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PJ Harvey

Rolling Stone Australia (May 2004)

The day PJ Harvey turned thirty something clicked in her head. She spent her twenties fighting against herself, trying to quash the parts of her personality she hated while struggling to become someone, anyone other than who she was. This made for staggering music, of course – from the raw howl of ‘Rid Of Me’ to the blood red intensity of ‘Is This Desire?’ – but left Harvey herself feeling, she admits now, “unstable”. Then one day, 9th of October 1999 to be precise, it all fell into place.

“I found that from thirty onwards I accepted who I was rather than fought against it,” Harvey relates, iconic black fringe in her eyes. “Up until then I was forever battling, trying to be something I wasn’t. ‘This isn’t good enough, you can’t be like that’. And there was an acceptance of ‘OK, this is what I’m like. How can I make the most of the good parts and decrease the bad parts?’ It was an enormous relief. Literally, the day I turned thirty I felt this burden come off my shoulders.”

In the past, PJ Harvey interviews have traditionally been solemn, awkward affairs, the journalist stumbling towards psychoanalysis only to be rebuffed at every turn. Today, Harvey’s in a light-hearted, generous mood, quick to laugh at her own shortcomings and happy to discuss subjects she once would have dismissed as being too personal. When ROLLING STONE reminds her of an interview we conducted in 1991, which ended with Harvey abruptly getting up and walking out of the pub, she smiles in apology. “I was barmy then. That’s my excuse.”

It’s taken six albums, two births and a death for the deeply serious 21 year old from Corscum in Dorset to become the chatty, funny 34 year old holding court in the refined Gore Hotel in south Kensington in London, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Being able to feel more at ease with herself since turning thirty was an important step, but it was the death of her grandmother last year that pointed Harvey towards her current joie de vivre.

“She was the last grandparent that I had alive so the only one I really got to know as a friend and as somebody I would ask for help from,” Harvey says. “I feel incredibly blessed in my life because I’ve seen two children being born and I saw her die when I was holding her. And it’s just amazing to me that I’ve been able to witness something like that in my lifetime. I was extremely close to her. I think she felt able to die with me. Because there was nobody else there. I knew that she would do that, I just knew she would. Because I think she needed to feel safe.”

That must have had a huge affect on Harvey.

“Oh yeah. It does. I can’t tell you how enormous it was. And it did influence a lot of this record because this record was finished after her death. It was a very difficult time for me. I can look back on it now in a very positive way but it was difficult for a while.”

The record Harvey’s referring to is her new album, ‘Uh Huh Her’, a hugely re-energised, gloriously raw return to her roots which appears to contain two songs about her grandmother. On the stark, haunting ‘You Come Through’, she sings ‘You come through for me/You come true for me/You be well for me’, while the tender and beautiful ‘The Desperate Kingdom Of Love’ seems to be about her passing.

“That song was written before she died,” Harvey says. “It was recorded after she died, the vocal. So I think having the experience of watching somebody die deepened my ability to convey an emotion. I’m sure that is in there. That song wasn’t written about that, although it could very equally be applied and when I listen to it I do associate it with that very tender place inside of me that comes from something like that. ‘Desperate Kingdom Of Love’ is sung in probably the most intimate, tender way I’ve ever sung a song. I can’t think of a song I’ve sung tenderly before like that.”

The song ends with the sound of seagulls. It feels quietly appropriate, like a minute’s silence.

“It does to me,” Harvey nods. “I love that that’s there. I felt that after a song like ‘Desperate Kingdom Of Love’, I as a listener very much needed a rest. If you like a silence. And hearing the seagulls makes me very aware of who I am at that point of the record.”

Did her grandmother’s death make Harvey consider where she is in her own life?

“Yes, very much. If you’re close to somebody who’s had a baby or you’ve had a child or if someone close to you has died, it does make you stop and reassess your whole life. Because you’re suddenly faced with mortality. I think it plunges you into the now and being very aware that each moment needs to be made the most of because you might not be here tomorrow. It’s a very wonderful place to be and I’m forever trying to remind myself of that every day.”

And how does she feel about her life right now?

“I feel very happy actually and that I couldn’t want for more. I feel like I’m doing the thing I’m supposed to be doing, in terms of being a musician. And as a person I can’t remember feeling more alive really and loving every minute. It’s a very very happy time for me.”

The initial, almost knee-jerk reaction to ‘Uh Huh Her’ is that this is PJ Harvey lunging back into her old, dark self after the polished melodicism of ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’. Even Harvey herself said that it was shaping up to be “dark, rude, disturbing, like it’s been pulled out of a skip”, when ROLLING STONE caught up with her on the phone at the end of 2002. But after her grandmother’s death, the emphasis shifted a little. The album became more energetic, more vibrant. And actually really quite beautiful.

“I agree with you,” nods Harvey. “I’m glad you say that. Some people do think it’s a very dark, angry, sad, melancholic record and I don’t feel that. I feel like you. I find it very beautiful and very gentle and quite hopeful and quite funny in places and a lot of people only see the dark stuff there.”

Do people often miss her sense of humour?

“Always I would say,” Harvey laughs. “I’ve had people saying ‘why are you so angry and this song “Who The Fuck?”, I mean you’re so angry. I’m thinking ‘no, it’s being silly actually’. I thought the over emphasis of using a swear word in such a ridiculous situation in a song, how can people not see that that’s not supposed to be taken particularly seriously?”

