The elfin Eskimo, the kooky American chick and the mad bitch woman from hell are drinking tea and talking about other people’s 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 you’ve never heard it before, starring Nick Cave and Sarah Brightman) he’d need look no further for his three witches.
As they talk, parts of their characters begin to emerge : Polly Harvey is a cautious 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 Amos’s off-centre broadsides come in elliptical form, often stopping off for a spot of free association and shrinkspeak en route back to her original point.
With five LPs between them (two unsettling albums apiece for Polly and Tori and one half-million UK seller for Björk’s startling Debut), they have given spooky, left-field major 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 Carroll is their extraordinary singing voices. Björk’s is a heavenly hiccuping thing that almost defies terrestrial description ; Polly’s is as if an opera diva had eaten a drum kit—swooping and percussive—and Tori’s 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-Icelandic 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 poignantly at this year’s Brit Awards where Björk collected a brace of gongs and performed Satisfaction with Polly. Seeking refuge from the corporate back 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 ?
Polly : I think there is a connection. For me anyway. This is the first time I’ve really had the opportunity to meet other women that are in the same kind of situation that I’m in. It’s 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 don’t have to go through these things, seeing lawyers, getting sued left, right and centre while you’re trying to write an album.
Björk : Are you being sued as well ?
Polly : Yeah, I’m being sued at the moment. It’s really horrible.
Björk : I’m so sorry for you.
Tori : Do you want us to shoot the lawyer ?
Polly : But meeting up with these two has stopped me feeling so sorry for myself. It’s just living and everyone has to deal with these kinds of things in their different ways.
You’ve met before, haven’t you ?
Björk : Me and Tori met in Iceland.
Tori : 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. I’d been fascinated by it and studied a bit about it so I eventually went. Everybody, like, gets drunk, don’t they ?
Björk : That’s Icelandic culture. That’s all there is really.
Tori : It’s the most expensive place to buy alcohol on the planet.
Björk : It’s a joke. One beer costs about five quid.
Tori : But they were a really good audience for a country that’s drunk.
Björk : But that was the way you kept the concentration going. It was amazing. I’ve done gigs in Iceland that have been ridiculous because people know you and when you’re singing, they’re shouting, Hey, you didn’t make your English degree ! Your uncle is fucking my niece !
Tori : They could have shouted that at me and it would probably have been true. But we went snow-mobiling on the glacier. Polly, you should go there, you’d love it.
Polly : I’ve never been. In my head I just see snow and cold.
Tori : There aren’t many trees but it’s very green. And it’s icy in Greenland. They got the names wrong.
Polly : Is it hilly or flat ?
Björk : It’s very hilly. Geographically, it’s very young, so it’s still in the making. It’s not got to the tree stage yet. It’s still making moss.
Tori : It’s a very unique place. It makes sense that Björk comes from there.
What were your impressions of each other before you met ?
Tori : Total respect for them.
Björk : This might sound really arrogant, I don’t know, but when it comes to people who make music, I’m not very interested in most cases. That doesn’t mean I think they’re bad, they just don’t do anything for me. But I could tell very quickly when I heard Polly’s album and Tori’s album that I’d 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 ?
Polly : I wasn’t really. As soon as we met it was very easy.
Björk : You can suss some people out pretty quickly. Not completely, obviously, but you can sense whether or not you’re on the same wave-length.
Do you, or have you ever, felt in competition with each other ?
Björk : No way.
Polly : No.
Tori : Never. It’s 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. That’s what we have in common. We don’t even play the same instruments. It really disappoints me when some sort of competition has to be manufactured for their little minds and fantasies. That’s not growing, that’s not support. There is room for everybody on the planet to be creative and conscious if you are your own person. If you’re trying to be like somebody else, then there isn’t. We see things from different points of view and that affects people in different ways and I think that should be encouraged. It shouldn’t be like, Two tits too many. Like with radio in America, they tell you, Well, we’re already playing one female this week. They wouldn’t 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 ?
Björk : 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 this hullabaloo. I guess at the end of the day what you realise is that this hullabaloo is not about you, it’s about that person you’ve created. It sounds cold and horrible but you feel very lucky that the person that you are—the relationship you’ve got between you and yourself—is different than with some person who’s never met you. It’s good to have that distance, because when you get Brit Awards and front covers, it’s not about you, it’s a symbol for what you do. And when it comes to what I do, it’s got so little to do with myself. I’m writing songs about other people, my favourite things, whatever, and it’s 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 ?
Polly : No, I definitely agree with what Björk was saying. I’m just growing to realise that it’s not you when you see your picture in the paper. I can now see that it’s something completely removed from what I am.
You had some problems with that, didn’t you ?
