Happy Woman Blues
PollyJean Harvey does not suffer fools gladly, especially fools with taperecorders. When questioned, she does not answer so much as reply, oftenprefacing her response with a purse-lipped “Mmm,” as if she’sthinking of a way to address the query without accepting the suspectpremise behind it. When she is asked a question so poorly phrased–and,if we’re being honest, so dumb in the first place–that it will not berepeated here, she says, matter-of-factly, “I’m just stunned you askedme that.” See that low divan she’s perched on, in this musty-by-designLondon hotel room? That’s the driver’s seat. And woe betide anyone whoattempts to steer.
The 35-year-old Harvey’s seventh album, Uh Huh Her–whichshe recorded mostly at her home in Dorset, England, alone, on vintagefour-track and eight-track tape machines–includes such futurebreakup-mix-tape classics as “The Darker Days of Me & Him” and “TheDesperate Kingdom of Love.” It sounds like the work of someone who’srecently had her heart pressed into service as an ashtray. Harvey(who’s been linked to such figures of romantic malevolence as Nick Caveand Vincent Gallo) insists that this is not the case, much as she’smaintained that 2000’s Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea,despite its references to places like Brooklyn and Little Italy, wasn’ther “New York record.” And while it’s hard to believe her, it’s notimpossible.
She’s never really been a confessional songwriter. Her music is deeply personal in that it’s always identifiably hers,but it’s sometimes hard to know where to look for Harvey in it. Otherfemale alt-rock icons of her approximate vintage–Liz Phair andCourtney Love, chief among them–have lived and died by autobiography,Harvey has chased her muse into murkier territory, striving to beprotean, living to confound.
“I try not to repeat myself in any way,” she says. “It’sprobably the most important goal I have when I’m working. I throw outloads of songs because of it. In fact, one song I didn’t put on thisrecord is ‘Uh Huh Her,’ where the title comes from. It reminded me toomuch of PJ Harvey.”
Spin: It’s interesting that you make a conscious effort with each recordto move away from you.
Polly Harvey: Mmm. Well, to me, it seems like theobvious thing to do. I don’t understand how some people will basicallyremake the same album over and over and be satisfied. I’d learn nothingfrom just writing another album like the last one. I’m doing what I’mdoing because I want to see what I’m capable of as a writer and asinger, and that means challenging yourself.
Do you try to change your process from album to album, in order to get something different out of yourself? Always. I’m constantly thinking, “What if I sang in this way?” or “What if I sang”–you know–“whilst throttling myself?” or “What if I sang whilst under a duvet?” [Laughs]
You’ve also been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, which is about as far from the north of England as you can get. I’vehad an apartment there for about a year. I go to escape the Englishwinter, and I have good friends there who I want to see more often thanjust when I pass through on tour. Los Angeles is a place where I dolots of things. I go see bands play, watch films–things I don’t do inDorset because it’s very, very quiet there. I tend to have this sort ofextreme, opposite lifestyle, which I’ve always thrived on. It’s reallyinspiring, particularly as a writer. The next time I’m writing, I’dlike to relocate again, maybe to somewhere I don’t speak the language,where it’ll be a challenge to buy a bar of soap.
Rid of Me [Harvey’s vivid, corrosive secondalbum, released in 1993] really feels like the work of someone in theirearly twenties–that period when just expressing provocativesentiments, like the ones in “50Ft Queenie,” is enough, and when it’sliberating and powerful to say “Bend over, Casanova” out loud. What doyou hear when you listen to those songs now? As you get older, youjust become wiser about everything, from the way you use language tothe way you relate to other people. That’s the biggest change that Ihear from those early records to now. The very first record is verynaive, and I love it because of that. The language is naive, and youcan hear that it’s written by a young Polly Harvey. You can hear thatthis new record is written by an older person.
So do you feel like you’re more cynical now? No–I think I’m probably less cynical.
I fall into the category of people who find this record extremely dark– Mmm-hmm–
–compared to the last one, which seemed so open and hopeful.I find an enormous amount of openness and hope on this record. I think,probably for the first time in my life, I’m able to apply the word tenderto a couple of songs that I’ve written. “The Desperate Kingdom of Love”or “You Come Through” I find incredibly optimistic and tender.
But a lot of the songs seem to wrestle with feelings of helplessness, or the concept of surrender. Like I said, I think that–[sighs]–I’mloath to describe what I think the album should be. And I’m not goingto sit here and tell you what’s coming off it. That’s what I like aboutother people’s music: I don’t want to hear what specific event a songis about, because that’ll spoil what it means to me.
Okay, but isn’t there a pervasive sense of desperation in there?I don’t feel that, personally. But, um, whatever. You’re not giving memuch to talk about, really. But it’s perfectly valid if you find itdark and desperate and cynical.
