Q. Polly, the first thing that struck me about ‘Let England Shake’ is that, not only does it not sound like anything else I have heard, but it doesn’t sound like you. It sounds completely different from what has come before. What was the starting point for this album?
A. The same as it always is for me. It’s important to feel like I’m experimenting and continuing to learn, and that’s not something that I study or sit down and make a manifesto about, it’s just very natural. Even going back to the days when I was at art college, my work was changing radically the whole time. I never followed a set pattern. For some reason that has remained really important for me, because I need to be learning, and so this album came out of looking at what I have done, particularly what I had just done, which was ‘White Chalk’, but also the whole lay-of-the-land of what had gone before, and thinking about trying to explore areas I hadn’t explored. So sonically I wanted to experiment with instruments. On some of my solo shows, which I had been doing in the couple of years prior to starting to write this record, I began to play the autoharp and I adapted some songs to the autoharp. For instance, ‘Down By The Water’ I was playing on the autoharp, and I was really enjoying this different, enormous, wide breadth of sound that the autoharp gives. It’s quite a delicate sound, but it’s also like having an entire orchestra at your fingertips. I began by writing quite a lot on the autoharp, and then slowly as time went by, (because this album was written over two and a half years)… my writing started moving into experimenting with different guitars, and using different sound applications, ones that I had never really experimented with.
Q. So it sounds like, to an extent, you have to learn in order to recreate. If you didn’t play on the autoharp before, presumably there is a difference between being a master of the autoharp and then deciding to write a whole bunch of songs and having less vocabulary?
A. Well, something I’ve realised is that when I’m not writing music, (I write words all the time, it’s continuous), but when I’m not writing music, I do not play an instrument ever. I’m not one of those people who walk round the house and thinks “aah I’m going to play the piano because I feel like it”! I never touch an instrument unless I’m writing music for the words that I’ve made, or I’m rehearsing for a gig. That’s the only time. So it means that when I come to play the guitar I maybe haven’t played it for six months and I’m very messy on it. I get very ham-fisted, I’ve realised over the years that I actually like that sound. I like the sound of a beginner on an instrument. Q. This is actually the opposite to how a lot of people work because you are putting yourself in the position of a beginner. If you are taking up a new instrument and then you don’t have that range of experience to lean on, in fact you have to start from scratch?
A. Yes, you do start from scratch. I begin almost as if I’m feeling around in the dark, and I guess that’s the beauty of it, because then your only response can be of the body. It can be emotional because your intellect is not there; you’re not adept at what you’re doing. I don’t know what chord I’m playing. But I can feel it, I hear it.
It is very childlike in a way, you know how children move to music, or when you see a child first pick up an instrument, there’s something just beautiful about that, because it’s the utter emotional, bodily response and I think that naivety can really get to some truths.
Q. Doesn’t that build a stumbling block in that you have to get past the point of playing it adequately in order to become creative or is it the other way round?
A. It can be a bit of a stumbling block to begin with, but I think it is more advantageous than disadvantageous, I quite like that sound of clunky chord changes and it feels more human. I like mistakes.
Q. With ‘Let England Shake’ there are themes going on... War being an obvious one, but also war from a personal perspective. So this must have been a different way of writing?
A. Yes, I felt like something I hadn’t really done yet with my writing was to approach big, concrete issues such as one’s country, and conflict. Things which affect every one of us, every day of our lives. A lot of people try and write about these things, and their hearts are in the right place and everything is done for the right reasons, but for me, a lot of the time it doesn’t work. I didn’t know if I could even approach it in a way that I could get that balance right, that would work without coming across as maybe rather pompous, or as if I was preaching, or some sort of chest preaching protest music. It’s very difficult to get right, and I didn’t think I could. For the first time I thought “let’s have a go”. I had always felt passionately about these things and yet hadn’t put my voice to that, to express it. This was the first time I tried to do that. But it was very, very difficult, and like I said, so difficult to get the right balance that I think I probably threw away half, or even more than half , of what I wrote, to get to the point of this album.
Q. So what was your starting point? Did you do research? I ask because it has a very historical perspective on war and I think, reading into this, I see elements of Gallipoli and a lot of elements of the First World War? Also tied in is this idea of Englishness and England, and also modern warfare too.