Polly : Yeah, because I couldn’t remove myself and I found it very difficult. Anything that I read would really upset me. Or I wouldn’t realise at the time and then later on it would really upset me. But now I can disassociate myself from that. I think maybe it’s just time that does it. The longer I’ve done this, the more I’ve learnt how to deal with it and not be dragged down by it. But I did at the start. It really upset me.
Björk : You have one relationship with your grandmother and one with your boyfriend and one with the guy in the grocery shop. That doesn’t mean you’re being fake or untrue, it’s just that you have those different colours in you.
Tori : You have to know what your intentions are. In this little time we’ve 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 Polly’s words, I see pieces of me that I’m not willing to see. So I’m like (takes 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. It’s all about consciousness. We’re not actors. I think songwriters are the consciousness or the unconscious of the time. That’s what the poet’s job is. I’m only a mirror. If someone hates my guts, then they only hate half of me. Do you understand ? Fifty per cent of it is me and 50 per cent of it is them. A great review ? Half of that is them.
Björk : Sorry, it’s nothing personal but generally journalists don’t have a clue. I don’t expect them to have one. It’s very rare that you read something with some insight. Maybe five per cent of reviews I can identify with and then only a little bit.
But certain reviews must stay with you.
Björk : Um. I’m not saying. (Laughter).
Tori : What I remember is spending three hours with someone for an interview and you’ve gotten to know them a little bit and talked about very intimate things and tried to be open. Then you read what they’ve 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 journo right there.
Don’t you feel you sometimes reveal too much of yourselves ?
Björk : I think if there is a place to reveal yourself then it’s in the songs. It’s not like you decide, OK, I’m going to reveal myself. It’s just a certain need. You’re just focusing on the things you’re talking about and not necessarily yourself. I compare what I do to sleeping, because most journalists seem to get that pretty easily. There’s no way you can decide what position you’re going to be in when you wake up in the morning. You just roll around the bed and it happens. And if you don’t do it for a week, you go mad.
Do you feel in control of your lives ?
Polly : Yep. I do. Nearly. (Laughter).
Björk : I could be more in control but I don’t want to be. I’m in control as much as I want to be. I decide what happens. I’m always so thirsty for this element of surprise that I don’t want to plan more than a few days ahead.
But surely in your current position you can’t do that. It must be difficult to be spontaneous.
Tori : What’s spontaneity ? There isn’t any spontaneity. I’m just speaking for me right now. On stage when I play, that’s my moment of freedom but 19 hours a day are packed with what’s got to happen to get to the next show. I’m a bit of a road-dog. I love to play. I guess it’s because I did clubs for 14 years before Little Earthquakes happened. So I know what I’m doing on September 6 or August 7. I could look at an itinerary and tell you where I’ll be. Although I don’t know what shoes I’ll be wearing on August 7. Will you call me up and cheer me up on August 7 ?
Polly : Course I will. It’s funny, you have to try and keep this balance between being organised and being creative and keeping everything in balance in your head and monitoring everything that’s going on.
Björk : It’s about allowing enough space for accidents to happen. Being in control and yet not. Being just in control enough. That really turns me on.
Polly : 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 ?
Tori : It’s everything.
Polly : It’s what gets me through. . . my life. It reminds you about why you wanted to do it in the first place because you have a love and a need to do it.
Björk : It’s hard to pin it down without bringing out a string of clichés. It’s an addiction, but it’s not just that.
Tori : You’re not even thinking any more. You just free up your mind and express. There’s nothing calculated. I don’t play the piano, the piano plays me.
Björk : You sacrifice yourself. And you lose everything—like the fact that I’m this big and an Icelandic female and all that. I think this is the reason music and sex are so often compared to each other. The most common way of feeling this is probably in sex. Because when you’re having sex you don’t think, I’m now going to move my left arm 30 centimetres. You just have to do something and you follow your instincts. In that sense, although I’m not saying I’m thinking about sex all the time when I’m on stage, it’s a very similar feeling to having very good sex with someone.
Tori : That’s 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 I have to deal with. I don’t have to go there emotionally when I play. I feel safe when I play. It’s harder for me to feel that in sex. The only time I can really feel it is when I play and I guess that’s why I do so many shows. I’m dry. In real life I’m bone dry, and when I play I’m a mango and in sex I’m starving to be a dripping mango.
Björk : I’m not very good at communicating things but with music it makes sense.
Polly : I think you’re really good at communicating.
Björk : Yeah, but I have to use my brain a lot and it’s taken 28 years to get to this.
Do you go mad when you tour ? Björk : You bet, man. You start off with fucking health foods and no alcohol. . .
Polly :. . . you’re really cleaned out and you’re eating well and doing exercise, swimming every day, and by the end of the tour you’re drinking to calm down instead of meditating or whatever, and eating crap and smoking.
Tori : It’s 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 I’m just reading about fucking and sex orgies.
Do you ever feel like you can’t be bothered to perform ?
