PJ Harvey: Primed and Ticking

PJ Harvey beat the sophomore jinx and get their mojo workin' with an American tour and powerful new album, 'Rid of Me'

PJ Harvey 1993 witchcraft
Ian Dickson/Redferns
PJ Harvey
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Polly Jean Harvey is positively giddy – all 90-odd black-knit-clad pounds quivering like proverbial jelly. Rita Coolidge's signed menu, hanging directly above the wraithlike 23-year-old's single hoop earring and jet-black coif in the old coffee joint in New Orleans' French Quarter, is just not exciting enough to make her dump her chicory home-brew in her lap. Nor is the news that Rid of Me, the second album by Harvey and her band, P J Harvey, is topping the college charts as the group kicks off its biggest American tour to date later tonight at Tipitina's, home of Polly Harvey's childhood hero Professor Longhair.

After all, the tiny young Englishwoman, named Best Songwriter of 1992 by Rolling Stone, ignored numerous accolades that greeted Dry, her band's startling Island debut, almost as icily as she brushed off recent invitations for a prime Lollapalooza spot as well as chances to open for Neil Young, Morrissey and the Cure. So her sudden attitude about-face – from the brooding kid who shot off the family farm on the southwest coast of England in late '91 to the gigglepuss rapidly dissolving in a puddle at our table – is profound, to say the least. So profound, you'd almost swear the ancient mojo spells of Marie Laveau, witch queen of New Orleans, are very much alive and working overtime, as is the incense wafting in the tropical breeze from the voodoo museum around the corner.

The 100 Best Albums of the Nineties: PJ Harvey, Rid of Me

And perhaps they are, as Harvey breathlessly confides that between her now-half-a-cup-of-coffee breakfast and sound check, she's expecting what Tennessee Williams, well acquainted with this town's myriad desires, once described as a gentleman caller.

''But,'' Harvey says cautiously, ''don't say too much. We don't want to put a stop to things before they even get started!'' She will allow, however, that she's been ''smiling quite a lot lately . . . The first three weeks are always the best, aren't they?''

Where only six months ago, Harvey's severe mien, black turtlenecks and prim bun made her look like the Generation X version of Jules Feiffer's modern dancer, her playful new radiance is now also manifest in the colorful costumes and makeup she's performing in for the first time. She had so much fun clowning in what she describes as the ''Fifties housewife gear'' that allowed her to assume the identity of a man-eating horror-movie giantess on the video set for the single ''50 Ft. Queenie,'' she incorporated the loony sunglasses, leopard-skin coat and gold lamé pumps into her stage wardrobe and ordered other get-ups, including a sparkling Lurex gown and feather boa that reflect her improved, if varied, moods.

These costumes aren't sexy,'' Harvey explains. ''They're ridiculous. They're funny. And that's why I like wearing them. When I was younger, I used to dress up all the time –  in Mum's clothes. Then I got serious. And wore black.''

More important, perhaps, than her current fashion statement is her musical one. Shortly after completing Rid of Me last fall, Harvey produced and recorded, live, with jumping horns and pumping organ complementing the working power duo of drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan, four songs she calls the ''first things I've ever done that make me feel like dancing'' for DJ John Peel's legendary BBC radio sessions.

''They show I've gone on a huge change since doing the record,'' says Harvey, who rarely makes any point in conversation by modulating her deceptively gentle speaking voice but rather by jerking her head and appearing to focus her startlingly luminous eyes directly into your brain. "I"m just allowing myself to enjoy music again and not be so precious or so worried about it or how people are going to take it. I did those songs purely for my own enjoyment and had a great time doing them.''

The Peel sessions' uncharacteristically joyous cover of Willie Dixon's ''Wang Dang Doodle'' and astonishing new tunes – suggestively entitled ''Claudine, the Inflatable One,'' ''Naked Cousin'' and ''Primed and Ticking'' – may be the most cohesive and seductive showcases yet for the continually stretching vocal range and slash-and-sting musicianship that immediately distinguished Harvey as the lone wolf among the grrrl pack. The four cuts, at least one of which, ''Wang Dang Doodle,'' will appear on the flip side of a forthcoming British single, all make the rather spotty Rid of Me seem like a preliminary sketch for the masterpiece that's been expected of Harvey since she stormed out of the tiny village of Yeovil (population: 600) with the startling singles-cum-fertility rites ''Dress'' and ''Sheela-Na-Gig.''

