Q&A: PJ Harvey on Acid, the Bible, and Singing the Blues

With her fourth album, 'To Bring You My Love,' it is clear that at 26 years of age, Polly Jean Harvey is well on her way to creating an enduring musical legacy

December 28, 1995
PJ Harvey
PJ Harvey
David Tonge/Getty Images

"I suppose only this year have I finally realized that music is what I do and that music is what I want to be doing," says Polly Jean Harvey, lounging in the cafe of her London hotel. It's a strange statement coming from a singer who is on her fourth album. But then again, it wasn't until this year that it became clear that Harvey, at 26 years of age, is creating a legacy that won't go away. in a year in which the catchiest lyric came from a courtroom in Los Angeles ("If it doesn't fit, you must acquit"), Harvey crafted a true, enduring piece of art: "To Bring You My Love."

PJ Harvey Talks Tour

"I've lain with the devil/Cursed God above/Forsaken heaven/To bring you my love," she rasps like the ghost of Howlin' Wolf as the album opens, letting the listener know that the creative journey that brought her to her current bundle of love and hate has been a torturous one. Following her 1992 debut, Dry-the very name of which evoked not only the raw sound of P J Harvey the trio but also the unfulfillment of Polly dean Harvey the woman – came a torrent of critical accolades, a ridiculous scandal (for posing topless on the cover of NME) and a panic attack that found Harvey fleeing London for the relative quiet of her home village in the English countryside. The retreat wasn't a creative withdrawal. On To Bring You My Love, over a brittle, minimal backdrop of guitar, organ and bass, Harvey experiences the full range of human emotion, from ecstasy to tragedy to the confusion in between. Like any artist, she would rather work than talk. She says she hates interviews, never corresponds with her fans, communicates with nobody but her band after a show and doesn't discuss her lyrics with anyone under any circumstance. "You don't need to – they explain themselves," she says.

In concert, Harvey has stopped playing guitar and has metamorphosed from a shy English tomboy dressed in basic black to a powerful strutter and poser decked out in false eyelashes, long glittering nails and beauty-queen outfits. From the stage she now seems like seduction in all its complexity and terror. But in person she remains unassuming, black-garbed shyness in all its introspection and austerity.

I've seen every one of your tours, and each time your performance has become more theatrical. But as your current tour progresses, it seems like you've been cutting back on the performance aspect of your concerts again.
I have been. I remember I kind of had this panic attack about three weeks before my last show in New York. I got worried that I'd become so involved with the show – the lights, what I'm wearing that I'd forgotten about the music somewhere. I really wanted to strip everything down and get it back to the music again. I was consciously trying to do that at that show, and I really don't know if it was translated.

This tour has been so long, and I've gone through all these different stages of wanting to try different things out and wanting to experiment with lighting, stage design and different songs, that I feel like we're now ready to take it back to the way it began – just very simple, very minimal.

That's interesting, because your performance was starting to become as much of a statement as your songs.
I was noticing that, too, and I think that's wrong for what I want to do. It's not right. The music has to come first, always, and I think I was falling into the trap of thinking too much about the visuals. It's got to be the music. You've got to be strong enough to let everything rest on that.

Did touring with Live help you come to that decision?
That was a large part of it. We had a 40-minute section and had to perform in a very different way, because the crowd wasn't there to see us. I mean, if I'd gone onstage and played four minutes of "Lying in the Sun," a very dirgy, low, low song, we would have just gotten booed off stage. It's very strange what a tour like that does to your head, because every night I'd try to go out and watch Live playing and watch the crowd's response to them and think, "What am I doing wrong? Why aren't people working themselves into some kind of euphoria every time I play?" So I ended up really wanting that, whereas now I think, "No, I don't particularly want that. I want something very different." But it was very easy to be lowered into that kind of frame of mind. It was a very scary time.

Also, you've never been on tour this long before.
I've learned from all this that I won't tour this long again, ever. I feel very much that I'm ready to move on and move away from that. In an ideal world, I would have stopped touring a month ago. But you learn by your mistakes. I like to approach music in the way that I do artwork and sculpture or painting: You make something, and then you move on and make something else. But the music world is very constraining, because you make an album, and then you have to go on tour, and then you have to promote it, and then you have to go on tour again. It's like having to remake the same piece of work every night. So in an ideal world I'd just make an album and then make another one and then make another one.

Oasis are always claiming they're the best band in Britain. But they're not. They're just the most popular.

What do you think is the difference between good music and popular music?
I know what is good music for me. It's long lasting. It's always pushing the boundaries. It's always attempting things that haven't been attempted before or trying to provoke a reaction. It's got to be stimulating. It's got to be risky, and a lot of popular music is not that way for me. It's very, very safe. It's all been done before. Sure, Oasis is catchy, but it's not new ground. I'd much rather risk falling flat on my face experimenting with weird things that maybe people won't like. What I respect in other musicians is that quality of taking what you've learned and moving on, moving away, going somewhere else and continuing to look.

Whom do you look to as a good example of that kind of artist?
It's not always people that I love the music of. But, for instance, David Bowie is one. There are some things I love of his and others that I think "God, that was awful." But I have a huge amount of respect for him because he changes all the time. And people like Prince as well. He's always going in different ways and doesn't care what's best for him in commercial terms now. Or someone like Tom Waits, who isn't as successful – but he doesn't care and is not interested in making money. He explores all different avenues, like writing film music, acting, doing music for theater. That's what I'm interested in as well, just making the most of your time here on planet Earth, seeing how many different ways you can push yourself and explore. And a band like Oasis doesn't do that for me. It operates very much on one level, which is fine when you're in need of that certain kind of music. But it's not long lasting for me.

Could you record an album and not release it or let anyone else hear it and still be satisfied with it?
I don't know. That's a very interesting question. It's very much a need I have – to write music and to make things. Not just music things but little pieces of artwork that mean nothing to anyone else, that I never show to anybody else. I keep sketch pads I'll never show to anyone. I write loads of words I'll never show to anybody. It's for me, and I need to do it. It's part of my learning process and part of my life. So, yes, I think I could make an album and never play it to anyone, and it wouldn't really make much difference. Off course, it's a wonderful feeling to know that people are able to hear what I'm doing and are getting things out of it, but it's not really important.

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