Think Music: Alden Jones on PJ Harvey

Alden_Jones_APAlden Jones is the author of the memoir The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia, and the story collection Unaccompanied Minors.

 

I went to the Vermont Studio Center to work on my novel. There, I fell in love with a painter named Jomar and the musician PJ Harvey in quick succession. It would seem that falling in love would be a great distraction during one’s concentrated work time. But there was something about breaking out of my small, quiet writer’s room and entering painters’ studios filled with their chemical smells and the racket of tools and music blaring from pigment-speckled CD players that motivated me with the force of a great, chaotic wind. When I think of that time, the soundtrack is always PJ Harvey.

I was late to PJ Harvey. That September, her 4th album, Is This Desire? was released, and the single “A Perfect Day Elise” cycled through the playlist of the local Vermont station. I had taken to sitting in Jomar’s studio for my reading time, inhaling aphrodisiac paint fumes.

“I like this song that keeps coming on the radio,” I told Jomar.

“The PJ Harvey song?” he asked. “Of course you do.” I told him I didn’t really know PJ Harvey. He led me out of the studio to his dented silver hatchback and drove me to the nearest CD shop, where he bought me a used copy of To Bring You My Love and I bought a new copy of Is This Desire? Later, when I got my hands on the four-track demos, I was a goner.

I arrived at the Vermont Studio Center to work on the aimless, meandering novel I’d started in graduate school. Part of me had convinced myself that hard work would yield success. Another part of me knew the novel was doomed to be aimless and meandering. I didn’t know what I was trying to say, or where my plot was headed. I wasn’t having any fun writing it anymore.

While I worried that the novel project was petering out, my desire to create something real and impactful blasted between my ribs. My attention was on this new person, his creations were visible, you could touch them, they left sticky color on your fingers, and we worked together spurred on by the witchy, shrieking, crooning voice of Polly Jean Harvey. Sometimes I had no idea what she was singing about. But I couldn’t help but shriek back “Lick my legs, I’m on fire,” or “I wish I was Yuri G! I’d let her walk all over me.” I was late to PJ Harvey for a reason; back when her first albums were released, I wasn’t into the raw noise of real instruments or a voice that lacked restraint. I liked synth-pop and singers who carried perfect tunes. Imperfection was an idea I had to grow into. Something similar was happening to my own work—the abandonment of the quest for perfect polish—and I couldn’t tell if it was a step forward or backward, but it was clear how PJ Harvey would have voted.

Halfway through my time at the colony I put the novel aside and started a new story. This new story came out in a flood, with almost no punctuation, save commas. I wanted to return to writing mysterious, passionate, vocal female characters; I wanted to know them in the raw. I wanted their rawest selves expressed at the core. I had always wanted that, my characters were already like that, but I had this new brand of permission. I enjoyed writing this new thing so much that I worried it couldn’t possibly be good. But I also knew that it was good.

I already had a few stories like this one, with female characters like this one, a girl who ruffled feathers by refusing to stifle who she was for the sake of others. In the years after I left the Vermont Studio Center, I took the raw words and the raw emotion of this initial impulse and buffed it all to a nice shine. I wrote new stories with other young, impulsive characters. These stories became my first collection, Unaccompanied Minors.

The novel didn’t last, the romance didn’t last (though a pleasant friendship came of it), and PJ Harvey’s albums became increasingly produced, the edges softening. But these stories with their loud-mouthed and open-hearted characters proceeded out into the world. My stories were different in 2014 than they were during their first years of life, but if the characters from Unaccompanied Minors were to get up and sing their lungs out to something, it would be to Polly Jean.

For original stories, poems, art song, interview, and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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