Of the singer/songwriters who rose to prominence during the alternative rock explosion, few are 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 theatrical flair. At the outset, she delivered stark songs with bruisingly powerful abandon, as on 1993′s Rid of Me. Over time, Harvey’s music became more nuanced and eclectic. 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. Harvey continually shifted gears, moving from the ghostly Victoriana of 2007′s White Chalk to the moody social commentary of 2011′s Let England Shake (an album that made her the only artist to win a second Mercury Prize). With the mysterious, folky realms of 2022′s epic poem Orlam and 2023′s companion album I Inside the Old Year Dying, Harvey’s gift for creating immersive worlds remained unparalleled.
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. 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 group in 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; the latter soon returned to Automatic Dlamini and was replaced by Steve Vaughan. After making their live debut in April, in June the band moved to London, where they recorded demos and sent them to labels that included the experimental indie imprint Too Pure. In October 1991, the label released PJ Harvey’s debut single, “Dress.” It became an indie rock sensation, as did the next one, “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 at Yeovil’s Icehouse Studios for under $5,000, the album earned international acclaim and reached number 11 on the U.K. Albums Chart. 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 expectations 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: it hit number three on the U.K. Albums Chart and was certified silver; in the U.S., it made the Top Ten of the Billboard Heatseekers Chart and peaked on the Billboard 200 at 158. 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. Like that album, 4-Track Demos was a critical success that also made a commercial impression; it reached number 19 on the U.K. Albums Chart and number 10 on the Billboard Heatseekers Chart. To make her third album, she wrote songs in the Yeovil home she bought with the royalties from her first two albums and recorded with producer Flood, bassist Mick Harvey, guitarist Joe Gore, and former bandmate Parish. Harvey developed a richer, bluesier sound with the expanded band, and 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” (which reached number two on Billboard’s Modern Rock chart), To Bring You My Love was a moderate hit. It entered the Billboard 200 at number 40, and in the U.K. it debuted at number 12, ultimately earning silver certification. Harvey spent all of 1995 touring the album. The following year, she contributed vocals to Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads and collaborated 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 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 peaked at 54 on the Billboard 200 and at 17 on the U.K. Albums Chart, and the single “A Perfect Day Elise” reached number 25 on the U.K. Singles Chart, her highest placing on that chart to date. 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 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: It hit number 23 on the U.K. Albums Chart, was eventually certified platinum, and won the Mercury Prize, making Harvey the first female solo artist to receive the award. It also earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Album; 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 on 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, while its lead track, “The Letter,” hit number 28 on the U.K. Singles Chart. In the States, the album peaked at number 29 on the Billboard 200, making it Harvey’s highest-placing release to date. Uh Huh Her’s accolades included her sixth Brit Awards nomination and her fifth Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance. 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 and reached number 11 in the U.K. and number 65 in the U.S. 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. It also fared well on the charts, peaking at number eight on the U.K. Albums Chart and number 32 on the Billboard 200. 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 went on 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. That June, her score and the song “The Crowded Cell” appeared in director Shane Meadows’ Channel 4 miniseries The Virtues. In November, Murphy’s documentary about the making of The Hope Six Demolition Project, A Dog Called Money, was released.
In 2020, Harvey embarked on an ambitious reissue campaign of her work that included demo versions of each of her albums and new artwork. Dry was reissued that July, with Rid of Me and 4-Track Demos following in August and To Bring You My Love in September. The re-release of Is This Desire? appeared in January 2021, with Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea arriving the following month and Uh Huh Her surfacing in April. The reissue campaign continued into the following year, with Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project appearing in January and March of 2022, respectively. That April saw the publication of Orlam, an epic coming-of-age poem incorporating the rituals and superstitions of the West Country of England as well as the Dorset dialect. A few months later, she delivered a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” that was part of the score she created with composer Tim Williams for Sharon Horgan’s series Bad Sisters. That November, the archival project concluded with B-Sides, Demos, & Rarities, a set collecting previously unreleased and hard-to-find songs from her entire career.
Harvey’s next album, July 2023′s I Inside the Old Year Dying, expanded on the characters and moods introduced in Orlam and also drew from the Bible and Shakespeare. Created once again with Parish and Flood, the music was partly improvised and fused lulling folk, electronics, and field recordings with noisy rock outbursts. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine & Heather Phares