NME - Interview
October 21st, 2000
PJ HARVEY: A LOVER NOT A FIGHTER
By now, ten years and five albums down the line, the conventions are clear. The writer meets PJ Harvey, expecting a damaged, tangle-haired quasi-religious visionary of the kind that infests her songs caked in menstrual blood and Dorset mud, wide-eyed and catatonic, an who, in less enlightened times, would have been strapped to the ducking stool before you could say 'Salem'.
Instead, they are confronted with a personable, witty, thoroughly modern woman who neither twitches nor snarls, whose hair is styled and whose manner is down-to-earth without ever throwing herself on the ground. The conclusion: Polly Harvey, the force behind 'Rid of Me' and 'Is This Desire?', the author of those tales of obsessive love and desolate landscapes and sheer physical pain, is actually - who'd have thought it? - quite normal. Thank goodness for that.
It's a good story - the perfect ironic reversal, in fact. And sure enough, Polly Harvey turns up in her improbably bucolic Notting Hill hotel looking as sleek and well-groomed as a magazine photograph, extends a friendly hand and offers a convincing smile. Among the brocade and gift, she's the model of the 21st century career woman. Last time round, she spoke of letting her naturally curly hair run free: this time it is straight and glossy black, a geometrically perfect fringe framing those remarkable green eyes. An efficient black dress and chunky black shoes complete the impression of unshowy style, good fashion sense, elegant normality. And often, she talks the same way. Ask how she feels towards the people who have grown up with her, who have been dragged along by her songwriting since 1992's 'Dry', and she is affectionate without being in any way mad.
"I don't spend a lot of time thinking about that - certainly not when I'm writing," she says, with her gentle, precise vowels. "On tour, I'm probably much closer to it. Sometimes I'll be recognising faces in the audience - much more so these days. You know, people who have been coming since 1991. And it is wonderful. It's a good feeling to have."
Quite normal, yes. But you suspect if you told her that, she'd probably be quite insulted. Because, at a time when it's never less fashionable, Polly Harvey paints herself as an artist. And, for the artist, normality has never been part of the plan.
She emerged in puritan black ten years ago, touted as some kind of rural feminist oddity more at home castrating calves than mixing in polite rock society. Today, however, Polly Harvey is part of a musical elite, a coterie who keep the flame of the credible artist alive in times when the act of writing poetry is likely to trigger witch-burnings.
Nick Cave, Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe: to varying extents they are all refusing to play anything so frivolous as the game, and Harvey, linked to them in all different degrees, has taken the same approach, developing a built-in gravitas that makes her a daunting presence. She's very keen on talking about "positive energy", on explaining how not all songs are autobiographical and how hard she works at her art. It fulfils the role of deft evasion, too, this focused talk of art - and you can see why she might need to be so defensive. Her earliest songs were remarkably sexual, viscerally direct: the self-loathing 'Sheela-Na-Gig', the beauty myth of 'Dress', the graphic brush-off of 'Dry' - and from then on she was fair game for rampant psycho-sexual analysis. The astonishing psychic bleed of her second album, 'Rod of Me', saw her playing with her image - the Medusa hair and cellophane body-wrap of the cover - but songs like '50ft Queenie' and the restraining-order blues of the title track were still ferocious, untamed. 'To Bring You My Love', in 1995, was more measured, third person projections bearing the brunt of the rumours about Harvey's health and mental state, and by the time of her last album, 'Is This Desire?', she had admitted being unwell, using electronic static, vague 'soundscapes' and women such as 'Joy' and 'Angelene' to mask her own increasing dislocation. Her forthcoming album, the excellent 'Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea', however, promises a new openness. Recorded with Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey, not only has she returned to guitar directness free from loops and fuzz - "it didn't quite move me in the same way," she confesses - she's rooted the songs in the dizzying brightness of the New World. One listen to the album and it's clear the 'City' of the title is New York, the lyrics roaming through Little Italy, Chinatown, Brooklyn rooftops and the lights of Manhattan. And that's before Patti Smith stalks through 'Big Exit' and 'Good Fortune' with their rangy punk energy and the recurring lyrical 'horses'. Yet Harvey, perhaps disingenuously, swerves the obvious interpretation.
"I keep trying to reinforce people that this isn't my New York album," she sighs, not letting on the promotional photographs will later feature her standing in front of a yellow cab. "It wasn't just written there - some songs were written in London, some in Dorset. But I did choose to live there last year - I spent about nine months there.
"I'd made a film there with Hal Hartley at the beginning of 1998, so I'd built up a few connections, and it wasn't like I was going in to a total vacuum. I was in the middle of writing songs towards this album and I just got to a point where I felt like I was covering the same territory in the atmosphere of the music and lyric writing. I needed a big shake-up and I couldn't get more of an extreme opposite to writing in the country."
But the album does trade on quite specific New York rock iconography...
Rolling out of CBGBs, leather jackets, rent boys, that kind of thing...
"That certainly wasn't in my head while I was writing it," she says carefully. "Not something I'm drawn to really." She softens a little. "But not a bad way to sound, I would imagine."
She paints a less dramatic picture of her experience.
"I was on about 116th and Broadway, way up north bordering Harlem," she explains. "It would take me about an hour to get downtown but I liked it because it was near a park called Riverside Park so there was a place where you could get some space as well. If I walked ten blocks north I'd be in Harlem, ten blocks south and I'd be among all the very expensive apartment buildings that movie stars and pop stars rent. So I was right on the divide between those two."
Significantly, that seems to be Harvey's natural territory. Steeped in old-school bohemia, she's still a star in her own right, a vast distance form being tabloid fodder but no stranger to Sunday supplements. She inhabits the kind of world where she can contact Thom Yorke and ask him to sing on the kneeing emotional collapse of 'This Mess We're In', yet still get away with the iconoclast tag and a song called 'The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore.'
"I've always been drawn to the darker side of things artistically," she says. "it holds a greater fascination for me. It's just intriguing to see how some people live their lives. But then I'm fascinated equally by people who have lived very good lives. I'm just fascinated by people. Full stop. Whether they're doing bad or good things."