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Never Mind The Bollocks

It's probably the last headline you'd expect on a Portishead interview but, then again, you haven't heard Beth Gibbons using her favourite expletive. Very few people have - the singer with Bristol's latest and potentially greatest musical export up 'til now refusing to talk to the press because she reckoned she had nothing to say. But even the most reluctant of tongues can be loosened as Stuart Clark and his cattle prod discover when they go Avon calling.

Stuart Clark, 15 May 1995

"IT'S ONLY her second or third interview, she's shy and she doesn't say much." This, as you might appreciate, is not what you want to be told by a record company publicist five minutes before quizzing one of their star signings. Column inches do not fill themselves and mono syllabic answers to ingeniously incisive questions are the stuff journalistic breakdowns and ulcers are made of.

Still, this is the man who once considered a career with the West Midlands Serious Crime Squad, such is my skill at extracting confessions from people who are normally about as forthcoming as a Trappist monk who's been asked his opinion on bobsleighing.

So, eyes down, cattle prod ready, here's Beth Gibbons' starter for ten.

Are you really Bristol's entry in the 1995 Bashful Person of the Year contest or are you just trying to get out of doing some work?

"Oh dear, I've been rumbled," laughs the Portishead chanteuse a touch self-consciously. "I do get nervous and paranoid and that other stuff but, really, it was the fact that when the album came out I wasn't sure if it was any good or not. You could have said it was crap and I'd probably have agreed with you whereas now I know it's not bollocks."

'Bollocks' is a word that peppers Gibbons' sentences with Roger Mellie-like regularity, although the educated tones that accompany it suggest a plumby fifth-former discovering her first swear word rather than a confirmed Brendan O'Carroll. By her own admission, the 30-year-old's upbringing was stupifyingly normal with drugs and rock 'n' roll poor runners-up to her occasional dalliance in adolescent lust.

"I feel almost guilty sometimes when I think of people like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, who are heroes of mine, because I wasn't a victim of child abuse, I didn't have a dysfunctional family and apart from one thing which, I'm sorry, I'm not going to tell you about, the worst teenage trauma I suffered was trying to get my homework done on time!

"No, the pressures on me were more subtle. Coming, as I did, from a fairly isolated rural community, the expectation was that I'd meet someone locally, get married and have kids. It was all very rustic and cosy but there weren't that many people at home I got on with and that caused me to feel rather detached. You know, whatever destiny had in store for me, it wasn't becoming a farmer's wife!

At this point the words 'Polly', 'Jean' and 'Harvey' appear on the horizon, circle once and then dive-bomb their way into the next question. Seeing as both of them grew up with the smell of fertiliser in their nostrils and have subsequently spent their adult lives trying to get a grip on the world beyond, does Gibbons regard her Yeovil neighbour as something of a kindred spirit?

"Perhaps if we met and talked I'd discover that we have some shared experiences but, no, Polly Harvey isn't a person I look at or listen to and say, 'yeah, that's me'. You've probably got a better idea of who she is and what she's about than I do because I'm not one to 'hang out' with other musicians and, apart from the odd scan through the news pages, I don't read the music press. I'm sure there's loads of great stuff around if you can be bothered to find it but I'm quite happy listening to my Nina Simone records."

Drat, I have to admit the idea of Beth and PJ loading up on Babycham and going for a good bop down at Stringfellow's had a certain perverse appeal.

"I'm not a pop star, darling," she laughs again, this time with the confidence of someone who's beginning to tumble that this talking-to-journalists lark is actually a bit of a doddle.

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