Far From the Moshing Crowd : Pop star-on-the-verge PJ Harvey sprang from the gentle English countryside of Thomas Hardy. So where did all those songs of obsession and despair come from?
Polly Jean Harvey takes a deep breath as she steps from the hotel elevator shortly before mid night.
The 25-year-old performer has just returned to London from the calm of her home in the picturesque Thomas Hardy countryside of southwest England, the incongruous setting where she writes about sexual and spiritual longing with a soul-baring intensity reminiscent of Courtney Love and Sinead O’Connor.
In contrast to the confidence and authority of her sometimes torrential music, Harvey appears apprehensive as she gazes across the massive marble lobby. She’s got the look of someone about to take a first bungee jump.
In seven hours, Harvey and her new five-piece band are due to leave for Paris to start a two-month tour that could determine whether she will become a pop-rock sensation a la Love or O’Connor--or remain a heralded cult artist a la Tom Waits or Nick Cave, two of her personal pop heroes.
Everything seems primed for the breakthrough. Harvey’s latest album, “To Bring You My Love,” has been hailed by critics, and she has just signed with the same management team that represents U2. The U.S. leg of the tour begins with sold-out shows May 17 and 18 at the Mayan Theatre in Los Angeles.
First, there’s an interview--and that alone is enough to send tremors through Harvey’s body.
Where Love and O’Connor are uncontrollably public, Harvey is scrupulously private. The others adore talking about themselves and their songs, but Harvey cringes at the former and draws a line against the latter.
Her reticence has forced fans to speculate on how much of Harvey’s often-startling tales of obsession and despair may be drawn from her imagination and how much from her own experience. In the opening song on the new album, she howls plaintively: “I’ve lain with the devil / Cursed God above / Forsaken heaven / To bring you my love.”
How, they wonder, could someone who comes from the gentle English countryside write such troubled, sometimes violent music?
“I feel I am filled with complete opposites,” she says gingerly, seated in a lobby chair during the interview. “Half of me loves doing what I do, and the other half wants to just be really quiet and on my own in the country.
“The same applies to my music. There’s a lot of confusion, a lot of frustration in there. . . . It’s about the struggle to find spiritual help or emotional support through love or through sex. It’s a craving for something else to fill up that hole, that bit that is missing in your life.”
Harvey’s contradictions extend to the interview. Whatever her nervousness, she tries gamely to answer questions. On the surface, in fact, everything seems calm by the end of the two-hour session.
When that is pointed out to her, she smiles gently.
“Thank you,” she says softly. “But it’s hard on the inside. . . . If you are an observant person, you will notice that I have picked most of my fingernails away during the interview.”
Harvey lifts her hands and unclenches her fists. As she holds her fingers up to the dim lobby light, you can see the skin around her nails. It’s swollen and raw.
How long must I suffer
Dear God, I’ve served my time
This love becomes my torture
This love my only crime.
--"Send His Love to Me,” PJ Harvey
Harvey’s music explores the open wounds and hidden scars of relationships with such a fearless eye that it’s no wonder she has been frequently compared to such rock extremists as Patti Smith and Jim Morrison.
But Quentin Tarantino?
That reference, which has popped up in several reviews of Harvey’s new album, is both flattering and perceptive.
Not only is Harvey creating the kind of excitement in pop that Tarantino has generated in films, but she also asserts a vision that is both seductive and unsettling.
This woman who writes about sexual politics, lust and revenge with such a dark, menacing fury is the pop artist of the moment--and maybe of the ‘90s.
Reviewing her album in Details magazine, Rob Sheffield declares that Harvey never makes you feel she’s “making a precious statement in her music about the horrors of modern life. She just likes to make you squirm.”
In Musician magazine, Bill Flanagan makes an even more pointed comparison to Tarantino:
“In ‘Pulp Fiction,’ (he) used innovative editing . . . to make you feel like you’d never seen a gangster movie before. . . . That’s what Harvey has pulled off here. If you’ve grown so familiar with breakup blues and country death songs that you can no longer hear them clearly, this record will clean out your ears.”
