set.

The record sounds as if it's populated by ghosts, full of strange, discomfiting music that often seems rooted in the distant past without ever succumbing to sepia-tinted pastiche - as she puts it, stuff that could be "from 100 years ago, or 100 years in the future". It all coheres into arguably the most perfectly realised album she has made. The prospect of a new PJ Harvey record is always bound up with reinvention - the charged-up, polished rock of Stories from the City ..., for example, was succeeded by the stripped-down grit that defined 2004's Uh Huh Her - but this album is pitched in virgin territory. Notably, there is barely a guitar to be heard, which serves to underline the fact that its 37-year-old author remains among the most restless, inventive and mysteriously underrated talents around.

White Chalk's genesis dates back to the tail-end of 2004, and a brief period during which Harvey told at least one journalist that she was considering enrolling as a mature student and studying English literature - something she claims to have been "seriously considering" (though at similarly loose-ended points in her career, she also admits to having entertained thoughts of dropping music in favour of nursing or becoming a vet). This time, however, something was definitely eating at her: the sense that since 1998's Is This Desire?, she had strayed some distance from being creatively satisfied. "I wasn't feeling like I'd done good work for quite a few years," she says. "I think that's quite natural; that people go through phases of great creativity and not-so-great creativity. But I felt like I'd been on the lower end of the curve for a while."

It's strange to hear her say that, because Stories from the City sounded like a very bold, peak-form, all-guns-blazing kind of record.

"It definitely did what I was trying to do - which was to make an album full of great pop songs. But that's not really where my heart is. It was more of an experiment with the craft rather than the heart, if that makes any sense. This album - and, I think, Is This Desire and To Bring You My Love - were times when I felt the craft and the heart married well. Other times, I just go through phases where it's more of an exercise in exploring something, and not really where I want to be in my soul."

For the most part, the new album was written in Dorset, on an instrument that served to propel her somewhere new: the piano, chosen because she felt she had to be "out of my depth" to find exactly where she ought to be heading. "It's entirely different from the guitar. It's like arriving at a giant beast. I had a piano sitting in my house for about three months before I even dared touch it. It's like a giant body - it's got a ribcage, teeth, tongues. It almost feels like it does you rather than you doing it.

"I wouldn't call myself a piano player," she says. "I think of what I do as quite hamfisted. I pretend that I'm a piano player: I go to the piano and I act like a virtuoso giving a concert."

She rolls back her sleeves, theatrically throws head back, and crashes her fingers down on pub table. "Ba-bammm! I do all the movements. You may laugh, but that's how the record came about. I'd improvise with myself, pretending I was a piano player, record it, find good bits, and elaborate on them. That's a completely different way of writing for me."

Though her piano technique was still in its infancy, she eventually resolved to play some of her new songs in front of an audience. When she performed solo at the Hay festival in May 2006, she confessed that she had never played a piano in public before, and that she felt nervous beyond words. "Every time I play a duff note," she told her audience, "I'm going to pull a face like Les Dawson."

"It was absolutely terrifying," she says. "I can't think of anything more terrifying than standing up on stage in front of a thousand people, on your own, not feeling like a musician."

Did the fear go?

"No. I've done five or six solo shows now, and I just spend the entire time in utter terror. It doesn't get any easier."

Then why do it?

"I just have to. I've got an overwhelming desire to sing and play music, particularly to people. I don't feel like I'd even be living out my role on earth if I didn't do it. I'd probably get ill quite quickly, just because I wasn't doing what I'm supposed to do."

But to do it on your own, without the safety net of a band ...

"Mmmm. But it feels very right at the moment. This feels absolutely like what I should be doing."

Perhaps the single most fascinating aspect of the new album is Harvey's voice. Whereas her vocals were once full of the nuances she imbibed from the soundtrack to her childhood (her father was a close friend of the Rolling Stones' de facto sixth member, their long-standing aide and piano player Ian Stewart; her parents, she once recalled, "played rock'n'roll and blues constantly - every day"), she has discovered a new voice: pure, intimate and uncharacteristically English.

"It took a long time to find out how I wanted to sing," she says. "It was trial and error, really, and quite a lot of thought about the aspects of my voice that I didn't find rewarding. And out of knowing what I didn't want to do came this new way of singing.

"I feel more English these days," she says, with an air of slight surprise. "I've become more and more aware that I'm an English woman, and I wanted to sing as an English woman. I grew up listening to blues music, and every record I ever heard was sung by Americans. You can't help but have that in your blood when it's all you hear, and I almost had to get back to who I am, and how I speak, and where I come from.

