“I want his fucking ass! I want your fucking ass!” These imperative, pornographic commands from “April,” a characteristically maverick song off A Woman A Man Walked By, the anticipated new collaborative album by PJ Harvey and John Parish, evoke nothing so much as Marlon Brando’s improvised dialogue in Last Tango in Paris as rendered by the Jesus Lizard. Hurtling out of the speakers, Harvey’s uncanny, decidedly masculine bark relays the aggression and growling timbre of a sexual thug.
Strangely, when speaking with Ms. Polly Jean Harvey by phone from London, just after she’d performed a low-key show, the acclaimed singer–songwriter seems nothing like the unhinged, unabashedly profane character inhabiting “April.” Decidedly English, with a proper accent, the diva offstage proves articulate, almost demure. When asked about “April,” she seems to shudder with embarrassment at the thought of discussing it. “That Luddite chorus—I couldn’t even repeat it, because it’s bad language,” Harvey says in total seriousness, a blush audible in her voice.
The irony that Harvey, 39, can sing those words at the top of her lungs but not say them out loud seems strangely appropriate, considering the twists and contrasts shaping her career. When she released her acclaimed debut album, Dry, in 1992, it signaled the arrival of a major, yet unpredictable, new talent. Harvey’s rapturous performances ricocheted tension, while the enigmatic storytelling of her lyrics illuminated an uneasy intrigue. Meanwhile, the almost Cindy Sherman–like characters that she created onstage and in photographs toyed provocatively with traditional ideas of sexuality and gender. All these elements fused together for a beguiling, if inscrutable, persona. Dry’s sound still owed a debt to indie guitar rock like the Pixies, but frontwoman Harvey was something else, very much her own animal.
Initially, Harvey was repeatedly compared to Patti Smith, to her annoyance. It wasn’t that she sounded like punk poet Smith; instead, it was that both put “icon” into iconoclasm, each sharing the ability to become transformed by the spirit of sound into something larger than life. But Harvey’s intensity exuded a dark, religious ecstasy all her own—especially on her bluesy, spooky masterpiece To Bring You My Love (voted one of the 500 greatest albums of all time by Rolling Stone magazine). Since then, Harvey has proved consistently unpredictable, spiraling from 1998’s harrowing, emotional Is This Desire? to the primitive pianos haunting 2007’s impressively stark White Chalk. “I don’t understand how people keep making the same kind of music over and over,” she explains. “I feel so passionately about that: I need to constantly feel like I’m learning something new. All I’m trying to do is make records that sound different from one another.”
Exploring themes of sex, transgression, obsession and self-loathing, Harvey, on A Woman A Man Walked By, invokes the blues shot through with Gothic Americana, closer in tone to Flannery O’Connor than any of her alt peers. Speaking of the aforementioned “April,” Harvey recalls “a moment where I use my voice in what I would call a very… singer-like way.” At this, she lets out another embarrassed laugh. “My voice crescendos up to a high note, just to tumble down in quite an acrobatic vocal style. I wouldn’t do that on my own songs, but John’s music threw me into this emotional expression where, I hesitate to say, I sound like a… singer.” She cracks up laughing again, adding: “The energy and savagery in the music that John gave me produced those words and that singing.”
The unique working arrangement that Harvey and Parish share allows the pair to access new places in each other’s music. Parish, an acclaimed producer and musician in his own right, lays claim to an impressive catalog of experimental, uncompromising solo material, avant-garde scores for theatrical productions and idiosyncratically brilliant studio productions for the likes of Tracy Chapman and the Eels. With Harvey, Parish maintains a specific musical telepathy: He co-produced To Bring You My Love, and has since worked as a sideman on nearly all of Harvey’s solo projects. On A Woman A Man Walked By (as well as on their jointly credited work, 1996’s Dance Hall At Louse Point), Parish writes all of the music, while Harvey handles lyrics and vocals, out of which springs intentionally unexpected results.
“John writes very extravagant music, in a way that I never would or could in my solo material, and it’s quite a challenge as a singer and a writer to match it,” Harvey explains. “Collaborating with him, I feel more liberated than in my own work. What he throws me is a wide-open canvas, so my mind can go anywhere. I’m working in unfamiliar territory straight away, so I immediately start exploring areas I’d never stumble across were I working on my own.”
“Polly can be intense—deranged even—but she never slips into histrionic vocal gymnastics,” Parish notes. “She’s very technically capable, but she’s more interested in the emotional intensity of performance. I love that the record has many different voices, which Polly has an incredible gift for. The voices she uses emphasize the change in atmosphere and character from song to song.”
A Woman A Man Walked By brims with similar contradictions: Kurt Weill–style recitations given a contemporary frisson; gutbucket stomps inspired by Baudelaire, but rendered in post-punk aesthetics; and, above all, a smoky cinematic quality suggesting David Lynch. “I almost see each song like a little movie: the characters spawn themselves because of the atmosphere that’s inherent in the music,” says Harvey. “As a child, I’d perform stories I was reading. If I was reading Toad of Toad Hall, I’d act out the book’s characters: I’d have a little voice for Toad, and a different voice for Badger, then another for the mouse. I used to have my parents in hysterics! So it’s very natural for me to see the story in the music. In some ways, I’m just the narrator for what I’m seeing.”
Not surprisingly, Harvey’s exquisite feel for narrative recently led to her first theatrical score commission, for a recent Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler starring Mary-Louise Parker. “I’ve wanted to write music for film and theater ever since I began, and no one ever asked me!” Harvey exclaims. “I’ve been longing to do a soundtrack, so when they asked I immediately said yes. I love the play and have seen many productions of it, as well as productions by the director, Ian Rickson. I liked writing for a director’s vision—it was lovely for me not to have to be the boss!”
Harvey’s next career move might prove (laughably) to come from left field. Judd Apatow, take note: Harvey is yearning to explore her lighter side. “Comedy is a hugely important part of my life,” says the avowed fan of American sitcoms like Seinfeld and classic Brit humor such as Blackadder and Monty Python. “I think I have a greater understanding of the meaning of life through the utterly ridiculous. I’d love to appear on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and one of many things I want to do before I die is a standup comedy performance incorporating music with another comedian. It sounds completely unfeasible—to pull it off would be a miracle, but challenges excite me. As long as it’s pushing some boundaries, then it’s worth doing.”
PJ HARVEY’S FAVORITE LOUNGE: The Waverly Inn, New York.
Photography by Maria Mochnacz