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
PJ Harvey has a walloping, 50-foot-tall legacy — musicially and emotionally raw when stadium angst was a boys club; opening the door for everyone from Alanis to Karen O. But in 1993, PJ Harvey was the name of a band: bassist Steve Vaughan, drummer Rob Ellis, and frontwoman Polly Jean Harvey, who would soon after come to be known as “PJ Harvey” regardless of whom she played with. Rid of Me was their second album, coming on the heels of their stark, remarkable 1992 debut, Dry, which had launched the trio from their modest beginnings playing forgettable gigs around England’s West Country (including one where they were famously paid to stop playing) into a major-label bidding war (won by Island Records) and on to an international stage.
A howling smash-up of blues, punk, and Beefheartian avant-garde stomp, Rid of Me felt like an expression of pure, unadulterated id — albeit an id with defiant post-feminist ideals and a sneaky sense of humor. Many heard the embittered snarl of the title track or the unhinged and anarchic “Legs” as autobiographical soundtracks to the nervous breakdown Harvey supposedly had during the album’s conception, but that sold her short as a writer. Rid of Mespawned no breakaway radio hits and garnered minimal MTV play, but tracks like the frenetic, thrashing “50 Ft. Queenie” and the harrowing howler, “Man-Size,” made quite an impact nonetheless — SPIN named it the fourth best album of 1993 and put her on the cover two years later.
In the album’s wake, Courtney Love said, “The one rock star that makes me know I’m shit is Polly Harvey. I’m nothing next to the purity that she experiences.” Similar accolades poured in from everyone from Kurt Cobain and Elvis Costello to Madonna and Jon Bon Jovi. Despite the widespread critical acclaim, Steve Albini, who recorded most of the album with the band at Pachyderm Studios outside Minneapolis, came in for his fair share of criticism for, among other things, the album’s rawer-than-raw sound and the walls of noise that sometimes obscured Harvey’s vocals. The controversy only seemed to gild the album’s legend, though, and with time it has become a definitive document of the 1990s.
SPIN spoke to Rid of Me’s primary architects to get the fraught story behind the album’s creation, and chronicle its messy aftermath.
Polly Jean Harvey, vocals/guitar: I’d done a foundation course in art school and was going to do a degree in sculpture, but instead of doing that, I’d signed a record deal and deferred my place. After making Dry, I thought, “I’ll make one more record.” Then I thought people will probably get bored of me. So I deferred my college course again to write Rid of Me.