Born Polly Jean Harvey on October 9, 1969, in Yeovil, England, to Ray (a stonemason) and Eva (a sculptor). Addresses: Record company--Island Records, 400 Lafayette St., 5th Floor, New York, NY 10003. Website--PJ Harvey Official Website: http://www.pjharvey.net.
"I don't think I've ever worked on a song and thought, 'Yeah, this is great' while I'm doing it," singer, songwriter, and guitarist Polly Jean Harvey told Musician's Katherine Dieckmann. "Actually, I've never felt like that. I always think, 'This is so bad, but I've got to finish it because I'll learn so much from doing it.' So I'm never happy." This creative restlessness and ambivalence contrasts sharply with the oceanic praise garnered by Harvey's first two albums, Dry and Rid of Me; critics almost universally admired the emotional power and inventiveness of Harvey's songs. She received overwhelming praise again for her 2000 release, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, which also won the prestigious Mercury Prize (she had been nominated for it twice before, for Rid of Me and To Bring You My Love).
Rolling Stone named Harvey Best Songwriter of 1992, and both she and her group (which also goes by the name PJ Harvey) wound up on best-of lists published by the likes of the Village Voice, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times; the British press, often rhapsodic about new talent, exceeded even its own normally high level of adulation in describing the group and, especially, its leader. Yet Harvey has made it clear that insulation from such approval is integral to her survival and continued creativity. In any event, her growth as an artist continued in the wake of 1993's Rid of Me, even as the trio's future together seemed in doubt.
Her raw songs about gender roles, attraction-repulsion, and the power games underlying sex moved many music writers to turn Harvey into a political standard-bearer of one sort or another, something she has manifestly rejected--along with the label "feminist"--in interview after interview. Indeed, an overwhelming amount of press coverage has focused more on her image, looks, and position as a "woman in rock" than on her work. "I don't understand why people have this desire to pinpoint everything," she complained to Spin. "It's a desire to control, which isn't necessary. Why not let it speak to you in some way, and not try to interpret it into words all the time."
Loss of control, in fact, is never far away in Harvey's writing; both her lyrics and her music play with the boundaries between self-containment and explosion. As Gene Santoro of the Nation remarked, she "has a frightening grasp of the daunting and harrowing complexity beating at the heart of human emotion."
Beefheart, Blues in English Countryside
Harvey's volatility does not come from an urban background. In fact, she was born and raised on a farm in Dorset, England. In addition to her parents' main occupations--her mother's sculpting and her father's work in a quarry--they were local music promoters, and exposed young Polly to some of the artists who would influence her most later on: bluesmen Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, rootsy surrealist Captain Beefheart and folk-rock poet Bob Dylan. "My parents have always been enormously interested in music," Harvey told Pulse! "It's been my life from the time I was growing up."
"When I was very young, I always had a huge desire to perform," Harvey admitted to Los Angeles Times music writer Richard Cromelin. "I had little string puppets and I'd build theaters and I'd get all my family lined up and I'd write plays and perform them. Lots of things like that. I was in a lot of plays at school." Harvey studied sculpture, like her mother, but while in school she joined up with a band, Automatic Dlamini, playing saxophone and guitar and singing backup. The group toured Europe, but she viewed it largely as a learning experience, and felt disinclined either to sing lead or to showcase her own songs. After meeting a musician from another band who offered the use of his studio, Polly put together a rhythm section and recorded a number of her own songs. Among them was "Dress," which would appear on her first album. The tape aroused the interest of the British independent record label Too Pure; Harvey got 2,000 pounds--about $3,600--to record an album with her band.
Dry Electrified Listeners
With bassist Stephen Vaughan and drummer Rob Ellis, Harvey laid down the tracks for Dry. A bristling, deeply personal set of songs set to propulsive and intricately arranged rock, Dry took critics and underground fans by storm. Songs like "Sheela-Na-Gig," in which a crumbling relationship gives way to an image from Celtic iconography of a laughing woman pulling her vulva open, shocked and electrified listeners. After the group signed an arrangement with Indigo, an independent affiliate of Island Records, the album was released in America to a storm of accolades. As Request's Brian Cullman remarked, "Compared to Dry, most '90s releases sound vulgar, careerist, or simply beside the point." William Shaw of Details called Dry "a primal, irrational, soul-baring album, a mad standoff between desire and revulsion."
