IN THIS PHOTO: PJ Harvey in 2015/PHOTO CREDIT: Maria Mochnacz
Part Fourteen: PJ Harvey
THERE are many reasons why…
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
an artist can be considered iconic or influential. In this feature, I have covered a whole range of inspiring female artists who have helped shift music and left a huge mark – and continue to compel generations of new artists. When thinking of the most important female artists of the past couple of decades PJ Harvey springs to mind. It is hard to bring too much personal input from Harvey into this feature because she gives very few interviews. It is not that she is opposed to the press and talking about herself but she is not one of these artists who gives multiple interviews with every release. As such, some of the quotes and exerts I am going to put into this piece are from a few years ago. That will come soon but, for now, we need to go right back to the beginnings. Unlike a lot of the female icons I have included in this feature – from Aretha Franklin to Kate Bush –, I was alive and conscious of music when PJ Harvey arrived. In a way, she is more of a modern icon rather than a classic legend – that will change in years to come but, trust me, PJ Harvey is a colossus! Not only does every album seem to reveal a new persona or character but she is an artist who is not guided by labels and the pack: she is someone who lets the music speak and is keen not to reveal too much.
ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Megan Ferguson-Smyth
Actually, before I continue, I have discovered a fascinating article that talks about the ‘lessons’ PJ Harvey has taught us all:
“Harvey is a fearless experimenter and frequent collaborator – in addition to old friend John Parish, with whom she has co-written two albums, she has worked with Nick Cave (their relationship is believed to have inspired a clutch of songs on his lush record The Boatman's Call), Marianne Faithfull, Tricky, and the producers Flood and Steve Albini, to name a few. But right from the beginning, she has kept control of her output, hollowing out her own niche within the recording industry, and working only with the people who inspire her. Her first ever contract was reportedly written to allow her full artistic control and her fiercely individual discography proves that she has maintained it ever since.
Almost every article about PJ Harvey, even the rare interviews, mentions her reticence and lack of interest in the fame game. After suffering some form of breakdown early on in her career, Harvey took herself home to Dorset to recuperate and her interviews from then on have been guarded affairs. But she has always seemed an old soul, never one to bare all, even when appearing on the front cover of the NME topless with her back to the camera, or recording her last album publicly as part of an installation at Somerset House. "I want to give, but I have to remember that I must keep what's private to me intact," she once said. She lets the work speak, and the rest of us fall about trying to decipher it.
Just as she knows when to retire from the media, she has a keen sense of when and how to speak about issues which matter to her, without coming across as preachy. As Britain reeled from the Brexit result, she punctuated her Glastonbury set by reading aloud John Donne's poem No Man Is An Island. When she guest-edited the Today Programme in 2014, her curation spoke volumes – guests included an unedited Julian Assange, and featured a poem by ex-Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer. Her work is a collage of voices, invented and real, that burrow away in the mind – protest songs without any posturing, and more powerful for it”.
Born in Bridport, Dorset in 1969, the young PJ Harvey was exposed to all kinds of music by her parents. Included was Blues music, artists such as Captain Beefheart and Bob Dylan – artists who would influence her own work. Everybody’s parents inspire their children’s musical tastes but Harvey’s parents regularly attended gigs; there was this definite artistic spirit and sense of discovery. It is unsurprising Harvey was a curious and eclectic music-lover from a young. Having learned the saxophone as a teenager, Harvey joined an instrumental group, Bologne, who were based out of Dorset. By 1991, Harvey formed her own band with Rob Ellis and Ian Oliver. Like many legendary artists, the earliest gigs were not exactly successful. The trio – Oliver left and was replaced by Steve Vaughan – had a disastrous debut gig at a skittle alley (like you do!) in April 1991 and it was not long until the group relocated to London – perhaps sensing there was more opportunity and bigger venues.
