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10 Years of Filter: Issue #10 Cover Story: PJ Harvey

By Staff on April 4, 2012


10 Years of Filter: Issue #10 Cover Story: PJ Harvey

2012 marks FILTER Magazine’s tenth year in print. To celebrate, we are looking back at some of our favorite magazine features, from July 2002’s Issue #1 all the way up to this coming November’s Issue #50.

Below you will find Issue #10’s cover story, in full, where we sat down with PJ Harvey.

The Harvey in Polly Jean (Issue 10, Spring 2004)
By Gregg Lagambina

Maybe it's this tower of glass and concrete, its limestone- and marble-carved sentries straight from the Jazz Age. Maybe it's the blown-up black and whites of Clark Gable and the fuzzy-focus smirk of Bette Davis behind a flash cloud, bright white in a glamorous fog. Right now, they're taking down the chandelier in the lobby of the Argyle Hotel and with it, I'd imagine, some of its spilled fin from a bygone premiere party for a film bombed watches anymore. Whatever it is, you're thinking of death, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jimmy Stewart, PJ Harvey and a giant white rabbit.

We crucify our artists. They are the sacrificial lambs to the slaughter. We want them dead and gone away from our homes. We only want the stuff they made and the things they've left behind to make our own dull and unpolished loves gleam a little more with a collection of their artifacts. We want F. Scott Fitzgerald, the icy martini and the dangling cigarette. We don't want the cirrhosis or the emphysema. Leave the books. Stay away.

How could one Elwood P. Dowd be so happy in a world like ours? A Buddhist calm and a fright outlook in a cloudy landscape must come at a cost - insanity, most likely. Elwood, played by Jimmy Stewart in the 1950 film Harvey, has an imaginary friend.. He's a six-foot-three pooka, a rabbit that only he can see. How else could one Elwood P. Dowd take each day with such grace? He's fucking shit-house crazy, that's how.

In this life, we halve ourselves. We imagine ourselves as doctors or lawyers or, God forbid, artists. We set up these measuring sticks and goals to attain, to imbue the march towards the grave with meaning-I want to be a doctor, I am a doctor- this is my life complete. Some of us need more. Elwood P. Dowd needs a giant white rabbit named Harvey. Polly Jean Harvey needs PJ Harvey.

All this and more flying through the synapses of your mind as you watch these workers dismantle the chandelier in the lobby of the Argyle Hotel in Hollywood. They're busy chiseling away the history of this place while one Ms. Polly Jean Harvey awaits up and above in suite 1208, the finest room in the tower that overlooks Sunset Boulevard--a very real street made up of asphalt with enough fake glamour of its own. So, let's get in the elevator shall we?

"I've wrestled with a reality for 35 years, doctor, and I'm happy to state I finally on out over it." Elwood P. Dowd

Polly Jean Harvey will be 35 years old this october. Born in 1969 to a quarryman father and an artist mother on a sheep farm in rural Yeovil, England, Harvey longed to be a veterinary surgeon. Then she grew up and went to art school. Art corrupts--and in Polly's case--beautifully.

This June, PJ Harvey will turn 12. With the release of Dry in 1992, Polly Jean became PJ, turning an idyllic green childhood into the exploratory curiosity of an education in images and soft clay (photography and sculpture) and with an emerging talent for songs and blues-based guitar playing that, mimicked Willie Dixon. Maybe it was the teen spirit of the times that muffled the roar of such a bizarre country gal railing about ancient carved figurines pulling at their vulvas in rune-like stones celebrating fertility ("Sheela-na-Gig") or proclaiming the joys of turning "inside out for you" against images of menstruation ("Happy and Bleeding"). In retrospect, it all makes something like "teen spirit" seem timid, fleeting, irrelevant. Look at her lips on the record's cover, pressing against the jewel case plastic as if we have PJ here, yearning to crash through the glass ceiling, to finally make anthems for that half of the rebellion who can ass cramps to the disillusion, thereby doubling their share of angst. 