"Stylisation - that was what I didn't want to do. I didn't want to have caricatures going on in my voice. I wanted to sing in a very pure way, and not do, 'Here's the spooky voice,' and 'Here's the high Minny Mouse voice.' I'm so tired of that. So as a reminder to myself of how to sing, I'd put up Post-It notes around me, that said things like, 'Childlike' and 'Five years old'. I was trying to remember the purity of childhood - but childhood imagination, too, and the way that it can go absolutely anywhere. You can create an invisible friend, you can live in a castle - you can make anything out of nothing. Where does that go? I became really interested in trying to regain it, and at the same time, the voice took on this childlike, naive quality."

On a few occasions, the mixture of that affected innocence and the songs' subject matter takes the new album's unsettling quality to almost unbearable heights - as with the aforementioned When Under Ether, an apparent glimpse of the termination of a pregnancy whose most striking lyric runs as follows: "I lay on the bed/ Waist down undressed/ Look up at the ceiling/ Feeling happiness." It goes on: "Something's inside me/ Unborn and unblessed/ Disappears in the ether/ One world to the next."

I find that song very difficult to listen to, I tell her.

"Mmmm. [Pause] I don't. I find, erm ... [Pause] I can listen to it quite objectively. What are you laughing at?"

The idea that you can listen to it objectively. Because it's so visceral. It's raw.

"Yeah," she says. "So I can hear it as ... [Pause] Well, I don't feel attached to it in any way. But that's a process that seems to happen with every record and every song. I don't feel attached to them. They kind of do themselves, and they're nothing to do with me any more."

That sounds like one of Harvey's trademark evasions, but I make one last attempt at divining the song's source. I've just not heard anyone evoke the termination of a pregnancy as bluntly as that song does, I suggest. Certainly not in pop music.

"That's obviously what you hear, but for me it's not actually tied to anything specific, like an abortion." She pauses. "These aren't just words," she insists. "They're songs. They inhabit themselves, really."

Our time is almost up. In the car park, Harvey points out the remains of Abbotsbury's 11th-century abbey and a chapel dedicated to St Catherine - the patron saint of spinsters, she tells me - and then goes on her way. On my long journey home, I tune into Radio 1, and hear Zane Lowe once again playing When Under Ether, which sounds every bit as singular as Harvey had suggested. By comparison, the music that follows it seems hollow and generic, which rather puts me in mind of something she had said earlier on - an outburst, by her standards, in which she said her sense was that the quality of music, literature and film seems to be going "down and down and down, and I struggle so hard to get excited about anything".

Characteristically, she wouldn't be drawn on exactly who or what she was railing against, but lurking in what she said, there was a kind of mission statement. "There's too much of everything in the world, but particularly too much of everything that's not all that good. The world doesn't need any more art that's just all right. It only needs mind-blowing, inspirational, life-changing stuff." White Chalk is out now on Island.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

dimanche, septembre 23, 2007

Polly Jean Harvey

PJ Harvey's White Chalk is genius with a dark heart.

As the tracks unfold, Jude Rogers finds herself acting as Polly Jean's agony aunt while listening to her wailing like a Kate Bush from hell on perhaps the saddest album she's ever heard

Friday September 21, 2007
Guardian Unlimited


0.10 Out on the wild and windy moors, Polly Jean Harvey's made another album. And even though we're used to her darting madly between different worlds - as a gothic, red-frocked goddess one moment, a squalling noise-botherer the next - White Chalk is still quite a shock. This opening bang-bang piano figure is like The Supremes' Baby Love - or Amy Winehouse's Back to Black if you'd rather - put through a bone-white filter.
0.59 And here's another strange thing. We generally know PJ for her belly-deep vocals, full of fire, blaze and brimstone. This tiny, nervous voice seems to come from someone else entirely. "The devil wanders into my soul," she sings. Her high register is like a tense infant's, and the shaky zither that accompanies it only heightens the tension.
1.39 But here's her roar. "Come! Come! Come here at once!" It's the call of a spoilt child, a terrified soul and an impatient lover all at once. Yet a sad girlishness seeps through, Polly's Phil Spector-style backing vocals sounding like ghosts from another time, tapping Kathy-like on the window.


