Classic Rock Bottom


PJ Harvey

Over the course of three albums, Polly Jean Harvey established herself as one of the most individual and influential songwriters of the '90s.

Members: 2
Latest Activity: Sep 26, 2010

Polly Jean Harvey (born 9 October 1969) is an English musician and singer-songwriter. Raised in Corscombe, Dorset, Harvey formed her eponymous band as a teenager with drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Olliver, who was later replaced with Steve Vaughan. The trio released their first album Dry in 1992. Ellis and Vaughan left the band after the release of Rid of Me in 1993 and Harvey continued as a solo artist.

Among the accolades she has received have been the 2001 Mercury Music Prize, seven BRIT Award nominations, five Grammy Award nominations and two further Mercury Music Prize nominations. Rolling Stone named her 1992's Best New Artist and Best Singer Songwriter and 1995's Artist of the Year, and placed two of her albums (Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love) on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. She was also rated the number one female rock artist by Q magazine in a 2002 reader poll. Harvey has said that she enjoys performing more than writing and recording because performing is when the music "makes more sense."


Early life

Harvey was born in Bridport, Dorset and brought up on her family's farm in Corscombe, and attended school in nearby Beaminster. The daughter of a stonemason and a sculptor, Harvey grew up on a small sheep farm. At an early age, her parents introduced her 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." Her time was then spent listening to new wave bands such as Soft Cell, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. In her teenage years, she became a fan of American indie rock bands like Pixies, Television and Slint, though not, as many critics have suspected, Patti Smith (a frequent comparison that Harvey dismisses as "lazy journalism"). More recently she has claimed inspiration from Russian folk music, Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and classical composers like Arvo Pärt, Samuel Barber and Henryk Górecki.

Early career

Automatic Dlamini (1987-1991)

At the age of 17, Harvey finished school and began writing her own songs. She contributed saxophone, guitar, and backing vocals to her earliest Somerset bands Bologna, the Polekats, and the Stoned Weaklings, but it was with Bristol's Automatic Dlamini where she gained extensive experience playing in a band. Formed by John Parish in 1983, Automatic Dlamini consisted of a rotating line-up that at various times included Rob Ellis and Ian Olliver (all three would go on to collaborate with Harvey on various projects). Harvey met Parish through a mutual friend in 1987 and she joined the band a few months later. Providing guitars and background vocals, she travelled with the band when they toured Europe in June and July of 1989, and recorded one album with them, Here Catch, Shouted His Father, which was recorded in 1989-90 but never released. Harvey said that while in 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 an audience, 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."

Even though Harvey would leave the band in 1991, she formed lasting personal and professional relationships with certain members — especially Parish — who she has referred to as her "musical soul mate." Parish would eventually go on to co-produce Harvey’s critically acclaimed albums To Bring You My Love (1995) and White Chalk (2007). He also contributed musically to several of Harvey's solo albums and has toured with her a number of times. As a duo, the pair have recorded two collaborative albums where Parish wrote the music and Harvey penned the lyrics. Rob Ellis joined the first band Harvey formed in 1991 and has also provided drum work on many of Harvey’s albums. Additionally, Parish’s girlfriend in the late 1980s was photographer, Maria Mochnacz. She and Harvey would become close friends and Mochnacz would go on to shoot most of Harvey’s album covers and music videos, contributing significantly to Harvey's image.

PJ Harvey Trio (1991-1993)

After leaving Automatic Dlamini in January 1991, Harvey formed her own band that she eponymously named PJ Harvey. The trio consisted of Harvey on vocals and guitars, Rob Ellis on drums and Ian Olliver on bass. Olliver later departed to re-join the still-active Automatic Dlamini and was replaced with Steve Vaughan. On the naming of the group, Harvey remarked "I can't guarantee that we'll always want to play together in the same format. But I know that I'd like to continue writing songs for myself so it seemed quite a good move to keep my name for the band." The trio's "disastrous" debut gig was held at a skittle alley in Sherborne's Antelope Hotel. 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!"

By that time, Harvey had also completed a foundation art course at Yeovil Art College and had applied to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, still undecided as to her future career.

