Harvey, Polly Jean
Singer, songwriter, guitarist
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a song and I thought, ’Yeah, this is great’ while I’m doing it,” Polly Jean Harvey, singer-guitarist-songwriter-namesake and focal point of the British rock trio PJ Harvey, told Musician magazine’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 PJ Harvey’s first two albums, Dry and Rid of Me; critics almost universally admired the emotional power and inventiveness of Harvey’s songs.
Rolling Stone named her best songwriter of 1992, and both she and her group 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 apace 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 Polly Jean 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.”
Her volatility does not come from an urban background. In fact, she was born and raised on a farm in Dorset, England. In addition to their main occupations—her mother’s sculpting and her father’s work in a quarry—her parents were local music promoters who
For the Record…
Born c. 1970 in Yeovil, England.
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.
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.
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,” she told Pulse! “It’s been my life from the time I was growing up.” Of Beefheart she said, “I feel like he’s got some sort of divine knowledge,” while in an interview circulated by Island Records she praised Dylan as “an incredible songwriter.”
“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.” During her childhood she hung around with the local boys, and aligned herself with maleness; she wore pants, had short hair, and demanded to be called “Paul.” Then disaster—in the form of puberty—struck. “I hated it,” she recalled to Details. “I started growing breasts and had to wear dresses.”
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 $3600—to record an album with her band.
With bassist Stephen Vaughan and drummer Rob Ellis, she 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, they 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.” Rolling Stone admired the album, but qualified its praise by remarking that “its in-your-face dynamics don’t leave much room for Harvey to maneuver emotionally.”
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,” she 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.”
Harvey insisted in several interviews that she intended to give up the guitar. Her bandmates, meanwhile, claimed that they planned to pursue their own projects. Some tracks recorded for John Peel’s radio program in England suggested Harvey’s new direction: involving organ and horns, they include her rendition of the Willie Dixon standard “Wang Dang Doodle.” She told Frost that these recordings were the “first things I’ve ever done that make me feel like dancing.”
Though the precise future of her group had yet to be determined, Harvey seemed, by mid-1993, to be having fun with her music career for the first time. “I’m just allowing myself to enjoy music again and not be so precious or so worried about it or how people are going to take it,” she told Frost.
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 [rock chameleon] 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 remains to assemble a group that will 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. Steve Vaughan will still be on bass. I don’t want to play guitar so much live, so that I can concentrate on singing and performing.”
Dry (includes “Dress” and “Sheela-Na-Gig”), Indigo/Island, 1992.
Rid of Me (includes “50 Ft. Queenie,” “Man-Size,” and “Highway 61 Revisited”), Island, 1993.
“Man-Size” (maxi-single; includes “Wang Dang Doodle”), Island, 1993.
4-Track Demos (includes “Reeling,” “Goodnight,” “Easy,” “Legs,” and “Ecstasy”), Island, 1993.
Billboard, August 15, 1992; September 4, 1993.
Details, June 1993.
Detroit Free Press, November 25, 1992.
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.
People, June 14, 1993.
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.
Spin, November 1992; May 1993; August 1993; December 1993.
Variety, July 15, 1993.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Island Records publicity materials, 1993.
Best-selling album since 1990: To Bring You My Love (1995)
Hit songs since 1990: "Down by the Water," "Good Fortune"
British singer, guitarist, and songwriter PJ Harvey began recording in the early 1990s. Her first albums, recorded with a small band also called PJ Harvey, combined powerful, punk-influenced rock with brash, confrontational lyrics. With her 1995 release, To Bring You My Love, Harvey smoothed some of her music's rough edges. She exchanged the brutal honesty of her earlier lyrics for an expanded sense of storytelling and fantasy. In 2001 Harvey was awarded Britain's Mercury Music Prize (the first woman to win since its inception in 1991), confirming her status as one of England's most respected performers and songwriters.
Polly Jean Harvey grew up on a sheep farm in the Dorset village Yeovil. Both her quarryman father and artist mother were music aficionados who supported her musical education: first saxophone and later guitar. In Yeovil, Harvey played in a series of bands, including Automatic Dlamini with longtime collaborator John Parish. She eventually founded PJ Harvey in 1991 with bassist Steve Vaughn and drummer Robert Ellis. Two albums later she parted ways with Vaughn and Ellis and she has picked up additional collaborators over the years, including bassist Mick Harvey (also of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds). She and Parish continue to work together, a relationship that culminated in their joint release Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996). Harvey maintains a home near Yeovil, returning there after extended absences, and continues to describe herself as a country girl. Many find her persona in interviews—polite, charming, and quick to laugh—radically different from the characters she inhabits in her music.