With Harvey's Chrissie Hynde-like vocal timbre, Dylanesque command of language and pure natural fury, ''Dress'' and ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' (both of which would later reappear on Dry) catapulted the reclusive country girl and aspiring sculptor to the top of England's indie charts and the covers of its music press almost overnight. Like the classic early work of Elvis Costello more than a decade earlier, these first releases, born full-bodied and steaming from one so young, so obsessed and so out of nowhere, immediately separated an entire generation of postpunks from an entire world of losers.

And yet as eager as fans and the press were to crown her, Harvey was as reluctant an alternative nation role model as her punk-blues juxtapositions and poetic images – of dry vaginas, fetishistic lovers and women who want too much – were bold.

I felt very young then,'' she says, her Keane-painting-size eyes switching to low only for as long as it takes to search the tablecloth for clues as to how much difference a year and a half makes. ''It was too much, and I didn't know what was going on. I was doing something that I originally started out doing just for the enjoyment, and suddenly that was gone – there were so many extraneous pressures that took it away. I was expecting every night for it to be really special or meaningful like it always had been up till then. You just have to treat it much more like a job, just something you get through. Some nights you do have blinders, and other nights it's just hard work.''

Still, however hard she's forced to work, it's difficult to reconcile the slip of a thing who could use a booster seat to keep her from being swallowed by her cane chair with the 50-foot queen-size who prowls the stage cold-bloodedly wielding her ax rather less like a real royal than a real man.

''Keith Richards is one of my heroes,'' Harvey acknowledges.

Perhaps because it's never occurred to her that she can't do what Richards did onstage or what her father couldn't do in the barn, where she regularly wrung the lambs' testicles because ''my dad was too squeamish,'' she refuses to identify herself as a feminist. Her stance has provoked some debate among listeners who'd like to see her as a symbol or hear songs like ''Sheela-Na-Gig,'' based on an ancient Celtic figure with an exposed vulva, or ''Happy and Bleeding,'' which appears to celebrate menstruation, as a sexually political rallying cry.

''I can see what really gets people's backs up,'' Harvey says softly, ''because they're saying I wouldn't be able to get to where I am now if it wasn't for people who've gone before and broken things down, and that's probably true. But at the same time, I am not really aware of that. I don't know who these people were; I don't know their history at all. And I feel very ignorant about it. Now maybe that is being very ungrateful to what's gone on before, but I'm only 23.I don't know what's gone on before and don't feel the need to find out. And people will criticize me for that, say, Well, you should bloody well find out what's goin' on then' – and people already have – but I don't have the time or the energy.''

Musically, however, Harvey is far more curious, even if she has yet – perhaps also due to her youth and relatively isolated upbringing – to investigate the deeper roots of the black Americans whose blues, atypically of her generation of raving techno enthusiasts, are the basis of her trenchant guitar riffs and vocals. As it is, she has often found it difficult enough merely summoning the energy to cope with the daily demands of a skyrocketing career that seems to have shocked her more than anyone else. Only a year ago, the constant analysis by the voracious British press, coupled with the strain of long-haul touring, culminated in a near collapse shortly after she conquered the Woodstockian crowds at last summer's Reading Festival, outside London.

''I hesitate to call it a nervous breakdown,'' Harvey says. ''I don't know what it was. I was exhausted, I hadn't been eating properly. I got to the stage where I couldn't do the basic things for myself – get up, go out of the house. The thought of having to see people – it was like claustrophobia but also being really scared of other people. If someone had just left me somewhere, I wouldn't have been able to go anywhere else for a long time. I would have just sat there.''

Perhaps the transition from village life, complete with lambs and chickens, in a setting not unlike Belle's neighborhood in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, to the bright lights and big city of London was difficult enough. ''I was living away from home for the first time,'' she says. ''But also, being a person that just wants very much to be in control – of myself, of music, of everything – all of a sudden, when I let go, there was no in between. I had nothing, no control to even clean my teeth or take a bath.''