Harvey was studying at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design (at this moment, Pulp’s Common People spring to mind!) and things started to happen. The new band recorded some demos and they started to turn the heads of industry influencers and tastemakers. The debut single, Dress, proved hugely popular and caught the ear of a certain John Peel – who said the track was admirable if not always enjoyable. Harvey has released some truly sensational works but you can hear her everything in Dry – the 1992 debut that stunned critics and announced a very exciting talent. Harvey felt that her debut might be her only record so, as such, she put her all into it. Dry is quite an extreme album but there is no a wasted moment! The eleven-track debut is crammed with wonderful moments but it is the two singles, Dress and Sheela-Na-Gig, that drew the most attention. The latter’s title comes from the Sheela na gig statues; carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva which were found throughout Britain and Ireland. In terms of the lyrics scope, bravery and originality, I am reminded of the debut albums from Kate Bush and Tori Amos: The Kick Inside (1978) and Little Earthquakes (1992). Unsurprisingly, the reviews for Dry are hugely positive. Here, in this retrospective review from AllMusic, the raw and powerful delivery from Harvey is highlighted:
“Her voice makes each song sound like it was an exposed nerve, but her lyrics aren't quite that simple. Shaded with metaphors and the occasional biblical allusion, Dry is essentially an assault on feminine conventions and expectations, and while there are layers of dark humor, they aren't particularly evident, since Harvey's singing is shockingly raw.
Her vocals are perfectly complemented by the trio's ferocious pounding, which makes even the slow ballads sound like exercises in controlled fury. And that's the key to Dry: the songs, which are often surprisingly catchy -- "Dress" and "Sheela-Na-Gig" both have strong hooks -- are as muscular and forceful as the band's delivery, making the album a vibrant and fully realized debut”.
A lot of artists who release huge and unexpected debuts take a few years to regroup and plan their next move. Another reason why I feel PJ Harvey is iconic and inspiring is the fact she was back in 1993 with her sophomore album, Rid of Me. After Dry’s release, the band toured widely and played Reading Festival in 1992. Although Harvey’s music was reaching new ears and lands, her place at Central Saint Martins College was not kept open. She was suffering from exhaustion due to extensive touring, poor eating habits and stress. Because of this, Harvey moved back to Dorset. Whilst settling back to a quieter life in Dorset, the songs on Rid of Me took shape. Many have interpreted the album as feminist in nature. Harvey denied the album was overly-feminist and stated that, when writing songs, she did not consider gender – she just wrote what came naturally. Some of the songs were inspired by personal heartache (especially the title track) and the introduction of Steve Albini as producer gave Harvey’s music a new diversity. There are quiet breaks and feedback; a greater depth that, whilst pleasing to Harvey, did divide some critics.
Some felt Rid of Me was a bit too heavy and uncomfortable to listen to considering the rawness of the lyrics and the production style. Songs like Rid of Me and 50ft Queenie, again, showed what an extraordinary and unique songwriter PJ Harvey was. If the record was a tougher and more challenging listen than Dry, it is a more nuanced work – you are taken aback at first but then keep coming back to experience this sensational and completely engrossing voice. I will not look at all of her albums chronologically, but there are a few that I want to pay special attention to. 1995’s To Bring You My Love was another huge success and was a little less raw than her previous work. Biblical imagery is employed more and the influence of Captain Beefheart is clear. The first big album that I want to draw attention to is Harvey’s 2000 wonderwork, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea earned Harvey a Mercury Prize nomination and was certified Platinum in the U.K. and Australia. Unlike her earlier work, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is a more direct record. It is more melodic and rounder; more sophisticated, according to Harvey, with more colour and variation. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is a beautiful and warmer album against the darker and more intense sounds of her first few albums.
Critics fell for Harvey from her 1992 debut and that love was not letting off. This is what NME had to say:
“More pertinently, ‘Stories…’ is PJ Harvey’s best album since 1991’s ‘Dry’, a return to the feral intensity of that remarkable debut. For while it’s a cliché any frank woman singer-songwriter is ‘disturbed’ in some way, there’s no avoiding the fact Harvey’s last album, ‘Is This Desire?’, was unhappy; painfully-constructed third-person narratives buffeted by electro-industrial static.
