This article originally appeared in the August 1993 issue of SPIN.
Polly Harvey is standing in the rain, in the middle of a generic English small-town shopping street. The 23-year-old singer is wearing a plush fake leopard-skin coat, her usual Olive Oyl bun let loose into barely restrained curly waves. She is bone-tired, fed up with interviews and photo sessions, sick of being the latest fixation in the music press’s neurotic search for new blood. Although she leads me to a local tea house, Harvey looks like she’d rather be getting a tetanus shot. I’m deeply flattered.
Harvey and her band, PJ Harvey, released one of the most talked-about debuts of last year, Dry, and have just issued the ballyhooed follow-up, Rid of Me. Critics have wet themselves over her striking image and her “female” lyrics, and rock stars from Jon Bon Jovi to Steven Tyler to Tanya Donelly have professed their admiration. Harvey is emblematic of a new breed of female musicians: She’s articulate and angry; she’s reluctant to align herself with feminism, yet the female body constantly asserts itself in her music with scalding ferocity. She wants to buy into rock history—her heroes are nearly all men—but only on her own terms.
Harvey is the kind of charismatic, Garboesque character whose contradictions are endlessly fascinating; she strips herself bare in her music while steadfastly refusing to “reveal” herself in interviews. “I don’t think I give away much of me in any interview,” she explains, smiling ruefully the second time I meet her, in a luminously cozy pub in a seaside town. She has the sallow look of someone who doesn’t eat or sleep enough. Unlike our first, stilted encounter, though, she seems animated and friendly this time. But her attitude to strangers still stands. “I think I give the most to people when I say very little, and actually I don’t talk that much to people that are close to me. You don’t need to.”
She has no desire to be framed, to play the industry game. Because her music seems very personal, we think we know her. “The biggest protection you can have,” she says, “is if people think they’ve got you and they haven’t got you at all.” But what’s most affecting about PJ Harvey’s music are the unclassifiable moments that seep silently into our memories, like soft dark bruises we don’t remember receiving.
Though you wouldn’t know it from its press clips, PJ Harvey isn’t just a person but a band. Drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan are an unassuming pair, seemingly unfazed by the media attention (not that they get much). The band’s publicist warns me, “This is the kind of band that leaves a hotel room cleaner than it was when they got there.” Not suited to the rock’n’roll lifestyle, both Harvey and Ellis tried living in London, but neither lasted more than six months. When the city brought Harvey to the verge of a breakdown, she returned home to her parents in rural Dorset. The band clearly thrives on the anonymity of country life. “The nice thing about living ’round here,” says Ellis, “is it really is way away from all the people who are interested in PJ Harvey. They’re more interested in sheep and cattle around here. And rightly so.”
1992’s Dry was a gawky but beautiful album, oscillating between pale fragility and sulphurous abandon. I say abandon, but actually, it never really let rip. “Go, go, go,” Harvey moans repeatedly on “O Stella,” feverish with longing and frustration, unable to take her head off, torn every which way in the battle between body and brain.
Rid of Me, however, is a truly savage record, full of torrid obsession and untethered rage. It has a dynamic range as wide as the Grand Canyon, clots of noise, and Harvey’s achy, hemorrhaging vocals. The title track is a Fatal Attraction scenario, with Harvey alternately begging, “Don’t leave me,” and taunting, “Don’t you wish you’d never met her?” “Rub ‘Till It Bleeds” starts with gentle acoustic guitar and dulcet vocals, then mutates into a hungry rock’n’roll beast as voracious and thunderous as Led Zeppelin. “Dry,” an early song that didn’t make it onto the first LP, is plaintive and parched, pivoting around the ultimate male ego-puncturing accusation: “You leave me dry.”
Harvey’s choice of producer—Steve Albini (Nirvana, Pixies), formerly of Big Black and Rapeman—surprised many. Albini, synonymous with an ultra-masculine doctrine, would seem to jar with Harvey’s intricate, intimate brand of music. Still, Rid of Me works—largely because so much of its subtext is Harvey’s grappling with masculinity: simultaneously repelled by and impressed with its swagger. The irony of songs about machismo sung by Harvey and filtered through Albini’s hardcore aesthetic seems to have escaped them both. In fact, they claim to be the closest of friends, soulmates. He calls Harvey a genius, and her face lights up with pure delight at the mention of his name. “What did he say about me?” she demands, only half-joking.