Counseling and stress therapy – ''I need it,'' says Harvey – gave her the wherewithal to begin contemplating a second album, as did a return to the familiar nest of her sculptor mother and quarryman father – part-time local music promoters whose passion for blues and Captain Beefheart heavily influenced their daughter's musical eccentricities.

''I want to keep experimenting and trying different things – like David Bowie,'' says Harvey, whose decision to sign with Island in the midst of a major-label feeding frenzy in the U.K. last winter was based largely on her love for label mate Tom Waits. ''Maybe they won't work, but that's what keeps my interest in music. That's where a lot of musicians fall down – or just stagnate.''

For the follow-up to Dry, which, despite its massive critical acclaim, remained largely an underwhelming phenomenon in terms of U.S. sales, Harvey was determined to ignore conventional wisdom, if not all of her record company's advice. Licensed by Island from the London-based indie Too Pure, Dry was essentially the $5,000 result of the relatively inexperienced Harvey's attempts to flesh out her home demos in a low-budget studio with local musicians. But for Rid of Me, Harvey refused to even talk to producers her record label felt might help her fulfill her artistic potential and achieve the greater audience her talent begs. Instead, she independently contacted underground noise engineer Steve Albini, who has recently been embroiled in controversy regarding his contributions to Nirvana's next effort.

And instead of the carefully crafted product the label might have encouraged, Albini knocked out the rather abrasive, sonically flat album during two and a half snowy weeks in Minneapolis. Dry, its images firmly grounded in natural elements like ''Water'' and ''Plants and Rags'' and ancient laments like ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' and ''O Stella,'' pretty much told you where all the poets have gone in the last 30 years – to guitars, every one. Rid of Me, on the other hand, is determined to prove that Harvey's band can rock as fast and as noisily as any bunch of guys whose dynamic creativity is limited to speeding up and slowing down and rolling over and doing it again.

A song like ''Snake,'' in which Harvey spits buckets of vituperation at an animal of a man over a Bo Diddley-gone-bonkers beat, slithers by on sheer venom. Others, like ''50 Ft. Queenie,'' are no more than the tip of a Chuck Berry break ricocheting in search of a bridge, verse or chorus. And the title track, which opened many of the band's live shows last year with Rob Ellis and Harvey calling and responding to each other's vocals like two alley cats in serious heat, cavalierly dumps the duet gambit in the mix.

Although it captures some of the sturm and clang of the live trio, Albini's relatively primitive technique and general lack of interest in melodies and vocals may have sacrificed Rid of Me's wider appeal. ''I know what I won't do next time, from that record,'' Harvey says. However, she contends, ''I called the shots on everything,'' and says she is satisfied with the end result.

As the PJ Harvey band embarks on its largest and most promising tour ever – which will conclude with a week in Japan and a guest slot with U2 at several European stadiums – Vaughan and Ellis appear to have stopped talking to Harvey. Her exclusion of her band mates from the aforementioned shot-calling process opened what she claims was an ever-widening personal gulf in the months since the album was recorded, a gulf that was evident in some of the band's recent performances.

Opening night at Tipitina's, despite the crowd's obvious enchantment with Harvey's literally letting her hair down and confidently strutting in a flame red dress for the first time on an American stage, the band's set never really caught fire. A week later, the better-traveled outfit plugged into a higher gear – and a better sound system – at New York City's Academy, where the adoring, sellout crowd of 1,800 undoubtedly attributed the male musicians' rather cool posture to some variation of postpunk shtick.

Harvey has grown nearly as much as a live performer as she has in the studio. Now she'd rather engage her audience than run away from it. In fact, when her amp blew at Tipitina's (quite appropriately after ''Primed and Ticking''), Harvey, who's often found it difficult simply to utter ''thank you'' onstage, suddenly disappeared into the pit literally to talk (but without a mike, as any better primed showperson would) to the audience.

But if Harvey hasn't figured out how to make a minor interruption work for the entire house, when she's back on track and onstage she often sounds eerily like she's channeling the voice and licks of an 85-year-old blues mama through her twiglike English self. ''I spend a huge amount of time on the words, and they are so important to me,'' she says with a sigh, ''but I think I've done more work on my voice. I've worked really, really hard. And nobody seems to notice. To me, the vocals are more important than guitar playing – or anything, really.''