0.10 Here's the joanna again, its high notes sharp and icy. Thinking through Polly's catalogue, her music has rarely placed its focus on the ivory keys. In the early 1990s, on Dry, Rid Of Me and 4-Track Demos, Polly's sound was all about the guitar and how to make it bare its teeth. 1995's To Bring You My Love was about orchestral swampiness, and although parts of Is This Desire?, Stories From The City... and Uh Huh Her played with gentler textures, there's never been this sort of delicacy - or frailty - to Polly's sound before. This riff rattles like the sound of quivering teeth on a cold winter's morning.
0.27 "Dear darkness, dear darkness, won't you cover, cover me - again?" What a sad, sad phrase. It makes you worry for the girl.
1.13 But, fret not, she's got company - long-time collaborator John Parrish, singing backing vocals in his warm, soft tenor. Although the words that emerge from his mouth - "around the throat of the one I love" - aren't the most warming, I grant you.


0.46 The piano winds and whirls as Polly treads through mystical groves in heavy boots. This sounds like a Lewis Carroll story - curious and curiouser.
2.21 "Teach me MUMMY/How to GROW!" It's a wide-eyed and terrifying phrase. Hounds Of Love-era Kate Bush would be a good reference for this stuff, if Bush's spookiness wasn't always surrounded with sweetness and playfulness. As Polly's vocals wheel and wail, sweetness and playfulness are very far away.


1.41 You may have heard this song already. It's Polly's new single. In it, deeper piano notes pound, the ceiling moves in time, and "the mind is alive/Conscious of nothing but the will to survive". It's so ridiculously chart-unfriendly that if it bothers the hit parade, Satan's working at the BPI.


0.16 White chalk hills will rub Polly's bones and stick to her shoes here. I want to put a fez on, Tommy Cooper-style, and go "don't go on the hills, then!" But that would be inappropriate.
2.27 "Dorset's cliffs lead to the sea/Where I walked our unborn child in me". Unborn children have cropped up in Polly's music before, on 1995's Down By The Water most memorably, a period when Polly was not at her happiest. This album so far suggests the same. John seems to have disappeared too, so she's not got company. And our girl's not referred to home so vividly before, making it a reference point for such deep, engulfing sorrow. The twin echoes of the place Polly was born, and the ancient carvings of the past make this title track even more heartbreaking.


0.16 "Please don't reproach me for how empty my life has become." I am starting to think that this is the saddest album I have ever heard. There's the way Polly's voice is crushing itself willingly, then there's the sheer weight of the lyrics. This record belongs to a different musical world than Joy Division's Closer, say, but it shares a similar mood - a horribly candid exposure of agony and despair. It reminds me of Wuthering Heights the novel much more than Wuthering Heights the song - it teems with details of overwhelming desolation, rather than floaty theatrics.


0.23 Funnily enough, though, this song, called Silence, has more blood in its cheeks - plus a brisk, soft, shuffling drumbeat, and a more vivid bangy piano.
1.41 Although Polly's singing, "Though you never wanted me/Anyway." At least there's an element of anger in her voice, which is the first step towards dealing with heartbreak. It is. (Although, yes, I should stop trying to be Polly's agony aunt and carry on being a heartless music critic.)
2.22 "SIGH-LENCE...SIGH-LENCE...SIGH-LENCE!" You tell them, Pols! You TELL 'EM!


1.25 This is a song about Polly missing her grandmother. Her voice has skirted that dangerous line between affecting tense soprano and strangled kitten so far, but for the first time here, the cat seems to be winning.


0.15 "Hit her with a hammer, teeth smashed in, red tongues twitching, look inside her skeleton". Nasty stuff. Still, if you look behind the horror movie imagery, here's a great metaphorical description of Polly's relationship with her baby grand. She bangs and she crashes, letting the keys shiver and flame. Tori Amos thinks she's like this, but she hasn't got half this talent.
1.26 "Daddy's in the corner, rattling his keys. Mummy's in the doorway trying to leave." This family's degenerating quicker than the Addams.
2.06 "Nobody's listening - Oh God, I miss you, oh GOD, I MISS you." That's decided it. This is the saddest thing I've ever heard.


0.33 "Farewell my friends, farewell my dear ones." Now this is playing like a suicide note. And I've run out of tissues.


3.10 "In my own heart every tree is broken. The first tree will not blossom, the second will not grow, the third is almost fallen since you betrayed me so." The zither shivers, Polly wails like she did on The Dancer, the last track of To Bring You My Love, and White Chalk stops as it started - suddenly, sharply and inconsolably. Twelve years after she first wandered into the territories of loneliness, Polly's found the heart of darkness - and she seems to have found her genius there too.


