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The great Polly Jean Harvey edged past 50 last week, with the only disappointing part of that being it didn’t come with a new record – she’s been on a roll for a good long while after all.

Wind Back Wednesday flits back 16 years to an interview with her where personas and passion were debated and talk of easing her commitment saw her offer that “It's not like I can distance myself, even after I've been on tour for a year. I can't do that.”

And this was before her astounding albums diving deep into the nature of England’s bloody history of war, and the world’s ugly present of abuse and exploitation. More of them another time. Maybe we can make this a regular date with Ms Harvey this time each year.


She can yowl like a scared and cornered beast, all tortured and driven and ready to lash out. When the eyes widen and the hair falls behind that pale face, the wide, lipsticked mouth becomes the centre of attention like a black hole sucking you in and deeper still. It's intensely, gut-wrenchingly visceral.

She can demand the same attention with a confident, just-as-driven sexuality that appeals to more than just easily swayed men and is not dependent on flimsy outfits or manufactured girl power. When she throws the hair back and smiles, there's a swagger there, a long-striding cock-o'-the-walk style that usually is assumed to be the province of men in leather pants.

She can look as fragile as an Edgar Allan Poe heroine. When she turns her wan face away from the light, her skin is almost translucent and the voice retreats on itself, the aural equivalent of a hunched and scurrying run out of the room.

Watching the career of Polly Jean Harvey, 33-year-old daughter of the decidedly polite seaside town of Yeovil in Dorset, is like stumbling into a theatre during a night of one-act plays by a dozen different writers. Or maybe one writer trying on a dozen personas. Watching a performance by her, you think she must be enjoying playing with these images and their effects on an audience. But it's not as it seems.

"I always feel strange when people talk about images and persona because that's me up there," Harvey says in her quiet voice with a soft burr that has doggedly refused to be shorn away by her occasional periods of living away from Dorset. "It's not like I slip into portraying a character at any time; that is how I am and how I feel. I can't play it any other way but that honest approach to how I'm feeling at the time.

"That's why sometimes shows are terrible because I feel awful, and when I feel great the shows are incredible. But it's not ever a case that I feel I have to slip into a certain image to go on stage."

She makes a fair point, but we assume a singer - like a 100-metre runner getting into the zone before a race by strutting behind the blocks with puffed chest and stuck-out chin - must get into the mindset of a stage performer. That the strong presence on stage can be a cover for a quieter, even smaller, presence offstage.

"It is a part of myself, it's an element of myself that has come forward," Harvey says insistently. "There are different parts of ourselves that come forward in different situations for different people. Being on stage brings out this side of my character, which I love, but that's where it comes forward. I'd look pretty stupid if I conducted myself [like that] when I was going to the supermarket.

"Everybody's like that. We all behave a certain way when we're out with our friends [compared with] when we're out with our brother-in-law. That's my side when I'm at my most happy, when I'm performing."

Happy she may have been, but happy the music was not. Not obviously, anyway. Harvey's first album, Dry, came out in 1992, when the name P.J. Harvey encompassed the three-piece band she fronted, its imagery was awash with questions of body image and death, its music drenched in blues and the dark side of rock's fascination with rhythm.

But while her guitar playing was direct, almost brutal sometimes, and live shows reportedly were the same, there also was a vibrancy that rattled cages. Though she was thin, and within a year scarily so (there were persistent rumours of anorexia, which she has always avoided commenting on, and at least one breakdown), she burnt with melody as much as emotional intensity.

She was in her early 20s, new to London and unprepared for the scrutiny, but she had something to say. Just as importantly, she had the need to say it even when she turned back to Dorset five years later, after what she has described as a very dark time.

"I was very worn and very disillusioned," she told The Guardian. "Emotionally, mentally or physically, it wasn't a healthy time. I was running on empty. I'd kind of lost sight of why I was doing this and I don't think that would've happened if I'd have been of stronger mind and body."

You can see the genesis of this even now as she describes why there can be no separation between her and her songs when she performs. "I feel the songs very much when I'm playing them," Harvey explains. "I'm in the moment and very attached emotionally when I'm performing. It's not like I can distance myself, even after I've been on tour for a year. I can't do that. It has to come from the heart and so then that is the way you get a lot of sensuality and emotion into the songs and I wouldn't want to do it any other way.

"When I see a band or an exhibition or a film, that's how I want to feel: I want to feel that the performance is so vital that I'm really moved and that I feel different afterwards and changed in some way. And that comes from a very honest performance and not being frightened to lay that emotion out there."

As with most songwriters, Harvey doesn't like connections being made between her life and her songs, which is understandable given it is a reductive and ultimately narrow focus. But given what she has just said, I ask her if it is possible or even desirable to separate the creative process from her emotional life.

"Well, it's not as cut and dried as that. I think, as a creative writer, I'm very open to all nature of emotions, not just my own. This is where people get confused in thinking that everything that a writer may write about is direct experience. Now if you apply that to a novelist, poets, whatever, we know it's not the case. They're often writing about things that are outside of themselves but have moved them.

"Now that same thing applies to myself. There's no way I could have experienced everything I've written about in my songs; it's just physically not possible. I wouldn't be alive. But I have an enormous capacity to soak up what I see around me and try to articulate those feelings because I'm moved by them."

For Harvey, with a sculptor mother and stonemason father, that emotional expression is not confined to music, for she also sculpts and writes poetry. These outlets are necessary, for expressing herself through art of any form is something of a compulsion. "I feel quite unwell if I don't: physically, it's my greatest way of expressing. Without it I feel mute, as it were," Harvey says passionately.

"When I'm writing poetry, in some ways it's much more open because you're not restricted by song structures. When I'm working manually with sculpture there's very little intellect involved at all. It's very much a physical feeling and I don't usually choose to intellectualise what I've done."

That's not just rhetoric. Harvey's previous tour to Australia two years ago featured songs from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Written partly in Manhattan and partly in Dorset, it was her most melodic album since Dry and an album that was strongly sensual in its inundation of sensation.

"Yeah, yeah, definitely, but I think you could say that about most of my work," she says. "All of my work has been about laying bare emotions, not being scared to show how you feel about everything. That's something I've always wanted to hear from other artists and myself. When I see other bands play or when I buy a record, I want to feel that part inside of me moved or opened or challenged or shocked or just something. Just please give me something that's going to excite me, confound me, make me question myself, everything.

"That's what art is about: it's about provoking and raising questions that would otherwise not be raised and enjoying feeling moved in some way."

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