‘Who The Fuck?’ is undeniably hilarious. Any song that finishes with the repeated words “who…fuck….you!” is hardly charged with malice. Joining in with ROLLING STONE’S inexpert rendering of the end of the song, Harvey rocks with mirth.

“How can people listen to me going ‘fuck…(puts on a ludicrous high pitched voice)…you!’ and think I’m being angry and really serious?”

She even adopts a semi comic cockney sneer for the song, just to hammer home the point.

“With this record more than any I was very interested in experimenting with the voice track to track. ‘The Pocket Knife’ sounds to me like it’s sung by a nine year old and ‘It’s You’ by an eleven year old and ‘Cat On The Wall’ I was imagining being seventeen years old and a bit ditzy in the head. All sides of myself probably but I love the challenge of delivering a song in a different way.”

The real point about ‘Uh Huh Her’ is that while it manages to re-capture the murky, gut-level growl of Harvey’s early work on songs like ‘The Life And Death Of Mr Badmouth’, in general the album ties that youthful vigour to a broader 34 year old perspective.

“I feel that too. I’m glad you picked up on that. Very much as a person I’ve refound a lot of the joy and excitement that you have when you’re younger. You’re more able to allow yourself to enjoy things, just for enjoyment’s sake. No big deal. Just for having fun. I’ve found the last four years I’ve done more ridiculous things that I should have done when I was a teenager, in terms of just doing stupid things.”

What like?

“Drinking so much you’re sick and staying out until seven in the morning,” laughs Harvey. “Breaking into buildings and a park. You know all these things you’re not supposed to do but you’re supposed to do when you’re 14. Climbing trees, you know everything. When I was a kid, I was so sensible and miserable and didn’t know what I was (puts on tortured voice) ‘supposed to be doing with my life’ that I never did any of that. So I’m redoing it all now.”

Where did she break into?

“A park in Los Angeles,” she laughs, sounding as happy as anything. “At about seven in the morning. This camera kept going off. I was with a friend and I’m surprised I wasn’t deported or something because we obviously weren’t supposed to be in there. But yeah. Disused buildings, anything. It’s become quite a hobby now.”

Does Harvey feel that any particular person has influenced her shift in attitude?

“No, only myself really. Maybe going through the births I’ve seen, the death I’ve seen. All of that huge desire that’s come into me of wanting to live each moment to the full and wanting to always be aware of being in the now. Not in the present, not in the past, right now, that’s all that’s important. And trying to making the most of each moment like that. And trying to be good to people. That’s another big change. You get back what you give. If you’re good to people, you get good done to you. That’s something I’ve only learnt recently.”

One of the many things that Harvey decided to accept about herself when she turned thirty was her restless spirit. Much as her recorded output oscillates from commercial to experimental, from tender to tortured, as a person she’s never satisfied to stay in one place for very long. She constantly hungers after fresh experience, a different person to talk to or collaborate with, and her newfound desire to squeeze as much as she can from every last moment has stepped that restlessness up a gear.

“I’m never very comfortable being in one place for very long,” Harvey nods. “And I’ve always been like that. Because I was born on a Thursday, my mum used to say to me ‘Thursday’s child has far to go’. I remember this nursery rhyme book and there was a diagram of each day of the week child, you know ‘Monday’s child is fair of face’, and Thursday’s child is standing in a train station with a suitcase, and I’ve always thought ‘yeah’.

“I like moving,” she continues. “I like seeing places I’m not familiar with. I absolutely feel that my purpose here is to travel around the world singing to people. I don’t get any greater fulfilment. I love constantly being plunged into the new and having to see things with new eyes. Every different country you’re unfamiliar with and so trying to find a post office becomes a new and exciting experience. Trying to find a chemist that sells hand wash so you can wash your knickers. How do you do that in Barcelona? I love that. And just the fact of seeing the beauty of things. Seeing the way that different trees look and smell in different countries. In some ways it’s like going into the now. You suddenly become very aware of that moment then.”

Does she speak any languages?

“No. I want to learn Russian. And I’ve got books about it, but I feel that I can’t teach myself. I love Russian folk music and would love to be able to understand it and be able to sing it. I read a lot of translations of Russian writers and poetry and the folk lyrics and would love to be able to read it in that language. It’s a big ambition. I want to go to Russia and live there for a few months and do some writing. This tour goes on until December. Then I’ll be in Los Angeles for the winter. And then I’ll go to Russia in the summer. I’m going to talk somebody into coming with me. Hopefully another writer so we can both be doing the same thing.”

Beyond that, Harvey says she’ll be doing “whatever comes my way”. Having talked about witnessing two births, might that include children?

“It’s not something I think about. If it happened to me, it would happen. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I don’t feel a maternal longing. Some people do. I don’t. And yet I enjoy children. But I don’t go all broody when I see them. My brother has four children so I think maybe he’s done my quota as well for the family. And I get to see them grow up and play with them. So who knows?

How is Auntie Polly? Is she a good Auntie?

“I’m rather an absent auntie. But they’re so used to it now. I always find it amazing how accepting they are of me. If I’ve been away for six months, I just come back and they don’t bat an eyelid. They don’t even say hello really, they just carry on with what they’re doing or get me to join in and I love that. There’s no big ‘oh, you’re back’. They call me Polly Popstar. Polly Popstar.”

That what Harvey is, after all.

“Yeah,” she smiles, finally comfortable with who she is. “Yeah.”

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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