Imagine the saddest thing you've ever heard, then douse it in tears, swathe it in heartbreak, and drop it into the seventh circle of hell. Yes, it's that moving and, also, marvellous.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

mardi, septembre 18, 2007

Sir Richard Branson

Never mind the high street: Branson sells his Virgin Megastores.

Sir Richard rids himself of the business that brought him to public attention in the 1970s

Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Tuesday September 18, 2007
The Guardian

Sir Richard Branson yesterday severed his last remaining link with the high street, offloading his Virgin Megastore chain at a time when record shops are under unprecedented pressure from the internet and supermarkets.

The sale of 125 stores throughout the UK and Ireland to a management buyout group for an undisclosed sum marks a final retreat from the music industry after more than 35 years.

After setting the company up as a mail order business in 1970, Sir Richard opened the first Megastore in Oxford Street, London, the following year and founded the Virgin record label in 1973, selling millions of vinyl copies of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells.

The Virgin brand - which has been attached over the years to everything from trains to credit cards and wedding dresses to vodka with varying degrees of success - will disappear from store fronts from November to be replaced with the name Zavvi.

Fresh start

The new owners, led by the Virgin Megastore managing director Simon Douglas and finance director Steve Peckham, promised to safeguard all 2,500 jobs and overhaul the stores to compete more effectively in the iPod age.

Mr Douglas said the name change gave the group the opportunity for a fresh start, saying it would concentrate on providing an independent alternative to the "corporate" HMV and develop ways of appealing to new generations of music, games and DVD buyers.

"Most of my generation know all about Sir Richard Branson and what he has achieved in music," he said. "But it's an opportunity to reach out to people who now associate him more with his other businesses."

He admitted the music market was "under the spotlight", partly blaming the release schedule for this year, but he remained confident that the store could battle the combined threats of digital download stores such as Apple's iTunes, costcutting by supermarkets and the devaluation caused by piracy and free CD covermounts.

"There is still very much a place on an increasingly homogenised high street for an independent entertainment specialist that puts customers, product, service and personality at the top of the agenda," Mr Douglas said. The new name was a "modern and independent take on the word savvy".

Sir Richard had previously pledged to overhaul the Megastores for the digital age, introducing instore downloads and other innovations. But a spokesman for Sir Richard's Virgin Group said the Megastores were increasingly an "anachronism" in the company's portfolio, with other Virgin stores around the world already franchised to new owners. The company contributed only 5% of the group's UK turnover in 2006.

Under its "branded venture capital" strategy, Virgin is increasingly looking to float its businesses or sell stakes in them to joint venture partners. In addition to his airline, train and communications networks, Sir Richard has put the Virgin name to personal finance, health clubs and space tourism.

"Our most recent investments have also included renewable energy and clean technologies, in line with the group's desire to become one of the world leaders in that field along with sustainable transportation and travel," he said yesterday. "In the last six years we have been withdrawing from entertainment retailing, which is no longer viewed as core to the group's future."

V2, the record label he set up after selling Virgin Records to Thorn EMI, was sold to Universal last month. By that time the label, home to the Stereophonics and Patrick Watson among others, was 95% owned by Morgan Stanley with Virgin retaining only 5%.

Virgin Media, the cable group in which Sir Richard is the largest shareholder, will soon launch a high-profile TV channel called Virgin One. The company, which is embroiled in a bitter regulatory row with BSkyB, is up for sale and the chief executive recently departed but Sir Richard is expected to retain his stake.

Virgin Media and Virgin Mobile will retain their concessions in the new Zavvi stores under the terms of the deal.

Mr Douglas said he was confident the chain had a bright future despite the pressure on all high street entertainment stores from the rise of internet shopping and digital downloads, as well as the increasing activity by supermarkets in the sector.

Smoothie bars

Famous names such as Andy's Records, Tower Records, MVC and Music Zone have disappeared in recent years and the Fopp chain lives on in just six locations after being rescued by HMV.

HMV, under pressure from the City to rebuild collapsing sales, last week unveiled a bold concept store featuring a wider range of entertainment products, smoothie bars and internet terminals designed to lure shoppers back to the high street and encourage them to spend more. If successful, it will be rolled out nationwide.

