Rock goddess PJ Harvey speaks candidly about her family, her famous friends, and why she’s not interested in feminism
By Christina Martinez
Over a decade ago, in February of 1993 to be exact, a friend of mine called and asked me to entertain a poor wayward girl lost in the big city. The then-relatively unknown PJ Harvey was in New York doing press for her much buzzed-about major-label debut, Dry. Intrigued, I met her for dinner. I remember most vividly how very small and fragile she seemed to me that evening, her petite frame nearly disappearing into the booth. She was extremely polite and so soft-spoken that I found it difficult to hear her over the restaurant din.
By the end of that year she had released her highly anticipated follow-up, Rid Of Me-the record that would cement her place in rock history-and was performing sold-out shows on both sides of the Atlantic. A natural musician with distinctive powerhouse vocals and a knack for provocative lyrics, PJ Harvey, 35, has consistently garnered critical acclaim not only for her solo work, but also for her many notable collaborations with musicians such as Tricky and Nick Cave.
It seemed appropriate, then, that when Ms. Harvey-neither wayward, nor a girl any longer-accepted the invitation to grace the cover of BUST, it should be I, now a regular contributor to the magazine, who would speak with her. Since that brief encounter so long ago, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect from Polly Jean. After all, her public persona had grown into mythical proportions, and I had heard tales of the type of self-centered shenanigans common to those catapulted into stardom so young and so fast.
In town to promote her latest release, Uh Huh Her, we met again, this time in June, for tea in the afternoon. Not surprisingly, those weren’t the only differences. For the entirety of the interview, PJ sat on the edge of her seat, leaning towards me-almost a challenge-with a confident and easy air about her. It seems that time and experience have provided her with a bit of much-needed armor.
We had a perfectly pleasant chat, which I tried to keep focused on the woman behind and beyond the musician, in the hopes of revealing the rustic charm I had previously found so completely endearing. While I was aware that PJ had dismissed feminism in the past, I was disappointed to find that she continues to distance herself from it. Even more baffling was the fact that after our relatively benign conversation and photo shoot, there came concerns from her camp about her being aligned with a “feminist flagship” magazine. For an artist who has been so revered and embraced by young women to claim that her work has nothing to do with gender seems naïve at best. Strong, confident, brilliant, compelling, frustrating. That’s PJ Harvey. Uh huh, her.
Bust: How’s the tour going?
PJ: It’s really good. We’ve only done four shows, and I’m surprised at how much it has come together already, because it’s this new band.
Bust: What’s the lineup? I noticed Rob on drums. Who’s playing bass?
PJ: This guy Dingo, he’s actually still in The Fall, I’m borrowing him at the moment.
Bust: He’s good. I really liked the guitar player.
PJ: Josh Klinghoffer. A friend of mine, Vincent Gallo, has played with him. When Vincent knew I was looking for someone, he said he’s really good.
Bust: I want to start with a bit of history. Can you tell me about Dorset, where you were raised?
PJ: It’s on the southwest coast of England. Where I live now is where I was born, and that is a seaside town right on the cliffs. So I’m right on the beach, literally. I’ve also got a place in Los Angeles. I live between the two. Dorset is just very beautiful, very quiet, very spaced out. There’s not any sort of epicenter anywhere, just lots of little villages, rolling hills, trees. I grew up in a small village there. The population of the village was about 600, or something.
Bust: Did you know everybody?
Bust: Were there many children your age?
PJ: No, like five.
Bust: You have a brother, Saul, who is a bit older?
PJ: Yeah, three years.
Bust: That’s exactly my situation. Did your brother torture you like mine did?
PJ: No. He let me torture him, actually. [Laughs]
Bust: Are you still close?
PJ: Yes, he lives right next door to my parents. That was a very traditional country thing.
Bust: Of course, to help each other out.
PJ: Yeah, and I live just down the road 30 minutes.
Bust: Is that where you keep your studio, where you recorded this record?
PJ: Yeah, it’s not really a studio; it’s just a small flat. It’s just a four track, an eight track, a microphone, and I play very quietly or I work on headphones.
