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

PJ Harvey
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PJ Harvey
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"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.

You recently took a break from performing. What do you do with your time off?
Music doesn't have time off for me. It's what I do. I love music. I feel pretty weird today because I haven't had a chance to sing or play guitar. So the last three weeks for me was very much making music more than anything. Time off just means not having that pressure of knowing I have a performance every night, which is a huge amount of energy and really directs my whole day. Suddenly having three weeks without having to perform, I was able to go around smoking and drinking, staying up till late.

I mean, no. That's exaggerating, but I did a lot of just seeing friends and being a normal human being that socializes with them. Did a lot of walking, a lot of weeding. A lot of things you don't get time for on the road. Cooking. Lots of cooking.

I've always wondered what you did between albums. For example, how do you make the jump from dealing with very narrow topics that seemed directed at specific people on Rid of Me to the immensity of To Bring You My Love, in which you're dealing with God and the devil, water and the elements, myth and creation?
It was the way the music was going. When I begin to write lyrics, it's usually after the music is starting to form itself. I just listen to what is being suggested to me, atmospherically and emotionally. And I was aware of myself becoming tired of constantly looking into myself. So I looked outside of myself instead, and I think it was a healthy thing to do. Lyric-writing is a very, very difficult thing, and like any writing, there's a very free line between something working and not working. I'm thinking about it again a lot at the moment. Where do I want to take my next writing? I don't want to write the same song in just a slightly different way.

Did you feel a lot of pressure on your last album for your singing to live up to the scale of the things you were singing about?
I wouldn't have written those words if I didn't think I could carry it off. If you write words like that and sing it in the wrong way, it's a complete disaster. So I had to be very sure of what I was doing. I'm not saying I got it right all the time. There were a lot of things that got ditched or that didn't work. Luckily I'm good at knowing what's bad and what's OK. I do have very, very high expectations of myself, and I'm very hard on myself with regard to whatever I'm making. Even when I was at art college, it was like that. Somebody once described that as my biggest gift. I think they called it my shit detector.

Didn't you take voice and opera lessons to help with this album?
There's so much I want to learn. Vocally, I haven't begun, really, and being on tour all this time, I haven't been able to have lessons. So as soon as I get off tour, I'm going to go straight back to having vocal tuition again. I would love to learn to play the drums properly, and I've had a few lessons but not enough.

There are also so many sculpture ideas I want to do. I really miss that. Even these last few weeks, I've been doing quite a lot of painting and sculpture.

What materials do you use for your sculptures?
Well, I have a new house, and I live right on the beach. Literally, you step out onto gravel, and so all of my work that I did the last few weeks was just what I'd found washed up. I made a few mermaids and a few fish and things like that. I've got a bit of a sea theme going on.

You only used objects from the sea?
Yes. I like to set myself parameters to work in, and I do that all the time when I'm writing music as well, and I've always been like that. So I would say, "Right, whatever I find on my walk today, I will have to make into a piece of work by this evening." In the same way, when I'm writing, I will set a goal for myself of "By tonight, I would like to have worked this song through to this stage and started on this one." For instance, with the last album I knew I wanted all the songs written and demoed within three months, and I knew that I wanted to write at least 21 or 22 songs and get them all done. I'll probably do the same again next time. I need a target like that, otherwise I find it all a bit too daunting, There're too many possibilities, and I get stopped by the fact that there're too many different ways to go. I need to narrow it own all the time in order not to panic.

Do you think you could collaborate?
Yes, well, I'm quite open-minded. In fact, I've just done a duet with Nick Cave. In the song I stab him with a penknife and throw him in a 50-foot well – no, a 100-foot well – because he doesn't love me more than he loves his girl back home. I've also written a song with Tricky, and I've just finished an album on which I collaborated on all the songs. All the music was written by [PJ Harvey guitarist] John Parish, and I wrote the words. I learned a great deal about my ability as a lyric writer by using somebody else's music.

Also, next year I'm writing music for a dance project that's going on here in London, and I'm taking one of the three major roles in a theater project. So next year for me is a branching-out time and a time for trying out as many different mediums as I can.

Do you believe the old cliche that you have to have lived a hard life, mentally or physically, to sing the blues?
I'm not going to sit here and say I've lived everything I've written about. I'd have to be 90 and have lived all over the world and probably on planet Mars as well. But I am a very sensitive and emotional person, and I have the capacity to feel things, and if I can put those feelings and emotions into music, that seems like a very worthwhile thing to do. I am kind of aware of other people as well. I don't know if compassion is the right word, but – I feel like I'm blowing my own trumpet – I do get very upset by other things as well and am trying to use that in my music. I'm quite a solitary person. I probably have been too much so in the past, and I'm only really just now finding the kind of strength you can get from being with other people and hearing what they have to say.

Blues is also what I grew up listening to. I was very lucky to have parents with a fine, fine record collection. God knows what I'd have turned out like if I didn't. I was brought up listening to [John Lee] Hooker, to Howlin' Wolf, to Robert Johnson and a lot of Hendrix and Beefheart. So I was exposed to all these very compassionate musicians at a very young age, and that's always remained in me and seems to surface more as I get older and have more experience myself. I think the way we are as we get older is a result of what we knew when we were children. More and more so, I see that. Those early learning years shape your whole life and your whole person, your being, the personality you become.

It's fascinating, because when I'm at my parents' house now, they'll put a record on that I don't recognize the name of and I think I don't know. Yet I know every single word on that album, because maybe when I was 3, they were playing it all the time. It's just all gone in there [points to her head], and that shows me just how much my music is shaped by what I was listening to and experiencing as a child.

