8 Mar 2009: On stage, she’s a siren in a pink catsuit. In person, she is still and self-contained, says Amy Raphael

Early for our interview, I encounter Polly Jean Harvey in the freezing toilets of a Somerset pub. She is locked in a cubicle, changing outfits and shivering. I drop the toilet paper and it rolls under the divide. She laughs and pushes it back. She is chatty, friendly even, suggesting a visit to the local church in East Coker where TS Eliot’s ashes are buried. She thinks his heart may be here but the rest of him elsewhere.

A little later we meet formally and sit at an old wooden table near the back of the pub. Next to her is John Parish, her old friend, musical soulmate and sometime collaborator. He has co-produced several of her albums, including her last – the beautiful, piano-driven White Chalk. In 1996 they made Dance Hall at Louse Point together, with Parish writing the music and Harvey the lyrics. Now they’re back with the bruising, brilliant A Woman A Man Walked By. Harvey luxuriates in Parish’s presence, not only as a musical peer but also as a protective force: “Interviews are less draining, less intense with John.”

Harvey orders Earl Grey tea with milk, no sugar. She wears skinny black jeans with black high heels and is wrapped in a big black coat beneath which are layers of black. Her wavy hair is black, her skin pale as chalk, her lips a gash of blood red. She is quite beautiful and still.

The stillness is disconcerting. As a performer Harvey is feral, a hypnotic combination of early Mick Jagger carnality and Iggy Pop abandon. Singing, shouting or even rasping her post-punk blues, she makes the kind of music that you feel as much as hear. In interviews, however, she is notoriously private. Harvey would rather not be at this table, talking about herself or her music; when we first met in 1995 she confessed to an almost paralysing shyness. She could, she said, barely bring herself to walk into a room full of people and “would rather be on my own than at a party”.

As she lets loose on stage, whether in a long white dress or, most memorably, in a figure-hugging pink catsuit at Glastonbury, so Harvey writes lyrics without any notion of self-censorship. Since forming the band PJ Harvey in Dorset in 1991 she has sung about sex and menstruation (“Tarzan… stop your screaming/ Can’t you see I’m bleeding?/ Don’t ruin it on me” on “Me-Jane”), about murder and longing (“Down by the Water”). But, she will insist, these are just stories. And even if they’re told in the first person, they are not personal. Early on, Elvis Costello observed that all her songs “seemed to be about blood and fucking”, and for a while she was cast as the female Nick Cave.

There is a definite darkness to Harvey – it’s what makes her music so seductive – but there is also a playfulness that is often overlooked. She may not appear particularly coltish in person but her early work at least is drenched in so much sexual metaphor that if she wasn’t being ironic she’d be seriously disturbed. “When the first album, Dry, came out in 1992 I was totally bemused by how people interpreted the lyrics. I had no idea anyone would weave and construct various theories behind what I’d written. A song like ‘Legs’, which is on the second album, Rid of Me, is basically about cutting a lover’s legs off because he won’t go away. It’s hardly to be taken seriously.”

If Harvey’s lyrics were really taken straight from her diary, I suggest, she’d be a serial killer by now. She laughs. “Absolutely. The sexual metaphors in the early songs were coupled with being a much younger woman who was beginning to explore those areas. I write differently now because I’ve covered a lot of ground and I don’t feel I need to cover it again.”

Harvey is always tough on herself musically; most of all she is loath to repeat herself. So each record is different in some way from the last. Rid of Me was defiantly non-commercial, from its black-and-white cover image of an androgynous Harvey flinging wet hair around to its abrasive, claustrophobic music. Yet by the time she wrote Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in New York in 2000, she was ready to embrace pop (her most successful album but not her favourite, it left her feeling “unsatisfied”).

“Black Hearted Love”, the opening track of A Woman A Man Walked By, is another rollicking pop song but thereafter the album is a mix of Captain Beefheart (the title track, with its jerky, high-pitched vocal and mock nasty lyrics: “That woman man, I want his fucking ass”) and reflective ballads (“Passionless, Pointless”). Both Harvey and Parish have an old-fashioned approach to music, preferring tape to digital in the studio, vinyl to iTunes at home. They are both strong-willed and brutally honest with one another, which occasionally leads to week-long impasses. In the end, however, it means they are completely happy with their creative output.

