Polly Jean Harvey, MBE (born 9 October 1969), known as PJ Harvey, is an English musician, singer-songwriter, writer, poet, composer and occasional artist. Primarily known as a vocalist and guitarist, she is also proficient with a wide range of instruments including piano, organ, bass, saxophone, harmonica and, most recently, the autoharp.
Harvey began her career in 1988 when she joined local band Automatic Dlamini as a vocalist, guitarist, and saxophone player. The band's frontman, John Parish, would become her long-term collaborator. In 1991, she formed an eponymous trio and subsequently began her professional career. The trio released two studio albums, Dry (1992) and Rid of Me (1993) before disbanding, after which Harvey continued as a solo artist. Since 1995, she has released a further six studio albums with collaborations from various musicians including John Parish, former bandmate Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey, and Eric Drew Feldman and has also worked extensively with record producer Flood.
Among the accolades she has received are the 2001 and 2011 Mercury Prize for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) and Let England Shake (2011) respectively--the only artist to have been awarded the prize twice--eight BRIT Award nominations, six Grammy Award nominations and two further Mercury Prize nominations. Rolling Stone awarded her 1992's Best New Artist and Best Singer Songwriter and 1995's Artist of the Year, and listed Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love (1995) and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. In 2011, she was awarded for Outstanding Contribution To Music at the NME Awards. In June 2013, she was awarded an MBE for services to music.
Harvey was born in Bridport, Dorset, on 9 October 1969 as the second child to Ray and Eva Harvey, who owned a stone quarrying business, and grew up on the family's farm in Corscombe. During her childhood, she attended school in nearby Beaminster and her parents introduced her to music that would later influence her work, including blues music, Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan.
As a teenager, Harvey began learning saxophone and joined an eight-piece instrumental group Bologne, based in Dorset. She was also a guitarist with folk duo the Polekats, with whom she wrote some of her earliest material. After finishing school, Harvey attended Yeovil College and attended a visual arts foundation course.
Automatic Dlamini: 1988-1991:
In July 1988, Harvey became a member of Automatic Dlamini, a band based in Bristol with whom she gained extensive ensemble-playing experience. Formed by John Parish in 1983, the band consisted of a rotating line-up that at various times included Rob Ellis and Ian Oliver. Harvey had met Parish in 1987 through mutual friend Jeremy Hogg, the band's slide guitarist. Providing saxophone, guitars and background vocals, she travelled extensively during the band's early days, including performances in West Germany, Spain and Poland to support the band's debut studio album, The D is for Drum. A second European tour took place throughout June and July 1989. Following the tour, the band recorded Here Catch, Shouted His Father, their second studio album, between late 1989 and early 1990. This is the only Automatic Dlamini material to feature Harvey, but remains unreleased, although bootleg versions of the album are in circulation.
In January 1991, Harvey left the band to form her own band with former bandmates Ellis and Oliver; yet she had formed lasting personal and professional relationships with certain members, especially Parish, whom she has referred to as her "musical soulmate." Parish would subsequently contribute to, and sometimes co-produce, Harvey's solo studio albums and has toured with her a number of times. As a duo, Parish and Harvey have recorded two collaborative albums where Parish composed the music and Harvey penned the lyrics. Additionally, Parish's girlfriend in the late 1980s was photographer Maria Mochnacz. She and Harvey became close friends and Mochnacz went on to shoot and design most of Harvey's album artwork and music videos, contributing significantly to her public image.
Harvey has said of her time with Automatic Dlamini: "I ended up not singing very much but I was just happy to learn how to play the guitar. I wrote a lot during the time I was with them but my first songs were crap. I was listening to a lot of Irish folk music at the time, so the songs were folky and full of penny whistles and stuff. It was ages before I felt ready to perform my own songs in front of other people." She also credits Parish for teaching her how to perform in front of audiences, saying "after the experience with John's band and seeing him perform I found it was enormously helpful to me as a performer to engage with people in the audience, and I probably did learn that from him, amongst other things."
