Q (UK magazine)
HIPS. LIPS. TITS. POWER.
PJ Harvey * Björk * Tori Amos
Photos by John Stoddart
Well, would you spill their pint? In the last 18 months, Polly Harvey, Björk, and Tori Amos have rogered the charts with their special brew of spooky, left-field weirdness and estrogen-marinated musings. Q invites the gleesome threesome over for a tupperware party with attitude. Adrian Deevoy pours the tea and supplies the fondant fancies.
The Elfin Eskimo, the Kooky American chick and the Mad Bitch Woman from hell are drinking tea and talking about other peopleís perceptions of them and how wrong they always seem to be.
Gathered around a low table in a photographic studio in Islington, North London, they make for gently intense yet engaging company. Soon, the conversation is taking the unlikely B-roads hinted at in their expressly non-linear music. It is punctuated at regular intervals by staccato bursts of manic laughter. If Andrew Lloyd Webber were ever to make Macbeth The Musical!! (The Scottish play as youíve never heard it before, starring Nick Cave and Sarah Brightman) heíd need look no further for his three witches.
As they talk, parts of their characters begin to emerge: Polly Harvey is a cotious cove, quietly looking on and rolling her own cigarettes, following rather than leading the proceedings; Björk is a more abstract customer, immediately giving voice to her more random thoughts and pursuing the unlikeliest of tangents; Tori Amosís off-centre broadsides come in elliptical form, often stopping off for a spot of free association and shrinkspeak en route to her original point.
With 5 LPs between them (two unsettling albums apiece for Polly and Tori and one half-million UK seller for Björkís startling debut), they have given spooky, left-field label weirdness back its good name and everyone from Kate Bush to Evan Dando a run for their money.
But what sets these women apart from the mainstream soft soul of Mariah Carey and Dina Caroll is their extraordinary singing voices. Björkís is a heavenly hiccuping thing that almost defies terrestrial description; Pollyís is as if opera diva had eaten a drum kit - swooping and percussive, and Toriís is a finely tutored instrument that manages to simultaneously preach, purr and plead.
Their speaking voices are no less unusual: Björk boasts a yodelling Cockney Icelanding hybrid with occasional East European overtones (that old one); Polly has the soft Rs and sleepily stretched vowels of her native Dorset, while Tori possesses a dreamy mid-American accent which, of the trio, bears the closest resemblance to that which you hear on her records.
All three have met before, most poigniantly at this yearís Brit Awards where Björk collected a brace of gongs and performed Satisfaction with Polly. Seeking refuge from the corporate black slapathon, Tori sought out her fellow female singers backstage, harbouring the suspicion that they might be soul mates. She was, she maintains proudly, correct.
Do you feel a connection between the three of you?
I think there is a connection. For me, anyway. This is the first time Iíve really had the opportunity to meet other women that are in the same kind of situation that Iím in. Itís been really helpful for me to see that other people have to deal with exactly the same sort of things that I have to deal with. I was feeling on my own. I was thinking that other people donít have to go through these things, seeing lawyers, getting sued left, right and centre while youíre trying to write an album.
Are you being sued as well?
Yea, Iím being sued at the moment. Itís really horrible.
Iím so sorry for you.
Do you want us to shoot the lawyer?
But meeting up with these two has made me stop feeling so sorry for myself. Itís just living and everyone has to deal with these kinds of things in their different ways.
Youíve met before, havenít you?
Me and Tori met in Iceland.
She came backstage to see me at my show two years ago. I had been aware of her because of The Sugarcubes and I went to Iceland because I wanted to go so bad. Iíd been fascinated by it and studied a bit about it so I eventually went. Everybody like, gets drunk, donít they?
Thatís Icelandic culture, thatís all there is, really.
Itís the most expensive place to buy alcohol on the planet.
Itís a joke. One beer costs about five quid.
But they were a really good audience for a country thatís drunk.
But that was the way you kept the concentration going. It was amazing. Iíve done gigs in Iceland that have been ridiculous because people know you and when youíre singing, theyíre shouting, Hey, you didnít make your Engish degree! Your uncle is fucking my niece!
They could have shouted that at me and it probably would have been true. But we went snow-mobiling on the glacier. Polly, you should go there, youíd love it.
Iíve never been. In my head Iíve just seen snow and cold.
There arenít many trees but itís very green. And itís icy in Greenland. They got the names wrong
Is it hilly or flat?
Itís very hilly. Geographically, itís very young, so itís still in the making. Itís not got to the tree stage yet. Itís still making moss.
Itís a very unique place. It makes sense that Björk comes from there.
What were your impessions of each other before you met?
Total respect for them.