"I didn't think anyone would play it," she says perched on a wooden chair above Sunset sipping Evian, taking her small sweater on and off and on again as the wind shifts, hidden behind false diamond-encrusted black sunglasses, looking like PJ, but acting like a shy and careful Polly Jean. "I was just completely amazed I had the opportunity to make a record. There's no way I thought anyone would buy it, or that I'd ever make another. I didn't' think anyone would want to hear that music, 'cause it was quite strange, extreme music for the time."

"Years ago, my mother used to say tom me, 'In this world Elwood, you must be oh so smart, or oh so pleasant' Well, for years I was smart, I recommend pleasant."

The woman can be intimidating. PJ Harvey conjures visions of the post-feminist, post apocalyptic, post-everything "50 Ft. Queenie" from her Rid of Me. You've heard secondhand tales of her reluctance for idle chat, you've seen this woman sneer at throngs of thousands, beating down on a yellow Telecaster that sounds like a drill. The idea is that this woman, this Polly Jean, could be pleasant--not to mention barely five-six and shy, is a little unnerving.

"I think a constant mistake that people make with musicians--and very especially with myself00is treating every song as some sort of autobiographical story from my life," she says slowly, as if it's the last time she wants to drive this point home. "I'm a songwriter, I'm a storyteller. I use my imagination to tell stories with a slant of my own emotional interpretation. But these are not autobiographical songs and no, they're not at all personal to me."

This is hard to believe, considering the content of her upcoming album. Uh Huh Her, Harvey's seventh and first as a producer, engineer, mixer, performer and writer. It's a shame we all have CD players and iPods and the rest of the very unglamorous tools to listen to music nowadays, because this record of hers needs a needle to drop on it--one of those big big-horned gramophones propped up in the corner of a red velvet room. Pressing a play button doesn't really cut it when you enter the world of Uh Huh Her and its first track, "The Life and Death of Mr. Badmouth." Let's cue the creek of an attic door. There, that's it. you should not be here. This is private music and this womb hunched over the guitar, surrounded by wires and an eight-track tape recorder should not know you're here. This is a private moment stretched over 13 tracks--stories of a "me" and "you" and an "us." You're not involved; these are not for you, you're eavesdropping, you're sliding away beneath your own skin…and you love it. I's dark and ghost-haunted, it's an exorcism by this priestess named PJ. You are not welcome here.

"Do you think so? It puzzles me that a song like 'Who the Fuck?' would be taken purely as being angry, vitriolic rant against somebody, when I'm singing about my hair," she says with a slight shake of her black locks. "I had a lot of fun making this record. "Songs like 'Who the Fuck?'  Songs like 'The Letter,' 'Badmouth,' and 'Pocket Knife' -- I had a lot of fun with those songs. I don't listen to this record and feel a dark sense of foreboding, whereas I might have done with some of my other works. Certainly something like Is This Desire? was an extremely difficult record, but I actually feel quite uplifted by this one….and very hopeful. There's probably some of the most tender and the most hopeful and beautiful songs I've ever written on Uh Huh Her."

It's strange that we'd prefer her to be Miss Misery for a while--at least for the duration of 13 songs--so we don't have to live with our own. If a man introduces you to a rabbit you can't see, well, you get scared. He grins. He's the one who's friends with him after all. Over the course of seven records, PJ Harvey has rattled us with tales that we can live through from a distance, gain solace that someone somewhere else is churning through these dark hallways while we're at hoe with the lamps on. It's unfair, really. Especially when you consider that PJ is nothing like Polly.

"I firmly disbelieve that one has to be a tortured should to write good music. I don't buy into that myth at all, the same way I don't but into the myth that to be a great rock and roller you have to be fucked up on drugs or alcohol. It's just a complete myth and I don't buy it," she pauses "In the same way, I write some of my more difficult pieces when I'm at very happy stages in my life. Obviously the emotions I want to convey through music are streamed through the way I interpret life. I can't get away from that. But the stories are not my everyday life stories, though they are the way I could choose to tell a story. You know two people can say exactly the same words, saying the same story and it would mean something entirely different. It's the way they told it. The way I make music is unique to myself and the way I have lived my life-- no one else would tell that story in the same way I do."

