Don’t let the simplicity of the artwork for PJ Harvey’s tenth studio album fool you; designer Michelle Henning says the image emerged from “a convoluted process”. Initially experimenting with depicting a whole forest, Michelle arrived on the image of a single gnarled twig – which was elusively projected onto Marble Arch in April. The symbol has become a bit of a calling card for PJ Harvey. “Twiddicks” (twigs) were also used to mark months of the year in PJ Harvey’s poetry book Orlam, though Michelle arrived on the image independently. “It wasn’t until [the design] was done that I realised Polly had already given me the idea from the start, in a way, and without either of us knowing it would be the idea,” she says.
Michelle has worked on the covers for PJ Harvey’s last three albums – she splits her time working as a freelance artist, designer and photographer in Bristol, and researching and teaching about photography in Liverpool. The pair first worked together on a T-shirt design for an album with John Parish back in 2009. In fact, the iconic cover for PJ Harvey’s lauded release Let England Shake was intended as a T-shirt design too, but PJ Harvey was such a fan that it ended up being used for the whole project. “I am glad it came about in that way, because if I had known I was making the album cover, I think I would have been more nervous and the design would not have been as good as it was.”
Now over a decade into their collaboration, Michelle has traversed vast visual territories with her work – much like PJ Harvey herself. Compare the explosive composition of Let England Shake, which Michelle likens to “the feeling of shrapnel”, with the hand-drawn crest of The Hope Six Demolition Project, for example. While both hide multiple references – the cover of Hope Six being inspired by painted drums – the approach is never the same twice.
The artwork has taken a sparser turn on I Inside the Old Year Dying. While the cover ties into the folkloric world of the poetry project Orlam, Michelle wanted to merge clean modern imagery with the concept of the ancient. This atmosphere was familiar for Michelle. “I grew up in a tiny village and I was conscious of being both in the twentieth century and in the presence of something much deeper and older. I get this impression from I Inside the Old Year Dying and it’s something I tried to convey, in the most minimal and subtle way.”
Much like a musician with a beloved back catalogue, you might expect Michelle to feel the pressure of performing against previous projects. Though the artist doesn’t view her work with PJ Harvey as having evolved necessarily. “I think all three of the album covers are some of the best work I have done and each is iconic in its own way. I don’t think this is just my doing, it’s to do with Polly – she sets such high standards for herself that if I am trying to find a visual equivalent I have to reach a very high bar.” She adds: “I think the expectation is that it is not simply a piece of packaging or promotional material, but an artwork, and I try to rise to that challenge.”
I Inside the Old Year Dying is out now via Partisan Records.
Michelle Henning: PJ Harvey, I Inside the Old Year Dying (Copyright © Partisan Records, 2023)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.