Diva with a difference
An often contrary musician and performer, Polly Jean Harvey has, nevertheless, seen her fan base grow and her critical acclaim continually increase over an erratically brilliant 12-year career, and shows no signs of flagging. She is very much her own woman, and although she is one of only a handful of successful solo female performers in rock, Harvey resists acting like a flag-bearer for her genre with grace.
"I think there would be more women in the rock scene if they were any good," she has said. "But there are so few who are. And audiences aren’t stupid."
What is amazing in an age when the media is utterly obsessed with celebrity and the private lives of our entertainers, is that Harvey has achieved her current level of success without recourse to self-exposure. The 34-year-old singer is notoriously private and guarded about her personal life. She goes to considerable lengths to keep her affairs out of the spotlight, and never answers questions about it in the press. Compare that with, say, Courtney Love, who operates in the same field musically, and who currently seems to be living her entire life in the public eye, intent on presenting the media with exactly the kind of spectacle they want.
Not so, Harvey. In the three years since her last album, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, won the Mercury Music Prize we have heard barely a peep out of her. She prefers, in that time-honoured tradition of serious musicians, to let the music do the talking. And what music it is. By turns primal, dreamy, sophisticated, angry and sweet, the six albums Harvey has so far produced have only one thing in common, and that is their unpredictability. Indeed, the search for new sounds is something that has always driven her.
"Songs move and change all the time," she says. "They’re like living things. They can mean different things on a daily basis. That is the beauty of music, what fascinates me, and that is what will keep me chasing music for the rest of my life. You can’t nail it down."
It has by no means been plain sailing in Harvey’s career. Born in Weymouth in Dorset in 1969 to a sculptor mother and stonemason father, she kicked around in a handful of local groups before hitting the limelight with her band in 1992 and the astonishing Dry album. A whirling dervish of furious anger, the record was a slap in the face to a boring and complacent male-orientated rock scene of the time, and even spawned an unlikely hit single with ‘Sheela-Na-Gig’, a song named after an ancient Celtic figure with an exposed vulva.
Unprepared for the attention, Harvey had the first of two breakdowns in her life, and went back to live with her parents in the Dorset countryside. "I stopped functioning properly and I was unable to look after myself," is pretty much all she will say about that time. "Everything kind of fell apart."
After a lengthy recuperation, a second album, Rid of Me, was even more spiky and vitriolic, and saw Harvey developing as a lyricist of no small talent.
By the time of her third album release, Harvey had ditched her original band in an attempt to develop musically by working with an array of different artists, something she continues to do to this day. The result was To Bring You My Love, a dark and brooding bluesy moan, bristling with energy, and a record that has since paved the way for the likes of The White Stripes to peddle a similar sound all the way into the pop charts. Up until this point her shows had been intense, dark affairs, but with this third album came a new flamboyance, Harvey turning up at Glastonbury with her tiny frame packed into a wonderbra and electric pink catsuit. This might have suggested a newfound confidence, but the break-up of an affair with Australian crooner Nick Cave and constant touring were taking their toll, and Harvey had her second serious mental breakdown.
"I was very worn and very disillusioned," she says of that time. "Emotionally, mentally or physically, it wasn’t a healthy time. I was running on empty. I’d kind of lost sight of why I was doing this, and I don’t think that would’ve happened if I’d been of stronger mind and body. But as it was I was just very low, so I really hit the bottom of the barrel and thought about stopping it all and not even continuing with music."
But thankfully she did. Another lengthy recuperation, this time including psychotherapy, and Is This Desire? emerged in 1998. But it wasn’t until the groundbreaking Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea that Harvey really showed what she could do. Far and away her most commercial record, this time it really did show an artist brimming with confidence, and it achieved both the commercial and critical success it merited.
And so now we have a seventh album. Uh Huh Her was written and recorded entirely in her Dorset home, and is a fairly extreme reaction to her previous work. For anyone who has only heard Stories From... it will be a shock. It sees her returning to her guttural, primal origins and stripping away the lushness of that previous record. As always, she is driven by the need for something new.
"I need to feel like I’m pushing myself," she says. "My first reaction is always to try and find new ground, but even stronger than that, it’s to get to the other extreme of the thing I did immediately before. So I wanted to get back to the earthy, rootsy, more dirty side of things. I wanted this record to be simple, I wanted it to be ugly in some places, I wanted it to have a swagger but also a real honesty and intimacy."
One side effect of Harvey’s determined privacy is that her lyrics are constantly over-analysed to the point of obsession by fans and critics alike and Uh Huh Her will be no different. Song titles such as ‘The Life and Death of Mr Badmouth’ and ‘Who the F***?’ will make sure of that. Unsurprisingly, she never goes into the details of the songwriting process."It seems pointless to me to explain lyrics," she says.
"I think a song, by its very nature, only works when it’s sung. You can sing ‘I love you’ in the most horrible growl or the most beautiful tender way and it means entirely different things."
Most importantly, it seems these days that Harvey is relaxed and happy with her art and her position in life, and she is looking forward to a rosy future.
"I feel very lucky to be in a position where I can spend my life exploring music," she says.
"So rarely do people get that opportunity and it’s an incredibly wonderful thing to be able to do, so I do it as well as I possibly can."
Uh Huh Her is released tomorrow on Island Records, review above. PJ Harvey plays T in the Park, July 11