The Times Metro 9th January 1999
How I Learned To Lighten Up
Morbid, gothic, dark, ghoulish, bleak, dour, obsessive, cracked, disconcerting, claustrophobic. These are just some of the words used by critics to describe PJ Harvey’s current album. Most of them were meant as compliments but you begin to get the idea - Polly Harvey is, by all accounts, not a happy bunny.
Some surprise, then, when on an overcast winter afternoon the 28 year old singer bounces into a Glasgow restaurant, smiling and rosy-cheeked, looking healthy and less spectrally thin than in years. Dressed in a striking red leather jacket and with dark and unkempt ringlets framing her face, she proffers a tiny hand and says cheerily: ‘Hi, I’m Polly’. As an exercise in disconcertion it is masterful.
Polly Harvey is without doubt one of the most important British female artists of the decade. When she emerged from her native Dorset in 1992 with the album Dry, her sandpaper voice, intense and erotic songs and a jagged and rumbling soundtrack that seemed to draw upon the Delta blues, Captain Beefheart and grunge in equal parts, announced the arrival of a truly subversive talent.
The follow up, Rid of Me, released in 1993, produced by the idiosyncratic Steve Albini, was even more remarkable, a harrowing, obsessive album exploring the darker reaches of the human psyche with an almost animal fury. To Bring You My Love two years later, when Harvey also appeared at Glastonbury in an extraordinary pink cat-suit, was perhaps less emotionally naked but still as intense. It earned her a place on the Mercury Prize Short list and a brace of Grammy nominations.
A dance collaboration with John Parish and the choreographer mark Bruce, Dance Hall at Louse Point, followed in 1996 and then, amid all sorts of lurid rumours about her mental and physical state, her fifth album, Is This Desire? appeared last autumn, followed by her first tour since 1995.
The gossip has long held that Harvey is consumed with self-loathing and that her pencil thin figure betrays a serious disorder. Every album and tour, it seems, is accompanied by a breakdown. More specifically, it was alleged that the first version of her new album had been rejected by her record company because she - and the record - were in no fit state to be allowed out in public.
"I started making the album in early 1997 but I wasn’t in the right place. It was a low time for me so I put the brake on,’ she admits. "I said ‘ I don’t want to do these songs while I am like this.’ When I came back to the songs in 1998, they changed quite a lot. An important part of the creative process is knowing when it is the right time. The songs weren’t ready and nor was I."
The anguish that caused this situation, she insists, is now all behind her. So are we witnessing the birth of a new, contented Polly?
"It’s not as simple as that, obviously. You can’t just say everything is fine," she says, "but I do feel a lot happier with myself than I ever have done, although I think I’ve still got a long way to go. Actually, I started a cold yesterday and I feel really out of it. I fear this interview might be a little wayward."
In fact, she proves to be lucid throughout, friendly, witty and open. Only once does she decline to answer a question, when I ask if she is still seeing a therapist, "I think I’d rather not talk about that. It’s very personal," she says sweetly but firmly. She is still vulnerable, but it seems that Harvey is finally learning to protect herself.
Nor does the cold appear to affect her on stage that night, at Glasgow’s Barrowlands when she gives a fearsome performance, screaming, pleading, howling and crooning her way through material from Is This Desire? and Dance Hall... The effect is cathartic but at the same time she now also seems to be enjoying herself.
"This tour has been more fun than I ever thought touring could be and that is because I am a lot happier as a person. I realised I was approaching it in a negative way. I’m now concentrating on the positive and I think that is basically my change in outlook to everything, whether I am at home or on a stage".
In short, she says, she has learnt to feel comfortable with herself. "You come to a point where you have to allow yourself to like yourself a bit more," she explains. "I used to feel I didn’t deserve it. That was always seeing the negative again. Now I have learnt to say it’s all right to like yourself."
So where did she find this new contentment? "A lot of it is getting older. One develops a much larger perspective on life. There has been a lot of death around me, people I know. But there have been quite a few births around, too - friends of mine having children. That broadens your horizons. It has allowed me to see what is worth worrying about and what isn’t." she says.
She rejects the idea that you have to be tortured to produce great art. "That’s a complete load of b----. The tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft - practising devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I am doing. It’s a load of rubbish. I try to connect to real life which isn’t taking drugs or practising witchcraft. It’s feeling your feet on the ground right here and now. Those other things take you our of your head and away from the moment and that’s not the way I want to be."
Then she comes out with a phrase you never thought you would hear from the lips of Polly Harvey. "Life is for diving into and enjoying," she says. "That’s what it is all about really - love. I know I sound like a hippie, but it is all about love, giving and receiving and if you carry that in your heart you are on the right path."
For someone who notoriously hates dealing with the media Harvey is surprisingly candid about her emotions. "That’s the reason I don’t usually do interviews! I find it hard to play games. I can’t lie and I am very straight with people. But I want to protect myself as much as possible. I don’t want to say things which are going to damage me or make me feel stupid. I feel very young and naive and I feel I’ve got a lot to learn about myself. Doing interviews is like doing that learning in public."
She recognises the dark image people have of her (she once ironically referred to herself as ‘the angst-ridden old bitch cow’) but displays a certain naiveté about it. "That used to frustrate me. I used to think why? You can’t get further away from what I really am. I never cultivated it."
But hang on. What about all those songs about death and sin and obsession? " On the first couple of albums I was finding a voice for the first time to say an awful lot of stuff that was stored up inside me. I was very young and confused so yes, those early albums are very angry. I was exploring that and finding a way to express it, and thought there is joy and a vibrant energy there, too. But you get categorised and it becomes rigid and it doesn’t allow you space to develop and grow."
Her new album, she insists, ‘warmer and gentler." It seems a strange description of a record with lines such as ‘she only had nightmares and her sadness never lifted’ or ‘she dreamt of children’s voices and torture on the wheel."