And you never had the tendency to rebel and like the exact opposite of what your parents liked?
I think that happened as well, when I was in secondary school and all my friends were going through the rebellious time of not liking anything their parents liked. I rejected all of the music I'd listened to and went out and bought Duran Duran records and Spandau Ballet. And I'm probably influenced by that, too. Soft Cell singing "Tainted Love" is probably one of my favorite songs of all time.

The isolation of where you lived also probably helped you strengthen your ties to your parents.
Where we lived was very remote and cut off from other people. I lived in one of those very, very tiny villages, named Dorset, and we don't have a shop or anything like that. We just have one bar. That's it. And everybody that goes to that bar has been going there for the last 17 years. So I lived quite a quiet lifestyle and didn't have that many other children in the village when I was young.

Do you still dislike London?
No, actually I quite enjoy it now. I think I went through my phase of disliking it. It just wasn't a good place to live since it was the first place I lived away from my family. Since then, I've lived in Chelsea for a few months, which is quite nice, and I'm planning to get a flat up here and have one in Dorset as well and sort of commute.

So it was nothing intrinsic to the city that caused you to nearly break down when you were living here in 1992?
It was a time when I'd been trying to come to terms with what was happening very fast for me musically in terms of starting to have recognition. And it was also that I had moved away from home for the first time, into a place like Tottenham. It's a pretty rough area. It's a very poor, mostly black area, and there were a few scary times down there. I was followed a couple of times at night. Once, I made the mistake of walking home with a friend when we weren't really sure which streets were OK to walk after a certain time. I ended up walking down a few streets that I obviously shouldn't have, and you get people coming up to you and bumping into you on purpose and following you around.

And people think of you as a tough role model.
I think that in general people think of me as some kind of very hard woman to get along with, and maybe that is drawn from the music. I would presume it is. I don't usually make interviews difficult for people or anything like that or storm out or chuck things out of hotel windows. But it's just strange that very often people's idea of me is almost the opposite of what I am like. We have a joke about it being the bitch-from-hell syndrome. It doesn't bother me at all There's nothing I can do about it, and in some ways it helps me maintain my own privacy.

It's funny because the Polly Jean Harvey you see onstage is very strong, but the Polly Jean Harvey in the lyrics can be a very needy person.
Like everyone, I can have very weak moments as well, and I've had a lot of struggles with myself. But I think, even on the stage, there are some very . . . well, maybe not. I think I have a very vulnerable side but not in performance at this moment. I haven't been strong enough to be that open. It's exposing yourself in a very naked way to be vulnerable in front of a lot of people that you don't know. So there is very much a cutoff point, and I can sing a very, very gentle and tender song and do it in a very strong way. But I would like to not have to do that in the future. I think that is something that is going to come quite soon – in the next three years because of the way I've gained strength in my day-to-day life as a person.

When I watch you perform, it sometimes seems like you are detached from your body, like a marionette pulling your own strings. Do you feel disembodied?
It varies night by night. The special times for me are when you do lose your body. But I don't get an actual out-of-body experience onstage. At other times when I'm on my own, I do. I'm very interested in that whole side of life, and, yes, I can take myself away and go where I want to go. I think that's very important for the imagination. It's very healthy. I often wonder, "Why do we reach a certain age and stop using our imaginations?" When you're a child, you can make anything happen. You can create a friend if you haven't got one to play with, and you can be Superwoman, and you can fly to the moon. And then you get older and you kind of think, no, you can't do that anymore. There are no rules that say you can't. You need to constantly exercise your imagination, which I do every day. It's particularly good if you're involved in creating things yourself. I practice meditation as well, whether that's spending time in a quiet room and closing your eyes or just going for a walk and looking really looking with a clear eye, with nothing clouding your vision.

Do you ever get scared of losing control of your mind?
That's happened to me. I know the first time that I felt that, I did really panic. "Oh, God, am I going to get back again? But I think that once that's happened once or twice, you then know there's nothing to panic about. You realize that you're in this body and that you carry it around until you die, and so there isn't really that danger of losing it.

Did you ever need drugs to take you there?
No, never. I mean, it's a way to get there, certainly. I learned how to do it just through myself. Drug-taking does take you there as well, but it gets you there in a very different way and not a route that I'd prefer.

Are you ever scared of somebody slipping you acid while you're on tour?
It's something that I would like to experience before I park my clogs, someone slipping me acid, yes.

Really? Wouldn't you want to choose the time and place?
It's not something I'd be frightened of It's a necessary part of learning. So, come on. Want to slip me something?

I already did, in your water.
Yeah?

What's written on your hand, by the way?
Serum. I'm not going to explain that for you.

Maybe I don't want to know.
It's my personal note pad. Everything I have to remember goes there. This way, when I see that person, I have to talk about serum.

Will you tell me what you're reading at the moment?
At the moment I'm reading a Nick Cave biography. It hasn't come out yet, but I've been asked to make a comment on it, so I got a proof copy. It's quite funny, and it's fascinating to see how some, body else evolved.

And someday, somebody is probably going to want to write your biography. Would you let them?
This is something I've thought about. I'd never have this done about me. I've known Nick and the other guys in his band for quite a while, and yet I'm reading about things that they never would've told me. I thought, "I'd never want somebody to read about things that I wouldn't tell them myself, face to face." So I don't like it. I wouldn't want it done.

Aren't you a big Bible reader as well?
Not every day. I go through phases. I read it as much as I can. There's just so much in there. I don't know the answers to anything. Everything is possible as far as I'm concerned, and nothing is impossible. I enjoy reading it for that. It's, like, if you want to let your imagination run wild, dip into a few Bible stories. It's pretty amazing stuff. Why take a trip on acid when you can read the Bible?

This story is from the December 28th, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 724: December 28, 1995
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