PJ Harvey interview: How to be a cult icon
by Esther Haynes
In November 2000, PJ Harvey gave Esther Haynes (editor of the once-beautiful but now-defunct 'Jane' Magazine) a crash course in how to be a cult icon. In eight not-so-easy steps. With PJ Harvey, if it's easy, it's not worthwhile...
Polly Jean Harvey scares the hell out of me. Maybe it's because onstage she's snarlingly intense, like she could bite you in two. Or maybe it's because the lyrics of her album Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea are sweet, fierce and disturbing all at once. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that her publicist warned me that PJ doesn't like "obnoxious reporters" with "weird questions." And let's face it - she intimidates me because she's practically my age and has a multinational cult following.
Which makes me wonder, "How does one become an icon by the age of 30?" Well, let's take a look.
Pick the right parents.
When PJ, or Polly, as I like to pretend I call her, was a young girl in the village of Yeovil, England, her folks were always playing music. "It surrounded us," says Polly. "Particularly blues - John Lee Hooker, Howling Wolf, the Rolling Stones. I went to concerts from the age of 10." Her mother, an artist who carved tombstones during the day, promoted local bands in her spare time.
Polly hung out with the musicians and enjoyed her parents' albums until she became a teenager. Then her tastes took a turn for the worse: New Wave and synth-pop. "The first record I bought was Rio by Duran Duran," she remarks, laughing. "Then Spandau Ballet and Soft Cell... I was having a bit of a rebellion against my parents' record collection." But before long, she snapped out of it and reunited with Bob Dylan, Captain Beefheart and the Police. Thank God.
Heavily influenced by those artists, she formed the trio PJ Harvey in 1991, at 22. The band put out two amazing albums (Dry and Rid of Me) in two years, then broke up. In '95, Polly stepped into the studio, held nothing back and walked out with the masterpiece To Bring You My Love.
Attempt to destroy yourself, then get over it.
In the mid-1990s, Polly was very, very thin. So thin, in fact, she looked ill. Then the rumors started: What's up with PJ Harvey? Is she anorexic?
"For a while, I was on self-destruct mode in all areas of my life," she explains. "I definitely was not a healthy person - 1995 is when I really lost track of it all. I threw myself into touring with a passion, and I got run down very quickly."
When I ask if any drugs or alcohol were involved, she responds: "I didn't choose those methods of destruction, but there were others. I'm out of that now. I'm healthier than I've ever been, and much more aware of eating well."
Ooze sex. And talk about it freely.
"Our sexual side is very important; it's an essential part of being human. I enjoy that kind of passion," she says. When Polly performs, she is electric, animalistic, entirely overwhelming. At 5-foot-4, she may be small, but she could kick Courtney Love's ass (not that she'd need to - Courtney is another one of Polly's fans).
And then there are her lyrics, which, besides being consistently well-written, are strongly sensual. "I just wanna sit here and watch you undress," she growls on her new album. "Wanna chase you around the table, wanna touch your head.... You're my dirty little secret." And you know what her early single Sheela-Na-Gig refers to? It's the name of a pagan image carved into various Norse ruins of a woman exposing her genitals and laughing. I love that.
This woman has revealed a lot of herself over the years - her albums are so visceral, her performances are so unrestrained, and her photo shoots are sometimes so... nude. Polly has included partially naked shots of herself on a few album covers, and in 1991, she appeared topless on the cover of Britain's NME (New Musical Express). You got a problem with that? "It all happened very organically and in a naive way, really," she says of the controversial cover. "It just felt right at the time, and I think it was quite a beautiful image. I didn't do it to shock, and I haven't done it since, because it's never felt like the right thing to do. On my own albums, I've appeared kind of in seminude poses, but only ever from an artistic point of view. That probably sounds like, 'Oh, she's using the art ploy.' But I mean it. And yes, I would do it again if it felt right."
Screw what everybody thinks. She's been nominated for three Grammies; she was practically canonized by Rolling Stone and Spin in their millennium wrap-ups; and rock stars all over the world want to lick her toes. Did all the adulation make Polly feel pressured to write songs the critics would like? "Never," she responds. "In fact, almost the opposite. It made me more strongly follow my own path. At the time of writing and recording, I obliterate any thoughts of the outside and only make it what's right for the song. If I did it any other way, I would lose my self-respect. And then i'd just write a load of rubbish anyway."
Speaking of rubbish, what does she think of the mainstream music successes of the past few years? "Well, I've never heard an entire Britney Spears record or a Christina - what's her name? Aguilera. "Agra... I don't know. Unless I hear something and it catches my ear, I don't investigate it. I guess it's just washed over me."
Same goes for the computer "trend." Polly doesn't own one, and doesn't want one. You know how she writes the lyrics to all her songs? "By hand, with a fountain pen, on bits of paper everywhere."
Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers has said he would "swim over the ocean just to play one note" with Polly. I ask her if she has ever felt that awestruck by somebody. "Bob Dylan is incredible," she comments. "He's an amazing songwriter. However, I don't think I would even feel worthy to play that one note with him, so he wouldn't be my idea of somebody that I could collaborate with. He's so much on a different level, I couldn't even approach getting there."
Try new things.
A year ago, Polly wanted a change of pace from the English countryside where she was living, so she up and moved to New York for nine months to work on her album. "I got to the point where I felt I needed a change both personally and artistically, I wanted a shake-up," she notes. And it worked: "It was like starting again, that's what I loved. It was like having my eyes opened for the first time."
That sense of awe shines throughout her new record, which is keenly energetic. One particularly haunting song, This Mess We're In, features someone Polly had never worked with before - Radiohead's Thom Yorke. "I've long been an admirer of Thom's voice, and I knew I wanted to write a duet. So I wrote this song with his voice in mind, hoping he'd say, 'Yes, I'll sing it,' and that he'd find something in the lyrics," Polly says. "He said yes almost straight away."
Give it up.
When it comes to your art, rip yourself open. Leave yourself vulnerable. Take the risk that maybe nobody will understand where you're coming from. And if they don't get it, they can go to hell. You just can't manufacture your way into the world of icons.
I guess that's Polly Jean Harvey's secret: She never tried to be an icon, she just is one.
Source: Jane, November 2000