So many songs on the record seem to present love assomething that forces you to sacrifice your independence or yourautonomy. Do you feel that way, that love is something you have tosubmit to? It’s different for everyone, isn’t it? Depends what kindof person you are. But if you can retain your sense of who you are, Ithink that’s a much better way to meet somebody halfway in arelationship. If you’re all washed-out, confused, messed-up, thenthere’s not so much of you as a person available to give. You have tomaintain your individuality, instead of getting raveled in someoneelse. Which is a hard thing to do if you fall in love, because you justwant to be them, practically.
It’s hard to know what to give, and what to hold back.It is, and again, it’s something we only learn by making mistakes. Andnot everyone’s like me; other people love to be submerged in arelationship, and feel under the wing of somebody else.
Did you discover this about yourself through negative experience? Don’t you think that’s something we all do when we’re younger? Diving in headfirst? Especiallywhen you’re younger and you don’t have much knowledge about who youare. I mean, some people do. Some people are blessed with being wisesouls from about ten years upwards-they just seem to be born an oldspirit in a young body. I know people like that, and it’s quiteamazing. But most of us do just have to struggle through.
So you don’t feel that way about yourself, the old-spirit thing?It’s strange with me. When I was younger, yeah, I felt like a very oldsoul in a young body. I was very serious, and worked really hard anddidn’t play much. When I was a teenager, I didn’t really do the thingsa teenager should do, like go out, have fun, drink too much, fall over,that kind of thing. I was always thinking about working or writing. AndI’m feeling that as I get older, I’m able to enjoy more childlikethings. Which is maybe the wrong way ’round to do it, but quitepleasurable.
You’re becoming less responsible. Yes! [Laughs]
At what point did you start to feel more settled in your life? Was it when you started making records?It took a long time for me to actually feel like I was doing what I wassupposed to be doing on this earth. It was sort of around the time ofmaking [1998’s] Is This Desire? that I finally accepted that I was a songwriter.
That long? Yeah. I probably should have therapy todeal with it and find out why that was. But when I started out, I wasvery confused about what I wanted to do, what was going to make mehappy in my life. And I wasn’t happy for a lot of those early albums. Alot of it was the whole business side of music. I found it very harddealing with management and record companies, having to do interviews,having my photograph taken. It seemed so unlike what I had gone intomaking music for.
And you were thrown into that almost immediately. It happened reallyfast, yeah. I was completely unprepared. I was at art college, andmusic was my love, my hobby, and then it just took off. So I deferredfor a year, and I was going to go back, but I just kept going with[songwriting]. I had this feeling of guilt about being able to earn aliving doing something that was a joy and a pleasure–like it was beinghanded to me on a plate, which didn’t feel right. A lot of my friendswere struggling to get anywhere, having no money, doing shit jobs, notbeing able to get their artwork seen or heard. But it wasn’t justfeelings of guilt, it was confusion, as well. I asked myself, “Is thiswhat I want to be doing, because it’s happening really fast? Do I wantto stop it now?”
Was there ever a point when you did stop? A couple of times. I remember I was halfway through making Is This Desire?–Flood[the album’s producer] reminded me of this the other day. I’d somehowblacked it out of my mind totally, because it was such a weirdexperience. I abandoned that record halfway through. Shelved it for awhole year and told Flood I wasn’t doing it anymore, that I was gonnajust stop doing music and get a job. I really wanted to do that. I juststopped. I didn’t play music, didn’t listen to it, nothing, for about ayear.
What did you do, in that time? I got depressed! [Laughs] Got depressed and sat in a dark room.
You didn’t play a note? I didn’t, but then I caughtmyself slowly creeping back toward the instruments. I’d realize:”You’ve been playing the guitar for half an hour! What are you doing?”It just started happening again. There was a similar time around theend of the To Bring You My Love tour, which was ridiculouslystrenuous. I was completely debilitated and physically drained, and Ithought I didn’t want to do it anymore. But I think a lot of that,again, was not really knowing if I was fulfilling my role as a humanbeing.
It seems unfair that people have to make decisions aboutwhat to do with their lives when they’re young, because they’re socompletely in the grip of their emotions that they can’t really thinkstraight.Confusion reigns when you’re younger. There’s somuch information. You’re trying to process everything and work out ifyou’re happy at what you’re doing. How old are you?
I’m going to be 27 in about a month. Oh, it keeps getting better, believe me. I think when I turned 30 I really started thinking, “This is great.” Confusion reigned up until then.
It’s depressing to think it’s going to take that long. Well, you might mature earlier than I did.
Do those milestones really mean anything, though? Ididn’t think they would. But then I felt an enormous sense ofapproaching doom as 30 loomed. But when it actually happened, it was asense of release. Acceptance. I just thought: “Hmm [sighs]. This is all right.” I’d accepted myself. Then you can just make the best of what you are.
I have a good female friend who says it’s not 30 for women, but33 you have to worry about. [Chuckles dryly] Oh. Right.
And it’s also the Jesus birthday. Of course. And it’s the same speed as a record [laughs]. Thirty-three and a third.