PJ Harvey Trio; Dry and Rid of Me: 1991-1993:
In January 1991, following her departure from Automatic Dlamini, Harvey formed her own band with former bandmates Rob Ellis and Ian Oliver. Harvey decided to name the trio PJ Harvey after rejecting other names as "nothing felt right at all or just suggested the wrong type of sound", and also to allow her to continue music as a solo artist. The trio consisted of Harvey on vocals and guitars, Ellis on drums and backing vocals, and Oliver on bass. Oliver later departed to rejoin the still-active Automatic Dlamini. He was subsequently replaced with Steve Vaughan. The trio's "disastrous" debut performance was held at a skittle alley in Charmouth Village Hall in April 1991. Harvey later recounted the event saying: "we started playing and I suppose there was about fifty people there, and during the first song we cleared the hall. There was only about two people left. And a woman came up to us, came up to my drummer, it was only a three piece, while we were playing and shouted at him 'Don't you realize nobody likes you! We'll pay you, you can stop playing, we'll still pay you!'"
The band relocated to London in June 1991 when Harvey applied to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design, still undecided as to her future career. During this time, the band recorded a set of demo recordings and distributed them to record labels. Independent label Too Pure agreed to release the band's debut single "Dress" in October 1991, and later signed PJ Harvey. "Dress" received mass critical acclaim upon its release and was voted Single of the Week in Melody Maker by guest reviewer John Peel, who admired "the way Polly Jean seems crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements, as if the air is literally being sucked out of them ... admirable if not always enjoyable." However, Too Pure provided little promotion for the single and critics claim that "Melody Maker had more to do with the success of the "Dress" single than Too Pure Records." A week after its release, the band recorded a live radio session for Peel on BBC Radio 1 on 29 October featuring "Oh, My Lover," "Victory," "Sheela-Na-Gig," and "Water."
The following February, the trio released "Sheela-Na-Gig" as their equally-acclaimed second single and their debut studio album, Dry (1992), followed in March. Like the singles preceding it, Dry received an overwhelming international critical response. The album was cited by Kurt Cobain of Nirvana as his sixteenth favourite album ever in his posthumously-published Journals.Rolling Stone also named Harvey as Songwriter of the Year and Best New Female Singer. A limited edition double LP version of Dry was released alongside the regular version of the album, containing both the original and demo versions of each track, called Dry Demonstration, and the band also received significant coverage at the Reading Festival in 1992.
Island (PolyGram) signed the trio amid a major label bidding war in mid-1992, and in December 1992 the trio travelled to Cannon Falls, Minnesota in the United States to record the follow-up to Dry with producer Steve Albini. Prior to recording with Albini, the band recorded a second session with John Peel on 22 September and recorded a version of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited," and two new songs "Me Jane" and "Ecstasy." The recording sessions with Albini took place at Pachyderm Recording Studio and resulted in the band's major label debut Rid of Me in May 1993. Rolling Stone wrote that it "is charged with aggressive eroticism and rock fury. It careens from blues to goth to grunge, often in the space of a single song." The album was promoted by two singles, "50ft Queenie" and "Man-Size", as well as tours of the United Kingdom in May and the United States in June, continuing there during the summer.
However, during the American leg of the tour, internal friction started to form between the members of the trio. Deborah Frost, writing for Rolling Stone, noticed "an ever widening personal gulf" between the band members, and quoted Harvey as saying "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." Despite the tour's personal downsides, footage from live performances was compiled and released on the long-form video Reeling with PJ Harvey (1993). The band's final tour was to support U2 in August 1993, after which the trio officially disbanded. In her final appearance on American television in September 1993 on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Harvey performed a solo version of "Rid of Me." As Rid of Me sold substantially more copies than Dry, 4-Track Demos, a compilation album of demos for the album was released in October and inaugurated her career as a solo artist. In early 1994, it was announced that U2's manager, Paul McGuinness, had become her manager.