"Think carefully, Dowd. Didn't you know somebody, sometime, someplace, by the name of Harvey? didn't you ever know anybody by that name?"

"No, no, not one, doctor. Maybe that's why I always had such hopes for it."

So why expect so much from a person you don't even know? The best thing about Polly Jean Harvey is the way  she's curled her way through this public display of rick stardom, forever altering and undermining exactly what we've come to expect from her. The minute you get her pinned as the naked and militant feminist of Rid of Me, her flipped wet hair making a maniacal circle of splashing water o its cover sleeve, she dons a silver evening gown and sings glorious theatrical blues music like a British Billie Holiday with distorted guitars and long-snake moans. Like David Bowie before her, with his thin white dukes and spacemen and coked glam and the eventual fixed-teeth and calm fatherhood, the only way she keeps track of herself is through the armor of many masks. So why share? Why give these songs to a crowd that twists it all to their own agendas--making a hodgepodge mess of what's PJ and what's Polly Jean? There must be something in the sharing that gives back to the giver. We all have such high hopes for this Harvey, how could she let us down by admitting to her very falseness? Why tell these stories at all?

"It is more just that I have to," she offers, "I think about what it can do for people after the fact. I have this constant drive to what to make things and that probably all comes from wanting to try to make sense of my dat-to-day life, trying to make sense of why we're here and what we're doing and why this is happening. It's that constant questioning and I've chosen the medium of questioning these things through music. That's all. You can choose different ways--some people write, other people paint. I'm just naturally drawn to exploring those questions through music."

"I think in some ways I feel more than ever that what I can contribute through music is very important and how important music is for people and what a strengthener it can be for people at times in their lives," she continues after a pause. "Certainly for me, I know what a strength it is when I need it. And when we're living in such terrifying and difficult times, it seems more important that ever to really focus on what I do well and do it as well as I can."

Then what of the artists she admires? You can site here feeling all guilt-ridden that you've expected too much from this woman, asked her to answer too many questions that you haven't bothered to ask yourself. So what of this music she mentions that gives her strength when she's feeling weak? Maybe she's guilty like the rest of us, pouring over interviews and articles with her favorite songwriter, looking for motives and explanations, maybe even tips and pointers to steal for her own art, if not guidelines on how to live her own life.

"I do [read interviews with other artists], but being somebody that is interviewed, I never take it as being the truth," she admits. "Even the stuff that's in quotations--you can't  even believe that because it's always chopped up and taken out of context and it doesn't actually mean anything anyway."* [*Trust me. She said this and I didn't move a word. It's all the stuff outside of the quotation marks that may or may not be bullshit. I leave that up to you, dear reader.]

Harvey has her confidantes and friends and even heroes she lets into the orbit of her real life. The rest of us can play with the imaginary PJ Harvey and make of her what we will. It's of no difference to her. As for the first people she entrusts with her music, well, it serves to make a giant wall between her world and ours. A wall of three people.

"Always Flood [producer, To Bring You My Love] and John Parish [producer and songwriter with who she collaborated on Dance Hall at Louse Pointe];" she says, lighting up when asked about those people whose opinion she values most when she's just finished a piece. "And Don Van Vilet [a.k.a. Captain Beefhart] is the other one. They're just three people whose opinions I trust enormously and they're always completely straight with me. They'll tell me if something's not good. Don Van Vilet is the only one that has the finished record [Uh Huh Her] and he loves it. It's his favorite record that I've ever done, which is really a remarkable thing from him because he was very strongly encouraging me to make the record myself and not let too many other people be involved"

And if you're looking to crack the surface of what turns this frill named Polly Jean into the songs, sounds and ever-morphing images of PJ Harvey--the things that may prove to be powerfully influential over her--you won't find too many people she conducers contemporaries.

