THE SCOTSMAN S2 - Interview - November 8th 2000
Cover Story: Pretty Polly -- PJ Harvey Cleans Up
Her Act SHINE ON HARVEY'S MOON Bridport's famously angst ridden supersiren PJ Harvey still sings about love and loss and melancholy, but with a new warmth and balance. Her raw edges, however, are still intact she tells Rachel Newsome Crazy, Madwoman, Screaming siren. Hysterical harpy with a metaphorical pistol to her head. It's easy to parody PJ Harvey as a woman possessed. A pale-skinned, dark-haired, she-wolf howling at the moon - all the signifiers are there. The self-loathing bleeding from Rid Of Me; the waxing and waning physique; the recurring nightmares of being trapped in a coffin - a classic eating disorder dream; the depressions; the therapy sessions; Freud, no doubt, would have had a field day with the seemingly perpetual pre-menstrual Polly Harvey.
But let's not forget that in a kind of inspired existential double bluff, Polly got there first by setting out to parody herself. Dallying with image and the visual side of things (she did, after all, do an art foundation course and still experiments with photography), Polly made herself up with clownish streaks of red lipstick, skulked on stage in that bright pink catsuit - revealing every bone in her severely skinny body - and contrived to pose as a modern day Ophelia drowning in despair on the cover of To Bring You My Love.
But since then, of course, there's been the therapy, the transitional fourth album, Is This Desire?, marking the tapering out of a long bout of depression and the quiet death of the tortured artist known as PJ Harvey.
But without the angst where does that leave the art? Would therapy have produced a calmer, more balanced PJ Harvey - content but no longer charged? Would she be left as a damp as the coastal rain drizzling over her Devonshire hometown of Bridport the day of a secret gig to showcase her new album, Stories from The City, Stories From The Sea?
Civilised and relaxed, with friends of the family standing around in baggy tie-dye trousers and kids scooting between their legs, the stage at Bridport arts centre seems more set for a craft fair prize-giving or a classical recital than a fiery performance from the town's resident siren. People chat and stand around smoking pipes and the only thing missing is a row of armchairs.
Which is just as well because Polly Harvey wants to dance. She wants to swivel on the three-inch metal stiletto heel of her Julien MacDonald boots and shimmer in her glittering sequinned micro-mini skirt. She wants to shake her glossy "because-I'm-worth-it" salon-teased hair and cast her cares to the Devil, because all of a sudden nothing else can compete with the blast of hyper-reality that is Big Exit. Because "baby, baby, ain't it true, I'm immortal when I'm with you".
Swapping her guitar for a tambourine and back again, Polly still sings of love and loss and of being haunted by melancholy as she taps and shakes and shimmies through her new album but there is something different, something warm like a sunny day on the beach, something more like a lighter shad of pale, rather than a darker hue of night. Could it be that Polly Harvey has lightened up? This isn't so much Poor Polly as Pretty Polly. Still brooding, still at times belligerent but also brave and beautiful. This is Zen Polly who now talks of "giving and receiving", "insight" and "outsight", serenely transcending pain as she languishes through We Float. This is Ironic Polly who likes to let it all hang out because "I used to think that love was so complex but all I want to do is just see you undress" on This Is Love.
So is it love? Is it that Polly has finally found something, if not tangible, then certainly strong and empowering to hang on to, following the end of her much publicised relationship with Nick Cave? Is it love that's helped to put things in perspective, to pull herself together? "I wasn't sure. I'm not really sure now, either", Polly frowns and stares long and hard at the teapot on the table before her. "It seems to get harder as you get older. Maybe when you've been through it a few times already, you start to recognise all the signs and you're much more wary and protective about it all, especially if you've been hurt in the past."
It's the afternoon following the gig the night before and Polly is sitting in one of her locals, the quiet friendly pub where she does most of her interviews. That is, when she does do interviews.
You can see why Polly Harvey doesn't like talking about herself. It's all there in the lyrics, the heartache, the anguish, all her guts spilled out. But that's where she prefers to keep it, the suggestion of there always being something else becoming part of all the intrigue. Indeed Polly arrives to the interview early to give herself some quiet time to meditate and focus her mind. Polly is all for meditation and tries to do it at least once a day.
"It's about making time to sit still and entering your head," she explains, "Maybe just looking out of a window."
Mentally delineating what it is she does and does not think, what she will and won't say, what you get is a psychological peepshow, shrouded and shadowy, full of glimpses into what lurks behind her steady almond eyes and firm smile. So for example she will say of her allegorical lyrics, that, yes, she is inspired by the Bible, that she has a "healthy fascination" with it all. That she enjoys "investigating and reading about these things and I have my own ideas about all those things", while fiddling all the while with a tiny cross on a chain around her neck.