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PJ Harvey

Polly Jean Harvey (born 9 October 1969) is an English musician and songwriter. Raised in Corscombe, Dorset, England, Harvey formed an eponymous band as a teenager with drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Olliver, who was 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 (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 on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. She was also rated the number one female rock artist by Q magazine in a 2002 poll.

Biography

Early life

Harvey was born in Bridport, Dorset, England, and was brought up in nearby Beaminster, Dorset. 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 the blues, 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." She later spent time listening to Soft Cell, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. In her teens she became a fan of the US indie guitar bands 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.

She studied saxophone for about eight years, and contributed sax, guitar and backing vocals to her earliest Somerset bands Bologna, the Polekats, the Stoned Weaklings and Automatic Dlamini (John Parish's band). At the age of 17 she finished school and began writing her own songs. 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. In January 1991, she formed the original PJ Harvey three-piece band, with herself on vocals and guitars, ex-Automatic Dlamini bandmate Rob Ellis on drums and Ian Olliver on bass (though Olliver was replaced by Steve Vaughan). The trio's debut gig –  at a skittle alley in Sherborne's Antelope Hotel  – was so disastrous that the proprietor begged the band to stop playing as nearly all his customers had fled the venue.

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.

Early career

Harvey 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 put in his top 20 favourite albums ever (from the book 'Journals'). At that time 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 hard 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 fire 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", adding that "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 1993, she released two albums in quick succession: Rid of Me (engineered by Steve Albini at Pachyderm Recording Studio) with the original trio; and, later in the year, the solo release 4-Track Demos, which contained eight of the homemade 4-track demos for Rid of Me alongside six previously unreleased tracks.

Solo works

After the departure of Ellis and Vaughan in August 1993, Harvey embarked on a solo career exploring collaborations with other musicians. To Bring You My Love (1995) 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" (released in 1996).

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 (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 seventh 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, more intimate, lo-fi and low-key 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 eighth 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.

Collaborations

Besides her own work, she contributed to eight tracks on Vol. 9 & 10 of Josh Homme's The Desert Sessions and appeared on Nick Cave's Murder Ballads (on the song "Henry Lee" and the Bob Dylan cover "Death Is Not the End") and Tricky's Angels with Dirty Faces (on the song "Broken Homes"). She lent guitar, bass and background vocals to Sparklehorse's album It's a Wonderful Life (on the songs "Eyepennies" and "Piano Fire"). In 1996 she recorded a collaborative album Dance Hall at Louse Point with Parish under the name Polly Jean Harvey. Parish wrote all the music, and Harvey the lyrics, with the exception of the song "Is That All There Is?", which was written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller and made famous by Peggy Lee in 1969. Harvey has since gone on to produce Tiffany Anders' Funny Cry Happy Gift. Harvey produced, performed on and wrote five songs for Marianne Faithfull's 2004 album Before the Poison. Harvey sang vocals on two tracks of Mark Lanegan's 2004 album Bubblegum. A follow-up to Dance Hall is tentatively scheduled for 2008 according to www.pjharvey.net.

Other works

Outside her better-known musical career, Harvey appeared as Magdalena, a modern-day character based on Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley's 1998 film The Book of Life, and had a cameo as a singing Bunny Girl in the Sarah Miles-directed short A Bunny Girl's Tale. She is also an accomplished sculptor who has had pieces exhibited at the Lamont Gallery and the Bridport Arts Centre.

References in Popular Culture

In the last episode of the first series of Gilmore Girls, entitled "Love, Daisies and Troubadours", it is revealed that P J Harvey is the favourite singer of Rory Gilmore.

Off-stage persona

Offstage, Harvey has cultivated a reputation for eccentricity to match her music; for example, Steve Albini claimed she ate nothing but potatoes while making Rid Of Me. Harvey describes herself as "an extremely quiet person, who doesn't go out much, doesn't talk to people", and rejects the notion that her songs are autobiographical. She told 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". 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 2006, Blender included her in their list of the hottest women of rock, calling her a "blues-rock sorceress trafficking in social politics and dark, tormented songwriting. In a recent interview, Harvey stated that she would like to reunite with fellow artists Tori Amos and Björk, as all three were featured on the cover of Q magazine in 1994.

In April 2008 she was a guest on Private Passions, the biographical music discussion programme hosted by Michael Berkeley on BBC Radio 3. On the show, she selected some of her favourite music, including pieces by Arvo Pärt, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Howe Gelb and Nina Simone.

Discography

Audio samples

Notes

References and further reading

  • Blandford, J. R. PJ Harvey Siren Rising. London: Omnibus. OCLC: 56541646.
  • Frost, Deborah "Primed and Ticking: PJ Harvey beat the sophomore jinx and get their mojo workin' with an American tour and a powerful new album, "Rid of Me"". Rolling Stone. , pp. 52-55. .
  • Sandall, R "PJ Harvey steps into the light". Music. The Times, Retrieved on 2007-09-24.
  • Stieven-Taylor, Alison Rock Chicks: The Hottest Female Rockers from the 1960's to Now. Sydney: Rockpool Publishing.
  • Strauss, Neil "PJ Harvey". Rolling Stone. , pp. 68-79, 144-145. .
  • Udovitch, Mim "PJ Harvey". Rolling Stone. , pp. 51. .

External links

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