This might sound really arrogant, I donít know, but when it comes to people who make music, Iím not very interested in most cases. That doesnít mean I think theyíre bad, they just donít do anything for me. But I could tell very quickly when I heard Pollyís album and Toriís album that Iíd like them. When I met Polly, it was really relaxed and I have to say that she was like I expected her to be.
Were you anxious about meeting each other?
I wasnít really. As soon as we met it was very easy.
You can suss some people out pretty quickly. Not completely, obviously, but you can sense whether or not youíre on the same wavelength.
Do you have, or have you ever, felt in competition with each other?
Never. Itís funny for women because journalists pit women against each other. If you think about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton they were all much more similar to each other than we are. We have tits. We have three holes. Thatís what we have in common. We donít even play the same instruments. It really disappoints me when some sort of competition has to be manufactured for their little minds and fantasies. Thatís not growing, thatís not support. There is room for everybody on the planet to be creative and conscious if you are your own person. If youíre trying to be like somebody else, then there isnít. We see things from different points of view and that affects people in different ways and I think that should be encouraged. It shouldnít be like, two tits too many. Like with radio in America, they tell you, well, weíre already playing one female this week. They wouldnít think about that with guys.
In the last 18 months, you have all felt the pressures of success at full tilt. How have you, in your own ways, coped or not coped?
I guess I was lucky in that I became a public property in Iceland when I was 11, so I had 15 years of hardcore rehearsals before all of this hullabaloo. I guess at the end of the day you realize that this hullabaloo is not about you, itís about that person youíve created. It sounds cold and horrible but you feel very lucky that the person who you are - the relationship that you have between you and yourself - is different than with some person whoís never met you. Itís good to have that distance, because when you get Brit awards and front covers, itís not about you, itís a symbol for what you do. And when it comes to what I do, itís got so little to do with myself. Iím writing songs about other people, my favorite things, whatever, and itís the most unselfish thing you can imagine.
Do you agree with that, Tori and Polly? Your songs, ostensibly, seem to be more about first hand personal experience?
No, I definitely agree with what Björk was saying. Iím just growing to realize that itís not you when you see your picture in the paper. I can now see that itís something completely removed from what I am.
You had some problems with that, didnít you?
Yeah, because I couldnít remove myself and I found it very difficult. Anything that I read would really upset me. Or I wouldnít realize at the time and then later on it would really upset me. But now I can disassociate myself from that. I think maybe itís just time that does it. The longer Iíve done this, the more Iíve learnt how to deal with it and not be dragged down by it. But I did at the start. It really upset me.
You have one relationship with your Grandmother and one with your boyfriend and one with the guy in the grocery shop. That doesnít mean youíre being fake or untrue, itís just that you have those different colors in you.
You have to know what your intentions are. In this little time weíve spent together, supporting each other, I sense that our intentions are about exposing things within our own beings which become mirrors for other people. Like when I listen to Pollyís words, I see pieces of me that Iím not willing to see. So Iím like (taking a series of deep breaths) OK, be with this for a moment, Tori, and hear what Polly is saying. And I hear pieces of Björk that I cut out a long time ago. The girl that jumps off rooftops, that part. Itís all about consciousness. Weíre not actors. I think songwriters are the consciousness or the unconscious of the time. Thatís what the poetís job is. Iím only a mirror. If someone hates my guts, then they only hate half of me. Do you understand? 50 percent of it is me and 50 percent of it is them. A great review? Half of that is them.
Sorry, itís nothing personal but generally journalists donít have a clue. I donít expect them to have one. Itís very rare that you read something with some insight. Maby five percent of reviews I can identify with and then only a little bit.
But certain reviews must stay with you.
Uhm, Iím not saying (laughter).
What I remember is spending three hours with someone for an interview and youíve gotten to know them a little bit and talked about intimate things and tried to be open. Then youíve read what theyíve written and you think, God, this is not where I was. You feel really invaded. You think, well, that is a Cornflake Girl. People want to know what a Cornflake Girl is? That journolist right there.
Donít you feel you sometimes reveal too much of yourselves?
I think if thereís a place to reveal yourself then itís in the songs. Itís not like you decide, OK, Iím going to reveal myself. Itís just a certain need. Youíre just focusing on the things youíre talking about and not necessarily yourself. I compare what I do to sleeping, because most journalists seem to get that pretty easily. Thereís no way you can decide what position youíre going to be in when you wake up in the morning. You just roll around the bad and it happens. And if you donít do it for a week, you go mad.
Do you feel in control of your lives?
Yep, I do. Nearly. (laughter)
I could be more in control but I donít want to be. I decide what happens. Iím always so thirsty for this element of surprise that I donít want to plan more than a few days ahead.
But surely in your current position you canít do that. It must be difficult to be spontaneous.
