Polly Jean Harvey poised to win her second Mercury prize with Let England Shake? Lucy O'Brien appraised Harvey for The Guardian in 1995, when she was starting to make American waves with her brilliant third album, To Bring You My Love--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
She's taking America by storm. She's very fashionable at the moment. She's hipper than hip. That's what Paul McGuinness says; he's the manager of U2 and, for the past year, of PJ Harvey, the rock artist from the rural west country who is moving from cult to mainstream.
McGuinness could be expected to talk up his client, but the audience at her show last Thursday at the New York Academy included Madonna, David Byrne, and Vernon Reid. Artists as varied as Scott Walker and R.E.M. pay her homage. Next week she is one of the main acts at the 25th Glastonbury Festival.
With worldwide sales of her third album To Bring You My Love already double those of her first two and fast approaching a million, Harvey has arrived. Her blistering rock lyrics and almost androgynous image have led to comparisons with that priestess of '70s confrontational art rock Patti Smith. She is mentioned along with Courtney Love, L7 and Babes In Toyland, the female rock acts who burst through in the early nineties with their serious record deals
But, as Nick Angel, the A&R man who signed her to Island Records, says, "She's closer to Robert Johnson than her contemporaries." Harvey has always ploughed a unique furrow. She doesn't just play with the noisy codes of white guitar rock; she has delved deep to create a really new woman's blues.
Harvey may not have gone so far as Robert Johnson, the gifted southern bluesman who died in mysterious circumstances in 1937 - and who "sold his soul at the crossroads to the devil." But friends speak of her being "connected to something," expressing in her music a dark spirituality - violent folk love songs of obsession and revenge that seem to come from another world. "It's difficult to link the normal country girl who likes a pint in the pub," says Angel, "with the woman who writes songs like that."
Born Polly Jean Harvey in 1970 in a small village near Yeovil, Somerset, she seemed to have a tranquil hippie upbringing. Her parents moved from London in the '60s to a rural idyll: her father quarried stone, her mother sculpted gravestones and fireplaces. Both were R'n'B enthusiasts (of John Lee Hooker, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash) and booked shows at the village hall for bands from London, The late "sixth Rolling Stone," keyboardist Ian Stewart, was a regular visitor to their farmhouse, along with a group, known as the Flowers, who would gather at weekends and, remembers Harvey, "swim in the sea, go to gigs and get pissed."
It was a liberating scene for the young Polly, who was playing sax and guitar in her first band by the age of 14. In her late teens, she formed the PJ Harvey band with other ambitious local musicians - drummer Robert Ellis and bassist Stephen Vaughan. From the beginning, however, it was not so much flower fun that infused her songwriting as the mess and potage of childhood experience - wringing chickens' necks and delivering bloodied stillborn lambs.
"There are a lot of strange things that go down in the country, things that in a city would seem extreme and abnormal. You are more in touch with the dirtier side of life," Harvey has said. "I an fascinated by things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing." Her songs have always been infused with this brooding presence, in a way that is both catharsis and bizarre cabaret.
A shy woman, Harvey has always been ferociously committed to her work. The photographer and video director Maria Mochnacz, a close friend who has worked on all her albums, recalls her as focused and determined even when they were students together on an art foundation course at Yeovil College.
"Her notebooks were amazingly detailed. I was shocked at how much research she did before, say, doing a sculpture." Later, that single-mindedness would make her seem difficult or remote. "She was afraid of diluting her work, and sometimes that would feel very frustrating and restricting. She wasn't open to a lot of things and seemed blinkered, but I realize now that she made me simplify things and her restrictions would take me in directions I would never think of."
The image Harvey first presented was stark, dark and simple, with black boots, wide eyes, thin brows, dark hair scraped back. Angel remembers seeing her in 1991 at the Bristol Bierkeller, performing before 25 people, "this small, frail woman with an enormous red guitar who didn't say a word between numbers." By then she was studying sculpture at St. Martin's College of Art and living in London, doing occasional shows as the PJ Harvey trio.
Her raw songwriting attracted immediate attention, and in 1992 the band signed to indie label Too Pure and released their debut album Dry. Moving from abstract thrash to mutant folk song, it included the single 'Sheela-Na-Gig', with its lines, "Look at these my child-bearing hips/Look at these my ruby red ruby lips." Like Bessie Smith in search of the jelly for her "jelly roll" or Ida Cox, demanding in 'One Hour Mama' a man who could work on her for an hour or four before she was through, Harvey reflected the tone of the traditional '20s blueswoman yearning for sexual and spiritual satisfaction.
Though her songs pulsate with the knowingness or romantic pain and sexual obsession, she is a self-confessed "late starter" - she didn't go on her first formal date until 20 - who finds "one-to-one relationships" difficult. When her first major affair, with a photographer/musician, came to an end she had a nervous breakdown. "I couldn't do anything for weeks - really little things like having a bath and brushing your teeth, I just didn't know how to do it. It was horrible and I never want to go back there again."