Rolling Stone admired the recording's "undeniable electricity," though it noted, "not a single angry riff, raw melody or thorny lyric on it would've surprised post-punk trend spotters back in '81. The (big) difference between PJ Harvey and the half-forgotten bands of that period is focus--and competence." The trio's sound--not "so much stripped-down rock as it is flayed-alive rock," according to Variety--also earned much praise. Santoro likened their tumbling rhythms to trailblazers like jazz legend John Coltrane's famous trio and power-rock trio par excellence and (Harvey idols) the Jimi Hendrix Experience; he admired their "fabulous inventiveness" and "precision-tooled interaction."
Harvey was overwhelmed--and a bit chagrined--by the exposure. After moving to London, she suffered what she would later call a nervous breakdown; she retreated to the serenity of her parents' village to recover. "I felt very ill and unworthy of everything that was happening," she said in the Details interview, adding, "I didn't know how to have a bath or do anything for myself at all." Country life suited Harvey and her band. As Ellis remarked to Spin reporter Joy Press, "The nice thing about living 'round here is it really is way away from all the people who are interested in PJ Harvey. They're more interested in sheep and cattle around here. And rightly so."
After the group's 1992 American tour, Harvey and her group began work in Minneapolis on their second album. Harvey asked producer Steve Albini--known for his rough, live-sounding work with bands like the Pixies and Big Black--to capture the band's sound. Despite Albini's reputed misogyny and disdain for the importance of vocals, he and Harvey became good friends. "It wasn't about someone coming in and telling me how to restructure a song or what I should be doing where," Harvey told Musician. "Instead, he'd make suggestions, especially when we felt stuck or at a dead end, like 'Why don't you try singing it this way?'"
The hard-edged result of a very brisk process was Rid of Me, released by Island in 1993. With songs like "50 Ft. Queenie" and the explosive "Man-Size," Harvey showed her characteristic intensity leavened with greater humor and sophistication. The record also features a driving cover version of Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." Santoro of the Nation called the album "as visceral and immediate as a stomach pump;" People labeled it "a brave, fascinating record that retains the nervous intensity of the first album;" the Detroit Metro Times dubbed it "the most intriguing record of the year thus far."
In the summer of 1993 the band opened for megastars U2 on tour of Great Britain and Europe, but by this time Deborah Frost of Rolling Stone reported on "an ever-widening personal gulf" between Harvey and her bandmates. "I'm so frustrated," Harvey told the magazine, describing her intention to get a new group together. "It makes me sad. I wouldn't have got here without them. I needed them back then--badly. But now I don't need them anymore. We all just changed as people."
Already established as a force to be reckoned with in rock, she was determined to survive by evolving creatively. "I want to keep experimenting and trying different things, like David Bowie," she reflected. "Maybe they won't work, but that's what keeps my interest in music. That's where a lot of musicians fall down--or just stagnate."
In autumn of 1993, with the formation of a new band still in the conceptual stages, Harvey released the musically stark, vocally electrifying 4-Track Demos. The solo album, a compilation of 14 cuts using demo versions of songs originally recorded for Rid of Me, was met with an avalanche of critical acclaim. Critics, long impressed with the singer's artistry within the confines of a group were newly amazed by her solo appeal. Rolling Stone's Evelyn McDonnell noted that "the depth, range and conceptual completeness of Demos make you wonder why Harvey bothered with such conventions as a band and a producer at all."
Though 4-Track Demos established Harvey as a self-sufficient musician, her goal remained to assemble a group that would allow her to focus more fully on her dynamic vocals. "The new band will be a five-piece," she told Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times. "A couple of guitar players, including one maybe who can double up on playing organ, plus drums.... I don't want to play guitar so much live, so that I can concentrate on singing and performing."
Harvey did just that. She formed a new band, including guitarists John Parish and Joe Gore, Eric Drew Feldman (of Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu fame) on keyboards, bassist/keyboardist Nick Bagnall, and Jean-Marc Butty on drums. In 1995 they toured to promote her release To Bring You My Love, an album about "romantic obsession" which "presents love as a purifying ordeal and a spiritual quest, as both a state of grace and a fall from grace, in songs delivered with the austere deliberation of the blues," according to Jon Pareles of the New York Times. Robert Christgau in Spin called To Bring You My Love "a benchmark work."
