PJ Harvey’s 2011 album Let England Shake is a stark examination of Harvey’s British homeland, the wars it waged abroad throughout its history, and the country’s anticlimactic descent from the peak of its colonial powers. In the course of the album’s creation, Harvey sought inspiration in everything from the poetry of T.S. Eliot to recent wartime accounts from Afghanistan. In 2008 she came upon the work of Irish photographer/director Seamus Murphy, who had mounted an English exhibition in support of his photo collection Afghanistan: A Darkness Visible. Sensing a kindred spirit, she ended up engaging Murphy to make short films to accompany each of the songs on her album. Murphy made a long road trip across England with camera in tow for the task, and now the results are available on DVD as Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy, released January 31 in the U.S. via Island. More art pieces than rock videos, the low-tech films feel like a cross between Robert Frank’s 1950s photojournalism and Wim Wenders’ early movies. Harvey takes only a supporting role as Murphy wanders through washed-out, lonely landscapes that range from the dauntingly desolate to the strangely beautiful. Murphy took time out from further work in Afghanistan to talk about his collaboration with rock provocateur Harvey.
What was the genesis of A Darkness Visible, the book that caught PJ Harvey’s attention?
My work in Afghanistan evolved over the years but has come down to being about the Afghan people. I had been there four times before 9/11, so my connection was pretty strong by then. And in those pre-9/11 times, there were no foreign troops or international diplomats or businessmen to be seen — it was a few NGOs [non-governmental organizations], mostly French, very few journalists, and Afghans. I continued approaching the country from this perspective because that’s what was there when I went there first. It’s what interested me most about being there, and when the foreign interest leaves the country, it will be back to the Afghans again. And this has been the cycle throughout their history.
What are you working on in Afghanistan right now?
Right now I am visiting and photographing the family in Kabul I started shooting portraits of in 1994. The youngest, Farhad, was 12 back then; he is now 30 and is a father of two children. I am also doing some film work that will be part of something later.
How familiar were you with PJ’s work previous to your project with her?
I shamefully wasn’t familiar with her music, but I was aware she was a musician. You know how you have unexplained gaps in your knowledge, like a book you never read, but should have? When I heard the demo for Let England Shake it was a revelation.
How much input did PJ have at any point in the process?
I wanted to find a large enough idea, initially, to make a couple of films. I knew the album very well, having been given a demo much earlier on, so I had all the rich themes from the album to play with. PJ really left it to me to make the films I wanted to make. We discussed ideas and found ourselves mostly in agreement. So I hit the road and went off to shoot the first three … editing them and sending them through to her as finished. It was the first time she saw them.
What was it about the songs that you tried to bring out through the films?
The enigma of England, the character of the people, the way the place looks. But naturally it is my version, or vision of it — inspired and fueled by her extraordinary album.
How did you decide which locations to use?
I really just set out to discover England. I went west and turned north up the west side, reached Liverpool and turned right, all the way through Yorkshire, hit Humberside and then turned south, and then spent a few days in London. On the second leg of it, I went up through the middle and ended up returning to Norfolk, which featured heavily. It was a great time of year to be there. And I really liked a few days I spent in Southend, Canvey Island, and Essex.
In between each song we see what seem like everyday English characters reciting some of the lyrics. Who were the people you picked for that?
Some of the people I knew; the car mechanic is the car mechanic I use for my car, the guy on “Hanging in the Wire” is an old mate from Portobello Road. The farmer in “Let England Shake” is someone I met on the road. The woman for “England” was the girlfriend of someone I knew and I thought would be perfect … actually I had wanted a Jamaican Londoner to do it with a wonderful accent, but it didn’t work out and I ran out of time.
Which directors would you cite as an inspiration for these films?
One would be Michael Powell, the great English director who made A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp, among other great films. He made lyrical, eccentric films that were quintessentially English. On a visit through Bristol I read there was a camera obscura [primitive camera] and I immediately thought of one his films that features one. I ended up using one in “The Words That Maketh Murder.”
If you could do a project like this for any other artist, who would it be?
Anyone who would give me the same liberty and freedom, which would not be many, I am guessing!
The Let England Shake: 12 Short Films By Seamus Murphy is available now via Island.