Solo career: 1993-present:
To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?: 1993-1999:
As Harvey embarked on her solo career, she explored collaborations with other musicians. In 1995 she released her third studio album, To Bring You My Love, featuring former bandmate John Parish, Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and French drummer Jean-Marc Butty, all of whom would continue to perform and record with Harvey throughout her career. The album was also her first material to be produced by Flood. Simultaneously a more blues-influenced and more futuristic record than its predecessors, To Bring You My Love showcased Harvey broadening her musical style to include strings, organs and synthesisers.Rolling Stone said in its review that "Harvey sings the blues like Nick Cave sings gospel: with more distortion, sex and murder than you remember. To Bring You My Love was a towering goth version of grunge." During the successive tours for the album, Harvey also experimented with her image and stage persona.
The record generated a surprise modern rock radio hit in the United States with its lead single, "Down by the Water." Three consecutive singles -- "C'mon Billy", "Send His Love to Me" and "Long Snake Moan" -- were also moderately successful. The album was a commercial success selling one million copies worldwide including 370,000 in the United States. It was also certified Silver in the United Kingdom within seven months of its release, having sold over 60,000 copies. In the United States, the album was voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Rolling Stone also named Harvey 1995's Artist of the Year and Spin ranked the album third in The 90 Greatest Albums of the '90s, behind Nirvana's Nevermind (1991) and Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet (1990).
In 1996, following the international success of To Bring You My Love and other collaborations, Harvey began composing material that would end up on her fourth studio album, during what she referred to as "an incredibly low patch." The material diverged significantly from her former work and introduced electronica elements into her song-writing. During recording sessions in 1997 original PJ Harvey Trio drummer Rob Ellis rejoined Harvey's band, and Flood was hired again as producer. The sessions, which continued into April the following year, resulted in Is This Desire? (1998). Though originally released to mixed reviews in September 1998, the album was a success and received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance. The album's lead single, "A Perfect Day Elise," was moderately successful in the United Kingdom, peaking at number 25 on the UK Singles Chart, her most successful single to date.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Uh Huh Her: 2000-2006:
In early 2000 Harvey began work on her fifth studio album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea with Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey. Written in her native Dorset, Paris and New York, the album showcased a more mainstream indie rock and pop rock sound to her previous albums and the lyrics followed themes of love that tied into Harvey's affection for New York City. The album also featured Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke on three tracks, including his lead vocals on "This Mess We're in." Upon its release in October 2000 the album was a critical and commercial success, selling over one million copies worldwide and charting in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The album's three singles -- "Good Fortune", "A Place Called Home" and "This Is Love" -- were moderately successful.
The album also received a number of accolades including a BRIT Award nomination for Best Female Artist and two Grammy Award nominations for Best Rock Album and Best Female Rock Performance for the album's third single, "This Is Love". However, most notably, Harvey was nominated for, and won, the 2001 Mercury Music Prize. The awards ceremony was held on the same day as the 11 September attacks on the United States and Harvey was on tour in Washington, D.C., one of the affected cities, when she won the prize. Reflecting on the win in 2011, she said: "quite naturally I look back at that and only remember the events that were taking place across the world and to win the prize on that day -- it didn't have much importance in the grand scheme of things", noting "it was a very surreal day". The same year, Harvey also topped a readers' poll conducted by Q Magazine of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock Music.
During three years of various collaborations with other artists, Harvey was also working on her sixth studio album, Uh Huh Her, which was released in May 2004. For the first time since 4-Track Demos (1993), Harvey played every instrument -- with the exception of drums provided by Rob Ellis -- and was the sole producer. The album received "generally favourable reviews" by critics, though its production was often criticised. It was also a commercial success, debuting and peaking at number 12 in the UK Albums Chart and being certified Silver by the BPI within a month of its release.