A. I did an enormous amount of research, and like I said, the writing process took about two and half to three years. I read lots of books on war from all different eras. I read about war in a philosophical way, I read about it from all angles. I did lots of research on English history. I looked at the way other artists have spoken about England. I did a lot of internet research; I watched lots and lots of documentaries with interviews of people who had actually been there. Interviews with WW1 soldiers right up to present day interviews with Afghani people to produce the broad spectrum. I just tried to absorb as much information as I could. I looked at lots of artwork, lots of painting, for instance Salvador Dali’s Spanish Civil War era and Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series. That’s just two, but there were many different angles that I looked at. Lots of photography and lots of current day photography where I came across a photographer called Seamus Murphy, who spent the best part of 10 years in Afghanistan. I was extremely moved by an exhibition I saw of his called 'A Darkness Visible'. So much that I actually I got in touch with him because I wanted to speak to him more about his experiences being there in Afghanistan. The whole time I was writing trying to get the voice right, and I suppose what I kept coming back to, was that the place I did feel qualified to speak from was a very simple, human, emotional point of view, because we are all human. We all feel these things, or you can feel how it would have been for somebody in that situation. You know how much your heart can break after watching a documentary about somebody else’s misfortune, a soldier who has been in these terrible situations, or a man who has lost his wife - blown up by a suicide bomber, and you feel. It’s very human.
Q. That’s the artistic process, I think. Empathy… you don’t necessarily have to have gone through these things but you have to have a feeling for these things, otherwise it’s going to be empty?
A. Yes, and that’s what I was trying to articulate, those feelings. That’s the way that I found a way in, to even begin to write about these giant things. I just hoped that I was striking the right balance, and all the way through the writing process I needed feedback. For instance, I approached the whole album in a different way, and I only wrote words for a long, long time. I wrote words and honed them again and again, rewrote different drafts until I felt like there was a point where there was one set of words on a page, and they would work for anybody who would come in and read them. And then when I got to that stage, I sent them to a couple of my friends to get feedback, and friends whose opinions I really trusted, and that helped me hone it down. Then I just slowly, slowly built on that, until I had 18 songs that were working on a page. That was out of a lot. Many got discarded. Then I began to sing those words, I didn’t touch an instrument. I would sing them until the words told me their melody, which again was something I hadn’t done before. The words have their rhythm, especially if they’ve been written in a poetic way to work on a page. They’ve already got a rhythm, the rhythm is there. When you begin to work with the rhythm then the melody just comes. Most of them started off in that way. There was a melody for the words to be sung, and then I would find an instrument for the melody.
Q. So the melody only came through repeating the words and experimenting? Would the normal process be sitting on a piano or a guitar or whatever and find the melody that way? Is that how you normally work?
A. Yes, in the past I would just play on an instrument. I might have written words before, but I’d play on an instrument until the instruments began to suggest a rhythm and a melody and then I’d ‘shoe-horn’ my words into that. This is entirely the other way around.
Q. The words came, the themes, and the ideas and then the music followed?
A. It was a first for me. Having said that, I spoke to a few musician friends and they were amazed that I hadn’t done that before!
Q. It sounds different even from yourself, and there are things that you are doing with your voice which are very different. I was wondering if that was from that change in process, especially the first song ‘Let England Shake’, your voice races really high and I haven’t heard you use that approach before.
A. Well going back to child-like responses, the nature of the words are often addressing very dark weighty subjects. I couldn’t sing those in a rich strong mature voice without it sounding completely wrong. So I had to slowly find the voice, and this voice started to develop, almost taking on the role of a narrator. I could visualise the action taking place on the stage, and the narrator’s on the side relaying the information of the action. I had to find the right voice to carry out the action as if I were the voyeur, and had to relay the story. And that actually grew from my research, looking at officially-appointed war artists and war poets, and thinking “where are the officially-appointed war song writers?”.
Q. They left that one off the list!
A. Where’s that on the list? Well, I am going to make my own list! I am officially appointing myself as a song writer! So this was my way of bringing back the story from the front… if you like… Q. What I thought was really interesting was that it was personal without being personal. I didn’t get the sense that this was personal in the sense of your experience or emotions, but it was personal in that it wasn’t political song writing or dogmatic, it’s actually all about experience. It’s personal even though you weren’t necessarily being personal about yourself.
A. The only link was the bottom-line of emotions, which every human being has access to.
Q. Also interesting is the picturing of England. On one level; there are the themes of war and history, but also you get this sense of ancient, oak-like, very British patter of rain on oak tree sound going on. So I’m interested in your relationship with England or how the dream of England might inspire you?
