Checking In With . . . PJ Harvey

Steve Appleford is a regular contributor to Calendar

The woman on stage at the Viper Room is typically intense. Dressed in a black sequined top open at the navel, the much-acclaimed PJ Harvey strums hard at her electric guitar, making music that is tough, sexually charged and emotional.

But there are new melodies bathing those electric chords, sounds that bring an added musical depth to her latest album, “Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea.”

Since her 1992 debut album, “Dry,” the British-born Harvey has been a dependably provocative voice in pop music, bringing post-punk energy to songs of intelligence and emotion.


This may be her most accessible album since 1995’s ‘To Bring You My Love,” but Harvey’s music has lost none of its urgency, even while stretching into dreamier territory via “The Mess We’re In,” a duet with Radio- head’s Thom Yorke.

While based in Dorset, England, she has found some new inspiration during lengthy stays in New York over the past two years, beginning with her 1998 acting role in Hal Hartley’s film “The Book of Life.”

On the eve of the album’s release Tuesday, Harvey--one of the most critically acclaimed artists of the ‘90s--spoke about her new music and her continuing drive.

Question: Your shows tend to inspire an intense reaction from fans. Have you given much thought about what it is about your music that connects with people?

Answer: I don’t spend a lot of time analyzing what I do. It’s just not very healthy for me. But maybe it’s because I try to deliver the songs in a very honest way, and in a very human way, not to keep a distance or to be removed as a sort of larger-than-life person. I try to put the songs across in a very down-to-earth human way, and in a very raw way, and emotional way.

Q: Was there any figure who connected with you when you were just a listener?

A: It’s hard to beat Siouxsie Sioux, in terms of live performance. She is so exciting to watch, so full of energy and human raw quality.


Q: Some critics have said the new record sounds like a return to the harder, more direct sound and focus of your early work. Do you see it that way?

A: People are often saying that, “It’s a return to your roots,” or whatever, which I don’t see it as. It’s very different musically to the first couple of albums. It’s very melodic, and it’s much rounder and fuller. The earlier albums were very black and white in some sense, very extreme. Melodically, this is much more sophisticated than those records. It kind of feels like a combination of every album I’ve made so far rolled into one.

Q: How did your time in New York impact the record?

A: New York certainly gave me a different kind of energy. I do think that has permeated to some of the music. I had long wanted to [live there]. I made a film with Hal Hartley in New York, and I realized at that time what an inspiring sort of place it felt to me. I can remember even when we were filming, I was writing songs, some of which ended up on this record. I just felt very inspired.

Q: In a recent interview, you mentioned having a “minor or major breakdown” at the time of “To Bring You My Love.” How did that affect your work?

A: That did slow things down. Personal things that happen in my life are also factors as to how quickly or how slowly I make records. You have to be a human being first of all and take care of other things. I don’t talk about those things. I do keep my personal life to myself. But it was a very difficult time. I learned a lot from it, and I’ve moved on from there now.

Q: Do music industry expectations affect you at all?

A: No, I don’t really think about them. I never have really. I know the reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing. And I’m honest to those feelings and I stick to them. That’s the only way I can be, really. If I was to really take on board what other people’s expectations might be, I think I would immediately be crippled and not able to write.


Q: How did Thom Yorke end up on the new album?

A: I first met Thom in 1992, I think. And we stayed in contact. We’ve exchanged letters. And he’s somebody whose voice I have loved and felt very moved by for a long time. I’d long been interested in the idea of somebody else singing a whole song on a record of mine, to have a very different dimension brought in by somebody else’s voice. It adds so much dynamic within the record to have this other character coming in. I get tired of my own voice. It’s nice to hear somebody else’s.

Q: Are you interested in producing other artists?

A: I produced a record earlier this summer in New York, and it is something that I’m interested in and will definitely do more. I kind of wait until there’s something that I really like. I’m quite choosy about it. There’s this girl called Tiffany Anders, the daughter of Allison Anders, the filmmaker. And when I was living [in New York] last year I saw [Tiffany] play a number of times and was just blown away. I kept hanging out on her gigs. Her song structure is very strange; her melodies are very strange. And I like that kind of twist. I always look for something that is unique.