During the alternative rock explosion, several female singer/songwriters rose to prominence, but few have proved as distinctive or as widely praised as Polly Jean Harvey. Over the course of her career, Harvey established herself as one of the most individual and influential songwriters of her era, exploring themes of sex, religion, and political issues with unnerving honesty, dark humor, and a twisted theatricality. At the outset, she led the trio PJ Harvey, which delivered her stark songs with bruisingly powerful, punkish abandon, as typified by 1993's Rid of Me. Over time, however, the subtle and artistic side of Harvey prevailed. Her 2001 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea featured a heady mix of trip-hop, guitar rock, and troubadourism, earning her the prestigious Mercury Prize. As the years passed, Harvey continually shifted gears, from the ghostly Victoriana of 2007's White Chalk to the moody social commentary of 2011's Let England Shake (which earned her a second Mercury Prize, making her the only artist to have done so) and 2016's The Hope Six Demolition Project.
Harvey grew up on a sheep farm in Yeovil, England, where she was raised by her quarryman father and her artist mother. As a child, she learned how to play guitar and saxophone, and when she was a teenager, she played in a variety of bands as a sideman. In 1988, Harvey joined Automatic Dlamini, the Bristol-based project of John Parish. She played saxophone, guitar, and sang backing vocals as they toured throughout Europe in support of their debut album, The D Is for Drum. Harvey also appeared on the band's unreleased second album, Here Catch Shouted His Father. Though she left the band early 1991 to start her own project, she continued to collaborate with Parish throughout her career. She formed the trio PJ Harvey with her former Automatic Dlamini bandmates drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Oliver, who soon returned to Automatic Dlamini and was replaced by Steve Vaughan. After making their live debut that April, in June the band moved to London, where they recorded demos that they sent to labels that included the experimental indie imprint Too Pure. In October 1991, the label released PJ Harvey's debut single, "Dress." It became a indie rock sensation, as did its follow-up, "Sheela-Na-Gig," with both singles receiving lavish praise in the U.K. music press.
In March 1992, Too Pure issued PJ Harvey's debut album, Dry. Recorded for under $5,000, the album earned international acclaim. The trio followed it with an extensive tour, culminating with an appearance at that summer's Reading Festival. Shortly after the tour, Harvey moved to London, where she nearly suffered a nervous breakdown due to the extraordinary pressure and expectation surrounding her second album. Later in 1992, PJ Harvey signed to Island Records, and that December the band worked with Steve Albini at Cannon Falls, Minnesota's Pachyderm Recording Studio to make their second album. Albini imposed his trademark noisy, guitar-heavy sound on the record, which mirrored its harder-edged themes. Arriving in May 1993, Rid of Me was a major critical success and expanded Harvey's cult greatly. She supported the album with a tour featuring herself in a fake leopard-skin coat and a feather boa, signaling her developing interest in theatricality.
After finishing the Rid of Me tour in August 1993, the trio disbanded. Harvey's first release as a solo artist was October's 4-Track Demos, a collection of her original versions of the songs on Rid of Me. To make her third album, she worked with producer Flood, bassist Mick Harvey, and guitarist Joe Gore and former bandmate Parish. Harvey developed a richer, bluesier sound with the expanded band, and the resulting record, To Bring You My Love, was hailed as a masterpiece by many critics upon its February 1995 release. Thanks to considerable press attention, as well as strong support from MTV and modern rock radio for the single "Down by the Water," To Bring You My Love became a moderate hit, entering the U.S. charts at number 40 and earning silver certification in the U.K. Harvey spent all of 1995 touring the album. During 1996, she was relatively quiet, contributing vocals to Nick Cave on his Murder Ballads album and collaborating with Parish on Dance Hall at Louse Point.