The bigger question, perhaps, is this: in the year she turns 40, is Polly Harvey any more content than she has been in the past? She had a happy if sheltered childhood in Dorset, where she was the only girl in the village. A tomboy, she kept her hair cropped and was happy to be mistaken for a boy until, at 14, she became interested in the opposite sex. Her parents often woke Polly and her brother by playing Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan at 3am. She saw Dylan and the Stones before she was 10. As a teenager she played the saxophone and guitar in bands but “never entertained music as a vocation”.

In the early 90s she moved to London to study sculpture at St Martins College but ended up deferring for a year when Too Pure offered a record deal. What happened next is unclear: old interviews talk of a first nervous breakdown around the time of Rid of Me and a subsequent one in 1995. In the past she has been quoted as saying, “I was not well,” and, “I was very mixed up.” When I met her back in 1995 Harvey talked about the end of 1991 as a time when her first big relationship ended and London proved overwhelmingly alienating. She told me that she returned to Dorset, locked herself away in a flat above a cafe and wrote Rid of Me (although she now has a flat in LA she still spends most of her time in Dorset). At some point during the interview the barman, who had known Polly most of her life, told her she was “too thin to go on tour”.

If she’s had an eating disorder in the past, Harvey is not going to discuss it. She looks great now and perhaps she considers the matter private, history, irrelevant. Instead I ask what went wrong when she moved to London. “A friend and I were renting a really horrible place in Tottenham that was cold and damp. I didn’t have any money. Everything started taking off with the band and I was doing my first interviews.” So she told journalists how unhappy she was and, in her mind at least, the whole episode has become a kind of urban myth in which she was simply a typical student type who was portrayed as an artist falling apart.

Years of reticence have made Harvey a mysterious figure in the way few pop stars are these days. Björk memorably said that she reminded her of Clint Eastwood: “Everything is understated.” We do know, however, that she dated Nick Cave and broke his heart (as documented to great effect on his 1997 album The Boatman’s Call). She was once seen running around with actor Vincent Gallo but both have denied a romance.

When we met in 1995 she said she was broody; is this still the case? Harvey looks horrified. “Did I say that?” She laughs slightly hysterically. “Gosh! Hmmm. I definitely feel…” She sits perfectly still. “It’s not something I need to go out and pursue. I feel open… if it was the right moment and all of that. It’s all some of my good friends wanted to do, have kids. I’ve never had that feeling. Then again, I don’t rule it out.”

Harvey is an odd mass of contradictions. Right from the start of her career, when she was only in her early 20s, she has been in control (“I’ve always had a very clear idea of what I want to do musically”) and yet she has always refused to label herself a feminist. Even now she can’t think of a single moment where she’s been discriminated against as a female rock star. “Maybe I’m just purely lucky. If I’ve come up against obstacles I’ve always found another way around it.”

Parish acknowledges that female artists are usually packaged differently to male artists but insists that Polly stands outside the norm. “We could talk about Duffy, Adele and the new wave of female artists in the same sentence; you can’t do that with PJ Harvey because there isn’t anyone else. Polly has always been in control of her career and was never going to be manipulated like so many women are.”

If there is a female artist to be mentioned in the same sentence as PJ Harvey, it’s Patti Smith. The two share a punk spirit that manifests itself in an absolute refusal to conform. Remarkably, Harvey had never heard Smith until comparisons were drawn. “I thought I’d better listen to her at that point. I discovered Easter in my parents’ record collection – I didn’t even know it was there. I’ve met her a few times since and she’s a charismatic, wonderful person to be around…”

The pub is ready to shut. There is time for one more question so I ask how she feels about turning 40. She grimaces. “I remember turning 30 and it feeling really not OK. It was so hard…” For a moment I think she’s going to open up, confess all. Then she catches herself and smiles quickly. “But 40 feels OK. It’s going to be all right.”

• A Woman A Man Walked By is released on Island on 30 March

Harvey’s career

Born Polly Jean Harvey 1969 in Bridport, Dorset to a stonemason father and sculptress mother. Later studied sculpture at Central St. Martins.

1992 Debut album Dry wins her a cult following.

1993 Signs to Island, releasing two albums before the career-defining To Bring You My Love in 1995.

1996 Releases Dance Hall at Louse Point with John Parish.
Provides guest vocals on Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads

2001 Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea wins the Mercury Prize.

2004 Appears on Marianne Faithfull and Mark Lanegan albums.

2006 Eighth studio album, White Chalk

2009 Collaborates with John Parish on new album A Woman a Man Walked By.

Hazel Sheffield