Homesick and alienated by the pressure of life in London, she left her course and returned to the west country after only a few months. Her anxieties fuelled the next album, Rid Of Me. Exiling herself in a flat above a café on the Dorset coast, she wrote of longing, loss and perversity, including in her songs violent imagery and black, almost comic horror. By the time she was ready to return to the studio, the band had signed a major deal with Steve Albini, producer of Nirvana and notorious for his grunge rock. The result was one long, vengeful rock'n'roll headache, with Albini rubbing in the dirt and turning up the dissonance and Harvey trawling through the tracks like Clytemnestra. Every lyric had a vicious punchline, from 'Rub 'Til It Bleeds' ("Rest your head on me/I will rub it better till it bleeds") to 'Man-Size' ("Douse hair with gasoline/Set it alight/And set it free"), to the title track, with its anthemic line "Lick my legs/I'm on fire". Hell hath no fury, indeed.
Though disturbing and flawed, the record received huge critical acclaim. Harvey confounded expectations by ditching the boots for her live shoe and wearing a towering rock glam concoction of platform slingbacks, feather boa, leopardskin and pop star shades. Her persona was that of the '50-Foot Queenie', a character in one of her songs takes from the schlock B-movie, Attack Of The 50-Foot Woman, in which a housewife assumes giant proportions and flattens her obtuse husband.
Despite the feminist aspect of this persona, Harvey has always been wary of being slotted into the "Woman in rock" category. Rid Of Me was released in 1993 at the height of Riot Grrrl, a fanzine-fuelled rebel movement that aimed to empower young women as fans and performers, but Harvey refused to become their heroine. She publicly criticized a gig by Riot Grrrl band Huggy Bear, telling NME: "What is all this fuss about? Why are they trying to separate men and women so much? I felt like getting up onstage and saying in a ridiculous accent, 'men and vimmen, men and vimmen...' We're pretty much the same, really."
Like Patti Smith, Harvey is a complex figure when it comes to sexual politics. She has posed for an NME cover with her naked back to the camera, her hands behind her head, the outline of a breast visible. A recent Face session had her sitting in an anonymous hotel room wearing high heels and a slinky body. But when her comments on Riot Grrrl singled her out for criticism, rock queen Courtney Love leapt to her defence. "Don't slice PJ Harvey in half when her assimilationist compromise has done more for us than 30 Grrrls banging on a pot and spoon," she said. Harvey became a touchstone for rock artists and fans, with opinion divided between those who loved her stance, and those who were suspicious of it.
During the 1994 Brit awards, the pop star Björk invited Harvey to join her on stage for a performance of 'Satisfaction,' the Rolling Stones number. "She was in my team against everybody else," Björk said, and "She's really, really cool." However, Kristin Hersh, lead singer and architect of Throwing Muses, was less convinced: "I think it's pretentious. 'I'm singing about me and these are my ideas and my story' - it just feels like a plan. You can't come at people with a stance. I don't hear real music substance. I hear her substance, which is a different thing. Maybe that's OK, but I don't hear the music talking."
But at this point Harvey had yet to realize fully the music she heard in her head. Rid Of Me was an album of ideas in search of good chords, with Harvey's voice strangely swallowed in the mix. "I felt the sonic qualities didn't come up to the artistic intention," says McGuinness diplomatically. Frustrated with this, Harvey shed her original band members and for 10 weeks last year went into the studio with fresh musicians. The result was her current album, To Bring You My Love: sharp sweet, deep, it is more subtle than previous records, yet much more accessible.
Produced by Flood, the affable mastermind who has worked with everyone from U2 to the American noise merchants Nine Inch Nails, the record is mesmerizing, lush and tightly controlled. "As a songwriter, she has really come on." Flood says. "And her performance as a vocalist has come on in leaps and bounds. There's an emotional maturity there."
Although she may baulk at the idea, Harvey has become a feminist icon. Historically women rock artists have had to fight hard for long-term major album deals. Under pressure to produce hit singles, and not seen as heavyweight enough to compete with the boys, too many have been dropped after that difficult first or second album. With her third, Harvey showed how an artist can find her place, her voice and the source of her power.
"She's happier than I've ever known her," says Maria Mochnacz. "She's got good friends around her, and it's like she's growing up. You carry a lot of shit around with you, that's why you write strange records. Then you deal with it."
Harvey's image, too, has changed again. She appears in the video for her single 'Down By The Water' wearing a dress of red satin, her lips blood red, her teeth painted white. At first sight it is vaudeville vamp. Look again and there is slight evil lurking in her expression, a compelling mix of trash voodoo and vulnerability. She wears it with confidence.
Mochnacz feels that Harvey's sense of humor is now coming through. She was in Dublin when Harvey said: "I feel so good, what shall I do tonight? Maybe I'll eat something and watch TV." Then she remembered she was doing a gig that evening. "But I can't. I am the night."
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