21 Apr PJ’s Swansong
On the eve of her Australian tour, rock icon Polly Harvey tells RITCHIE YORKE she’s seriously considering a new career. It was with her usual subtle-as-an-A-bomb aplomb, that British singer-songwriter PJ Harvey dropped this bombshell down the phone line from Canada: “I think I might retire”.
One moment we were discussing tour dates. The next she was calling it quits.
What? Retire from touring?
“No, from music,” she said. More emphatically this time.
Just returned from a bout of retail therapy in Vancouver, where she was preparing for the second-last show of her North American tour, the highly regarded Polly Jean Harvey, 35, was in a candid mood.
After her Oz tour – from November 25 to December 5 – she’ll play three shows in Britain and one in France before shutting down for the Christmas break. Perhaps for good.
“I might do that,” she said enigmatically. “I haven’t decided yet. I might do something else. I might go back to college and study English literature. Or I might just move into something entirely different. I’m not sure yet.”
Whatever. Harvey’s Paris gig is shaping up to be a curious affair. The location of the December 17 show is a secret and tickets – there are just 350 – are available only by texting the organisers to enter a draw. Just the sort of thing an artist might plan for her swansong.
We suggest that change is a good thing to embrace in any organic career journey. “I think so too,” she agreed. “But I’ve got no idea where things are going to go next year, but it’s definitely not doing the same thing again.”
Fans of Harvey’s unusual music will be aware she has invariably resisted repeating herself on her albums. Even her live tours are noteworthy for their points of difference.
The upcoming and potentially last tour will once again highlight her desire to be different. “Apart from my regular drummer, Robert Ellis, I’ve found a bass player called Simon Archer and a guitarist playing with the Chili Peppers’ John Frusciante, named Josh Klinghoffer. The new guys are both very spontaneous and exciting players.
“With this line-up, I’ve chosen to do quite a few interpretations. We play songs from pretty much every album I’ve done, but some of them sound very different. The musicians put a lot of themselves into it. And I’m not so dictatorial as to how I want things to be played.
“So it makes for quite an exciting show. A nice change really. I try to do that every time; try to make big changes which I think is very important.”
Even if she performing her swansong, Harvey is doing it with pizzazz. One London scribe described a recent show in the British capital as “mesmerising”. Another noted that she “compresses outrage and sexual energy into ruthless songs that are all noise and no knickers”.
Despite the acclaim which inevitably accompanies her touring activities, Harvey is obviously none too impressed with the state of play in the contemporary music scene.
“There is very little contemporary music I find inspiring. I listen, still, to a lot of Captain Beefheart, Hendrix and Led Zeppelin,” she said earlier this year.
We wondered what particular part of the Zeppelin canon most appealed to her? “I actually like the whole body of work. I even like the more obscure albums. I find it all interesting — their whole journey really,” she revealed.
But it’s a long journey from the Zepped-out ’70s to the sometimes vacant Noughties. The meaning of music in peoples’ lives has changed.
“It is a bit of a weird time now,” she agreed. “A lot of people just aren’t going to shows any more. There’s not many people making music like myself.
“And there’s not much radio exposure for music like that. I was fortunate to be lucky enough to come along at a time when there was still an opening for unusual music. There really isn’t any more.
“Radio seems to have closed down entirely to that type of music.”
She says that her 2004 album Uh Huh Her has received a “healthy mixture of reaction,” but says that she doesn’t really care about audience or industry response.
“I just do what I’ve got to do,” she said.