“She is one of those very few musicians who strikes me as a pure artist.” – Mike Smith vice president of A&R at Virgin EMI.
Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey, is a musician whose pedigree is unrivalled. She is undoubtedly an auteur of the finest quality. Throughout her career, Harvey has been committed to pushing boundaries, both sonically and socially with an omnipresent creative vision.
Her influences and style are of course taken from every corner of the realms of art, music and culture. For instance, she cites her six big influences as Bob Dylan, politics, her lieutenant and collaborator John Parish, Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band, the arts and the saxophone. If these six disparate factors do not immediately draw the outline of Harvey’s artistry as fluid, we have a problem.
To list a complete collection of her influences would require collecting together a heavy, leather-bound compendium, but you get the gist. PJ Harvey’s artistry knows no bounds, and it is a testament to this essence that she is the only artist to have won the prestigious Mercury Music Award twice. Capturing this, Artangel’s Mark Morris described the Dorset native: “She is so rigorous about exposing herself to new experiences and she has a complete view of the way a new piece will enter the world. She is unbelievably careful and thoughtful.”
In addition to her position as one of the UK’s most alluring musicians, Harvey also captured the hearts and minds for another reason. Since her emergence in the early nineties from her small Dorset hometown, she has refused to be tied down by any gender, genre or any other types of pigeonholing. This has only added to her mystique.
Having been raised in a bohemian environment in rural Dorset, with her parents often entertaining musicians, one of their oldest friends was Rolling Stones co-founder Ian Stewart. It was as a child she would learn numerous instruments including the guitar and saxophone. After playing in bands growing up, she joined the Bristol-based Automatic Dlamini in 1988. Here she gained extensive ensemble-playing and touring experience that would become critical to her future success. Automatic Dlamini had been formed in 1983 by John Parish, and Harvey had met him in 1987 after being introduced by a mutual friend and the band’s slide guitarist, Jeremy Hogg. This was to become a highly formative time for the young Polly Jean. Parish has since become a long-term collaborator of hers, with Harvey describing him as her “musical soulmate”. Furthermore, Automatic Dlamini had a rotating line-up that on various occasions included Rob Ellis and Ian Oliver. It was with Ellis and Oliver that she would form the band PJ Harvey with in 1991.
This fortune did not stop there. In addition to these life-changing connections, Parish’s girlfriend at the time was photographer Maria Mochnacz. She and Harvey would become close friends, with Mochnacz going on to shoot and design the majority of Harvey’s album artwork and music videos. This had a massive hand in cultivating Harvey’s public image.
The PJ Harvey trio debuted live in April 1991. This was to be a “disastrous” show in a skittle alley in Charmouth village hall. Harvey would recount: “We started playing and I suppose there were about 50 people there, and during the first song we cleared the hall. There were only about two people left. And a woman came up to us, and shouted, ‘Don’t you realise nobody likes you! We’ll pay you, you can stop playing, we’ll still pay you!’”
After this terrible introduction to the public, the band relocated to London and it was during this period that their star began to rapidly rise. At this time, she applied for that sculpture course at Central Saint Martins, and alongside this, the band were sending out demos to record labels. Shortly after, the indie label Too Pure eventually picked the trio up and released the band’s debut single ‘Dress’ in October 1991. The single was critically acclaimed, and the legendary John Peel wrote a loving review in the now-defunct Melody Maker. They would release more singles, and in February 1992, they shared their debut album, Dry. The album gained international acclaim, and even Kurt Cobain cited it as one of his favourite records of all time. This was to be a formative moment for Cobain.
With Dry being regarded as a somewhat sensitive and dramatic album, in conjunction with the universal acclaim it gained, it led to intrusive questions being asked about Harvey’s sex life. Understandably, this led to a nervous breakdown for Polly Jean, making the artist raise her guard with her public image – weirdly, this has since become inherent to the artist we know as PJ Harvey.
However, the trio’s second album Rid of Me, was where it all changed. She teamed up with Parish again and the album incorporated blues, goth and of course, grunge. Not only was grunge the zeitgeist of the time, Rid of Me‘s producer was none other than Steve Albini. Referencing back that point about Kurt Cobain, it was the recordings for Rid of Me that he would show Nirvana in securing his role as producer for their iconic final album, In Utero.
After the trio had signed to major label Island Records, Harvey had picked Albini out as a producer for the follow-up to Dry. Harvey was a huge admirer of his raw, visceral recordings for the likes of Slint, Pixies, The Breeders and The Jesus Lizard. Seems quite a departure for a hippie from Dorset, eh? Giving insight into Albini’s legendary recording methods, she once commented: “The way that some people think of producing is to sort of help you to arrange or contributing or playing instruments, he does none of that. He just sets up his microphones in a completely different way from which I’ve ever seen anyone set up mikes before, and that was astonishing. He’d have them on the floor, on the walls, on the windows, on the ceiling, twenty feet away from where you were sitting… He’s very good at getting the right atmosphere to get the best take.”
