from the LA Times, Sunday, December 27, 1992
PJ Harvey

Life as a Stress Test; For Polly Jean Harvey, singing about turbulent relationships has been easier than coping with her newfound critical acclaim;

Polly Jean Harvey, her hair tied back severely and her small frame nearly dwarfed by her red, hollow-body electric guitar, stands on the stage at the Whisky for a sound check a few hours before her show.

Testing the equipment, she locks into a rhythm pattern on her guitar with drummer Robert Ellis and bassist Stephen Vaughan, her partners in the British rock trio that bears her name, PJ Harvey. The clattering beat attacks with an unbridled aggression that grabs you by the throat and makes you pay attention.

There are just a few other people in the club. Two T-shirt vendors setting up their table . . . sound and lighting technicians making adjustments . . . Harvey's manager . . . her publicist . . . her stress therapist.

Stress therapist?

"Yeah, I've always been given to stress, but it's more now because of this," Harvey says later, sitting in her hotel room down the street. By this she means the high-pressure life she's been forced into as one of the year's most critically hailed rock arrivals.

"Fulfilling our greatest expectations," raved England's New Musical Express when her debut album was released early this year. "A great power trio harnessing and bending the rawest most elemental rock format with . . . pure power."

Beyond that, Harvey's album, "Dry," which was named one of the year's 10 best albums in a poll of The Times' pop critics, introduced a new strain of emotional fury into the rock vocabulary.

Raging and wailing one instant and murmuring confidentially the next, Harvey depicts shattering battles of the sexes, dissecting tumultuous relationships to the accompaniment of a hard-edged sound whose dynamic extremes reflect the thematic turmoil.

In one typical scenario, the singer of "Sheela-Na-Gig" is battered by doubt and humiliation, followed by a redeeming note of self-assertion. Look at these my child-bearing hips

Look at these my ruby red ruby lips. . .

And you've got to see my bottleful of charm

I lay it all at your feet

You turn around and say back to me you exhibitionist.

Gonna wash that man right out of my hair

Gonna take my hips to a man who cares. . . .

Where does all this anger come from?

"Sometimes it's anger. Not all the time," says Harvey, curled up on a couch, with soft lighting giving the serene atmosphere of a chapel.

"It's strange, but when I'm writing I don't feel emotionally charged at all really. It's all a head thing. And it's only afterwards when the thing's finished, when the song's done and I've (recorded a demo), I go back and listen to it, that's when I realize what emotion's going on.

"And sometimes that's pretty shocking, because you're so inside the song that you don't really know what you're saying.

"I always found it strange that people seem to pick up on the fact that all of my songs seem to be about relationships and things, when that's what songs have been about for years and years and years. . . . It's the most interesting thing to write about."

But why such turbulent ones?

"Mmm. Well, aren't they? I don't know, I haven't had an un-turbulent one."

Harvey, 23, grew up on a small farm in Dorset--"No shop, one telephone box, one pub" is her capsule description of the community in western England--and her inclinations were evident early.

"When I was very young, I always had a huge desire to perform. I had little string puppets and I'd build theaters and I'd get all my family lined up and I'd write plays and perform them. Lots of things like that. I was in a lot of plays at school.

"I don't know where it comes from. I can't really say I craved attention as a child because I had it. I had a great upbringing, so it's not that. Hmmm. I don't know."

Harvey's parents weren't musicians, but music was their passion and Harvey was surrounded by it as a child. Her mother was a Dylan aficionado who would bring in bands from London and put on shows at the village hall, and through them Harvey encountered jazz and blues. She missed out on punk rock, but picked up a taste for such maverick artists as Captain Beefheart.

Harvey started writing songs while she was studying sculpture at college in London. She had no plans for a music career, but when she formed a trio in July, 1991, with Vaughan and Ellis and began playing clubs, the response was immediate and inescapable.

"I couldn't believe it," she says. "It didn't make sense to me at all to start off with. I thought, 'Why do people want to buy this nasty, bendy sounding music?'

"It (still) constantly amazes me. . . . It's touching some nerve somewhere. I like the rawness of it, and I think maybe that is what people are looking for now. They want a bit of rough around the edges."

How did Harvey arrive at that roughness?

"It was more a process of elimination I think," she says. "When I'm playing or writing I know what I don't like and what I don't want to hear. That's just what happened when I shed off all the things that I didn't want.

"I always want to write something that interests and excites me. I need excitement and that means I need extremes and I need things to happen when you're not expecting them to happen and I need to feel a sound that's gonna shake me up and go right through your body and not just in your head. I love standing in front of bass amps.

"But it's never enough. Not anywhere near to what I'd like. It never will be enough either. Unless I mellow out."

Harvey released two singles in late '91 on the independent label Too Pure and her star ascended in England, where she built a following with club shows while the music press scrambled to figure out what kind of postmodern feminist force they had on their hands. Usually they settled for linking Harvey's punkish/literary/arty persona with such obvious models as Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde.

But Harvey wasn't so easy to pin down, and her contradictions--feisty and fragile, shy and brazen--made her all the more intriguing. The U.S. release of "Dry" last summer (on Indigo/Island) sent a signal to America's vigilant new-rock fans, and a brief summer tour established her foothold.

The album sold about 50,000 copies, and she's recording her second one now in Minneapolis with underground-hero producer Steve Albini (Pixies, Big Black). After a rocky initial period of adjustment, Harvey is finally ready to shed her image as a bitter malcontent.

"I feel very lucky with what's happened and very pleased," she says. "I think in the past I've said quite a lot that I think it has happened too quick. But actually now I don't think it has.

"I think when I thought it was too quick was when I was very physically and mentally tired out and I was just finding it all a bit hard to cope with. But now I'm feeling a little stronger myself and I'm glad it's happened like it has."

Richard Cromelin