CMJ New Music Report-Interview-December, 2000

Polly Jean Harvey doesn't do a lot of interviews. She doesn't have to. Ever since the release of her band's bracing 1992 debut, Dry, her music - by turns raw, intricate, erotic, and witty - has told us more about the deceptively quiet English lass than any Q&A could ever hope to reveal. Nonetheless, given the success of her latest album, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea, on CMJ's Top 200, and the fact that she has a world-wide tour (portions of which will be spent in support of U2) to chat up, Harvey graciously took some time to relate a few of her untold stories.

How do you approach presenting new material to a U2 audience as opposed to one comprised entirely of your own fans?
I put together a set list very different when I'm playing in front of another band's audience. It does limit me. You only get about 40 - 45 minutes to play, and none of that crowd - or very few of them - are there to see me or know much about me. So I can't get away with playing the very gentle, atmospheric songs the way I can with a more intimate audience that's there to see me play.

So you know you're No.1 on the CMJ radio chart right now?
Yes. It's wonderful.

And you know you bumped Radiohead off the top, after they'd been there for seven straight weeks? What do you say to Thom Yorke, who sang with you on Stories?
There's a very healthy competition that goes on [between us], and I think that's a good thing. I'm somebody that thrives on that. But it's a very supportive competitive feeling. We treat it with a sense of humour as well. I know Thom, he's a friend of mine and obviously it's fun for me to say, 'Ha, ha, knocked you off the top!' (laughs)

Are you aware of how much college/non-commercial radio has played a role in exposing you in the States?
Having lived there for a large part of last year, I do think I'm able to understand a little more about how the music is received there. It's very, very different in England. We have very few radio stations and there's no college radio-type thing at all.
I used to get completely lost by the number of charts that there are in the States. In England, we have two charts: the independent and the mainstream. I can just about understand that. But I think I'm slowly coming to grips with it a bit more and understanding the incredible importance radio has in the US.

The influence of New York City on your new album is well documented. I'm curious if there was any other place in the US that has affected you in the same way.
Lots actually. I spend a good deal of time in San Francisco. I have a dear friend there that I stay with. And we took a road trip that started in SF and went north up the coast road, and then cut across into the midwest and back down. We were out camping for about three months in the summer a couple of years ago. Some of the songs on Stories come from that - a song like "Beautiful Feeling". I had some wonderful experiences then, just in the back of Beyond and Nowheresville.
I remember this place we stayed at for a week in Utah called Monroe that was absolutely fantastic. The whole record comes out of a wealth of experience, not just my time in New York.
But I did have a very eye-opening and fulfilling time when I was in New York. It felt like a good city to be in, to be observing changes in oneself.

Do you find it ironic that in a city typically associated with clutter, chaos and darkness, you found the inspiration to make one of your most straightforward and romantically hopeful recordings?
Obviously these days, NYC is a very different place isn't it? There's a part of me that regrets that I never experienced it 10, 15 years ago when it was a lot rougher, 'cause I do feel that all the stuff that was there has been shoved out to the edges. It's not really been dealt with: it's just been pushed away politely so that it's not intruding. So there's that whole kind of surface veneer of it being OK and lovely when it really isn't. You find that happening in England - especially in London - and it's very saddening. The whole divide between the very rich and the very poor is becoming enormous. So there's that level of distrust, but obviously New York is a safe and exciting place to be for someone now - especially someone new coming to it and experiencing it for the first time. But I was there and aware that it was a veneer as such - that's what I felt anyway. So I know that irony you're talking about. But then again, I'm also someone who does seem to find light and shade in the opposites to where they should be. I come from the country, which, in most people's eyes is an idealistic place to be brought up in, full of positivity and light. But there's an awful lot of darkness in the country. Going to the city for me was kind of this lightening experience. But I tend to get a lot of things back to front.

Did your experiences in New York encourage you to become a permanent city-dweller?
I don't think I can be a permanent resident anywhere, really. I'm not a person that enjoys staying in one stable place. I think I'm a gypsy at heart - I seem to move two or three times a year.

Do you think that as you've grown as a musician and songwriter, you've simplified the process? Has your NYC experience played any part in that?
I hesitate to say it was from being in New York. I think it's more the changes that have come about in my life as I've matured, grown and come to great understanding of things and my perspective of myself and my place in the world - that is what's changing the nature of my writing slowly. I do think that was happening in me no matter where I was really. I've been writing a lot of poetry over the last couple of years and it's changed my songwriting enormously. And that has shaped a lot of this simplicity you're talking about. I find in writing words without the support of music, they have to be much stronger to carry themselves and hold themselves together. So I ended up moving into very simple, very direct words that would need place and name and time references to pin them down. And then I found I began to do that in lyric writing.
It's something I consciously wanted to get back to in my writing anyway, almost as a reaction to Is This Desire? and To Bring You My Love. I wanted to get back to very simple songwriting that was what I would call performance based. When I was writing, I had to make the song work with just one guitar and one voice, and that was my kind of bottom line. And if they worked and held themselves together for their duration, then I felt they were strong enough.

Do you re-think your approach with every record?
I'm sure on my next record my starting point will be to make something completely different than this one. As much as I can. I wouldn't want to be doing music otherwise. I'm in this because I like to keep challenging myself, seeing if I can move forward in some way, not just for me, but for the people that are interested in hearing what I'm doing. By moving into different areas and different atmospheres and emotions, you bring about different atmospheres and emotions in the people listening. It's this learning curve for all of us.

Colin Helms