The PJ Harvey Trio
The stripped-down textures of PJ Harvey's first album, Dry (1992), cannot hide the ensemble's tight rhythmic center, propelled by Ellis's often polyrhythmic drumming. The song "Dress" is one of several tracks to feature Harvey playing cello. In her hands, the instrument, generally used in rock to offer a mellow bass line, adds to the music's agitation and forward momentum. Harvey did not shy away from displaying her body on album covers early in her career—a tactic she later characterized as a publicity stunt. Song lyrics on Dry also focus on the female body, as in "Sheela Na Gig," which begins "look at these my child-bearing hips, look at these my ruby-red ruby lips."
PJ Harvey's second album, Rid of Me (1993), continues to explore the musical terrain established with Dry. Rid of Me was produced by American Steve Albini (best known for recording rock group Nirvana's In Utero ) whose intense dynamics focus the trio's sparse instrumentation. His precise use of microphones on the drums accentuates Ellis's work. The first track, "Rid of Me," alternates frenetically between intense whispers and ferocious guitar outbursts. It concludes with Harvey demanding "lick my legs, I'm on fire, lick my legs, of desire." Her lyrical focus on the body reappears throughout Rid of Me, including "50ft Queenie," where Harvey establishes her power by declaring herself "fifty-inches long."
From Dorset to the Big Apple
After the supporting tours for Rid of Me, Harvey shed her band, and has since reconstituted it in a variety of forms. The cover of her next album, To Bring You My Love (1995), announces Harvey's new incarnation as a heavily made-up vixen in a red satin dress. Whereas Dry and Rid of Me made Harvey a critic's darling but not a financial success, this album found a larger audience, and the single "Down by the Water" was nominated for a Grammy Award. In this song Harvey becomes a mother drowning her daughter, singing, "I heard her holler, I heard her moan, my lovely daughter, I took her home." Harshly plucked violins in the background add to the creepy and stylized experience of the song. In the album's relatively lush arrangements, Harvey develops and explores her characters in greater depth.
Following the success of To Bring You My Love, Harvey returned to Dorset for an extended self-exile. Her next creative project was her collaboration with Parish, Dance Hall at Louse Point. Both Parish and Harvey contributed creatively to the album, which successfully deflected critical attention from Harvey's follow-up to To Bring You My Love. Two years later she released the cryptic Is This Desire? (1998) whose illusive songs turn so deeply inward the listener must struggle to find its narrative and musical center.
After years in the English countryside, Harvey briefly relocated to New York City in 1999. The result was her release Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000), which reflects her experiences of living in both New York and Dorset. Many songs on the album reproduce the rapid tempo and excitement of booming late-1990s New York City. Lyrics are full of references to the city, including Chinatown and the Empire State Building. Ellis plays on many tracks, reuniting Harvey with the pounding rhythms that gave her earliest albums their rhythmic ferocity. The video for "Good Fortune" (perhaps her most optimistic song) features a chic Harvey rapidly progressing through the city's streets, embracing yet distinct from the world around her. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea radiates a happiness absent from earlier albums. Even its darker ballads, such as "The Mess We're In," sung by Radiohead's Thom Yorke, maintain an element of hope.
While none of Harvey's records have made it into Billboard 's Top 40 in the United States, many know and admire her work as a singer and songwriter. She has fared better on the charts in Britain. Her first two records remain visceral landmarks of female expression, while To Bring You My Love established her range and brought her voice to a larger audience. Her millennial release, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, assures the listener that everything could end up okay, in the end. Harvey has produced few direct musical ancestors, she has never belonged to a scene, but she has profoundly altered the rock landscape with her powerful songwriting and performances.
Spot Light: To Bring You My Love
PJ Harvey initiated a major change in her music (and image) with the release of To Bring You My Love (1995). Formerly a rough, punk woman on stage, she became a torch singer. Like other torch singers before her, the new Harvey sang of relationships gone dangerously sour, and of holding onto hope beyond any chance of redemption. She appeared in concert made up much as she looks on the album: deep-red lipstick, red satin dress and an elaborate hair-do. Although Harvey's lyrics have always explored other characters and narrative positions, To Bring You My Love further destabilizes Harvey's position as the speaker. Indeed, Harvey fills the record with mothers abandoned by their lovers and children. In "C'mon Billy" she assumes the role of a woman pleading the father of her child to return. "C'mon Billy," she sings, "you're the only one, don't you think its time now, you met your only son?" Harvey's musical language also deepened with To Bring You My Love. She abandoned the pure rhythmic intensity of her earlier albums. Instead, songs acquire their drive and intensity from Harvey's vocal lines and her sense of musical form. Despite the central role of her singing in these songs, Harvey often distorts or otherwise estranges her voice, further distancing herself from the music she sings. Her consistent use of organ throughout adds a new timbre already culturally marked as serious and sad. This musical language expresses Harvey's new persona in ways unavailable in the terse rock songs of Dry and Rid of Me.
Dry (Too Pure, 1992); Rid of Me (Island, 1993); To Bring You My Love (Island, 1995); Is This Desire? (Island, 1998); Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (Island, 2000). With John Parish: Dance Hall at Louse Point (1996).
caroline polk o'meara