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'People see this persona on stage and they read into it': Enigmatic musician PJ Harvey journeys to warzone for new film

A new documentary follows PJ Harvey from Kosovo to Washington DC, and then on to the making of her last album.

FOR FIVE WEEKS at the beginning of 2015, fans of the fascinating English musician PJ Harvey got to do something unusual: watch her and her band record their new album in a box in an art gallery.

Never one to be held captive by rock’s rules about music-making, Harvey had agreed to allow people to watch on (through one-way glass) in Somerset House as the band members constructed what would become Hope Six Demolition Project, her 13th album.

First coming to prominence in the early 1990s with her albums Dry and Rid of Me, Harvey has gone on to weave a long and winding career that’s brought us some of modern rock’s best albums – like her Mercury Award-winning Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea.

During the 1990s she was often featured in indie rock mags, thanks to not just her music but the voyeuristic interest in her relationship with Nick Cave (the pair duetted on the folk song Henry Lee). In recent decades however, Harvey has chosen to step into the black, and out of the spotlight.

All of which made the stint at Somerset House for the live album recording an interesting choice. It got even more interesting again when Harvey invited her friend and collaborator Seamus Murphy, the award-winning London-based Irish photographer, to film her journeys while writing the album, as well as the recording itself.

A Dog Called Money

Madman Films / YouTube

That process – her trips with Murphy to Kosovo, Washington DC, Afghanistan and London, and the Somerset House recording – has been immortalised in the new documentary A Dog Called Money, which reached Irish cinemas this weekend.

Part-funded by Fís Éireann/Screen Ireland, it’s a suitably unusual and at times oblique look at the process. Fans of Harvey will in some ways get what they’re looking for, but still have plenty of questions at the end. Just how Harvey wants it.

When caught up with Murphy during a recent trip to Ireland, he said that Harvey’s reputation as an enigmatic rock star can often be at odds with who the real Polly Jean is.

The intention with the documentary was never to make a ‘classic’ rock biopic. “It was interesting, because I think, you know, we struggled to get funding to begin with because everybody wanted this kind of biopic,” said Murphy. “And I was saying: look it’s not a biopic, I’m not going to do a biopic, she’s not going to do biopic. So on the one hand, it’s very raw, it’s very open. But at the same time, I don’t know if you found this but… there’s still the enigma. The enigma totally survives.”

He said that people tend to complicate the idea of who PJ Harvey is, and by way of example talked about an incident that occurred a few years ago.

“It was very interesting, we were publishing the book [The Hollow of the Hand] together. We were printing it in Italy and got there the first day and there was a woman [working on the project] from London and she was a big PJ Harvey fan. She was great. And we had a meal together and then Polly said ‘oh I’m off to bed now’ about 10pm. Which is typical her, she goes to bed early often.

“And this woman says ‘Oh, my god, she’s changed’. And this woman had never known, had never met her before. I said what do you mean?”

These days, Harvey is not a party animal – and perhaps, hints Murphy, never was. 

“She wasn’t, she never did that – I mean, maybe in LA or something, maybe but I don’t think even then. People see this persona on stage and they read into it. They complicate it.”

He says that Harvey has been “very clever in some ways, if you like, for just being neutral” and not appearing in the press much.

“You know, the biggest shock, the biggest headline, the better” is how he describes what happened back in the 1990s. “So she’s just kind of walked away from that. She had to do it, I think to a certain point of her career. The last album: not one interview.”

Murphy was working in the different countries that he and PJ visited. She came along, absorbing herself in each town and city they stopped off at: meeting people, listening to people, conversing, making music. In the documentary, we see how snatches and snippets of those meetings and experiences stuck with Harvey: writing in her notebook, she captures those moments in her own words. She journeys from warzones to oppressed communities. She was in good company with Dublin native Murphy, who has worked in Sierra Leone, Ireland, Afghanistan and Gaza, and won seven World Press Photo awards for his work.

It took “very intensive editing” to get the film down to 90 minutes – an early cut was two and a half hours. 

He felt that the best way for the process to work was “to make it as abstract as possible”.

“You’re almost feeling like you were there. While this idea is fermenting, and you’re not sure what you’re looking at. ‘Oh, oh, okay. The song – that must have come from…’. So there’s this kind of catch up.”

What the documentary captures is the unpredictability of the creative process. It’s amazing, really, that an experience in Afghanistan can turn into something unique in a musician’s head, and then be turned into music. The documentary is more about this – how Harvey translates experience into sound – than it is about examining the situations she goes into. It doesn’t interrogate what it is to be a stranger in someone else’s land, but it also never set out to do this.

“I’m sure she thinks the same as me. I’m sure we’ve had conversations around this. But I know that when you’re doing these things, you have no idea if it’s going to work,” said Murphy of the creative process.

“You have no idea if you’re wasting your time. And that’s that’s the other beautiful thing about looking at the film now.”

Just like the music business for Harvey, the photography business has changed since Murphy first entered it. These days, he relies less on editors and more on starting his own projects himself.  “Because there aren’t a lot of the editors out there anymore. I mean, not for the kind of work I do.”

When it comes to his photographs, he says that:

“I think one thing I always tried to do was, wherever I was, if I was putting a picture out there, I was saying that this is a picture of this place that people in that place would find it interesting.

“I could show you a picture of a woman in a burka to somebody in Afghanistan. They’re gonna say, well, that’s my mother. Or that’s my – it could be any woman. It’s gotta have something more than that.”

Thanks to digital technology, these days people can share their photography without needing the permission of editors. Murphy said that this is making the craft more democratic. 

He said that people don’t have to do work “that’s palatable for a western audience for example”. There’s the sense that, like with Harvey and her music, in the photography world things are less about permission these days.

“I think that’s what we’re seeing. Maybe there’s a bit more, a bit more of a universal truth coming through. And people are telling stories of their own.”

A Dog Called Money is in cinemas now 

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