Bust: What were you like as a child?
PJ: I always loved to perform. Anything-even reading a book, or a play I’d written, or using hand puppets I’d made. As I got older, I think as I hit 11 or 12, I got really shy. Really shy.
Bust: What happened when you were 11 or 12?
PJ: I don’t really remember, or I probably do, but won’t say.
Bust: OK, well, um … was your family religious?
PJ: Well, I suppose in the sense that my mother taught us that nature came from God. But we never were encouraged to go to church, we weren’t baptized, and my mother didn’t believe in that kind of organization. I think my father’s mother and father were church-goers.
Bust: Tell me more about your parents.
PJ: They have their own business, my father and my mother are partners. They quarry stone. There’s a particular stone that’s only found in Somerset, which is next town to Dorset, and it’s called Ham Hill stone. It’s like a sandstone. Prince Charles owns most of it, and then the rest is owned by this very wealthy landowner. He leases out the quarry to my father, and Dad’s been quarrying the stone for 40 years. It’s very prehistoric, really. They hammer pins down into the stone and it slowly pries away great chunks, and then they break that down according to what kind of stone it is. If it’s a good, thick stone, they’ll leave it and use it as a slab for a fireplace or something, and if it’s not good, they break it down for walling stones for building houses.
Bust: Do you have any in your home?
PJ: No, because I live in a tiny little flat, three stories up. But their house is built of Ham stone, and it’s the original house that they’ve lived in since they got married.
Bust: Is it a big house?
PJ: It’s rambling; it was a bungalow when they bought it and they’ve added extensions. They’ve lived there for … well, they just celebrated their 45th anniversary.
Bust: That’s impressive. How did you celebrate?
PJ: We had a party at the local pub. My cousin is a boogie-woogie pianist, quite a famous one in England. So he played the piano, and I sang with him. I sang a Dylan song for my mum.
Bust: Are your parents Dylan fans?
PJ: Mum is, more that anything. Both of them are huge music fans. All I got when I was growing up was music. Day in, day out.
Bust: What did they play for you?
PJ: Whatever they’d just bought. I can remember hearing Pink Floyd …
Bust: Were they hippies?
PJ: Oh absolutely, yeah.
Bust: They were younger, right?
PJ: My mum was 19 when they were married.
Bust: Did they have children right away?
Bust: How old was your mother when she had you?
PJ: She was 29.
Bust: Did your parents listen to any women artists?
PJ: Yeah, they used to listen to Janis Joplin, and they listened to Marianne Faithfull.
Bust: You’ve just worked with her recently, no?
PJ: Yeah. That was great.
Bust: How did that come about?
PJ: Well, Marianne can’t play an instrument, so she was looking for people to collaborate with. I think she’d read that I mentioned her as someone I admired, and just got in touch with me. I wrote five pieces of music for her and sent them to her, wanting her to write the lyrics. But she really didn’t get it together. So then I went and stayed with her for a few days and we worked on the lyrics together. I think I ended up writing three of the lyrics too, so I basically wrote three of the songs and then we co-wrote the lyrics for the other too.
Bust: When will they be released?
PJ: The record’s all ready, but she’s in a play at the moment, so they’ve delayed the release.
Bust: Who are some other women they listen to?
PJ: They used to play Ella Mae Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, not an awful lot. Fleetwood Mac. [Laughs]
Bust: Did they play ABBA? Because I’ve heard you’ve performed in an ABBA cover group called FABBA a few times.
PJ: No, no they never did. It was constant Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Lightin’ Hopkins, John Lee Hooker. Every record the Stones ever made, they played. Dylan. My dad liked a lot of jazz as well. He liked Lionel Hampton, big band stuff.
Bust: Did they play instruments?
PJ: Nope, not at all.
Bust: So how did you come to pick up an instrument?
PJ: It started in primary school, I took recorder lessons. And I just picked it up really fast. Any instrument I pick up I can just play.
Bust: Do you read music?
PJ: I did. I learned saxophone for about eight years; I studied it and did music theory. But that was so long ago, I haven’t read a note of music since I put the saxophone down, when I was about 18. I never play it anymore ‘cause I just suddenly couldn’t stand it.