Whatís spontaneity? There isnít any spontaneity. Iím just speaking for me right now. On stage, when I play, thatís my moment of freedom, but 19 hours a day are packed with whatís got to happen to get to the next show. Iím a bit of a road dog. I love to play. I guess itís because I did clubs for 14 years before Little Earthquakes happened. So I know what Iím doing September 6 or August 7. Will you call me up and cheer me up on August 7?
Course I will. Itíll be funny, youíll have to try to keep this balance between being organized and being creative and keeping everything in balance in your head and monitoring everything thatís going on.
Itís about allowing enough space for accidents to happen. Being in control and yet not. Being just in control enough. That really turns me on.
I got that last night! Half a bottle of wine and I was thinking, Wor! What a great life!
You all perform with a great degree of abandon. What does that mean to you?
Itís what gets me through...my life. It reminds you about why you wanted to do that in the first place because you have a love and a need to do it.
itís hard to pin it down without bringing out a string of cliches. Itís an addiction, but itís not JUST that.
Youíre not even thinking anymore. You just free up your mind and express. Thereís nothing calculated. I donít play the piano, the piano plays me.
You sacrifice yourself. And you lose everything - like the fact that Iím this big and an Icelandic female and all that. I think that this is the reason that music and sex are so often compared with each-other. The most common way of feeling this is probably in sex. Because when youíre having sex, you donít think, Iím now going to move my left arm 30 centimeters. You just have to do something and you follow your instincts. In that sense, although Iím not saying Iím thinking about sex all the time when Iím on stage, itís a very similar feeling to having very good sex with someone.
Thatís so good that you have sex like that. I have a much harder time opening up in the intimate sex realm because I have stuff to deal with. I donít have to go there emotionally when I play. Itís harder for me to feel that in sex. The only time I can really feel it is when I play and I guess thatís why I do so many shows. Iím dry. In real life Iím bone dry, and when I play Iím a mango and in sex Iím starving to be a dripping mango.
Iím not very good at communicating things but with music it makes sense.
I think youíre really good at communicating.
Yea, but I have to use my brain a lot, and itís taken 28 years to get to this.
Q: Do you go mad when you tour?
Björk: You bet, man. You start out with fucking health foods and no alcohol...
Polly: ...youíre totally cleaned out and youíre eating well and doing excersize, swimming every day, and by the end of the tour youíre drinking to calm down instead of meditating or whatever, and eating crap and smoking.
Tori: Itís really great for me to hear this because my tour starts tomorrow.
Björk: And your reading just goes down the toilet. You start off reading highly spiritual, good-for-the-brain things and by the end Iím just reading about fucking and sex orgies.
Q: Do you ever feel like you canít be bothered to perform?
Tori: Yeah, of course but you can tap into that source. Iím just a conduit for some kind of power. Iím just a vase and the water is flowing through me. You put your hands on the voltage and it just surges through you and if the crowd are giving that out too, it can completely energize you back.
Q: How do you deal with hecklers?
Tori: Thereís always someone who wants to make you doubt yourself and scream at you. I have a very quiet house when I play, so I can always hear them. I donít know if there are any hecklers loud enough for Polly to hear from the stage.
Björk: Meat Loaf!
Tori: Get off the stage, you fucking whore! They shout that and so you (leans forward agressively) and go, look, Iím here for an hour and twenty fucking minutes and if you donít have a gun to blow me off the stage then Iím staying.
Polly: Iíve had people from beginning to end just shouting, You fucking bitch! Go back to fucking Yeovil! I always wonder why theyíve paid money to do that. I just smile and sing at them and that seems to work. Dedicate a song to them, that always works.
Tori: When that happens, your first reaction is to crawl into a bubble bath and have a pizza. But you have to respect yourself and draw the line and deal with it. I donít like confrontations but you have to do something.
Björk: And you learn, after a while, to turn everything into something that turns you on. itís like youíve got this button. You learn to use things. If someone shouts at you, you can use it to make a song better.
Q: Can you be megalomaniacs?
Björk: In my case, I wish I was a little bit more of a megalomaniac. Just kidding, OK. Iím guilty!
Polly: Me too!
Tori: Of course.
Björk: You might attack some innocent room service people or something.
Q: How does it feel to be an object of lust?
Polly: An object of lust!
Tori: Whatís lust? (laughter)
Q: Student desire.
Björk: Student desire. Mmmm. I have to say a lot of that is created by the media.
Q: But itís true. You are all lusted after in some way or another.
Björk: I just canít relate to it.
Q: But that doesnít stop it existing.
Björk: I know. Maybe we should talk about this. Itís very difficult.
Q: Didnít you fancy pop-stars yourself when you were very young?