Tori : Yeah, of course, but you can tap into that source. I’m just a conduit for some kind of power. I’m just a vase and the water is flowing through me. You put your hands on the voltage and it surges through you and if the crowd are giving that out too, it can completely energise you back.
How do you deal with hecklers ?
Tori : There’s always somebody that makes you want to doubt yourself and scream at you. I have a very quiet house when I play, so I can always hear them. I don’t 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 aggressively) and go, Look, I’m here for an hour and fucking 20 minutes and if you don’t have a gun to blow me off the stage then I’m staying.
Polly : I’ve had people from beginning to end just shouting, You fucking bitch ! Go back to fucking Yeovil ! I always wonder why they’ve paid money to do that. I just smile and sing at them and that seems to work. Dedicate a song to them, maybe. That always works.
Tori : When that happens, your first reaction is to just crawl into a bubble bath and have a pizza. But you have to respect yourself and draw the line and deal with it. I don’t like confrontations but you have to do something.
Björk : And you learn, after a while, to turn everything into something that turns you on. It’s like you’ve got this button. You learn to use things. If someone shouts at you, you can use it to make a song better.
Can you be megalomaniacs ?
Björk : In my case, I wish I was little bit more of a megalomaniac. Just kidding. OK. I’m guilty !
Polly : Me too.
Tori : Of course.
Björk : You might attack some innocent room service people sometimes.
How does it feel to be an object of lust ?
Polly : An object of lust !
Tori : What’s lust ? (Laughter)
Björk : Student desire. Mmm. I have to say that a lot of that is created by the media.
But it’s true. You are all lusted after in some way or other.
Björk : I just can’t relate to it.
But that doesn’t stop it existing.
Björk : I know. Maybe we should talk about this. It’s very difficult.
Didn’t you fancy pop stars yourselves when you were young ?
Björk : No, I was into Albert Einstein 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 that he was better than all the boys in my class.
Björk : I just wasn’t interested in boys until a few years ago. I thought they were shit. You can’t talk to them, especially as a teenager. You could play with them in a band but as people they were so limited. You can’t get properly drunk with them, like, all-the-way drunk.
Tori : Are you serious ?
Polly : I was a late starter as well. I didn’t start dating until I was 20 and I’m 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, you’re going to 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 bubblegum and then he’d let me into the tree house to play with his toy machine guns. I just wanted to be with him so bad.
Did it work out ?
Tori : No. Never. He called me a nerd.
Do you ever use drugs when you’re writing ?
Björk : Drugs ? What are you talking about ? (Laughter)
Polly : You mean drugs as a tool to help 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 socialise with all these people, because I’m quite an introverted sort of person, I’ll have a cognac before I go on stage. But even that’s more of a ritual than anything. And maybe a bottle of wine afterwards to chill down.
Do you ever fancy pop stars now or do you understand the contrivance of image too well to do that ?
Tori : I think we’ve been doing this too long to fall for that.
Q : Don’t you ever look at a picture of Morrissey and think, Phwoar !
Björk : Morrissey ? You’re joking.
Polly : It’s more likely to be someone who works in the pub down the road. You don’t fancy people just because they’re pop stars. And it’s not just men. Women can be attractive too.
Tori : kd lang is kind of attractive. And the grip who was on the video shoot the other day was very attractive.
Björk : Headphones really turn me on.
Polly : Headphones ?
Björk : And good literature. The Story Of The Eye by Georges Bataille usually does the job.
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 forefinger ‘O’ shape). Sexuality is being in touch with something that isn’t just that. It’s passion. Sexuality is a much greater thing than, Do it all night, honey.
Polly : It’s a very natural thing to write about, I think. It’s like getting yourself turned on to play in a way. For me, music is something that is very sexual. It’s a turn on. It’s not something to do with your head, it’s 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.
A lot in your case. Did you read Elvis Costello saying that a lot of Polly’s songs “seemed to be about blood and fucking” ?
Polly : (Pause) Well, he’s wrong. (Laughter).
Are you flattered when elder statesmen of rock—Eric Clapton, Costello, Warren Zevon- announce that your records have been their favourites 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 I’ve gone wrong somewhere. But half of me is really flattered. If you want the honest truth I’ll be sickly sentimental and say that if my best friend says she likes a song it would affect me a lot more.
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 that’s. . . (laughs) something I’ll have to live with.
Polly : And I’m a mad bitch woman from hell. I can’t get enough sex or blood !
Tori : People’s 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 woman has done her an injustice.
But you must have done something to have given 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 I’m myself, and if I don’t, 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 I’m quite happy for it to be like that. Do I want loads of people to know who I am ? I’d much rather that they didn’t have a clue.
Björk : I didn’t get that “mad bitch” impression from listening to Polly’s records. I thought she sounded like a caring person. I didn’t expect her to turn up with a chainsaw.
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 : I’ve said far too much already. I should learn to say less.