PJ Harvey may have a voice that roars but at home she speaks softly and enjoys a quiet life in the English countryside.
From yowl to Yeovil
In very loose terms, Polly Jean Harvey has utilised various voices at different stages in her career and you can almost track her history by listening to her delivery. When she seemed to arrive out of nowhere in 1992 her debut album Dry was marked by a confrontational, bluesy yowl on viciously effective but unpolished tracks such as Sheela Na Gig and Dress. A year later, her sophomorealbum Rid Of Me (recorded by the Nirvana/Pixies producer Steve Albini) was marked by what sounded like abject misery. This then gave way to the overwhelming mania and theatricality of To Bring You My Love, the album that many consider her piece de resistance. This pattern of constant change has continued through a stellar musical career that is, in fact, over two decades old.
More recently, she became a big-room-voiced pop star on Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea and a brittle and ghostlike presence on her best solo album for years, 2007's White Chalk. But on her new release A Woman a Man Walked By, a joint effort with her collaborator and friend of two decades John Parish, all of these voices bristle and bridle next to one another. The creative babel it has thrown up easily eclipses their first effort together, 1996's Dance Hall at Louse Point. Responding directly and emotionally to the music Parish provided (and sometimes the song titles he gave her as well), she sounds querulous in her twilight years (April); vital and childlike playing hide and seek in a garden (Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen); like a rock queen (Black Hearted Love). And, in the title track, red-eyed and raw-throated in the kind of vocal violence you would expect from Nick Cave's former punk outfit The Birthday Party. The resemblance is interesting; Harvey, who has consistently refused to discuss the meaning of her lyrics, once dated the Australian singer. Ominously, the lyrics to the song describe a former partner: "A courageous friend I thought/It turned out so wrong was I/When we were against the wall . . . Prematurely going bald/Any passion long gone cold/But I wanted to explore/the damp alleyways of his soul/All the times I tried to help/he spit in my face and laughed/That woman man."
Of course, she is nothing like any of these extreme, violent, confrontational or morbid voices. Ensconced in a cosy, warm and quiet English countryside pub in her native Dorset, she may look glamorous, but she comes across as very down to earth, slightly shy even, as she sips coffee and explains why she felt it was time to work with Parish again. The work is divided quite simply between the pair: Parish writes the music and Harvey provides the lyrics and the vocal melody. This division of labour pushes her outside of her comfort zone, and helps her to avoid what she dreads: repeating herself. To add to this process of artistic unfamiliarity, Parish, who has been her friend since the Eighties, provided her with some song titles to work with: "I said to John it's really exciting for me if you give it to me with a title because immediately it sets my brain in a certain area. And in this case, particularly on the track Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen it worked very well because he gave me those words as the title of that piece and immediately in my head I was thinking of hide and seek and children in the garden. It took me back to when I used to play that and when I was a child. For any other person it might have meant something entirely different, but for me it meant that."
Perhaps the closeness and the functionality of their working relationship can be traced back to the fact that Harvey (who is now 40) has known him since she was an adolescent: "His band Automatic Dlamini used to come to play in Yeovil when I was a young lass. And they came from Bristol so that to me was like the Big Smoke. The Big City. I ended up hiring them to play at my 18th birthday party because they were my favourite, favourite band."
In fact, she was so taken with the group that she ended up joining them as a saxophonist and guitar player. And she puts a lot of her success down to her apprenticeship with the band, saying it prepared her for so much of what was to come: "I was aware of what goes along with playing to people. The travelling in backs of vans! Setting up equipment, taking down equipment, playing to audiences that aren't that interested. Or playing when there aren't that many people there. I was lucky in that I was prepared for that and I'd learnt a bit about standing on a stage and about delivering a song to people in a way that I wouldn't have done if I hadn't had that initial grounding in Dlamini. I was doing backing vocals and guitar playing initially and I was lucky to have that kind of introduction; I wasn't thrown straight into being the singer at the front of the band. I was able to observe and watch how John conducted himself as the singer and the frontman of a band and watch how people reacted to things."
She acknowledges the markedly different vocal styles she employs on the album and says they are a product of her instinct and are not really acting in any normal sense of the word. She is adamant about two things. The first is that even though her lyrics read like vignettes, epiphanies or scenes, she is not playing out roles. The second is that they aren't autobiographical. Rather, she plucks the scenarios from her subconscious and refuses to analyse what they mean, leaving it open to multiple interpretations by multiple listeners.
Perhaps a clue to her imagination lies outside of the window, out into the rolling countryside that surrounds Yeovil, in the "tiny, tiny village" where she grew up: "We didn't even have a shop. We had a pub and a post office which worked one day a week. Yeah, it was just farm land, we didn't have any neighbours. It was very, very quiet. The village I grew up in is largely unchanged and it's still the same families and community after generations and generations. They tend to stay living next door to each other and inherit their mother and father's house and marry the boy from up the road."
It's only on saying goodbye to Harvey that you realise just how down to earth she appears to be. It's almost as if her music acts as a siphon; as if these voices that inhabit her songs pour out of her, like a jet of water out of a tap, helping to get rid of various latent parts of her personality, leaving a relatively happy and well-adjusted Dorset girl to get on with her quiet life in the countryside.