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.
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.
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.
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.
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.