Björk: No. I was into Albert Einstien and David Attenborough. I really lusted after him.
Polly: David Attenborough was lovely.
Tori: Sorry girls, but Robert Plant did it for me. Sorry. I was 10 years old and I wanted to give him my virginity. I decided he was better than all the boys in my class.
Björk: I just wasnít interested in boys until a few years ago. I thought they were shit. You canít talk to them, especially as a teenager. You could play with them in a band but as people they were so limited. You canít get properly drunk with them. Like, all the way drunk.
Tori: Are you serious?
Polly: Iím a late starter as well. I didnít start dating until I was 20 and Iím 24 now.
Tori: I was in love with this boy when I was five years old and I knew we could really make it work. I was trying to convince him and he took this hammer and hit me with it really hard and, youíre going to really hate me for this, but I was so stupid, I tried to get my dad, the minister, to invite them over because I wanted to see him and conquer his heart. I was going to give him bubble-gum and then heíd let me into his treehouse to play with his toy machine-guns. I just wanted to be with him so bad.
Q: did it work out?
Tori: No, never. He called me a nerd.
Q: Do you ever use drugs when youíre writing?
Björk: Drugs? What are you talking about? (laughter)
Polly: You mean drugs as a tool to write? Only really alcohol and then not much.
Björk: I sing best without anything. I know this sounds really hippy, but being on top of a mountain in the middle of the day would be best for me. but to be able to socialize with all these people, because Iím quite an introverted sort of person, Iíll have a cognac before I go on stage. But even thatís more of a ritual more than anything. And maybe a bottle of wine afterwards to chill down.
Q: Do you ever fancy pop-stars now or do you understand the contrivance of image too well to do that?
Tori: I think weíve all been doing this too long to fall for that.
Q: Donít you ever look at a picture of Morissey and think Phwoar!
Björk: Morissey? Youíre joking.
Polly: Itís more likely to be someone who works in the pub down the road. You donít fancy people just because theyíre pop stars. And itís not just men. Women can be attractive too.
Tori: KD Lang is kind of attractive. And that grip who was on the video shoot the other day was very attractive.
Björk: Headphones really turn me on.
Björk: and good literature. The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille usually does the job.
Q: You all draw on sex very heavily in your work.
Tori: Sexuality. There is a difference. Sex is this (inserts right index finger into left thumb and fore-finger ĎOí shape). Sexuality is being in touch with something that isnít just that. Itís passion. Sexuality is a much greater thing than, Do it all night, honey.
Q: Sexuality, then.
Polly: Itís a very natural thing to write about, I think. Itís like getting yourself turned onto a play in a way. For me, music is something that is very sexual. Itís a turn-on. Itís not something to do with your head, itís to do with your body, which is a very sexual instrument. To bring sexual elements into the lyrics to go with the music just makes perfect sense to me. It just happens.
Q: A lot,in your case. Did you read Elvis Costello saying that a lot of Pollyís songs ďseem to be about blood and fuckingĒ?
Polly: (pause) Well, heís wrong. (laughter)
Q: Are you flattered when elder statesmen of rock (Eric Clapton, Costello, Warren Zevon - announce that your records have been their favorites in the last year?
Björk: Half of me is a bit of a rebel, thinking that someone my dad used to listen to, stuff like Cream, saying that my stuff is all right must mean Iíve gone wrong somewhere. But half of me is really flattered. If you want the honest truth, Iíll be sickly sentimental and say that if my best friend says she likes a song it would affect me a lot more.
Q: Are you aware of what the public think of you?
Björk: I think in my case, it was decided that I was an Eskimo Elf. And I guess thatís...(laughs) something Iíll have to live with.
Polly: And Iím a mad bitch woman from hell. I canít get enough sex or blood!
Tori: Peopleís perceptions of Polly seem to be completely off. Compared to when I met her, excuse me, but Polly was like an angel. So loving. So I think whoever made her out to be this mad bitch women has done her an injustice.
Q: But you must have done something to give people that initial impression.
Polly: I suppose I give as much as I want to give. I decide immediately if I like a person and if I do, then Iím myself, and if I donít, then I give nothing. With Tori I liked her straight away, so she got me. But people do have completely the wrong idea about me, almost the opposite, in fact. And Iím quite happy for it to be like that. Do I want loads of people to know who I am? Iíd much rather they didnít have a clue.
Björk: I didnít get that ďmad bitchĒ impression from listening to Pollyís records. I thought she sounded like a caring person. I didnít expect her to turn up with a chainsaw.
Q: Finally, do you have anything to add?
Polly: Just, thank you, really.
Tori: Could I ask you just please not to use any exclamation points? it looks so awful.
Björk: Iíve said far too much already. I should learn to say less.
t o r i p h o r i a