A. I think you can’t help but respond to the country you are living in. As an English person living in England, I am talking about this country but you could supplant that soul to a lot of different countries. We all feel this terrible disappointment in what happens to our countries, mostly its disappointment and this sense of connection and sense of push and pull with all the things you hate about it and love about it. They’re parts of you but then again you want to get it away from you at the same time. I think it’s a common human feeling no matter what country you’re living in. There are these feelings that you wrestle with and I can’t help but be affected by where I have grown up. I was trying to talk about that using very broad brush strokes to leave it open for other people to enter. I didn’t want it to become so specific and so narrowed down and I hope that’s what I have done because I would like to leave it open for other people to bring forward their responses. I was really just presenting some ideas to throw out there. I’m not sure if that makes much sense… Q. It does make sense. I sensed a kind of romance to the English countryside, which may not have been intended, but there was a lyric “It leaves a taste, a bitter one” on a song called ‘England’ which made me think... And also “Cruel nature has won again” which is on ‘Battleship Hill’. That can be interpreted in so many ways but it’s actually quite romantic too. It’s almost this idea that whatever happens, nature is going to keep going.
A. Yes, no matter what will happen to it, or whatever destruction man makes, it will keep going. One point down the line, if we destroy ourselves, it will still be there, and there’s something quite comforting about that, but also quite brutal.
Q. I couldn’t place the music in any particular genre and I think that’s probably a very good thing. But were there certain things that have been an influence even in a very indirect way in terms of the music?
A. I knew when I was starting to write the words that I wanted a timelessness to it. I wanted timelessness in that I wanted it to travel to many different eras. Musically, I wanted to capture the timelessness too. I didn’t want it to be particularly referenced to anything. I listened to a lot of The Pogues...
Q. Well, it sounds nothing like The Pogues! Couldn’t be more different!
A. Particularly the first two albums (from the Pogues), they are singing very traditional, very ancient folk songs about conflict and social problems. I was also listening to The Doors because for me there was a lot of association with Vietnam and that era, and I felt they embodied a strange and dislocated sound. They have a very indefinable sound, that’s difficult to pin down. I like the confusion they have in their sound. I listened to a lot of The Velvet Underground because I like the quality of their sound and the exuberance of their music. They might be dealing with quite difficult subject matter in some of their songs but it’s very rousing. I knew that I wanted the music to be rousing, indefinable, and not particularly able to be pinned down. I listened to traditional folk music from all countries across the world even though I didn’t understand the words. I listened to the emotion, the cadences in the voice. It might be a very simple three stringed bowed instrument but still I could feel the emotion. Going back to a song like ‘England’, which you pulled a lyric out of, you’ll hear a little sample of a very, very old Kurdish folk song. A woman singing to her beloved, and I wanted to keep that little sample in there because I had been listening to that and there was something about the emotion there that I wanted to bring into my love song to England. So there are these two love songs, hers is Kurdish, and mine is English and they cross in the middle.
Q. Again, it doesn’t sound like The Doors, The Pogues or The Velvet Underground which is great, I can see how it can soak in but it doesn’t sound like any of the folk music I know. The thing I would connect it with, a lot of folk songs are about shared experience or stories. So you take a song like “The Plains of Waterloo” which is about the Napoleonic War and Salisbury Hill, they’re about these things which happen to everyday people and I can see that connection, even though musically its very different… A. If you read the texts of some of those really ancient songs from the 1600s you can still feel something because you can apply it, and going back to wanting to capture that timelessness, that it’s ongoing. This complete cycle of warring and distress with one’s country, and money and it just goes on and on and it always will. That’s what I realised when I look at some of these really old songs, and it’s not particular to one country, it is all countries.
Q. It’s human nature. The other thing which struck me, as people, we are always caught up what’s going on at the moment, and technologically, we are all caught up in whatever’s going on. You realise how insignificant that is really. There were songs which were probably referencing Gallipoli and Afghanistan, it doesn’t matter, the experiences are the same and you feel that very much, that it was about things which are routed in human experience, not routed in a journalistic approach.
A. I felt that was very important for me. It was the only way I could approach it. Because I don’t feel qualified to speak from a political or journalistic point of view. I just haven’t got that information, unless it was all I did and all I studied, I couldn’t write like that, I could only write about the things I do feel.