But, despite criticism from analysts who said they were too slow to react, industry bodies insist the death of the high street record store has been exaggerated. "The fact that the management has been able to secure funding for this deal shows the robust prospects for entertainment retail," said the Entertainment Retailers Association's chairman, Paul Quirk. "The computer games and DVD markets are buoyant and even in music, despite misguided predictions that somehow record stores are finished, 90% of sales are still on physical formats."

According to ERA figures, in 2006 specialists accounted for the biggest slice of the music market with 46.5% of CD album sales by value. Supermarkets had 25%, high street multiples such as Woolworths and WH Smith 12.2%, the internet 11%, mail order 2.5% and others 2.7%.

The rise of Sir Richard

1950 Born in Shamley Green, Surrey

1970 Launches the first Virgin business - a mail order record store

1971 First Virgin Megastore opens on Oxford Street

1973 With Nik Powell, Branson launches Virgin Records. One of its earliest releases is the prog rock instrumental classic Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield, which sells more than 5m copies. Other signings include Tangerine Dream and Faust

1977 Amid huge controversy, Virgin signs the Sex Pistols after they had been sacked by EMI and A&M. Other successful acts through the 1970s and 1980s include Genesis, Simple Minds, Janet Jackson, Phil Collins and Human League

1979 Opens flagship Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street, which remains the world's largest entertainment store.

1986 Virgin Group floats, funding expansion into Birmingham, Brighton and Dublin

1988 Sells 67 smaller shops to Our Price for £63m

1992 WH Smith takes 50% stake in Virgin Retail. Sells Virgin Music Group to Thorn EMI for $1bn to fund expansion of Virgin Atlantic

1994 Virgin Megastores and Our Price merge

1996 Launches V2 label, home of the Stereophonics and Moby

1998 Virgin Group buys back Our Price from WH Smith

2004 Takes ownership of Tower Records brand in the UK

2006 Launches Virgin Megastore "store of the future" in Manchester

2006 Sells V2 Records North America for £15m

2007 Sells Virgin Megastores to management

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

samedi, septembre 08, 2007

The Streets

Hip to the beat of the Streets.

Rob Fitzpatrick uncovers the contents of a successful Streets tour

Saturday September 8, 2007
The Guardian

"I had Rohypnol on Friday," says Fulham-born rapper Elliot Example Gleave. "It was a mistake - someone spiked me - but I still lost my wallet and woke up with a headache.

Example has just returned from a five-night tear-up across Scotland with his colleagues (the Mitchell Brothers, Professor Green and the Streets - there were 32 people involved) from Mike Skinner's Beats label. "I'd planned to be really well behaved," he says. "But the whole tour was pretty blurry to be honest."

A rolling, full-on party, one without recognised start or end times, a Streets tour is one that, however out of hand it gets, is always immaculately dressed. The shows, from the "pilled-up craziness" of Dundee to the "bouncing nutters" of Edinburgh, were all (in Example's words) "completely amazing. I got used to waking up stinking of cigarettes and beer, but I never got used to arguing with people who stole my breakfast cereal. But the crowds made every hangover worthwhile - every Scottish person I've ever met has been fucking mad. And I mean that as a compliment."

Originally intended as a one-date warm-up for the new Streets album, the tour grew when Skinner decided he wasn't going to finish it in time. "I'd been working on it for a year and I didn't know what I was listening to anymore," he says. "I needed a holiday - I thought this would be a great way of getting away and having a good time."

Skinner's tour diary reveals his desire to provide Johnny Drum Machine with a suitably vast and luxurious armchair, his enjoyment at lumbering the crew with extra soft furnishings and the quality of each evening's "crowd surf". Example's notes are full of the desire for quality, nervous-system soothing comfort food ("I opted for a chicken and ham calzone from some classy Italian deli, nutritious breakfast smoothie..."), mixing his album on the tour bus and securing stage wear on the cheap. Sounds lovely, but there must have been bad moments?

"Someone stole my bunk's duvet one night," moans Example. "Although that might have been my fault for only getting to bed at 5am."

And why were you going to bed at 5am?

"Well," he says. "On the first night a girl came up to me backstage and handed me a packet with 20 pills in it."

Add this to some of the team's enthusiasm for a tour tipple known as "H2E" and you begin to understand why DJ Professor Green wrote in his own diary how, "a smell of destruction lurks, just waiting to rear its ugly but familiar head".

"I needed another holiday after that," Skinner admitted. "There were levels of madness that shocked even me," offers Example. "I've been eating healthily and running every day. I've now had two complete weeks off. Apart from the Rohypnol, of course."

· Example's What We Made album is out Sep 17

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007