Bust: When did you pick up the guitar?
PJ: When I was 18, I bought a guitar ‘cause a friend was selling one.
Bust: Electric or acoustic?
PJ: Acoustic. I played guitar from chord books.
Bust: Did you sing along from the beginning?
PJ: Yeah, just straight away.
Bust: What was your first band?
PJ: It was at school. They were three of us, we were called the Stoned Weaklings. We did covers of the Cult, the Cure, and B-52’s songs.
Bust: Do you still sculpt?
PJ: I don’t really anymore. When I was art college-we’re talking when I was 21-I got a place to do a degree course at quite a well-known art school in London called St. Martin’s. I was going to do a degree in sculpture, and I deferred for a year because I was already out playing with my three-piece rock band by that time and got picked up by my first label, Too Pure. So I deferred, thinking I’ll make a record, disappear off the face of the Earth, and then go back to college.
Bust: Something to fall back on…
PJ: I continue to make thinks for myself, but I don’t call them sculpture, they’re just playthings, really. I enjoy playing with objects and shapes, and I like drawing; sometimes I go to life classes when I’m at home for any period of time.
Bust: Did you do the drawing on the single (“The Letter”)?
PJ: Yeah, all those drawings are my drawings.
Bust: You dedicate the record to Mary Jane Harvey; is that your grandmother?
PJ: Yeah, she died.
Bust: Were you close?
PJ: Yeah, I used to talk to her pretty much daily about how it was going, especially at that time, because she was in bed the whole time then. She was very much aware of what I was doing. She was so sweet-she’d even remember what the songs were called. “How did ‘Badmouth’ go today?” [Laughs] “It went really good, Nan.”
Bust: Did she go see your shows?
PJ: She did, when she was well enough. I guess she hadn’t been to a show for about seven years or so because she was getting so frail.
Bust: Do your parents still go?
PJ: Yeah, my mother will fly out to wherever we are.
Bust: They sound quite proud. That leads me into something else-how do you measure success?
PJ: It’s just whatever project I’m doing at the time. Whether that’s acting or drawing or making an album, I know what my goal is for myself. I’m probably the hardest judge of my art. Success to my is if I feel I achieved what I set out to do with that piece of work.
Bust: There’s no grand picture?
PJ: I’m always working toward something, but I like it that way. I want to explore as much as I can while I’m here. Because it’s so brief. So I like to constantly have this next thing that I’m doing.
Bust: Have you ever let yourself not have a next thing to do?
PJ: At one point I did, and it felt like the ground had left beneath my feet. I didn’t know where I was.
Bust: Can you recall your first memory?
PJ: I don’t know exactly, maybe my memory’s not that good. My early memories are mostly centered around animals on the farm, because I used to become really attached to them. So some of my earliest memories are of the lambs, talking with them, calling them by name. We’d sit on a sheep’s back and take a ride around the field.
Bust: I remember the first time we met, Steve Albini called me and asked if I could entertain his friend…
PJ: Yeah, ‘cause I was ringing him up saying [in sad voice] “I don’t know what to do.”
Bust: It was very sweet. He said, “You have to go and meet her because she’s all alone and doesn’t have anyone to talk to.”
PJ: [Laughs] Yes; I remember, the cheese and potato dinner.
Bust: Well he didn’t tell me that you were a vegetarian, so it was ridiculous that I took you to a barbecue joint. I warned him I wasn’t good with complete strangers.
PJ: Oh, you were lovely, you looked after me. It was one of the first times I’d been here. The only I knew here was the publicist I was working with, so you really did rescue me.
Bust: When I asked him what you were like, he told me you loved Spain and ventriloquism! [Both laugh] Do you hold any of those interests still?
PJ: Spain, very much. I still take flamenco dancing lessons. I love the music.
Bust: Being half-Spanish, I feel the same way, but can you tell me what appeals to you about it?
PJ: I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder if I have got some Spanish lineage somewhere in my family history, because when I go there I feel like I’m at home. Everything feels right-the climate, the humidity in the air, the smells, the culture. I t just feels so familiar to me, I can’t explain.