Unfortunately, the other musicians have not developed apace. At Tipitina's, Vaughan, suddenly wearing dark sunglasses throughout the set as if to magnify his disengagement, plunked lackadaisically, physically moving as far from the singer as possible without toppling off the stage. And Ellis, whose once sensitive vocal and percussion responses to Harvey's lines originally contributed so much to the band's distinctive sound, seemed determined throughout to screech off-key into his vocal mike and overplay clatteringly, as if to deafen and flatten Harvey rather than support her.

So it is hardly a surprise when Harvey confides, over another cup of coffee the morning after the Tipitina's show, that once she fulfills her current tour commitments, she never wants to play with this band again.

''I'm so frustrated,'' she admits, refusing to try the local grits and toying with her spoon, saying that were it not for her now frighteningly adult responsibilities to numerous people – not merely the band but the crew and business-affairs operatives – ''I would change right now and get another band together; we all know it's reached a point where it's got to change.

''It makes me sad,'' Harvey continues. ''I wouldn't have got here without them. I needed them back then – badly. But now I don't need them anymore. We all just changed as people. Before all this started happening, I was playing in three or four different bands – sax in one band, percussion and doing mime and singing in another. I like a lot of different inputs. Since this happened, I haven't played with anyone else, and I find that really stagnating. We all want to move on.''

Primed and ticking indeed, Harvey will only hint that her next lineup will contain several guitar players, organ, harmonica and perhaps a saxophone (an instrument at which she is also formally proficient). And accomplished player that she is, she may even give up the guitar.

''I want to jump around,'' she says, laughing. ''I never want to stick to a formula because it's worked in the past.'' But it's not only the formula she plans to change. Although her mother, as every mother will, has frequently advised her to ''never say never,'' she insists that after the tour winds up at Wembley Stadium with U2 in August, she will never play her biggest hits to date, ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' and ''Dress,'' again. And just to make the point, she emphatically closes her eyes, clamps her teeth and shakes her head like a petulant toddler refusing a particular vegetable.

When it's suggested that her fans may be disappointed, she unclenches only wide enough to whisper, ''I'll never give the people what they want,'' and adds another shake of the head for good measure.

One can only imagine what may happen backstage at Wembley when Bono MacPhisto bumps into this indomitable 50 Ft. Queenie. But after losing her arena virginity, Harvey (who says she had never been to what the average American teen considers a rock concert before seeing U2's Zoo TV Tour last summer) is already scheduled to collaborate with an old friend, John Parish, leader of her teenage pre-P J Harvey band, Automatic Dlamini, on an album for which he will write music and she lyrics.

Given that Harvey is an insatiably prolific writer who purportedly banged out 30 songs in a fortnight between tours, Island also plans to release an album of four-track demos in England this fall, including songs Rid of Me didn't get rid of. And perhaps public demand will make the must-hear Peel sessions available in their entirety.

Yet no matter how defiantly Harvey has tried throughout the past year to avoid it, next-big-thingdom is fairly certain to be thrust upon her, whether she makes her next move via broken-down cassette or on a Hollywood soundstage with 200 screaming violins and a flaming hula hoop. Still, having created a fairly impressive oeuvre, if not yet a formula --- from rubbing till she bleeds and torturous self-examinations --- Harvey feels certain that her suddenly upbeat emotional temperament will not fuel her future songs. All she will cop to is a blinding desire to drive herself into a condition she calls ''going into the white.''

As it is, she is so eager to rush back to the hotel to, as she says, ''mentally prepare'' for her date that she has to be reminded to stay put until the waitress brings the check. When it arrives, she pats the fanny pack nestled around the fairly nonexistent anatomy that makes you realize that the startling opening line of ''Sheela-Na-Gig'' --- ''Look at these, my childbearing hips'' --- is one of the more imaginative works of fiction anyone has concocted in eons. She then bolts for the door as if, for her next trick, she's planning to represent Britain in the 400-meter relay.

''Going into the white,'' she says into the Louisiana air hanging hot and humid over her thin shoulders, ''is when you just get so excited you feel sick to your stomach. You can't eat or sleep or anything. I used to get it from riding horses.''

This story is from the August 19th, 1993 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 663: August 19, 1993