During the hotel interview, Harvey’s eyes brighten at the mention of “Pulp Fiction.”
“I was blown away by it,” she says. “I find it very, very funny and I love that--the fact that it could be quite sickening but it was just a little too much so, which made it funny.
“What I look for in music and what I want to produce is just . . . works that are moving and unsettling--an emotional assault. I don’t want to write a song that just washes straight over my head and makes me feel nothing.”
Where Tarantino’s cinematic vision is filled with urban tabloid violence, Harvey’s images are more classic--fire-and-brimstone images from the Bible fanned by the unchecked fury of nature. It’s music with the stamp of someone close to the land.
“You most certainly develop a healthy respect for the elements when you live in the country,” she says. “If it snows where we live, you are cut off. Sometimes you can’t get into town for weeks on end. If it rains, it’s flooded and your animals can be wiped out. It just keeps things in perspective. It reminds you of how vulnerable you are.”
Anyone meeting Harvey for the first time is likely to be surprised that music so powerful comes from such a wisp of a woman.
At 5-foot-4, Harvey is of average height, but she weighs only 98 pounds and is withdrawn in a way that suggests fragility. There’s no aloofness or arrogance in her distance, only shyness.
You don’t get the feeling that the riddle surrounding her music is calculated to create a marketable mystique. Some artists, such as Sting and U2’s Bono, can articulate their feelings both in and out of their music. Others, notably Bob Dylan to Michael Jackson, find it as difficult as anyone else to interpret their art. Their artistry is fueled by the complexities and contradictions in their personalities and visions.
Given the mystery in Harvey’s music, you might expect her to be equally elusive answering questions. But she is straightforward when the topic isn’t her own lyrics.
“Elvis,” she declares in a rare show of force when asked to name her favorite singer.
Elvis Costello, whose stormy music reflects the intensity and ambition of Harvey’s?
“No, no,” she says spiritedly. “Elvis Presley. There is no other Elvis for me. I was completely in love with Elvis when I was younger and I was devastated when he died. I love his singing, the passion, the depth in his vocals.”
Her other early favorite singers also tend to be along classic blues and rock lines: from Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker to Dylan and Johnny Cash. When she was growing up, the Rolling Stones were her favorite band and Dylan by far her favorite writer.
Harvey’s parents were big Stones and Dylan fans, so she heard a lot of their music while growing up in a remote village about two hours by train southwest of London. Her mother even staged occasional music shows at a local hall, importing mostly blues bands from London.
“My mom has every record Dylan’s ever done, and she really encouraged me when I started to play the guitar,” Harvey recalls. “She bought me loads of his songbooks so I could learn the chord structures.
“What I learned from Dylan is to go straight for the heart in your music. I think people often get caught up too much in the specifics of a song and try to intellectualize it, when the important thing is just to strike an emotion. Sometimes just a breath in a song can make you weep.”
Polly Jean Harvey’s childhood, by all accounts, was stable. She grew up in the farmhouse where her parents have lived for 30 years. Harvey’s father quarries stone, which her mother sculpts into gravestones and carves into fireplaces.
Unlike the stereotype of the small-town child longing for the big city, Harvey has always enjoyed the charms of the country.
“I always wanted approval and to be thought highly of by people,” she says of her early years. “So I had that ambition in me, but I didn’t associate that with having to be in a big city.
“When I was young, I wrote plays and performed all the different characters when my parents’ friends would come over to the house. I was also involved in as much drama and music as I could in school.”
She was playing saxophone and guitar by the time she was in her teens and joined her first band when she was 14. She later began writing songs.
Near the end of her teens, she put together the PJ Harvey band with two other aspiring local musicians: drummer Robert Ellis and bassist Stephen Vaughan, who both played on her early albums.