Bust: Is it the Gypsy passion? Los Gitanos?
PJ: Probably. I mean, I think that’s a lot of it. The passion in the music, the whole gypsy traveling-with-the-music ethic that is so much a part of Spain.
Bust: I want to change gears here and ask something else. Considering the legions of female fans that you have, I find it interesting that you’ve distanced yourself from feminism in the past. What do you think about that?
PJ: About what?
Bust: [Laughs] About feminism.
PJ: I don’t ever think about it. I mean, it doesn’t cross my mind. I certainly don’t think in terms of gender when I’m writing songs, and I never had any problems as the result of being female that I couldn’t get over. Maybe I’m not thankful for the thinks that have gone before me, you know. But I don’t see that there’s any need to be aware of being a woman in this business. It just seems a waste of time.
Bust: Well, what about apart from this business, just in the world?
PJ: I don’t know, I’m probably a bit thick about it all, because I don’t…
Bust: Perhaps it’s the terminology; what does the word mean to you?
PJ: I feel like it means unification of women and strength; trying to support each other.
Bust: So then wouldn’t you want to offer your support to young women who look up to you?
PJ: No, I don’t offer it specifically to women; I offer it to people who write music. That’s a lot of men.
Bust: Do you find men can relate to your anger?
PJ: No, I mean … I think this record’s really funny. So I just don’t understand when people are saying, “All this anger, ‘Who The Fuck’… “Have you listened to the words? It’s ridiculous that they can take this seriously as an angst-ridden, hateful song towards a man.
Bust: That emotion comes from someplace, doesn’t it?
PJ: It’s fun, it’s a punk-rock song, it’s energy. That song is about jumping up and down. That’s all it’s about. [Laughs] People read too much into it. Is she a feminist? Is this anger? Or is this real? They seem to have to intellectualize music, and for me music is not about intellectualizing, it’s about physical feeling.
Bust: Do you feel a sense of responsibility towards the many young women who look up to you?
Bust: So after you’ve written a song, it’s out there, your done.
PJ: Yeah, even when I’m doing it. I feel no responsibility to anyone apart from myself. If I did, I wouldn’t write a song like ”Who The Fuck,” because I don’t swear in front of my parents.
Bust: Are you a different person onstage?
PJ: I’m an artist. I’m creative, imaginative artist. I explore what I want to, wherever that takes me, and I don’t let anything compromise that. Obviously, if I’m sitting there talking to my parents, half of me isn’t over here thinking about the song. I connect with people, and I work in my work time when I have space. I relate to other human beings in a normal way.
Bust: I read that you are acquainted with Don Van Vilet and that he is one of the few people whose opinion you trust. How did you come to know him?
PJ: I first started talking to Don because in ’95 Eric Drew Feldman was in my band, who used to play with Don. He was talking about me to Don, who said, “I really like her music, I’d like to speak to her,” because Don like speaking on the phone. So we just started this phone relationship. And he’s become somebody that I ask for help from if I’m not sure of a direction, or I send him all my demos and he tells me which songs he likes and which he doesn’t. He was very instrumental, actually, in getting me to do it this way.
Bust: Have you ever met him in person?
PJ: No, we just talk on the phone.
Bust: Tell me about Maria Mochnacz, the photographer you work with. Is she somehow related to John Parish?
PJ: She was his girlfriend of eight years when I first met John and started playing in his band. They were living together, and she’s just my best friend, really. When I first started, Too Pure said, “We need some photographs,” and Maria was the only friend I knew who had a camera, and that’s pretty much how it started. And then when we had to make a video, I said, “Do you reckon you can make a video?” She went, “I’ll have a go.” She hadn’t done anything like that, and we’ve just grown together all these years.
Bust: Does she make videos for other people, too, or does she exclusively document you?
PJ: She does, but she does a lot of work with me. She helped design the lights for this tour and thought about the whole stage layout with me, and she and I have designed the costumes that I’m wearing and stuff.
Bust: I think light is an important part of your show; it sets the mood, the ambience. What’s your color palette?
