NEMESIS IN A SCARLET DRESS

When not tending her chrysanthemums and pining for her bantams, Polly Harvey straps on a guitar and becomes the screeching, black-hearted rock phenomenon that is PJ Harvey. Now, at 25, she's taking on the world. DAVE CAVANAGH reports. Portrait by DARIO M

Polly Jean Harvey is 25. She lives by herself in a house she bought a year ago on the outskirts of a Dorset town. An early riser, she makes jam, has pleasant conversations with the plants in her garden and recommends taking your chrysanthemum cuttings early. There are no other houses in her immediate neighbourhood but, to ensure complete tranquillity, she likes to unplug her answering machine. Sometimes a week will elapse without her meeting another human being. There are one or two holes in her life.

"I miss animals so much," she says sadly. "When I was growing up we had chickens, bantams, sheep, cows, cats, dogs, ducks and two horses. But now I can't have animals, because there's no one to look after them if I'm not there. That I find heartbreaking."

Harvey is a quiet, intensely private woman from a quiet, intensely rural background. Her life is in the country, of the country. If she could keep pets, it would be just perfect. But Polly Jean Harvey has a dangerous alter ego that not many people in these parts know about; when the muse strikes, she turns into PJ Harvey, mad, bad Nemesis in a scarlet dress, one of the most exciting - and exacting - English rock performers to have emerged in more than a decade.

Currently, Harvey's beloved garden lies untended. In pursuit of audiences for her new album, To Bring You My Love (released on Monday), she has begun a world tour that will take her into 1996. She will be singing songs with titles like "Meet Ze Monsta" and "Long Snake Moan". Who knows what she will be like when she returns?

What she is like now confuses people. In her songs, she exudes profanity, lust and blood (sample lyric, from "Me Jane" - Jane to Tarzan: "Tarzan, I'm pleading/ Stop your fucking screaming"). In conversation, she seems the most congenial and polite interviewee in the entire rock business. She refers, jokingly, to "the other Polly". But it's not as simple as that. "It's not like Jekyll and Hyde," she insists. "It's all me. I need both sides. One wouldn't work without the other."

Four years ago in the West Country, Harvey put together a razor-edged trio (also called PJ Harvey) with bass guitarist Steve Vaughan and an exceptional drummer, Rob Ellis. After two local gigs, they made their London debut at the White Horse pub in Hampstead one night in 1991. On the strength of the performance, they were invited to record an album (called Dry) for a small London label, Too Pure.

It was Harvey's band (as she would prove, two years later, by splitting it up). The first single, "Dress", written by her, was magnificent: over raw guitar and pounding drums, a woman grows increasingly exasperated about the dress she has chosen to impress her dancing partner ("Swing and sway, everything will be all right/But it's feeling so damn tight tonight"). It was funny and clever, groovy and irrepressible. With her electrifying guitar playing, leather apparel, hair in a bun and black bovver boots, Polly Harvey appeared immersed in rock'n'roll. Her songs were visceral, so sexual as to be beyond embarrassment. She sang: "Fig, fruit, flower, myself inside out/I'm happy and bleeding for you." She sang about how "big" her men were. On her second single, "Sheela-Na-Gig", her lover couldn't quite cope with it all. "Wash your breasts," he protested. "And please take those dirty pillows away from me..."

But there was more to her music than that. "Fountain" and "Plants and Rags" were rich with melancholy, sometimes turning to nature for their imagery. In "Fountain", which played nature's turbulence off against that of love, Harvey scrubs her body clean of an ex-lover and runs naked through the fields as the music whirls her towards a soaring refrain: "And on my hill, I wait for wind." In the more complex "Plants and Rags", she opens with a couplet to make the mouth drop ("Plants and rags/Ease myself into a body-bag") and sings wistfully of a departed lover ("He fed me fine foods/He gave me shiny things"). As a screeching guitar and a woody cello overload the sound levels, the song flies off into the avant-garde. "Are you looking for the sun, boy?" she taunts. "The sun doesn't shine down here."