Harvey also did an extensive world tour in promotion of the album, lasting seven months in total. For the tour, she formed a backing band consisting of Rob Ellis, bassist Dingo and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer and performed at various European summer festivals, including Glastonbury, as well as opening two shows for Morrissey. Selected recordings from the tour were included on Harvey's first live DVD, On Tour: Please Leave Quietly, directed by Maria Mochnacz and released in 2006.
White Chalk and Let England Shake: 2007-2014:
During her first performance since the Uh Huh Her tour at the Hay Festival of Literature & Arts on 26 May 2006, Harvey revealed that her next studio album would be almost entirely piano-based. Following the October release of The Peel Sessions 1991-2004, a compilation of songs recorded from 1991 to 2000 during her radio sessions with John Peel, she began recording her seventh studio album White Chalk in November, together with Flood, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman in a studio in West London. White Chalk was released in September 2007 and marked a radical departure from her usual alternative rock style, consisting mainly of piano ballads. The album received favourable reviews, its style being described by one critic as containing "pseudo-Victorian elements--drama, restraint, and antiquated instruments and sounds." Harvey herself said of the album: "when I listen to the record I feel in a different universe, really, and I'm not sure whether it's in the past or in the future. The record confuses me, that's what I like--it doesn't feel of this time right now, but I'm not sure whether it's 100 years ago or 100 years in the future", summing up the album's sound as "really weird." During the tour for the album Harvey performed without a backing band, and also began performing on an autoharp, which continues to be her primary instrument after guitar and has influenced her material since White Chalk.
In April 2010, Harvey appeared on The Andrew Marr Show to perform a new song titled "Let England Shake." In a pre-performance interview with Marr, she stated that the new material she had written had been "formed out of the landscape that I've grown up in and the history of this nation" and as "a human being affected by politics." Her eighth studio album Let England Shake was released in February 2011, and received universal critical acclaim from critics. NME's 10/10 review summarised the album as "a record that ventures deep into the heart of darkness of war itself and its resonance throughout England's past, present and future" and other reviews also noted its themes and writing style as "bloody and forceful," mixing "ethereal form with brutal content," and "her most powerful." Dealing with the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan and other episodes from English history, the album featured John Parish, Mick Harvey and Jean-Marc Butty as Harvey's backing band and the quartet toured extensively in its promotion. Following the release of the album's two well-received singles -- "The Words That Maketh Murder" and "The Glorious Land" -- and the collection of short films by Seamus Murphy to accompany the album, Harvey won her second Mercury Music Prize on 6 September. The award marked her as the first artist to receive the award twice, entering her into The Guinness Book Of Records as the only artist to have achieved this., and sales of Let England Shake increased 1,190% overnight following her win. On 23 September, Let England Shake was certified Gold in the United Kingdom and was listed as album of the year by MOJO and Uncut.
On 3 August 2013 Harvey released a song Shaker Aamer in support of the Guantanamo Bay detention camp detainee by the same name who is the last British citizen held there. The song describes in detail what Aamer endured during his four month hunger strike.
Recording in Progress: 2015-Present:
Starting on January 16, 2015, PJ Harvey began recording her 9th studio album in front of a live audience. A custom built recording studio was made in London's Somerset House. Reporter for Uncut magazine noted that much like her previous album Let England Shake, many of the lyrics were politically charged, but this time it was more globally focused. While recording she was shown to be using saxophones, an autoharp, and a bouzouki. Flood was confirmed to be the producer of the album which has yet to be titled.