In 1997, Harvey began work on her fourth album, reuniting with Ellis and Flood on a set of introspective songs that that incorporated electronics into her music. The results were September 1998's Is This Desire?, which was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Alternative Music Performance. The album's single "A Perfect Day Elise" reached number 25 on the U.K. Singles Chart. Harvey also ventured into acting that year. In Hal Hartley's The Book of Life, she portrayed a modernized version of Mary Magdalene. She also appeared as a Playboy Bunny in Sarah Miles' short film "A Bunny Girl's Tale," in which she also performed the Is This Desire? outtake "Nina in Ecstasy." Two years later, Harvey reunited with Ellis and Mick Harvey for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. A more straightforward set of songs written in Dorset, Paris, and New York, it also featured several collaborations with Radiohead's Thom Yorke. Harvey's fifth album was one of her most commercially and critically successful, charting in the U.S and U.K., and winning the Mercury Prize. It also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Album, while the single "This Is Love" was nominated for Best Female Rock Performance.
After extensive touring in support of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, Harvey split her time over the next two years working on new material and collaborating with like-minded friends and contemporaries. She appeared on Gordon Gano's Hitting the Ground, Giant Sand's Cover Magazine, and John Parish's How Animals Move, but her most prominent collaboration was with the Queens of the Stone Age side project the Desert Sessions. She performed on more than half of 2003's Desert Sessions, Vols. 9-10, including the single Crawl Home. During this time, she recorded her sixth album. Handling production duties and playing every instrument except the drums (which were once again handled by Ellis), Harvey released Uh Huh Her, a fiery set reminiscent of some of her earliest work, in May 2004. The album reached number 12 on the U.K. Album Charts and was certified silver in her homeland soon after it appeared. Two years later, the live DVD On Tour: Please Leave Quietly featured performances from Harvey's dates in support of Uh Huh Her.
In November 2006, Harvey began work on her seventh album. Collaborating with Flood, Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman in a West London studio, she went in another wildly different direction. Eschewing guitars in favor of ghostly, piano-based ballads, White Chalk arrived in September 2007. Following the tour for the album -- which found her adding autoharp to her repertoire of instruments -- she then resumed her partnership with Parish for A Woman a Man Walked By, which hit number 25 on the U.K. Albums Chart when it came out in March 2009. That year, she also scored director Ian Rickson's Broadway production of Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.
In 2010, Harvey, along with Flood, Parish, Mick Harvey, and drummer Jean-Marc Butty, began recording her eighth album in a church near Dorset. Let England Shake combined years' worth of poetry and lyrics Harvey wrote about World War I and the 21st century war in Iraq and Afghanistan with largely improvised recordings. Upon its arrival in February 2011, the album met with widespread acclaim, winning a Mercury Prize -- making her the only artist to win the award twice -- as well as Album of the Year at the 2012 Ivor Novello Awards. Late that year, Let England Shake: 12 Short Films by Seamus Murphy collected the films that the photographer/director created for the album. Around that time, Harvey also composed some of the score for a production of Hamlet at the Young Vic. The following year, Harvey released "Shaker Aamer," a song about the Guantanamo Bay detainee who undertook a hunger strike for four months. That December, she read her poetry in public for the first time at the British Library.
To create her ninth album, Harvey traveled to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington, D.C., with Murphy in tow. Their collaboration became the 2015 book The Hollow of the Hand, which collected her poems and his photographs. Working once again with Flood and Parish, Harvey recorded parts of the album in public at the London cultural center Somerset House. The results were released as The Hope Six Demolition Project, which arrived in April 2016. The album topped the U.K. Albums Chart and earned a Grammy Award Nomination for Best Alternative Music. In June 2017, Harvey issued "The Camp," a collaboration with Ramy Essam that benefitted children escaping from the Syrian Civil War. The following March, she and Parish worked together on "Sorry for Your Loss," a tribute to former Sparklehorse leader and Harvey collaborator Mark Linkous. Harvey's score for director Ivo van Hove's stage adaptation of All About Eve appeared in April 2019. The work borrowed from Franz Liszt 's Liebesträume -- a musical touchstone in the original film -- and featured songs sung by the production's stars, Gillian Anderson and Lily James. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Heather Phares