Harvey was hailed as a major new talent in rock music. Half-hearted comparisons were made with Patti Smith, the poetess and iconoclast of the American New Wave. Harvey's malleable, bird-like features were scrutinised. She was photographed topless for a New Musical Express front cover - no one was quite sure what to make of that. Then the problems started. When journalists quizzed her on the subjects of feminism, gender roles and frantic copulation, they found Harvey disinclined to answer any of their filthy personal questions, let alone get involved in any tiresome battle-of- the-sexes polemic. Far from being a lascivious, streetwise harridan, the real Polly had seen more animals in her life than human beings. Seeing a black person in the street was an unusual event to her. (It is perhaps just as well that the right-on youth media didn't pry too deeply; as a girl who once woke up to find her 40 treasured bantams wiped out by a fox, Harvey has strong views in favour of the hunt.)

Since she refused to explain her lyrics (and still does), the decision was made for her. She was cast as a man-hater, a ball-breaker - "some kind of axe-wielding bitch cow from hell," as she put it recently. Ever since, she has made a habit of declaring every interview her last.

To meet the petite Harvey - and in particular to hear her mellifluous, high-pitched speaking voice - is to experience a genuine double- take. This is her? The woman who sings: "Rest your head on mine, I'll smooth it nicely/ I'll rub it better...'til it bleeds." She did that? Yes, she did.

We meet in the bar of an old-fashioned hotel in Dorset. (She asks that the precise location be kept secret; her troubled lyrics have attracted a fair scattering of troubled fans. She doesn't want them to know where she lives.) She speaks precisely and is at her most animated when discussing her garden - which she adores - and London, which she detests.

In September 1991, offered a place at St Martin's College of Art & Design to study sculpture (in which she had excelled at school), Harvey moved to London, to an address in West Green Road, Tottenham. Acclaim for her music was spreading fast. She put together the Dry album (a record deal with Island Records would follow in 1992) and requested that her place at St Martin's be deferred for a year. The college refused. She remained in Tottenham for six months, seeing out a failing relationship, then fell into illness and depression. Eventually, clinically unstable, she was pulled out by her family and taken home.

"It felt so aggressive all the time," she says of London. "You have to be on the defensive. You can't meet people's eyes. You have to go right inside yourself the whole time, and look down. I found that so draining. Down here everyone knows everyone. You say hello. You stop on the street and talk to everybody."

Yet her songwriting was transformed in West Green Road. She threw herself wholeheartedly into a new, unstintingly "open" way of writing, sensing that it was where true art lay. Eliminating rational lyrical patterns (not that Dry had been overly rational), letting her fingers reach for natural, bluesy guitar chords, she put an emphasis on her environment - a particular room to write in, the view from its window. And she wrote some of the most extraordinary words ever heard in rock music.

"Art is all-encompassing for me, down to where I plant something in the garden," she says, with a self-mocking laugh. "Or which leek I pull first. Everything I do, everything I look at, I have to do in a certain way. The way that I find most pleasing."

The first her audience knew of the new "openness" was the album Rid of Me, which came out in 1993. This brilliant record, which she herself finds it difficult to listen to, mortified many of her champions. It begins with Harvey hissing threats at an ex-lover, in a style and a language oceans removed from Gloria Gaynor's karaoke standby "I Will Survive". Not that Harvey opted for colloquial realism; has anybody ever said to their ex: "I'll make you lick my injuries"? Another startling image - much-quoted at the time - was "I cast my iron knickers down", from a song called "Man-size", which she appeared to be singing through her teeth. Rid of Me entered the Top Five, one of the most challenging records ever to do so. Then Harvey split her band up and elected to go forward alone.

She spent 1994 out of the public eye, save for a surprise appearance at the 1994 Brit Awards, where she sang "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with Bjork. Many people assumed it was some form of cryptic statement. Actually, Harvey just loves the song. If you had asked the ten-year-old Polly who her favourite band was, she'd have said the Rolling Stones - and not just their latest hit. Encouraged by music-loving parents, she had acquired a taste for whole albums. Her pet Stones LP as a kid, she reveals with a wry smile, was called Sucking In The '70s. The late Ian "Stu" Stewart, the Stones' pianist, had played an active part in the Dorset arts and music scene.

