PJ Harvey reveals six key influences
1. Bob Dylan
“Bob Dylan is a sacred name in our household.”
The stone quarry man’s daughter could well be a PJ Harvey song title, but it in fact describes Polly’s background. Born in Bridport, Dorset, her parents Ray and Eva did indeed run a quarrying business, though the gems they extracted for the young PJ came from their record collection, playing her a diet of progressive ’60s rock’n’roll.
Chief among them was Bob Dylan who was on frequent rotation and his impact is clear. Harvey not only covered Dylan songs in her first band, folk duo The Polekats, but a brief, punky reimagining of Highway ’61 Revisited features on her second album, Rid Of Me.
Lyrics-wise Dylan has been a clear influence. Harvey shares his creative wanderlust, changing from album to album, but she also eschews the autobiographical in favour of strange snap shots, real world events, tall tales, heartbreakers, love songs and more.
“Since a young age I’ve been interested in what’s going on in the world… but I didn’t want to do it badly, so I wanted to wait until I felt that I had more experience as writer and would be able to carry it off…”
Serious historical research and documentary field work are not often part of an album’s demo process, but both have been crucial to Harvey’s most recent works. 2011’s Let England Shake examined the impact of conflict on soldiers and civilians alike through both historical and contemporary lenses, leading Harvey to sift through a range of sources from historic letters to active blogs.
2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project fused songwriting and journalism as Harvey visited many of the places she sung about to collect material directly. This not only produced the album, but it provides the basis for a documentary that filmmaker Seamus Murphy simultaneously created with Harvey. [ . . . ]
In the week that Polly Harvey turns 50, what better time to look back over 50 gems from her back catalogue – and sort them in order of greatness
50. Who the Fuck? (2004)
A rare moment of levity in the Harvey oeuvre: all the mad-eyed, vengeful, shrieking fury of Rid of Me brought to bear upon a hairdresser who has made the mistake of messing up the singer’s cut and blow dry: “Get your comb out of there! You can’t straighten my curls! Fuck you! Fuck you!”
49. Harder (1995)
Harvey’s B-sides can provide rich pickings: if you can understand why Harder didn’t make the cut for To Bring You My Love – there’s no getting around the fact that it’s essentially a song about an erect penis – the sheer lascivious relish and the twisting guitar riff are irresistible.
48. Water (1992)
You could hear the influence of US alt-rock on Dry, but its contents seemed to have a different kind of intensity to anything else around at the time, as shown by Water’s mysterious depiction of a suicide that could be driven by love or by religious mania: gripping, punishing listening.
47. Guilty (2016)
Recorded for The Hope Six Demolition Project, but left off the album and subsequently released as a single, Guilty is far darker than the album that preceeded it: no mean feat, but with its barrage of percussion, discordant brass and synths and a lyric about drone strikes, it pulls it off with grim aplomb.
Following PJ Harvey as she creates the score for a new production of All About Eve.
John Wilson follows PJ Harvey as she creates the score for a new West End theatre production of All About Eve. Singer songwriter Polly Jean Harvey is the only artist to have twice won the Mercury Prize for Album of the Year – for Stories from the City, Stories From the Sea in 2001 and Let England Shake a decade later. After 12 critically acclaimed albums and more than 25 years as an international touring artist, she is now focussing on her work as a soundtrack composer, having written scores for theatre and television for more than a decade. Starring Gillian Anderson (making her first return to the stage since her acclaimed 2014 performance in A Streetcar Named Desire) and Lily James (star of Downton Abbey and Mama Mia), All About Eve is one of the most anticipated theatrical events of 2019. Adapted from the 1950 film, which was nominated for 14 Oscars and won six including Best Actress for Bette Davis, it’s a story of an ageing Broadway star and a young fan who usurps her place in the spotlight. Over several weeks in the run up to opening night, Polly shows John how she works at home, writing and recording demos for the soundtrack to the play, and how one musical element of the original film – Liebestraume by Franz Liszt – has become the creative touchstone for her own compositions.
Presented and Produced by John Wilson. A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4
LISTEN TO INTERVIEW AT: Behind the Scenes – PJ Harvey – BBC Sounds