‘Stories…’, however, is suffused with vitality. The clarity of the electric guitars played by Harvey, Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey is enough to make you fall in love with elemental rock all over again. When Thom Yorke adds his blustery yowl to ‘This Mess We’re In’, you wonder if it was the realisation he’d never write something as stark that prompted the itchy ambience of ‘Kid A’”.
Whilst I love This Is Love and Good Fortune, I especially love the duet with Thom Yorke, This Mess We’re In. There is something about these two incredible singers – Radiohead released Kid A in 2000 – that makes it such a compelling and unforgettable track. Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea is a staggering album and is a natural evolution from her darker and more challenging works. Harvey showed she could alter and progress her sound without losing her golden touch.
If 2004’s Uh Huh Her was not overly-successful and well-received – compared to her best work – Harvey was back in peak form for 2007’s White Chalk. Maybe Uh Huh Her was a dark and raw album: White Chalk is gothic and quieter album; one where she put aside the guitar/bass/drum sound and recorded songs for piano. Not only did she tackle the piano (which was fairly new to her) but she sang in a higher register. Again, this was Harvey moving forward and seeing where she could push her music. The second album that I want to pay special attention to is, perhaps, her finest achievement: 2011’s Let England Shake. Not only did the album win the Mercury Prize in 2011 (her second win; 2011 was her first win) but it garnered some truly huge reviews. Recorded during a five-week period in a Dorset church, you get this improvisational, live-sounding album that is another departure; a restless and hungry artist unwilling to settle and repeat herself. PJ Harvey began writing the album’s lyrics before pairing the words to music. Poets such as Harold Pinter and T.S. Eliot were influences as well as bands such as The Doors and The Pogues. Let England Shake is a remarkable album and one of the finest of the last decade. There was plenty of passion and praise for Harvey’s eighth album!
This is how The Guardian viewed Let England Shake:
“Scrupulously avoiding the usual cliches that arise with self-consciously English music – Kinksy music-hall observations, eerie pagan folkisms, or shades of Vaughan Williams – the central sound is guitars, wreathed in echo that makes them seem as if they're playing somewhere in the middle distance. Around them are scattered muzzy electric piano, smears of brass, off-kilter samples and musical quotations: a reference to Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues somehow works its way into The Words That Maketh Murder, while an incessant trumpet reveille sounds during The Glorious Land, out of tune and time with the rest of the song.
You're left with a richly inventive album that's unlike anything else in Harvey's back catalogue. That, she told Marr last year, is the point: "My biggest fear would be to replicate something I've done before." Let England Shake sounds suspiciously like the work of a woman at her creative peak. Where she goes from here is, as ever, anyone's guess”.
Pitchfork praised Harvey’s thought-provoking and moving lyrics:
“On Let England Shake, Harvey is not often upfront or forceful; her lyrics, though, are as disturbing as ever. Here, she paints vivid portraits of war, and her sharp focus on the up-close, hand-to-hand devastation of World War I-- depicting "soldiers falling like lumps of meat"-- provides a fitting setting for today's battlegrounds. From the Zombies to the Pogues, artists have often gravitated to the confused, massive loss of life of the Great War. If it doesn't resonate as much in America as it does in Europe-- and it doesn't-- that's more our fortune than our shame.
The Great War remains a rich and resonant subject for art because it briefly caused the world to step back, aghast and afraid to look at what it had done. The collective trauma of World War I did indeed shake England, specifically, out of the end of its imperialistic Victorian stupor”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images
Before rounding things up and bringing them up to date, I want to bring in a rare interview gave to The Guardian. She talked about Let England Shake and her influences:
“…Even though Harvey has never written about such issues before, she says she has always been politically engaged, and music was crucial to her education. Her parents, a quarryman and a stonemason, were friends with Rolling Stone Ian Stewart and their remote Dorset farmhouse (she has said that even a day trip into town would make her dizzy) was often home to visiting musicians. The songs they played were windows on the world beyond. "Certain Neil Young songs like 'Southern Man' or 'Ohio', I'd go looking for the meaning behind them. A lot of Dylan's work, especially the early 60s. Beefheart's 'Dachau Blues'.