"Every weekend there would be a large gathering of people," she remembers, "and Stu used to come down for that. Charlie Watts played in a band called Rocket 88 and they used to do gigs in the area. My Mum and Dad would put on gigs in the village hall for them."

She describes her parents fondly as "hippies", yet they were politically conservative, as was the whole area. The Harveys' hippy qualities lay in encouraging Polly and her brother to be artistic at all times. While other children watched television, the Harvey kids would be checking out Dylan albums or making things. By the time Polly finished her art foundation course, she had produced "hundreds" of sculptures - in plaster, chicken-wire, stone, brickwork, paper, wood and rope. Her parents would take her to London to see Bob Dylan shows. It was they who suggested she record a version of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" (which is on Rid of Me).

As a result of her upbringing, Harvey's appeciation of art is extreme, ranging from Rachel Whiteread's House and Damien Hirst's sheep-in-formaldehyde, to the albums of Captain Beefheart. Intriguingly, whenever she finishes a record, she first plays it to her parents for their comments. Aren't they occasionally shocked by the words in her songs?

"No, they've never said that," she says thoughtfully. "It's something that we don't discuss very much. We're a quiet family. We don't talk amongst ourselves a lot. We don't need to."

As Mr and Mrs Harvey will already know, her new album (To Bring You My Love) sees a change in the sound of PJ Harvey records. Shorn of Rob Ellis's polyrhythmical drumming, it is mostly sparse, though still intense. In its best song, "The Dancer", Harvey introduces us to one of nature's swell guys ("He came bathed in light and splendour and glory/I can't believe what the Lord has finally sent me") before launching into six ecstatic shrieks in a red-blooded update of Meg Ryan's restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. Most of the new album is played by Harvey herself, who, aside from being a masterful guitarist, can also play keyboards, saxophone and drums. But when she tours Britain (starting in Glasgow on 4 March), she intends to play no instruments at all - she has put together a new four-piece band to enable her to concentrate purely on singing.

"I'm really enjoying not playing an instrument," she says of the band's recent rehearsals, "because I can sing properly for the first time. I've been having lessons for about two years. I'm very interested in the voice and its capacity to change words. With my singing tutor, we do operatic pieces. I'm a pretty poor opera singer, but I'm trying."

The first single from the new album, "Down by the Water" - about the drowning of a young girl by her own mother - comes with a typically outrageous Harvey video. Undulating in a scarlet dress with red lipstick and jet-black Joan Crawford hair, she whispers the nightmarish chorus, "Little fish, big fish, swimming in the water", rubbing her belly for good measure. For an instant, she smirks horribly.

Can this be the same woman who sips calmly at her glass of mineral water in a Dorset hotel, waving to friends of her parents as they walk past in the street? Who says, exactly like a middle-aged aunt, "I've discovered television; I find it quite comforting." Who, when the hotel's landlord - a friendly, Richard Griffiths sort - apologises to her for being a fan of JS Bach and therefore not au courant with her albums, says sweetly, "Oh, that's OK, don't worry."

The only information she will reveal about her songwriting is that she herself does not understand it. The technique is explained simply enough: find a comfortable room, plug in a guitar. As to what comes out the other side...

"You have to lay yourself open," she says carefully, switching to the second person. "You have to let it - whatever `it' is - run through you. I have a great deal of respect for that spiritual plane that is involved with anything creative. And I don't like to tamper with it. Maybe some people can, and not feel they're damaging it. But I like to leave it. I am directed by it."

Polly Harvey likes being on her own, "away from people", but next month she'll be opening for REM, the massively influential American rock band, in football stadia that hold tens of thousands of fans. As a clue to what might happen, a feature-length video of her 1993 tour, Reeling, showed her smoking and drink- ing her way across America. (Today, in this bar, she doesn't smoke at all. She even thinks carefully before accepting a second glass of water.) Isn't a year-long world tour going to be tough to adjust to?

"No more so than they've all been," she smiles. "I'm used to this schizophrenic life. I'll just throw myself into it. I'll become that person that's the centre of attention. It isn't something that I'm comfortable with, but there's no other way to do what I want to do, which is play this music."

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