Q. About the recording of the album, wasn’t it recorded in a church?
A. Yes we recorded it in a church that’s now just used for exhibitions and classical concerts mostly, in Dorset. It’s very remote, on top of a cliff, and has a graveyard which has trees bent by the wind. It’s a classic, misty surrounding but actually a beautiful place and a place I was very familiar with and often walk through, so it felt a part of me. It didn’t feel very far away from me and I knew that with this body of work I didn’t want to go to London. A city didn’t feel right. I looked at a few studios in Berlin. That didn’t feel right. Then I remembered that the man who now runs this church as an arts venue had said to me a few times if I’d ever wanted to use it for a show or rehearsals that he’d love that, and that’s when I approached him and asked if we could use it. We only had it for five weeks so it was all done in that space of time which is very short. As a comparison ‘White Chalk’ took five months. So this was all done in five weeks and it was approached in an extremely different way, because I had thought about it before hand and all the things I didn’t want to do. I wanted to remain open to the moment a lot more, I wanted to leave room for the musicians I was working with and the producer I was working with, who was Flood. The musicians were John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty, who is a drummer I have worked with before. I wanted to leave room for them so they could bring their feelings into it as well. Usually I would have planned everything and known what instrumentation I wanted. This time I demoed the songs mostly with one or two instruments with a voice and that was as much as I had. So I basically had the chords and a couple of saxophone melodies, a couple of voice melodies and that was what I took with me to the church. We rehearsed the songs as if we were rehearsing to play them live and found quite quickly that we had only rehearsed a song through maybe twice and Flood had started recording us. It was that ill prepared. We hadn’t had any plan; nobody knew what they were going to play apart from me because I had written the song on it! We set up a keyboard station, a very old drum-kit station. I have two very old drums, one is a Second World War Drum and one is a marching drum, probably from a similar era which had an enormous sound. The drums on the record are unlike any other drum sound and it’s because of these old drums. We were just playing in the moment. We played the song once or twice, the boys would find out what they felt like playing, somebody would drift to the keyboard, or somebody would drift to the church organ or somebody would be on the drums. It just kept changing as to how we felt and a song would be done within three or four approaches. And we worked quite quickly like that and then later on we might return to that song and hone it a bit. But it was very spontaneous.
Q. What point did they hear the songs or were they building it up very quickly?
A. I sent them the demos I had made so the boys and Flood had my voice and one instrument playing chords.
Q. And that was it? And from there it was up to them to work it out… A. Yes and it was very quick. They’re all players I have worked with for getting on 20 years. We know each other very well; we know each other’s language musically. We don’t have to describe things in words to each other, we just know. They would know instinctively what they should play for that song and it would change from song to song. We knew what each other was going to do, so it was very fluid in that way. That comes from that beauty of correspondence with people you’ve known for such a long time.
Q. But also spontaneity, I guess? Because it was that fast, you don’t have time to… A. It was very spontaneous and that kept it very exciting so it was a wonderful atmosphere in which to work. It was very fast, very exciting because each new song was bursting up. Everybody felt they had freedom to contribute and bring their own ideas and we were all firing off of each other. Somebody would have an idea and that would spark an idea in me, and then that would spark an idea in Mick, and it was wonderful like that. I have never known a recording experience like that but then again I had never approached the recording in such an open way. I had always been very controlling of it. I think one of the joys of getting older is that you start to gain more confidence in yourself in ways that allow you to relax in some areas like that for instance. I knew that I could still know what I needed, but also I could still give free reign and still be able to judge what was working and what wasn’t.
Q. Well, I think also when one gets older, one still wants the quality to be there, but don’t worry as much… A. You gain perspective.
Q. Yes you have perspective; it’s OK for someone else to get on with it. I suppose it’s a trust thing, as these are the people you know well and that must help too.
A. Yes and it’s also knowing that, if this doesn’t work after experimenting for a while, we can try another way. When you are younger it is all so black and white, you think ‘No this has to be right now!’ as if it’s the end of the world!.
Q. So did you know when you had it right? Would there be times when you were experimenting, (again you are talking to someone who doesn’t spend much time in studios), you go down a certain creative alley-way and you just know that it’s working? Or is it only later, after hearing it, that you find out what’s good and what isn’t?
A. Sometimes with this record we could be so excited by something we thought was working, but then we’d listen to it two and a half weeks later and we’d think “What on earth is that?!” We all just had the faith to keep on following the excitement, the moment and where it was taking us, because we never sat and dissected what we were doing until it was done. We knew to just go with it because if we did listen to something two weeks later and it was wrong we could then work out why that was and approach it again. Having said that it only happened on about three songs and we were all astonished how many songs just seemed to know how they were supposed to go. In fact we did talk about that; how it was uncanny, almost as if the songs were already written. I don’t want to sound too mystical about anything but they did present themselves so quickly and so fully formed that it didn’t feel like we had to do all that much apart from just be there, and be at the right instrument at the right time, and very few things needed a lot of honing and reworking.
Q. That’s interesting because they are structurally odd. Quite often they don’t follow the first chorus structure of the songs.