Originally, Albini was underwhelmed by PJ Harvey’s live sound (“I sort of felt they’d rather be having a bowl of soup than rocking”) but agreed to produce the LP because “I thought her guitar playing was cool.” He’s notorious for his hatred of the human voice, but she convinced him that vocals were important to her, and in turn he wowed her with his studio tricks (like filtering her voice through a guitar amp so that she sounds bound and gagged on songs such as “Hook” and “Yuri-G”). The result is wrenching. Albini’s production doesn’t efface the “feminine” side of Harvey, but it does make her gasp for air. “We were both equally offended by the way women are treated in the music industry,” says Albini, “coddled and treated as if they’re incapable of making their own decisions.” When I mention this to Harvey, she nods her head, then points out that Albini fell prey to the same syndrome. “It was funny because, in the studio, Steve found himself treating me like that and he got really angry with himself. I think that made him feel a bit uncomfortable.” Which is one explanation for why the Albini-Harvey relationship worked: Rid of Me feeds on discomfort.
“Cheer up, luv.” This is addressed not to Polly Harvey—who, in person, is sweet and nowhere as dour as she likes to look in photos—but to me. I’m sitting on a stool in that pub near Harvey’s secret beach hideaway, waiting for her to finish talking to her publicist. The conversation is getting increasingly heated as Harvey asserts control over her destiny. I begin to squirm, wondering how her mood will affect our interview, when a funny old geezer launches the patronizing line on me: “Why don’t you smile, luv?” Women exist only to prettify the world, so I grin weakly as he explains that only yesterday he’d been responsible for putting five dogs to sleep. “I had to do it, but they were living, breathing creatures, you know… Ah, everything’s always all right in the end.” Just as I’m beginning to lose hope, Harvey is magically ready to talk. I never find out why those dogs had to die.
When I suggest to Harvey that her songs seem to flit very easily between male and female personas, she says, matter-of-factly, “I hardly ever give a lot of thought—particularly when I’m involved in making music or writing—to whether I’m male or female. I feel neither one nor the other.” Harvey absolutely refuses to believe her sex has anything to do with her music, but I can’t help wondering if she’s in denial as she fills me in on her life story. Following in the footsteps of her beloved older brother, she became a true tomboy, wearing a crew cut and boys’ clothes up to the age of 14.
“I used to pee backwards, all the classic symptoms.” She smiles as church bells toll outside. “I was devastated when I started growing breasts, it was horrible. Didn’t want them at all. They’re still growing now, actually,” she giggles. “I think I’m a very late developer! I can remember when I was younger my mum really wanting me to wear dresses. And I’d wear them and I’d just sit in one position all day and look really sulky with my lip hanging out until I was allowed to put my trousers back on again.”
Why did you give up? “I got older and I realized that if I didn’t, then people would carry on thinking I was a boy and I’d carry on getting told off for going in the ladies’ toilets!”
When I compliment her on her gorgeous, unruly mane of inky-black hair, she blanches a little. “It’s too beautiful and pretty. I’m still a tomboy at heart. That’s why I hardly ever wear it down, ’cause I feel too…girly.”
The funny thing is, for a girl who spent her early life trying to pass for a boy, she seems driven to shove her female body in everyone’s face. She’s bared her breasts for the jacket of Dry and the cover of the U.K.’s NME. How did she ever manage to expose her body to public scrutiny?
“It’s something you get used to, like interviews…” she says, giving me the practiced reply. Then she scrunches her face up in a funny, awkward grin. “But I have a complex about my body! I don’t feel comfortable with how I look at all… I think that I like to turn it on myself and make myself feel more ridiculous as a way of dealing with it.”
When the band goes on tour this summer, Harvey will be ditching the androgynous look and playing with a more “feminine” persona—letting her hair down literally and figuratively. The video for “50 Ft Queenie,” Rid of Me‘s first single, is the first hint of an image change: Harvey’s decked out as a larger-than-life glam queen with attitude to spare. 50 Ft Queenie “stomps around in platform gold sandals and shakes her hair around a lot,” says Harvey. “She’s big ’cause she feasts on men and that’s a good form of protein.”
Queenie is a great alter ego for Harvey, since what’s so striking about her music is its physicality. Her songs escalate from simmering tension to outright combat, and her guitar playing is startlingly aggressive. She seems to gouge out riffs, and hack at rhythm chords. Surprisingly, Harvey says she finds “singing much more directly physical than playing the guitar. It’s coming straight from you, you’ve got to use your whole body weight to do it.” She’s very earnest about improving her voice: She’s taking Italian opera classes at home, and is considering bringing another guitarist on board to free her to focus on singing. “There’s endless possibilities there, which I think Diamanda Galás is doing already. She turns everything upside down by the way she sings. She directly makes you feel nauseous or makes you feel horrified or ridiculous just by her voice. I think that’s an incredible power.”