Collaborations and projects:
Besides her own work, Harvey has also collaborated with a number of other artists. In 1995, she recorded a duet of American folk song "Henry Lee" with partner Nick Cave and also featured on the Bob Dylan cover "Death is Not the End," both released on Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Murder Ballads (1996). In the same year she sang the theme song "Who Will Love Me Now?" on Philip Ridley's film The Passion of Darkly Noon. In May 1998, before the release of Is This Desire?, she featured on Tricky's Angels with Dirty Faces, performing lead vocals on "Broken Homes", and also contributed to Sparklehorse's 2001 album It's a Wonderful Life performing guitar, piano, and background vocals on two songs, "Eyepennies" and "Piano Fire." Following the tour in promotion of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, she contributed vocals to eight tracks on Volume 9: I See You Hearin' Me and Volume 10: I Heart Disco by Josh Homme's side project The Desert Sessions, also appearing in the music video for "Crawl Home." Throughout 2004, Harvey produced Tiffany Anders' album Funny Cry Happy Gift, and also produced, performed on and wrote five songs for Marianne Faithfull's album Before the Poison, and contributed background vocals on "Hit the City," "Methamphetamine Blues" and "Come to Me" on Mark Lanegan's album Bubblegum. Harvey contributed the song "Slow-Motion Movie-Star", an outtake from Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, to Mick Harvey's fourth studio album, Two of Diamonds, released in 2007.
Harvey has also recorded two studio albums with long-time collaborator John Parish. Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996) was written collectively with Parish with the exception of the song "Is That All There Is?", written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. The album also listed her as Polly Jean Harvey, which in part affected the album's sales. Harvey has also reflected on how the album was "an enormous turning point" and "lyrically, it moved me into areas I'd never been to before." In 1998, she also performed lead vocals on "Airplane Blues," as a soundtrack accompaniment to the Wingwalkers art exhibition by Rebecca Goddard and Parish's wife, Michelle Henning, which was released as the closing song on Parish's second solo album How Animals Move in 2002. Following the release of White Chalk, Harvey reunited with Parish to record A Woman a Man Walked By, released in March 2009. Like Dance Hall at Louse Point, the album received positive reviews but also was a moderate commercial success, peaking at number 25 in the UK Albums Chart.
Aside from collaborations, Harvey has also embarked on a number of projects as a composer. In January 2009, a new stage production of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler opened on Broadway. Directed by Ian Rickson and starring Mary-Louise Parker in the title role, the play featured an original score of incidental music written by Harvey. In November 2011, Harvey also composed part of the score for the Young Vic's long-running production of Hamlet in London. In May 2012, Harvey composed two songs, "Horse" and "Bobby Don't Steal," for Mark Cousins' film What is This Film Called Love?, which also features "To Bring You My Love."
Outside her better-known music career, Harvey is also an occasional artist and actress. In 1998 she appeared in Hal Hartley's film The Book of Life as Magdalena -- a modern-day character based on the Biblical Mary Magdalene -- and had a cameo role as a Playboy Bunny in A Bunny Girl's Tale, a short film directed by Sarah Miles, in which she also performs "Nina in Ecstasy", an outtake from Is This Desire? (1998). Harvey also collaborated with Miles on another film, Amaeru Fallout 1972, which includes Harvey performing a cover of "When Will I See You Again."
Harvey is also an accomplished sculptor who has had several pieces exhibited at the Lamont Gallery and the Bridport Arts Centre. In 2010, she was invited to be the guest designer for the summer issue of Francis Ford Coppola's literary magazine Zoetrope: All-Story. The issue featured Harvey's paintings and drawings alongside short stories by Woody Allen. Speaking of her artistic contributions to the magazine in 2011, Harvey said: "the first opportunity I ever had to show any work was in this magazine. They were drawn while I was writing and recording the record (Let England Shake). It does relate to the record in the way the cycle keeps happening."
In December 2013, Harvey gave her debut public poetry reading at the British Library. On 2 January 2014 PJ Harvey guest-edited BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Musical style and influences:
Harvey possesses an expansive contralto vocal range. Harvey has been noted to dislike repeating herself in her music, resulting in very different-sounding albums. In an October 2004 interview with Rolling Stone, she said: "when I'm working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself ... that's always my aim: to try and cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I'm in this for learning." Among the musical genres she has experimented with are alternative rock, pop, electronica, and, most recently, folk.