Harvey relocated to London and released her debut single "Dress" on the independent label Too Pure in October 1991. It 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." The following spring she released an equally-acclaimed second single, "Sheela Na Gig", and her first LP Dry in 1992, an album Kurt Cobain of Nirvana cited in his top 20 favourite albums ever, from the book Journals. She also released a limited edition double LP containing both Dry and the demos for Dry, called Dry Demonstration. The trio’s raw, guitar-driven indie rock – which mixed elements of punk, blues and grunge – quickly won rave reviews and a strong cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, with Rolling Stone naming the then-22-year-old Harvey the year's Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer. She drew media attention in April 1992 when she appeared topless on the cover of the British magazine New Musical Express. Harvey quickly avoided being adopted as a feminist spokesperson, telling Vox that "I wouldn't call myself a feminist because I don't understand the term or the baggage it takes along with it. I'd feel like I really have to go back and study its history to associate myself with it, and I don't feel the need to do that. I'd much rather just get on and do things the way I have been doing them... I think I'd find it quite patronising to be called a Riot Grrrl if I was one of them, but they obviously don't think so." More recently she told Bust: "I don’t ever think about [feminism]. I mean, it doesn't cross my mind. I certainly don’t think in terms of gender when I'm writing songs, and I never had any problems as the result of being female that I couldn't get over. Maybe I'm not thankful for the things that have gone before me, you know. But I don't see that there's any need to be aware of being a woman in this business. It just seems a waste of time." She added, "I don't offer [support] specifically to women; I offer it to people who write music. That's a lot of men." Harvey then signed to Island Records amid a major-label bidding war. In December 1992, the trio recorded the album Rid of Me, which was engineered by Steve Albini at Pachyderm Recording Studio in Minnesota. To promote the release of the album, the band toured in Europe and the United States during the spring and summer of 1993. When the tour reached America in June, friction was starting 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." After touring to support U2 in August 1993, the group officially disbanded. When Harvey appeared on The Tonight Show that September, she performed solo. The album 4-Track Demos, released in October 1993, would inaugurate her career as a solo artist. Solo career (1993-present) As Harvey embarked on her solo career, she would explore collaborations with other musicians. To Bring You My Love was produced by Flood and John Parish, and was a worldwide success, selling over one million copies, according to BPI. A more bluesy record than its predecessors, it saw Harvey broadening her sonic palette to include strings, organ and synthesizers. It also generated a surprise modern rock radio hit with the single "Down by the Water." The album received a glowing critical response and ended up being voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Harvey was also voted Artist of the Year by Rolling Stone. Her album was ranked third in Spin's "Top 90 Albums of the '90s", behind Nirvana and Public Enemy.

Around this time, Harvey began experimenting with her image and adopting an elaborate, theatrical, almost cabaret edge to her live shows. Where she once performed on stage in simple black leggings, turtleneck sweaters and Doc Martens, she now began performing in ballgowns, pink catsuits, wigs and garish, vampish make-up — including false eyelashes and fingernails — and using stage props like a broomstick and 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 a 1996 Spin interview, 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 again repeated the overt theatricality of the To Bring You My Love tour. She also sang the theme song from Philip Ridley's adult fairy tale, The Passion of Darkly Noon. Harvey wrote much of her fourth album in 1996 during what she referred to as "an incredibly low patch." In 1998, she released Is This Desire?, which met a more muted but overall still positive critical reception. Despite the few naysayers, Harvey herself cited it as her personal favourite; it saw her temporarily leaving the guitars behind and focusing on building dark, studio-based mood pieces around electronics, keyboards, piano and bass.

She reunited with her old bandmate Rob Ellis and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey — who is of no relation — for her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Written in Dorset, Paris and New York, the album was a critical and commercial success, selling over one million copies worldwide and taking the Mercury Music Prize in the following year. It mixed uncharacteristically lush, melodic pop rock sounds with the gritty, thrashing, guitar-driven punk energy of her earlier records. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was featured on three of the album's songs; he took lead vocal duties on "This Mess We're In", and provided backing vocals for two others. In 2001 she topped a readers' poll conducted by Q magazine of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock Music. Her sixth studio album, Uh Huh Her, was released 31 May 2004. For the first time since 4-Track Demos, Harvey produced it alone and played every instrument but the drums. The album, which was a sparser, lo-fi affair than its predecessor, met with a generally positive response from critics and fans. She told Rolling Stone "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." In May 2006, Harvey played her first UK gig of the year, revealing that her new album would be almost entirely piano-based. Later in 2006, she released her first concert DVD, Please Leave Quietly, directed by Maria Mochnacz, which contained songs from her entire career as well as behind-the-scene video clips between performances. On 23 October 2006, she released The Peel Sessions 1991–2004. In November 2006 she started working on her seventh studio album, White Chalk, with Flood, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman. It was released in Europe on 24 September 2007, and in the United States on 2 October. The album marked a radical departure from her usual style, consisting mainly of piano ballads. Of this album Harvey said: "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," she says, laughing quietly. "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. It just sounds really weird."
In April 2010, Harvey made her first solo appearance in three years on BBC's The Andrew Marr Show with a performance of a new song, "Let England Shake." The song — which Harvey noted was apolitical — featured the use of an autoharp, similar to the sound of White Chalk. On August 31 2010, collaborater and co-producer Mick Harvey revealed that Harvey's eighth studio album — which is, as of yet, untiled — was completed and was expected for released in February 2011.

Studio albums

* Dry (1992)
* Rid of Me (1993)
* To Bring You My Love (1995)
* Is This Desire? (1998)
* Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000)
* Uh Huh Her (2004)
* White Chalk (2007)
* (TBA) (2011)

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