A. No and I think a lot of that goes back to me approaching the melody of the words first. So sometimes my voice is leaping all over the place, so when I came to put an instrument to with it I thought...I have got to go B flat to E major and that sounds weird, but it sort of worked at the same time. It meant I was playing chords I hadn’t played before and playing chord changes I hadn’t played before.
Q. We are re-touching on what I started off talking about, but I do think there is something about playing at the top of your ability which possibly hampers creativity. What I mean by that is, this way of picking up new instruments, there is something which forces creativity in a way that maybe is missing if you are a total master of an instrument and so trained to playing from the page... So it’s quite an interesting approach, have you always done that to an extent? You said you don’t play the guitar unless you are writing songs… A. I think on reflection now yes I have, although it was never something that I set out as a conscious plan to do, but when I look at how I have written, it’s always been like that. In the earlier days I would write a song just through thought before I would get near an instrument or open my mouth to sing anything or write anything down, so it made itself in my head and then I would go to the instrument. Then it changed into something more like finding a feel on an instrument, and then words would form out the feel there, pulling words out of the feelings I was getting from the music. Now it has come right the way around. It doesn’t happen block to block, I mean I can remember with ‘White Chalk’ I was beginning for the first time to craft words more by looking at them on the page and then that came into flourish more with this record.
Q. Right, you mean looking at the rhythm, looking at the pattern and the sort of poetry of the words without music I suppose?
A. Yes and then taking it to an even greater extent this time.
Q. So what about playing live? How is it going to work, what’s the set up going to be? Is it going to be with the same people you recorded the album with?
A. Yes, it’s going to be with the musicians on the record, so Jean-Marc Butty on the drums. Mick Harvey and John Parish will be interchanging on all manner of different instruments, and I will mostly be on the guitar and autoharp. We are going to, I hope, just recreate the sound. We should be able to; because it was all played live. I mean, all of the main body of the songs were put down completely live, even the vocals on some of the songs were live.
Q. The whole thing would be in a take?
A. Yes, and there would be overdubs of harmonies but the body of the song would be going straight down.
Q. That's increasingly unusual these days isn’t it?
A. It is, yes. I think that one of the drawbacks of having such technology at our fingertips everywhere is that you can become very precise about things and overly protect things. Something I have always loved is the way we can make mistakes and they can end up being the most beautiful mistakes. And there are plenty mistakes on the record.
Q. The mistakes are the stains of humanity as it comes out?
A. Yes, sometimes when I’m demo-ing the songs I will make a mistake musically and I will say “oh I’ll leave that because we’ll get it right” and then get really attached to it and so I’m trying to teach the boys it goes g-minor e-minor then d-minor that time but just that once! They’re so used it now… Q. Used to the wrong bit being the right bit… A. Yes, the wrong bit being the right bit. And they’re used to me counting in strange time signatures that change every other bar or every five bars… it makes sense to me because I’m the one singing the words, but for a player to come and play it not singing the words it can be a matter of having to unravel what is going on.
Q. So I guess they have to learn your way of doing things... They know what’s going on and know how to do it.
A. Yes they know Polly language at this point.
Q. Because it’s not like you are just going G to D to C and the A and E for the chorus. The whole structure is weird.
A. I think they know now that as long as they follow the voice then they will know where to go with the music because they know my music is based around the voice. So if the voice has got one line that has three syllables shorter than the one prior to it, they know it will change rhythmically and is going to come earlier.
Q. So, let me ask you something, because earlier you mentioned art school training. Do you think your approach to music and your approach to doing what you do, do you think your years at art school had a significant influence on the way you have approached doing this?
A. Completely, I don’t feel any different, I have never felt like a musician, whenever someone has asked me what I do, I have stumbled on the word. I feel like an artist. I feel like a painter more than a musician. I paint with words and sound. I have always felt like that, always. And that’s why it has felt quite strange to me to be associated with any particular movement with music; I don’t feel like I am associated with anything apart from painting pictures or painting ideas. I approach it all like that, it’s about malleability, it’s about sculpture, ramming one thing up to the next, ramming one colour up there to see what happens to the one next to it. That’s the way I approach things. Again, it goes back to do with touch and smell and instinct.
Q. Self-expression in structured ways. Or structures to form self expression around wherever those structures might be?
A. Yes, I throw things at a canvas and see what works, and I do it with music and words. I can’t describe it very well, but for some reason I never feel like a musician. I am better with song-writing; I can say ‘Yes, I am a song-writer not a musician.’ Just dropping in on the musical side.
Yes, I paint with singing and words.