Revolver - Interview - Winter 2000
Who's That Girl?
[ "I got something to hide here called desire" - Patti Smith ]
After building her last two albums around hushed tones and shadowy character sketches, Polly Harvey searingly - and sometimes sneeringly - revisits her past on Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea. Why? It's a question Harvey prefers not to address too directly. Like most lyricists, she communicates best via the clipped cadences of song. And while she concedes that the tunes on her new record tell the story of a happier woman, or at least one more capable of reconciling with the wily ways of love, she demurs as soon as things get even remotely personal. Fair enough. Bit on 1998's Is this Desire?, there's no doubt that Harvey questioned whether those wily ways were worth their cost; these days, swooning even as she continues to dice up desire on much of Stories, she seems more comfortable scratching at other people's skin. And living in her own.
Your new record is much more explicit and emotionally direct than Is This Desire?
I purposefully wanted to get away from concentrating so much on atmosphere and soundscape like I'd been doing and really get back to very simple songwriting with one guitar and one voice. Where I'm at personally and what I'm feeling at the time determines whether I need to distance myself or be very direct.
What changed your approach in that way?
I've been writing a lot of poetry, and that's made me look at lyric writing very differently. I write a lot of freehand prose, kind of rambling stuff that I hone down into poems that might become songs. A lot of it is rubbish, but it's something I do every day. And to go from a poem to a song you have to be more crass somehow. Poems can go firing off in any direction. But I wanted these songs to have a certain resolve.
You said that your six-month stay in New York was a big inspiration. How so?
It's a foreign country to me, and I had to relearn everything - my approach to being with people and places. I found myself really opening my eyes and looking at things. I remember walking down the streets and looking up at the sky, the facades on the buildings, the carvings that you see there. All these things. I never do that at home because it's so familiar to me.
How does that come across on the record when you go back and listen to it?
I get a really positive feeling from this record, much more than I've felt from any of the others. What I do to other people's records that I have - and need - is make them my own. And when I listen to Stories, it fills me with this positive energy that I usually rely on other people's records for. These songs do that for me, and that's quite a difference. It allows people in quite a lot more. It's not so shut down.