She is also known for changing her physical appearance for each album by altering her mode of dress or hairstyle, creating a unique aesthetic that extends to all aspects of the album, from the album art to the live performances. She works closely with friend and photographer Maria Mochnacz to develop the visual style of each album. Around the time of To Bring You My Love, for example, Harvey began experimenting with her image and adopting a theatrical aspect to her live performances. Her former fashion style, which consisted of simple black leggings, turtleneck sweaters and Doc Martens boots, was replaced by ballgowns, catsuits, wigs and excessive make-up. She also began using stage props like a Ziggy Stardust-style flashlight microphone. She denied the influence of drag, Kabuki or performance art on her new image, a look she affectionately dubbed "Joan Crawford on acid" in an interview with Spin in 1996, but admitted that "it's that combination of being quite elegant and funny and revolting, all at the same time, that appeals to me. I actually find wearing make-up like that, sort of smeared around, as extremely beautiful. Maybe that's just my twisted sense of beauty." However, she later told Dazed & Confused magazine, "that was kind of a mask. It was much more of a mask than I've ever had. I was very lost as a person, at that point. I had no sense of self left at all", and has never repeated the overt theatricality of the To Bring You My Love tour.
At an early age, she was introduced by her parents to blues music, jazz and art rock, which, she told Rolling Stone in 1995, would later influence her: "I was brought up listening to John Lee Hooker, to Howlin' Wolf, to Robert Johnson, and a lot of Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart. So I was exposed to all these very compassionate musicians at a very young age, and that's always remained in me and seems to surface more as I get older. I think the way we are as we get older is a result of what we knew when we were children." During her teenage years, she began listening to new wave and synthpop bands such as Soft Cell, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet, although later stated that it was a phase when she was "having a bit of a rebellion against my parents' record collection." In her later teenage years, she became a fan of American indie rock bands including Pixies, Television and Slint, though not as many critics have suspected, Patti Smith; a frequent comparison that Harvey dismisses as "lazy journalism." However, recently Harvey has said that Smith is "so energising to see and so passionate with what she's doing". Harvey has also drawn inspiration from Russian folk music, Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone,classical composers like Arvo Pärt, Samuel Barber and Henryk Górecki; and Neil Young. As a lyricist, Harvey has cited numerous poets, authors and lyricists as influences on her work including Harold Pinter, T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Ted Hughes and contemporaries such as Shane MacGowan and Jez Butterworth.
Harvey has acquired a reputation for eccentricity to match her music; for example, Steve Albini said she ate nothing but potatoes while making Rid of Me. But she rejects the notion that her song lyrics are autobiographical, telling The Times in 1998: "the tortured artist myth is rampant. People paint me as some kind of black witchcraft-practising devil from hell, that I have to be twisted and dark to do what I am doing. It's a load of rubbish". Similarly, she later told Spin: "some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they'll listen to 'Down by the Water' and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her."
In the early 1990s, Harvey was romantically involved with drummer and photographer Joe Dilworth. From 1996 to 1997, following their musical collaborations, Harvey had a relationship with Nick Cave, and their subsequent break-up influenced Cave's follow-up studio album The Boatman's Call (1997), with songs such as "Into My Arms," "West Country Girl" and "Black Hair" being written specifically about her. She was also rumoured to be romantically involved with musician and actor Vincent Gallo, though both denied the claims.
Harvey has one older brother, Saul, and four nephews through him. She said in 1995 that she would love to have children, stating: "I wouldn't consider it unless I was married. I would have to meet someone that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. That's the only person who I would want to be the father of my children. Maybe that will never happen. I obviously see it in a very rational way but I'd love to have children."
Harvey has encountered widespread opposition to a comment made in favour of fox hunting in a 1998 NME magazine feature, which reported Harvey saying she was not opposed to fox hunting and that, "Seeing the hunt out on the fields is just so natural to me."
Harvey was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2013 Birthday Honours for services to music.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license