Listening to Rid of Me the very first time made me think of something Galás once said: “Women need to think of themselves as predators rather than prey.” Harvey agrees completely. “I read something the other day about whether all women are prone to liking sado-masochism ’cause of being the penetrated and not the penetrator. Then again, you can look at it from the other point of view where the man might think he gets swallowed whole.” Such ambivalences—love-hate, attraction-repulsion, domination-submission—are Harvey’s prime terrain, as in the line from “Legs” that goes, “I might as well be dead / But I could kill you instead.” It’s pure impulse and adrenaline, like not knowing whether you want to kill your lover or fuck. “I like to feel uncomfortable and not in control because so much of the rest of the time I’m trying to be on top of everything. So when you’re at a loss like that, that’s really exciting.”
Have you ever thought about killing someone?
“Although I may have a head full of anger, I don’t think it’d be very easy to kill someone unless I had a large shotgun or a can of gasoline and a match,” she laughs. “I would love to be able to fire a gun, I’ve often thought that.”
Harvey consistently rejects any approach that smacks of gender, but when I mention the idea that men take out their anger on others, while women inflict it on themselves, a flicker of recognition lights up her eyes. “It’s very occasionally that I’ll let it out and then shout at someone else…That’s why you get ill, that’s why your shoulders hurt, that’s why you bite the skin off your nails, off your lips—because there’s all this aggression you just turn in on yourself all the time. I’m finding other ways of getting it out now like drumming. And singing…I was shouting and screaming at myself in the bath last night and it was wonderful. And then I could go to sleep, which I probably couldn’t have done otherwise.”
Courtney Love, frontwoman for Hole and last year’s winner of the “women in rock” sweepstakes, is a huge fan of Harvey’s. “I envy Harvey in a way,” she says. “She wears pants, keeps her hair off her face, wears a big guitar to gird herself, doesn’t ‘ask for it’ in any way.” Unlike Love, who is happy to articulate her place as a woman in rock, Harvey has no agenda. In fact, she doesn’t even believe in gender, let alone want to align herself with feminism. But Love is right: Harvey is making a quiet spectacle of herself, exposing the underbelly of femininity in a way that’s so subtle you can almost see how she’d miss it herself.
“In her own way, she presents challenges,” Love suggests. “Maybe she can be a kind of crossroads, a bridge. Some women have an ideology of ‘I’m gonna be as good as a guy’—I understand that, and I wish I was smart enough to do that. I always open up my mouth. But I’ve watched the rock mantle being passed from one guy to another all my life; if she has the chance to change that, I think that’s amazing.”
Ironically, much of PJ Harvey’s aesthetic seems born of Harvey’s admiration for the bad-boy rebels of rock (Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Captain Beefheart), art (Andres Serrano), and literature (William S. Burroughs). They cover Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” on the LP and blues legend Willie Dixon’s “Wang Dang Doodle” on a session for John Peel’s show. I suggest to Harvey that a lot of male rebellion stems from the need to escape women and domesticity.
“Yeah,” she nods, “it’s escape from claustrophobia, from suffocating, which you feel a lot in the country. Particularly if you’re very ambitious and know you’ve got a lot to get out—you do feel like you’re suffocating and being strangled by your parents.”
But you seem so settled. Don’t you like your house and family?
Harvey responds in clipped tones, stressing every syllable: “I love and hate my house and my family.”
Masculinity is a dark thread running through Rid of Me—from the ironic “Me-Jane” (“Tarzan, I’m bleeding / Stop your fucking screaming”) and “50 Ft Queenie” (“Come and measure me / I’m 20 inches long”) to “Man-Size,” in which Harvey’s grandiose protagonist is “man-size…got my leather boots on.” A lot of her songs seem both to identify with and recoil from machismo.
“I’d say it’s more anger with myself—it’s not against any machismo operation. But it’s not just anger, it’s humiliation. I want to humiliate myself, which I think I do very well on those songs,” she explains primly. “I like to humiliate myself and make the listener feel uncomfortable. That would be the ideal package.” We laugh at this idea of mass marketing shame and horror. “I’m not satisfied with Rid of Me, it’s nowhere near achieving that…there’s a long way to go before it gets as direct as I would like. I think it’s very tame at the moment.”
Wriggling in my seat, I try to imagine what a totally unleashed PJ Harvey would sound like. The mind reels.