While studying sculpture at college in London, she did a few shows with the trio--and ended up with a contract with tiny Too Pure Records. (Her recordings are now distributed by Island Records.)
In the wink of an eye, music went from being a hobby to a career. Harvey’s 1992 debut album, “Dry,” was a breathtaking work that was named one of the year’s 10 best in a poll of U.S. critics. As on the equally heralded 1993 follow-up “Rid of Me,” the songs were wrapped in swirls of classic blues-rock energy.
It was a stressful time as she adjusted to the razzle-dazzle of the pop world. While the country environment gave her comfort, it left her ill-prepared for some adult demands, including social interaction. She had been something of a tomboy as a youngster, largely because most of the nearby children her age were boys. When you add that to her extreme shyness, it’s no surprise that she didn’t have a formal date until she was 20.
“That’s another example of the extremes in my life,” she says. “Although I have a need to perform, I am a very shy person. I find dealing with people in a one-to-one relationship very difficult.”
Lori Somes, a former record industry publicist who worked closely with Harvey from 1991 to 1994, when she took leave to have a baby, believes that part of Harvey’s unease is due to her background.
Excited by the debut album, Somes flew to London from New York in 1991 to help Harvey outline a media campaign for the United States. The response was not open arms.
“She was very poised and regal, and yet very standoffish and very guarded, which is unusual for an artist at that age,” Somes recalled in a separate interview. “Usually, artists at the beginning of their career are gung-ho to do anything--interview anywhere, talk about anything. They haven’t got much of a sense of caution.
“But it was different with Polly from the beginning. I felt it went along with her country nature, where she came from. There is an English reserve, and it is even more pronounced if you are from the English countryside. Outsiders aren’t easily let in.”
Part of the tension in Harvey’s music appears to grow out of questions of self-worth and identity, questions heightened by her own struggle to find a satisfying relationship.
It was the emerging pressures of this period that sent her back to the sanctuary of the country after a few months in London. Some say she suffered a breakdown, but she rejects the term as too dramatic.
“I moved up here for the art course, then I found the experience (unsettling), the whole pace and aggression. When you walk down the street people feel the need to avoid eye contact for fear of being robbed, or someone will say, ‘What are you looking at?’ I didn’t like that side of it--kind of having to be on the defensive a lot. That’s not the way I had been brought up in the country, where you say ‘hello’ to everybody that you meet.
“After the record contract, there was no need for me to be in London--and I wanted to come home.”
Y oevil, a town of about 30,000 where Harvey recorded her first album, is as close as she wants outsiders to come to her own private world. She doesn’t want the media bothering her neighbors and friends or to have obsessive fans camping on her doorstep thinking that she can help them make sense of their lives. So, she asks that the name of her village not be printed. Long before the train from London pulls into the station, the view from the window changes from industrial grayness to green fields with sheep, cows and occasionally horses. Highways, too, give way to two-lane blacktop roads that trail off far into the rolling hills.
As a youngster, Harvey came into Yoevil to go to the movies and buy records. Chris Lowe, who owns the Acorn Records shop, has known Harvey’s parents for years. He proudly shows visitors autographed copies of Harvey’s first two albums.
“You can imagine the surprise around here when we learned she had actually made a record,” he says, standing in his shop adjacent to the village’s small new outdoor mall. “We had a big turnout when she even came into the store and we had a little autograph party for fans. I’d guess we sold 100 copies.”
It’s only 5:30 p.m., but most of the other shops have already closed in the mall, so clean that it looks like a freshly completed set on a movie back lot.
The Safeway market is open, but only one of the three clerks even recognizes Harvey’s name--and that only because she had by chance seen her performing recently on television. “The only reason I noticed then was when my husband said, ‘Hey, that’s the girl who is from around here.’ ”
Two 15-year-olds on their way to the train station, however, say that all the kids in town are familiar with Harvey’s music. It’s amazing, they agree, that anyone from Yoevil could have a record and be famous.