The single "Down by the Water" became a moderate success on MTV and alternative radio, and Harvey toured extensively in support of To Bring You My Love. Ben Wener, a Knight Ridder/Tribune News critic, put To Bring You My Love in postion number three on his top 20 albums of the 1990s list. The album, Wener wrote, "is the most powerful album yet from unquestionably the decade's most fascinating artist. It is a work of such complexity of mind and spirit that it's just plain scary."
After the To Bring You My Love tour, Harvey retreated to her home in England and worked on her next album in isolation. The resulting record, Is This Desire?, was released in 1998. All Music Guide reviewer Stephen Thomas Erlewine found that the album "has all the hallmarks of a record written in isolation; subtle, cerebral, insular, difficult to assimilate...." Harvey's strong songwriting held up a musically disappointing release.
Harvey's "Love Letter"
With collaborators Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey, Harvey went back into the studio. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea was released in 2000. The album was dually inspired by a six-month stay in New York and her home in the countryside of England; some critics called it her "love letter" to the Big Apple. "Sometimes you find a place that just feels like your home, where you feel really alive and you are your own person," Harvey told Time. "I love New York from the bottom of my heart." The lyrical content of the album is, in great part, a departure from her past lyrics. Avoiding the painful subjects and dark content of her previous work, Stories reflects a new emotional balance and vulnerability in her lyrics, a willingness to open herself up in a way she hadn't done before.
Harvey began working on her follow-up to Stories in late 2002; the album was scheduled to be released in early 2004. Harvey described the new recording as "ugly" to Ananova.com. "Quite disturbing, quite dark, quite bluesy. At the moment it's feeling good. I just go by how my guts feel." It is bound to be nothing like Stories, though. "I always, with every album, try and experiment with something I haven't done before," Harvey told Australia's The Age. "It's a lot rougher, a lot more raw, a lot more simple, really."
by Simon Glickman
PJ Harvey's Career
Signed with Too Pure Records and released single "Dress" and album Dry, 1991; signed licensing agreement with Indigo/Island Records, 1992; released first album for Island, Rid of Me, 1993; released To Bring You My Love, 1995; collaborated with Nick Cave, 1996; released Is This Desire?, 1998; released Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, 2000.
PJ Harvey's Awards
Named Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer by Rolling Stone, 1993, and Pop Music Face of 1993 by USA Today and the Los Angeles Times; Mercury Music Prize for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Dry , Indigo/Island, 1992.
- Rid of Me , Island, 1993.
- 4-Track Demos , Island, 1993.
- To Bring You My Love , Island, 1995.
- (With John Parish) Dance Hall at Louse Point , Island, 1996.
- Is This Desire? , Island, 1998.
- Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea , Universal/Island, 2000.
- The Age (Australia), January 22, 2003.
- Billboard, August 15, 1992; September 4, 1993.
- Details, June 1993.
- Detroit Free Press, November 25, 1992.
- Interview, December 2000.
- Knight Ridder/Tribune News, December 27, 1999.
- Los Angeles Times, December 27, 1992; October 31, 1993.
- Metro Times (Detroit), May 19, 1993.
- Musician, March 1993; May 1993.
- Nation, May 24, 1993.
- New York Times, May 16, 1993; March 19, 1995.
- People, June 14, 1993; March 6, 1995; March 4, 1996.
- Pulse!, November 1992; December 1993.
- Raygun, May 1993.
- Request, December 1992; January 1994.
- Rolling Stone, October 1, 1992; December 10, 1992; June 10, 1993; August 19, 1993; November 25, 1993; May 4, 1995.
- Spin, November 1992; May 1993; August 1993; December 1993; May 1995.
- Time, November 6, 2000.
- Variety, July 15, 1993.
- "Is This Desire?," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2003).
- "PJ Harvey," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 2, 2003).
- "PJ Harvey Close to Completeing 'Ugly' New Album," Ananova.com, http://www.ananova.com (January 27, 2003).
- PJ Harvey Official Website, http://www.pjharvey.net/profile/main.html (July 2, 2003).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Island Records publicity materials, 1993.