Michelle Henning has known PJ Harvey for over twenty years. The pair first met at musician John Parish’s flat (Henning is married to Parish) when Harvey brought over a copy of her first record. Harvey had previously played in Automatic Dlamini with Parish – joining the band as an 18 year-old in 1988 – before setting out with her own band in 1991 and eventually signing to Too Pure.
At that time, Henning had just graduated from Goldsmith’s College of Art in London and was establishing herself as an artist in Bristol. It would be several years until she would work on the design of a record by Harvey – 2009’s collaboration with Parish entitled A Woman a Man Walked By.
Since then, Henning has designed the cover for Harvey’s Mercury Prize-winning Let England Shake record (2011) and is the art director of her latest album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, which is out today.
The record draws from several journeys undertaken by Harvey and the photographer Seamus Murphy, who spent time in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC before embarking on the Recording in Progress sessions at Somerset House in January 2015. Here, the tracks for the album were put down with producers Flood and Parish within a purpose-built studio behind one-way glass.
Harvey’s recent journeying also resulted in a book of poems, The Hollow of the Hand, which set her words with Murphy’s photography and was published by Bloomsbury in October last year.
Creative Review: Michelle, you worked with Polly on her on artwork for the album she made with John in 2009. How did you go from that to Let England Shake?
Michelle Henning: I’ve known Polly for years, but hadn’t worked with her until I was asked to do the merchandise for A Woman a Man Walked By. I’d done record sleeves and merchandise for John before [and] so I came up with a T-shirt design, based on lines from different songs – a very graphic approach.
Then, for Let England Shake, Polly asked me again and I did some T-shirt designs. When she saw the design she said she wanted it for the cover. It’s a much better record cover than it is a T-shirt design!
CR: When it was released, it was interesting that it was the first PJ Harvey sleeve that didn’t feature a portrait. Did not using a photograph of Polly feel like a relevant direction to go in?
MH: The way it happened was, I was just designing the T-shirts, I thought, and she came round with some designs to ask mine and John’s opinion for the cover. But then said she liked my design. I was surprised, I think I was expecting it to be a photograph of her.
The text then [became] an integral part of the image – I already knew the album title. The way I work with anyone, because I come from that background, is that you have to be inspired by the work. It’s a creative response to her work. So, with Let England Shake, I’d heard the demos and read the lyrics and also Polly had provided me with her own drawings that she’d done. Which is exactly what she’s done for The Hope Six Demolition Project as well.
For Let England Shake, I heard it, I started drawing and I just felt like drawing birds. I was particularly thinking about birds swarming and I noticed that in some of the drawings she’d sent me, there were often birds in the sky. I asked her to send me all [her] drawings, every one with a bird in the background – thinking I was doing a T-shirt! – and I had these white, film titling letters which I arranged to spell the title.
Then I dropped various herbs on them! Mostly saffron – to make those little threads. Then I rephotographed it and made it black and white and then took every thread of saffron off it and replaced each one with a bird.
So some of the drawings of the birds are mine, some are Polly’s and some are silhouettes from photographs. It was a complex Photoshop montage that one. And that was just working on the album cover, I wasn’t art directing like I am for the current one.
CR: Can you shed some light on how those roles differ? What other responsibilities do you have this time?
MH: I’ve got much more responsibility. What I presented to Polly, initially, was the front cover image for The Hope Six Demolition Project. As she was happy with it, it was then hand-painted onto three drums, which were used in the Recording in Progress sessions at Somerset House.
One was drummed on, one was used in a kind of still life as people went in [to the viewing area]. Then I also made a vector drawing of the design in Illustrator, so it could be cut out in vinyl and made into a sticker. That went on the wall of the studio they were working in Somerset House.
CR: Having the cover image as a part of the recording process sounds quite unusual – more often it appears after the record is finished. But this was always there in the background….
MH: I’d heard the demos, had read her poems and seen the drawings. So I went on to design the cover with the text and presented Polly with a portfolio of work which included the entire digipak designs – which have changed since, but not much – work for the vinyl, the booklets.
I’m also doing the single covers, the pack shots. And I have approval rights which means [overseeing] the press images, videos going out. It’s quite a big role. Then I’ll do the merchandise as well.
CR: For the cover of the new record, what led you down the route of creating a coat of arms? The more you look at the design, the more you see – the dish on the shield, that the goat is dead or dazed, there’s weaponry, too. It’s quite sinister.
MH: It was gut feeling from listening to [the songs] – a bit like with the birds on Let England Shake. The thing with the birds was I was thinking about them and then John received, I think, a birthday card from Polly and it had a little drawing of four of birds on it, swirling. Then I knew I was on the right lines, as I’d already done these drawings of birds.
So for me, in listening to the songs, I get a feel for what’s going on. For The Hope Six cover – it popped into my head because I’d been drawing bits of the songs: there’s a mention of a two-headed dog in one, so I drew that, there’s another mention of birds, so I was doing that.
And then it just dawned on me that I wanted to look at heraldry. So on my phone I Googled the Royal coat of arms and did my own sketch of that quite rapidly. It struck me that the lion in it is really ferocious, it’s quite unpleasant – and that set me thinking it should be a two-headed dog instead. So it developed from that really.
CR: You’ve also worked with cyanotype on this release?
MH: Yes, the image is on the CD itself – the print on the disk – and also on the centre of the vinyl record is another version of the design done as a cyanotype, a homemade one.
CR: So the drums are a bit like an early media for the work. You also then used the circle – of a drum, or tambourine, and it works with The Wheel, the record’s first single, as well.
MH: As it’s a coat of arms, the design has a circularity to it, but it’s a bit off-kilter. When we knew The Wheel was going to be the first single, there was talk of doing a vinyl and then suddenly they said to me, rather than a cover could we do the B-side of the vinyl etched? And I looked at some etches on records – I looked at the process but didn’t really like them, it looked a bit shoddy. Though I love traditional etching, so I thought, if I’m going to do it it has to be round – so I changed the shield into a wheel.
The etching has crosshatching in it – you cant have big areas of white as you work in negative. The line cut ‘in’ is the lighter colour; they appear as a matt black [while] the black vinyl is shiny. Lots of examples tend to leave a lot of shiny black vinyl in between.
I also did [patterning] around the outside, like the kind used on money for preventing forgery. I looked at how do you do it on banknotes and there’s a tutorial in Indesign. I printed it out, it looked too perfect, so then I put it on a lightbox and did a pen and ink drawing. All the drawings for Hope Six are paintbrush and ink, with no drawings underneath.
CR: Work from photographers Maria Mochnacz and Seamus Murphy also features as a key part of this project. How do you work with them?
MH: I do photography myself, but not for Polly – I teach it, so I have a clear idea of the kinds of photographs I want in the design. In the gatefold of the vinyl there’s a big landscape by Seamus (above) – we had a conversation back and forth about what kind of thing I was looking for. He sent through landscapes and ones with Polly in from when they visited Afghanistan together.
I then art directed the shoot she did with Maria – so the poster with the vinyl is a photo Maria took of Polly. I painted the shadow [in the background]. Polly is moving but there’s a still shadow behind her. That was very collaborative. The photographs were Maria’s idea and her aesthetic and we had a good exchange of ideas. In the end we thought it would work best as a poster.
The Hope Six Demolition Project is out now on Island Records