The Sunday Observer - 17th February 1999
There are men screaming at the tiny women from Yeovil, entirely understandably - Polly Harvey has extraordinary stage presence. Her band is vast and solid, and when she moves, it's as though the bass is throwing her against her microphone - her hips roll, her hair flies. Yet while she sings of big, biblical droughts and storms, she shoots a soft, maternal smile at the kids being crushed down the front. And she cracks a huge, filthy grin when a wild-eyed man at the back vows: 'I'll bear your first child, Polly.' Given the amount of intimate surgery and unpleasant maternity wear this involves, it's an impressive offer. But then, Polly 'PJ' Harvey inspires extraordinary tribute. her swampy blues and knuckle-raw rock make her the first true successor to Patti Smith's visceral yowl. Her previous album, To Bring You My Love, was nominated for both the American Grammy and British Mercury Music Awards.
Her current one, Is This Desire?, has just made the Grammy short list again. Courtney Love, not a woman who doffs her cap readily, has said: 'The one rock star that makes me know I'm shit is Polly Harvey. I'm nothing next to the purity that she experiences'. Madonna also recently declared herself a big fan, while indie film here Hal Hartley was so taken by Harvey that he cast her as a modern-day Mary Magdalene in his recent millennial satire The Book of Life.
But it's hard for anyone outside her tight-knit circle to discover just what Harvey is really like. She's notoriously reclusive. Reversing rock'n'roll legend, she ran away from London to a sleepy Dorset town, took her mother to Q magazine's awards ceremony, loathes interviews, and refuses to discuss her lyrics under any circumstances. The last of these is fair enough, really, given that while Natalie Imbruglia can be found 'lying naked on the floor', PJ Harvey sings of menstruation, dying in the desert, drowning her daughter and being tied, live and flaming, to a cartwheel like St. Catherine.
It's not surprising, given these feverish extremes, that Harvey has experienced what sound like several nervous breakdowns. The first left her so broken she could neither answer the telephone nor clean her teeth. The second, prompted by her 1995 tour, came at a time when Harvey was so skeletally thin that the pink lycra catsuit she wore on stage seemed like both defiance and a plea. Courtney Love semi-outed Harvey in an interview earlier this year, saying 'Jung says that women with eating disorders have dreams about being in glass coffins; and on (the album) 4-Track Demos, Harvey sings 'In My glass coffin, I'm waiting.'
All Harvey will say of that period is 'I was not well.' Travelling to Manchester to meet her on the last day of her recent tour, I'm worried by what I'll meet. I nag Amanda, her press officer, to describe her; does she joke at all? Rock from side to side? Cry immediately - or only after the first question? Amanda searches for the right adjective.
'She's very ... still,' she says, finally. Oh dear, disturbed people are extremely still. They're like the patients in Awakenings - struck down with tremors so severe that they lock, sclerotic and still. We sit in the huge, draughty lounge of the hotel, and wail for the patient. But when Harvey walks in, it becomes apparent it's a slightly wary but content stillness. She's dressed in tight trousers and a cute little jacket of Practical Black - rather than Statement Black or Sexy Black - and has a stripy knitted scarf wound around her neck. Her smudgy black hair is in little matted ringlets, and her fringe is tufty and brutal - it looks as if Harvey got it tangled in the branches of a tree, and quickly hacked it off with a penknife. As she steps nearer, her eyes astonish - sea-green with long, long lashes, they are huge and empathetic. One imagines she would be good to know in times of adversity, weeping and heavy drinking. She sits on the sofa, very composed, and waits for the interview to happen. It's very cold, I say 'Yes, that's why I'm wearing the scarf.' she smiles, tucking it into her jacket. ' I was drinking here until four in the morning. It's the last day of the tour, and I don't quite know what I'm going to do next'. She gives a rather bewildered laugh. 'Normal life seems scary. I might decompress too quickly, and get the bends.' Touchingly, Harvey keeps an eye on the door, in case any member of her band comes down to check out and she can say farewell to them one more time. While she keeps watch, we chat in vague terms about therapy (Harvey's 'had some') and how adversity can make you stronger. At one point, she says she has known a lot of death: 'Quite a few friends of my age have died.' Given that Harvey is only 29, this is rather alarming but, as ever, she won't say more.
She's far happier talking about her music: her face lights up like a birthday cake when she talks about a little mini-studio that Bjork recommended to her. But I try to explain that this is of absolutely no interest to anyone, including myself. I want to know what it is that feeds the sense of extreme, and hunger, in you music. What do you do with your life? 'That's exactly what I'm asking myself now,' she laughs, half-despairingly. 'Now this tour's over, what do I do with my life?' Harvey's childhood sounds like Cider With Rosie, but soundtracked by Howlin' Wolf. She was brought up on a Dorset smallholding by bohemian parents: her father was a stonemason; her mother a sculptor, who booked bands for the local venue on the side. They would wake Polly and her brother at 3am, by drunkenly playing Jimi Hendrix or Captain Beefheart's notoriously 'difficult' Trout Mask Replica LP.