PJ: Anything that you can think of, really. I don’t have pink. I don’t like pink. It’s too girly. Pink, fluffy, nothing pink. I don’t like pink.
Bust: What’s next? Are you were you want to be?
PJ: I’m very happy where I am, musically. I would love for lots of people to buy the records, but I really wouldn’t want the loss of privacy that I would associate with that.
Bust: Then why did you choose L.A. to live?
PJ: The weather, more than anything. I can’t stand England in the winter.
Bust: Do you have any acting ambitions? You played Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley’s The Book Of Life. That part seemed tailor made for you.
PJ: Well, yeah, he really did pretty much write the part for me. I loved it, because it was funny. It was lover and secretary and bodyguard all rolled into one. Like a superhero.
Bust: Do you read the bible? You have a lot of religious imagery in your lyrics.
PJ: I’ve read pieces of the New Testament; at one time I was trying to read the whole thing. I’ve been more dipping in and out of different chapters.
Bust: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
PJ: What do you mean?
Bust: Well, do you believe that there’s more to us than merely our biological selves? Do we go on?
PJ: Yeah. I believe there’s more.
Bust: Do you practice anything? Yoga? Meditation?
PJ: I used to; I don’t anymore.
Bust: What do you do to relax on tour?
PJ: I like dancing. Drinking and dancing.
Bust: [Laughing at the thought] What sort of music do you like to dance to? I can’t imagine you at the disco.
PJ: I look for ‘80s clubs.
Bust: Do you like to read?
PJ: Not really. I’ve stopped reading; I don’t watch the television. I don’t really watch films. I walk.
PJ: I go walking and I think and look at things.
Bust: What have you done while you’ve been here?
PJ: Walked through the park, walked around the West Village. Been dancing the last two nights.
Bust: Where did you go dancing?
PJ: I can’t remember what it’s called, but the first night it was a good night ‘cause they were playing the Smiths and Joy Division. Last night they were just playing Madonna and it was horrible.
Bust: You don’t like Madonna? Have you met?
PJ: Not to dance to, I like to dance to Joy Division. I have, yeah.
Bust: What was that like?
PJ: She was really lovely to me; I thought she was amazing. We met when we played here in ’95.
Bust: Speaking of other contemporary female musicians, I read an interview in Q magazine you did with Bjork and Tori Amos. Are you friends? Have you kept in touch?
PJ: For a while Bjork and I kept in touch. I do think of them as my friends.
Bust: In that interview, didn’t you discuss feminism?
PJ: They might have, but I didn’t say anything. I can’t remember if that conversation was particularly about being women in rock. I don’t think it was. I think we were more talking about music, about writing music. It had more to do with the creative process. I can’t really remember. I have to read the article.
Bust: The title was “Hits!Tits!Lips!Power!”
PJ: That was probably just the magazine trying to sell more copies as possible.
That was transcribed by "lynn" on @forums, not by me. Although I ought to go ahead and scan the interior pictures of it.
For the record, the interviewer Christina Martinez is the lead singer of the excellent band Boss Hog and is the wife of Jon Spencer who also kicks a lot of ass.
And the title of the Q interview with PJ, Bjork, and Tori Amos, "Hips, Tits, Lips, Power!" is actually the name of a Pigface song sung by Lesley Rankine of Ruby and Ogre of Skinny Puppy. In other words, I don't necessarily think they used that for the title of the article just to sell more copies. Anyway!
As posted here previously, the next single is going to be "Shame". Released in the following formats:
CD / DVD SET
1. Shame - Audio
2. The Letter - Video
3. You Come Through - Video
Release date has been set at September 20th. Hopefully, we won't have to wait too long for someone to post an mp3 of "Dance" somewhere.
Also: for a limited time, you can download an mp3 of the "Outlaw Blues" version of PJ's "Highway 61 Revisited"! This is NOT the same version that appears on "Rid Of Me", and I don't know how long the person hosting it is going to leave it up, so get it now:
Highway 61 Revisited (Outlaw Blues Version)
If, by the time you read this, it has disappeared then comment and I can email it to you or send it to you via AIM or whatever.