Singer, songwriter and guitarist PJ Harvey took the alt-rock world by storm in the early Nineties with her raw, dynamic post-punk sound and evocative/provocative lyrics. In hypnotic tunes like "Dress," "Happy and Bleeding," and "Sheela-Na-Gig," she sang about discovering, reviling, and reveling in her body. As her career wore on, Harvey found new topics to write about — including true love — and refined her sound without detracting from the appeal of her singular new-millennium blues.
Born Polly Jean Harvey on October 9, 1969, in Bridport, Dorset, England, she grew up on a sheep farm. When she was a child, her parents introduced her to the blues and experimental rock of artists like John Lee Hooker, Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart; later she discovered the punk and post-punk of acts like Television, Patti Smith and the Pixies. She began writing her own songs at 17, and in 1991 formed PJ Harvey, a power trio, in the small English town of Yeovil. After creating a buzz in London and two chart-topping singles, the band recorded Dry for the U.K. indie label Too Pure (Island Records released the album in the U.S.), for less than $5,000.
Harvey quickly developed a reputation for being a publicity-shy recluse and reportedly had a near nervous breakdown in 1992, after playing the mammoth Reading Festival. Recovered, she took her career in hand and chose iconoclastic Chicago-based producer Steve Albini to produce the band's second album. Rid of Me sounded appropriately noisy and difficult. Harvey's lyrics mocked efforts to control her sexuality and art, taunting lovers on "Rid of Me" and "Legs" and declaring her stature over cock-rockers on "50 Ft. Queenie."
Press-friendly now, Harvey disappointed many fans by denouncing feminism in interviews, although listeners found consolation in lyrics that seemed to contradict her stance. Harvey turned down a chance to play 1993's Lollapalooza. Her own American tour revealed a confident performer who was adding touches of a campy glam to her trademark austere appearance. The tour also indicated that Harvey was having trouble with her band, and in August 1993, Ellis departed. The demos for Rid of Me, released as 4-Track Demos, verified criticism that Albini had buried Harvey's powerful vocals and barely touched the range of her aural ideas. The album included several new tracks, including the irresistible "Reeling."
Harvey completely dispensed with her band for 1995's To Bring You My Love (Number 40), a bluesy collection of songs that she produced with Flood (U2) and guitarist John Parish. Bassist Mick Harvey (ex–Birthday Party) and guitarist Joe Gore were among the guests who played on the critically acclaimed album.
In 1996 Harvey and Parish released Dance Hall at Louse Point, an album for which Harvey wrote and sang lyrics to Parish's music. The exception was an irony-drenched cover of Peggy Lee's Leiber/Stoller-penned 1969 hit "Is That All There Is?" Released as a single, the song also appeared on the soundtrack album for the film Basquiat, a movie depicting the life of the late graffiti artist.
Harvey duetted with Nick Cave on his Murder Ballads album in 1996. The collaboration led to a brief, heated romance, the dissolution of which Cave brooded over on The Boatman's Call the following year. Harvey and Flood coproduced Is This Desire? (Number 54, 1998). Built on a bed of understated electrobeats, the album's songs found Harvey ruminating on the meaning of passion. She also sang on Tricky's Angels With Dirty Faces and made her acting debut, playing Mary Magdalene, in the film The Book of Life. The critically acclaimed Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea (Number 42, 2000) was much more upbeat than Harvey's usual fare.
Harvey returned to a rawer, darker sound on Uh Huh Her (Number 29, 2004) and delved further into a Goth-like vibe in the much quieter, haunting, piano-based music of 2007's White Chalk. In 2009 she released her second full-on collaboration with Parish, the darkly humorous A Woman a Man Walked By.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.