On the release of PJ Harvey’s second album ‘Rid Of Me’ in early 1993, Stuart Bailie travelled to PJ Harvey’s family home in Dorset to find out what drove her from London, and what was driving her now…
The Harveys were very disturbed when they first saw the birds. All their feathers had fallen out and they were so traumatised by the battery farm that they wouldn’t lay eggs.
The battery farmer was delighted to get rid of them – the Harveys saved him the trouble of killing them. So he waved them all away in the care of these hippy do-rights trundling down the road to Corscombe, Dorset.
After a while they recuperated. They began laying eggs again, even the blind one. Hers were weird eggs with points at each end and abnormally fragile shells, but Polly ate them anyway. And that was how it was for many years after, with the chickens and the old sheep that dad until they became like family pets.
When Polly went up to London it seemed like she’d do something exciting – she’d got into St Martin’s, one of the best art schools anywhere. And she was making this special music, using word pictures that left the imagination ravished and disturbed. The critics in Britain and America raved, and yet Polly wasn’t happy. The press portrayed her as this grim harpy, and she felt confined by north London, cooped up. She had emotional problems and there were stories of a few breakdowns.
Polly’s return to Dorset in summer ’92 was upsetting for everyone. She’d lost much of her old humour and zip. So she went off down to the coast to find space and solitude.
Springtime again, and the man from NME has come down to take Polly’s picture. So she shows him around the family place, with the little river and the chicken sheds and old stone quarry. Her chosen outfit for this session is astonishing: feather boa, lurex stockings, shiny coat, funk platforms, a suit slashed at the neck and leg. But that’s not what makes the pictures so wild and amusing – it’s the background: while Polly is vogueing and throwing all these mysterioso shapes, there are feeding buckets and strips of corrugated iron behind her. In some frames, sheep have seemingly ambled on to this supermodel shoot, and there cradled in Polly’s arms, all feathers, sinews and myopic squint – the blind bird!
“I’ve wanted to do that for ages,” Polly explains, laughing, “to be glamorous and be standing in the mud with the animals, because that’s the way I live. There are these completely different extremes. When I’m at home that’s what I do, I feed chickens and stuff. And then there’s this glamorous pop star bit – or so people think.”
In our chosen interview spot, Jake’s coffee shop, I tell Polly about my first reaction to the new album, ‘Rid Of Me’. Maybe it was the tension of hearing it in a special preview situation, or perhaps it was the pungent, passionate style of the record, but I broke up laughing.
“It’s so nice to hear you say that because that’s how I feel when I listen to it and that’s what I want other people to feel. But I don’t think people do a lot of the time. Now when I listen to it, I don’t know whether I want to cry or I wanna laugh.”
‘Rid Of Me’ may not be an all-dancing, wise-cracking trip – there’s plainly some rotten experiences in there – but sometimes you get the impression that the singer has moved beyond grief and upset. You’ve got to laugh, really. There’s the likes of ‘Me-Jane’ in which Tarzan’s long-suffering mate gets to bitch off about his tedious macho ways, or the recent single ‘50Ft Queenie’, a streak of hilarious self-aggrandisement to rival any rapper’s bid for importance. And by the time the record ends, she, drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Steve Vaughan are rocking out, like Led Zeppelin or something…
“Yeah, I think that’s another great breakthrough for the band and me as a person to be able to do that … we have this phrase in the band, ‘Have you got your iron knickers on?’ After we’ve done a gig it’s like, ‘Were the iron knickers on tonight?’ And very often they were on, and none of us have let go. But nobody had their iron knickers on for that session at all.”
I ask Polly about studying art, and about her admiration for the work of Andres Serrano, the New York-based artist who got notoriety by suspending a plastic crucifix in a glass of his own urine. Following on from Piss Christ, there’s been a trend for artists such as Kiki Smith and Marc Quinn to devote themselves to making art from bodily fluids.
It’s not really a stretching point to see this trend in Polly’s songs, in ‘Dry’ for example, which is about her vaginal/emotional aridity, or on the excoriating ‘Rub ’Til It Bleeds’. So is she consciously echoing this stuff?
“Well, the last thing I saw was in New York. I went to see the Serrano exhibition of morgue photos. They made you feel a lot of things – one minute I’d feel really horrified and appalled and the next minute I’d think, this isn’t working at all, this looks really staged and I don’t feel anything for these people.
“He’s just done loads of ‘cum’ pictures. Do you find things like that really turn your stomach? I never feel physically sick by things like that, and I wonder if it’s because I’ve had to deliver lambs and stuff, when I was younger. I used to ring all the lamb’s tails and ring the testicles. I’d clear up dead lambs when they came out in bits – because sometimes they’d decompose inside the sheep and you’d’ take them out bit by bit. And I wonder if it’s hardened my stomach to things like that.”
Does it stop you getting sentimental?
“Yeah, it does.”
In some of your new songs – notably in ‘Legs’ – you’ve got this idea of love turning into violence and mutilation, when the lover would rather butcher the other person rather than lose it all.
“‘I love you so much that I’ll cut your legs off so you can’t leave me.’ I got that idea from when you’re younger and you have your favourite toys that you play with and you love them so much that they start falling apart. My Action Man’s legs would fall off and his fingers would break and stuff – but it just shows how much you loved them.”
I decide to bring up the subject of Steve Albini. His work with the indie rock’n’grunge constituency – his own Big Black plus Pixies, Breeders, the new Nirvana album – is practically a history of the guitar noise that’s mattered in the last 10 years. Polly knew some of them and caught up on the rest later. She listened to Big Black after her initial meeting with the man, and remembers it feeling like “a wire being pulled tight”. She was pleased that he could produce a similar effect with her songs.
‘Rid Of Me’ triumphs in many ways. The beats, the rhymes and the performances are overwhelming, but it’s the noise, the wonderful, visceral rumble that first excites you. The drums sound like the undercarriage of hell. Polly’s guitar, particularly on the last song ‘Ecstasy’, is jack-hammer, hardcore Delta blues with attitude.
“There were lots of reasons. I was paying for this place and I was hardly there – I had to be here for rehearsing. But most of all I just couldn’t handle living in London. It was the first time away from home, and then all this attention on the music, suddenly. And my first really big relationship that went badly wrong… and just finding that I couldn’t stand up on my own any more, so I had to come home again.”
When you listen to ‘Rid Of Me’ you almost feel like a voyeur, – you’re party to these painful emotions but the singer is so far gone that she doesn’t even know anyone else is around.
“It’s strange you say that, because I wrote half of the album after I moved back down here. I was renting a place on the coastline, a flat very high up above a café, and the only way you could get to it was across a bridge, so I’d be sat up there all day looking at people out of my window, and thinking about the time I’d been in London. And it was all very voyeuristic, watching other people walk back and looking back at myself and how I was then.
“I did get really ill, and the time I was at this place on the coast, I was repairing the damage, so I was having to go back and look over what happened and be a voyeur on myself. It was a very strange time.
“I could hardly get out if it; I had a couple of breakdowns last year when I just couldn’t do anything for myself for weeks on end – really little things like having a bath and brushing your teeth. It was really horrible and I never want to get back to that again.”
Back in the office, we’re watching ‘50ft Queenie’ video. And there’s Polly, in her fake fur coat and pink mohair dress, leaping around the studio, howling the words out: “Tell you my name: F – U – C – K…” and stomping in her gold wedges like a force-10 hurricane.
She looks so happy and liberated – maybe it’s the tacky sunglasses that allow her to slip into another character, but now she’s completely huge, unassailable, colossal.