Well, the partnership between the trio and Albini would certainly pay off. It delineates the fluid mode of operation that PJ Harvey the solo artist would follow in the subsequent years. For instance, in addition to the differing genres it incorporates, even within the space of a single song, Harvey started to adopt captivating stage personas at that time. She appeared as a pantomime-esque gothic rock chick and as a Victorian governess, reminiscent of Miss Havisham – with the latter perhaps pointing to the influence of Kate Bush.
Although she may refute the claims, as she has always refused to be pigeonholed in general, the album is seen as a landmark in feminist music. Harvey, at the time, denied the claim, not for any Katie Hopkins-esque female apology, but retrospectively, it seems she was actually way ahead of the contemporary gender norms. Whether this was intentional and if she was aware of it or not, this is something that has become highly topical in today’s world, finding a space in art and society: “I don’t even think of myself as being female half the time. When I’m writing songs I never write with gender in mind. I write about people’s relationships to each other. I’m fascinated with things that might be considered repulsive or embarrassing. I like feeling unsettled, unsure.”
The album also had a highly personal side to it, carrying on in the footsteps of Dry. The title track, ‘Rid of Me’, was influenced by one of Harvey’s relationships ending. Coming back to the intrusive opinions that culminated in her nervous breakdown after the release of Dry, she was told by an interviewer that ‘Rid of Me’ sounded psychotic. PJ acquiesced and admitted that she wrote the song at her “illest”, and that she was indeed “almost psychotic” at the time, due to heartbreak. On the contrary though, showing her class as an artist she said that not all of her lyrics were meant to be read autobiographically: “I would have to be 40 and very worn out to have lived through everything I write about.”
Showing her roots, Rid of Me features the brilliant cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Highway 61 Revisited’. It was suggested by her parents, who were both Dylan fans, saying that she should record the track. Furthermore, the song ‘Man Size Sextet’ was the only song not recorded by Albini. It was instead produced by Harvey, Rob Ellis and producer Head.
Recorded in the secluded Pachyderm Recording Studios in Cannon Falls, Minnesota, the session took place over a two-week period, however, Harvey maintains that the bulk of the recording was done over a three day period. It is a reflection of her and Albini’s talent that it was completed over such a short amount of time – the album was tracked live by the band. The immense nature of this is augmented when we note that Harvey’s songwriting on Rid of Me is complex. This is highly significant in the timeline of her career. She utilised “strangely skewed time signatures and twisty song structures” resulting in songs that “tilt toward performance art”. PJ Harvey, the solo artist, had started to arrive.
Singles ’50ft Queenie’ and ‘Man-Size’ are mammoth. Both of the accompanying music videos were shot by Mochnacz with the lead single ’50ft Queenie’ as an absolute titan of a track. It bears all the Harvey hallmarks, packaged by that visceral Albini production. There are similarities between it and tracks from In Utero. The album’s essence was perfectly described by Melody Maker: “No other British artist is so aggressively exploring the dark side of human nature, or its illogically black humour; no other British artist possesses the nerve, let alone the talent, to conjure up its soundtrack.”
It is fair to say that the tortured lyrics on Rid of Me were perfectly embodied by Albini’s production, marking it out as one of PJ Harvey’s best albums, and one of his Albini’s best produced albums. Yes, it had and still has its detractors, but that shouldn’t effect its stature within Harvey’s back catalogue. It marked the start of her visceral solo career, and started her off as an effective performance artist. The PJ Harvey trio would disband after a tour with U2 in 1993, with Harvey feeling she had outgrown the band. This was to be the most monumental decision in her career. Afterwards, as a solo artist she would go from strength to strength, developing into the PJ Harvey we know today.
Harvey and Albini remained friends afterwards. She said, “People read things in and make him what they want him to be,” before adding: “He’s the only other person I know that that happens to besides myself. People have a very specific idea of what I am- some kind of axe-wielding, man-eating Vampire – and I’m not that at all. I’m almost the complete opposite.”
Harvey could not have put it better. The album was a match made in heaven between artist and producer, and it shows. Nearly thirty years after release it is still an effective and, at times, punishing body of work.
It show Harvey’s prowess as an artist, and marked the start of her career as true auteur. Indeed, it is not fully autobiographical and is at points comedic, although it does succeed in clinically capturing the darker side of humanity, telling us some uncomfortable truths. In conjunction with the batshit musical compositions it is always worth a revisit. Ultimately, the album brought Albini and Nirvana together, resulting in one of the most iconic albums of all time, pretty crazy stuff.