"I do try to listen to what's happening in contemporary music, but there is very little that I get excited about," she admits, without a hint of regret or an apologetic sigh--it's just the watt it is as far as she's concerned. "I do tend to listed to older music rather than newer music. Having said that, a band that I always follow is a band called Fall, from England. I do find that he's one of my favorite contemporary songwriters--Mark E. Smith--and their albums, the lat run of teem, the last three or four, have really been incredible. And they put out a couple of records a year, so it's always  exciting to me that they're releasing new stuff. Other than them, there's very little I've been listening to lately."

Maybe we expect too much from the art we admire. Maybe these songs we identify with so strongly say more about ourselves than the person who made them. Maybe they say nothing about the person who made them. That's probably why I'm so pleasantly frustrated. What has taught her more about her own life--the art she admires, or the people she's known?

"I think I've probable learned most from the people I know, from my friends and family and the people that you meet on a day-to-day basis," she says. "I think that's where most interaction and learning and inspiration comes from. Certainly, I'm enormously inspired by writers that I like, by painters, photographers, films. But then a lot of the stuff of life itself just comes from the most mundane everyday things we have to do and the people we have to relate to when doing those things."

I certainly know someone named Harvey. She's a friend and she's imaginary and she's my own. There are thousands like me, each with their own Harvey, none of them wrong, but none of them having to do with this woman here atop this tower above Sunset and that street below, with enough fake stories to make you fearful of running them down in your rented two-seater, denting the fender with  a thousand ghosts. And it's almost time for me to go back to the records of hers I cherish. And I'm totally fine with that, thanks to this charming woman across from me who has let it be known that the stuff of life is infinitely more interesting than the stuff we've made up about her. I have cracked nothing. I am a failed detective. And it's all going to be OK.

"At first, Dr. Chumley seemed a little frightened of Harvey, but that ace way to admiration as the evening wore on. The evening wore on…that's a very nice expression, isn't it? With your permission, I'll say it again. The evening wore on…"

So what of dreams? Let's ask her one more thing, shall we? Before the evening wears on? What of dreams? Maybe that's where the worlds of Polly Jean and PJ collide, without the interference of thought or the carefully constructed answers to what may or may not have been intrusive queries from a nervous interrogator. We all dream and we all have no control over them. So what of her dreams. Let's start with the daylight ones, the kinds you think up at age 12, awake to the possibility of your own life.

"I guess when you're younger you tend to think, "I'm gonna be this when I grow up," she says her eyes sort of backlit with the glow of memory. "I was going to be a veterinary surgeon when I grew up. But then you don't really have much control. I do try and take each day as it comes much more than I've ever done. I guess I feel much more self-accepting than I did before. When you're younger everything is so extreme--everything is black and white. As you get older, you start seeing all the grey in between things and there's no cut and dry, right or wrong about anything. You begin to see all the sides of everything. It does seem to get more confusing [laughs]. It doesn't seem to get any easier. I can only say that I've enjoyed getting older and I've never felt like I want to go back to being young again. In no way do I want to go through that again."

So here's the elevator and it's pulling us back downstairs, through the floors and hallways  of this building with its tinseled history.  Maybe Jimmy Stewart once slept here. Maybe not. Polly Jean Harvey might sleep here tonight. And as you pass the chandelier that's now on its side and being carted away, you begin to wonder about the history of this place and how it just changed with exposed wired now twisting themselves out the hole where that light used to be. You wonder if the new history of this tower will someday include a plaque in the lobby that reads: "Polly Jean Harvey slept here…"and she dreamt of"…oh yes, I forgot to tell you. Sorry about that. Here you go:

"I've dreamed a lot about rabbits lately. I can't tell you what that means. I've been having recurring rabbit dreams. Wet rabbits, people in rabbit suits, rabbits on the side of the road that "m picking up and helping--rabbits everywhere. It might be as simple as the fact that I bough a T-shirt with a rabbit on it the other day. I don't know, but that's the latest one. I only have the usual recurring dream--the falling dream where you're going to die and you wake up before you hit the ground. I'e had the 'teeth falling out' dream. And the water dreams. But it's all rabbits right now"."

Out of the doors and into the emerging night, I leave with the same friend I arrive with.

"Is anything the matter? I thought you decided to stay with Dr. Chumley. You what? Well thank you Harvey. I prefer yo too."