Whatever Harvey’s fondness for the area might be, the girls say they’d take the first train out of town if that ever happened to them. “Nothing happens around here,” one of them said. “It’s so boring.”
An adult nearby overhears the girl’s remark and scoffs.
“I don’t think you have to come from the inner city to have problems,” he says, pointing to a copy of the local paper.
The lead story in the Express & Star on this chilly afternoon deals not with the tragedy in Oklahoma City or the latest scandal in Parliament but the case of a local man who had been beaten to death with a claw hammer. There is also a full-page ad for home security systems.
B ack in London, the hotel lobby is nearly vacant. The members of Harvey’s band, who were lounging nearby earlier, have retired for the night. Even her tour manager has gone upstairs.
This evening may be her last chance to wonder about just how much success she wants. Once the tour starts, the issue will be out of her hands.
Will pop and rock fans respond to the psychic assault that is at the root of her music? Trent Reznor, another acclaimed small-town product (Mercer, Pa.) whose music falls into the extremist camp, has found a large audience for his tales of rage and self-loathing. But he’s a man with a young, hard-rock following that prizes such abandon. The pop world isn’t as accustomed to having women speak in such harsh, radical terms. Harvey is also aiming for a more sophisticated audience.
Momentum, however, is on her side.
She arrives in pop at a time when a flurry of strong female artists--including Liz Phair, Love and O’Connor--is setting the creative agenda. Where “Live Through This,” the breakthrough album by Love’s band, Hole, was named the best of 1994 by the nation’s pop critics, Harvey’s “To Bring You My Love” is an early favorite to capture that title this year. U.S. sales are about 125,000.
In drastically reshaping her sound in “To Bring You My Love,” Harvey has demonstrated her adventurous spirit. Believing that the original trio had taken its blues-rock attack as far as it could, she has put together a new band.
While the lyrics reveal as much trauma as ever, the musical punctuation is more subtle and sophisticated. The resumes of her new band members offer a map of her new musical direction. Guitarist Joe Gore and keyboardist Eric Drew Feldman, for instance, have worked, respectively, with such strongly individual talents as Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart.
Harvey’s videos and new stage persona also suggest a willingness to experiment. Where she started out with an anti-fashion statement (no makeup and dark, everyday clothing), she has now adopted a sultry, glamorous stance--lots of makeup and flashy gowns. But there’s a twist. Imagine Rita Hayworth as made up by Ed Wood.
“The idea again is to deal in extremes,” she says, wearing a tasteful black silk blouse and trousers and only a trace of makeup.
“You can see right away that there is something wrong with this person (in the video and onstage). It’s not just someone trying to look beautiful. It’s someone who has gone a bit over the top. It makes you think, ‘There’s something strange going on, something very strange in fact.’ It’s back to the Tarantino-David Lynch thing.”
Paul McGuinness, the manager she now shares with U2, says that Harvey’s adventurousness is one reason he wanted to work with her.
“I was intensely curious about her,” he says. “There is something very intriguing, very enigmatic about her. She is a rock ‘n’ roll artist in a great tradition--a puzzle. I think she will make a long series of great records and they will all be completely different.”
Harvey herself can be so open when talking about most matters that it’s frustrating when she becomes defensive about her lyrics.
It may be, she acknowledges, that she is still wrestling with many of the emotions in the songs and feels too vulnerable to address the issues apart from her music.
She once said she feels more true to herself when writing or performing than when talking to people. It’s the time she allows herself to let go and be herself without restriction.
When the tape recorder is turned off, Harvey, who still bills herself on record and stage as PJ Harvey, sighs and addresses the pending tour.
“I want to be extremely successful,” she says. “But success for me, I think, means something a bit different from what it means maybe for U2.
“I’d like to be successful in the fact that I’d like to be a prolific, ongoing writer that is successful in terms of building people’s respect. I am not all that interested in making loads of money or having loads of record sales. I am more concerned with the matter of respect.”
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