Polly Jean Harvey, better known as PJ Harvey, is a musician whose pedigree is unrivalled. She is an artist of the finest quality. Throughout her career, she has been committed to pushing boundaries with a stark and fluid 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 kaleidoscopic, we have a problem.
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. Whilst in the modern era the Award may have lost some of its original verve, but the fact Harvey has won it twice is a testament to her constantly innovative artistry,
Capturing the essence of 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, she has refused to be tied down by any factor, gender, genre or otherwise. This has only added to her mystique. Her fans range from Kate Tempest to Thom Yorke.
Savages’ commanding frontwoman, Jehnny Beth, also gave an account of Harvey’s genius. In 2016 she told the Independent: “that identity shifting that to my mind she shares with Bowie. She is always looking for new ways to express herself. It’s very brave. There’s an honesty of the soul there, and of the voice. For a musician like me, she’s a true example.”
After playing in bands growing up, she joined the Bristol-based Automatic Dlamini in 1988. Here she gained playing and touring experience that would become critical to her future success.
This was to become a highly formative time for the young Polly Jean. Dlamini member John Parish has since become a long-term collaborator of hers, and Harvey has even described 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 her band, PJ Harvey in 1991.
After a “disastrous” live debut in April 1991 at the village hall in Charmouth, where they literally cleared the room, the band relocated to London, where they felt there was less chance of being hated by the audience. This proved to be a significant decision, and after their first few shows, the band started to build a healthy following.
After sending out demos, the band were snapped up by the indie label Too Pure. The trio released their debut single ‘Dress’ in October 1991. It found fanfare from both critics and audiences, and even John Peel wrote a lengthy write up on it in Melody Maker.
Hitting their creative stride, the band released a string of subsequent singles, and in February 1992, they released their full-length debut album, Dry. A dark piece of alt-rock, it contained flecks of Marianne Faithfull as well as Patti Smith. The album became an instant classic, and famously, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain cited it amongst his favourite records of all time.
It was with the trio’s second album, Rid of Me, where Harvey’s fortunes truly changed. The album incorporated blues, goth and grunge. Not only was grunge the zeitgeist at the time, the producer of Rid of Me, was none other than everyone’s favourite curmudgeon, Steve Albini.
Coming back to Kurt Cobain, it was the recordings for Rid of Me that Albini would show Nirvana in securing his role as producer for their iconic final album, In Utero.
After Rid of Me and a length American tour in support of it, friction between the trio had become too much. The trio would officially call it a day after supporting U2 in August 1993. Speaking of this first chapter ending, Harvey said: “It makes me sad. I wouldn’t have got here without them. I needed them back then – badly. But I don’t need them anymore. We all changed as people.”
This would then be the birth of PJ Harvey the solo artist. In early 1994 it was announced that Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager was also now her manager.
In 1995, she released her third album, the blues-infused To Bring You My Love. Again it featured Parish, Bad Seeds member Mick Harvey and French percussionist Jean-Marc Butty. This would help to establish the cohort of musicians that she would continue to work with across the rest of her career.
Continuing on her run of success, Harvey won a Grammy for her fourth album, 1998’s eclectic and more electronic leaning, Is This Desire?. It is safe to say that Harvey has never had a low point in her career. She followed up Is This Desire? with the uber-cool rock classic, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea in 2000. This was the record where Harvey won her first Mercury Prize and it even featured a guest appearance from Thom Yorke on ‘This Mess We’re in.’
Throughout the ’00s she would continue to flourish as a solo artist. Showing how far she’d progressed, she self-produced and played every instrument aside from the drums on 2004’s Uh Huh Her. Although it was criticised by some elements for its production value, it is still a brilliant album.
Her 2007 offering, White Chalk, is one of the standouts in her career. A haunting pseudo-Victorian record, this confirmed what we’d all known for so long, Harvey is an iconoclast. Containing a strange, sorrowful beauty, the record ranks among her most emotionally affecting bodies of work.
Its successor, 2011’s Let England Shake, was also a high point. Securing her second Mercury Prize, it is nothing short of a masterpiece. Drawing on influences from across the board such as T.S. Eliot, Goya and The Velvet Underground, it combined the socio-political themes of the day with a complex and enchanting collection of music.
Showing herself to be a restless artist at her core, Harvey recorded her ninth and most recent album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, in front of an audience in a custom-built recording studio in London’s iconic Somerset House.
A musical auteur, it is remarkable that PJ Harvey is hailed as one of the best musicians out there, and that she has only released nine albums. Her work is so affecting and often surprising that it affords itself a freshness and relevance that many struggle to achieve. Progressive and always unique, PJ Harvey is one of the best living indicators that individuality is the key to achieving artistic success.
Listen to Let England Shake in full below.