Solemn words sit atop desolate images of a derelict cinema in Kabul. PJ Harvey is observing the wreckage, contextualising it for the observer before her words give way to a sombre, alternate version of her song ‘The Orange Monkey’. Meanwhile, a film projector rolls and scenes of Afghan patrons enter a newer, but nevertheless still dishevelled, cinema.
Between 2011 and 2014, Harvey accompanied seven-time World Press Photo award winner Seamus Murphy as he travelled to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington DC. Keen to immerse herself in disparate, far-flung lands and alien cultures, the observations that she made proved to be the catalyst for 2016’s ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ record.
Murphy has compiled the footage and spliced it with material of Harvey recording the album in a glass-box installation in London’s Somerset House. And the outcome is brand new documentary A Dog Called Money.
With the film premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, the affable Irishman sat down with NME the day after its unveiling to discuss the project, Harvey’s unreleased tracks from the period, her creative process and much more.
“Whenever she sees something that inspires, [Polly is] very direct. Bang. Goes straight to it”, he tells us.
Seamus Murphy and PJ Harvey first crossed paths in 2008. Harvey was deep into research for what would later become ‘Let England Shake’ and, at that time, Murphy’s book A Darkness Visible, a provocative collection of photographs of Afghan culture, was the subject of an exhibition. “She came along, bought the book and very shortly after that her management said that she really wanted to get in touch”.
“When we met I told her that I had been away filming. She said, ‘You film? Would you like to make some films?’.” He ended up directing a series of films to accompany the finished, all-conquering, Mercury Prize-winning album. When she approached you with that idea, did she already have Let England Shake in the can? Murphy responds without hesitation. “Nope”.
“She had a demo, which I took and listened to over a period of time, and I thought, ‘This is amazing. This person hasn’t been to war and yet she’s talking about trenches, the front line and what soldiers go through’.
The results were a success, with one video in particular, for Words That Maketh Murder, hailed enthusiastically by Patti Smith, who went so far as to call it “…a wisp of humanity celebrating the small things.” High praise indeed.
Buoyed by the fruits of their labour, Harvey and Murphy agreed to expand their professional relationship next time out. “At one stage she said, ‘I want to go there and smell the place. I want to feel the earth of that place’.”, Murphy recalls.
“So we thought, maybe we could start everything out at the same time. It would be great to have a book of poetry and images, plus she could write an album and I could make a film. That simple. We thought those three things would be the ideal.”
Whilst travelling, he observed Harvey’s creative processes take a different turn. “I don’t think she had ever walked around writing about her internal stuff with a notebook before. With this she did. She was ‘in the field’. I mean, you do that as a journalist, and we inspired each other.”
Ideas began floating for ‘THSDP’ once they returned home. Harvey came up with the idea of building an installation and opening sessions up to the public who could then observe the recording of the album. Dubbed Recording in Progress, her residency at Somerset House started in January and lasted through to the February of 2015. “I think that was a very last-minute thing. I don’t think she even had this idea until the October 2014”.
Did she have any fears exposing her practices in that way? “Oh, why did she do this thing in Somerset House? Fuck knows! It was a very difficult album to mix because of the acoustics in the installation; it was a suspended floor and the walls weren’t right. It couldn’t have been easy. But I think that’s why she did it. That’s what she does. She challenges herself. She doesn’t shirk a challenge.”
A Dog Called Money contains a number of songs from those sessions that didn’t make the final record. “The second last track in the film, ‘The Age of the Dollar’ didn’t make it. It is a cracker, but I think John Parish didn’t believe it fitted on the album”, he said.
“On balance, I’m sure he’s right. It works for the film and I was able to do something with it, but for an album like that it probably didn’t fit. The Sufi chanting in Afghanistan that became the song ‘The Boy’ didn’t end up on the album either”.
With a score recently written and debuted for Ivo Van Hove’s stage production of All About Eve, Polly Harvey evidently does not believe much in the concept of downtime. What sets her apart from her contemporaries? “She genuinely takes risks”, Murphy answers firmly and unequivocally. “I mean, she came to fucking Afghanistan! That’s a risk. It’s just not in her nature to be closed off or down. She is unique”.
‘A Dog Called Money’ will be released in UK cinemas and on MUBI from November 8