"I'm probably much more influenced by film-makers and painters than I am by other songwriters or poets," she says. "With songs I almost see the images, see the action, and then all I have to do is describe it. It's almost like watching a scene from a film, and that's what I go about trying to catch in a song."
Songwriters tend to be notoriously bad at describing the creative process, and loth to mention the perspiration behind the inspiration, but Harvey is visibly energised by talking about it. "I certainly feel like I'm getting somewhere that I wanted to get to as a writer of words. I wanted to get better, I wanted to be more coherent, I wanted there to be a greater strength and depth emotionally, and all these things require work – to hone something, to get rid of any superfluous language”.
Harvey’s most-recent album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, was another success and critical favourite. Harvey wrote most of the songs for the album during her travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington D.C. with filmmaker/photographer, Seamus Murphy, between 2011 and 2016. Although many were impressed with the power of the lyrics and the quality of the songwriting, there were some reservations and criticisms. This review from Laura Snapes asks some interesting questions:
“Harking back to Let England Shake, maybe her dispassionate storytelling is making a point about how we easily condemn past atrocities while failing to recognize history repeating itself before us. Questions of perspective, and how we bear witness, feel central to The Hope Six Demolition Project. We were voyeurs, watching her make a record about being a voyeur. Is it a deconstruction of the protest record? By pointing out the problems in these three communities, but proposing no solutions, is she just as responsible for their desertion as the global powers that came before her? You sense that the record is part of an ongoing inquiry, not a destination. Fortunately, the music often feels like salvation itself”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Lex van Rossen
Although 2016 was the last time Harvey released a studio solo album, she has been busy on other projects since then. Once more diversifying her stock and stepping into new territory, she has been composing for the stage and screen. Here (from an article in NME from a couple of months ago), we get details of Harvey’s incredible recent work:
“PJ Harvey has released six new songs as part of her work on The Virtues soundtrack. You can stream the songs below.
Created by Shane Meadows, The Virtues told the story of Joseph – played by Stephen Graham – a man coming to terms with his identity after he uncovers a repressed memory and ultimately seeks revenge.
Speaking of her contribution to the series, Harvey said: “I am so happy to have provided the original music for this extraordinary and powerful new drama by a director I have admired and followed all my life.
PHOTO CREDIT: Seamus Murphy
“Shane has a unique directness and sensibility to his work which I am drawn to and aspire to in my own work, so our collaboration was open and trusting. I sent Shane ideas as demos for him to try out as he edited and let him choose what he used and where to greatest effect.
Earlier this year (April 12), Harvey shared her complete score for the stage play of All About Eve. The play, directed by Ivo Van Hove and starring Lily James and Gillian Anderson, is currently running at London’s Noël Coward Theatre.
Speaking about the score, PJ Harvey said: “I have always loved stories, and so to compose music to support and enhance a story being told is a challenge I enjoy. I also love the freedom that working instrumentally can give me without the constraints of song form.”
She continued: “For All About Eve I chose to work with my long-time collaborator James Johnston as he has a soulfulness and sensitivity to his playing that inspires me. I also worked with Kenrick Rowe who has a versatility to his drumming I knew I could experiment with until I found what was right”.
It is amazing to see how much Harvey has achieved since her 1992 debut. Although that was twenty-seven years ago, her music today sounds as extraordinary and fresh! She is always pushing boundaries and inspiring people as she goes. I know there are a lot of modern artists who are compelled by Harvey’s incredibly raw lyrics and amazing instinct; the way she shifts between albums and how she has grown through the years. Harvey is a true icon and one of music’s most special artists. I look forward to seeing where she heads next and what her music will possess. You can never predict Harvey’s path and what she will include; she is one of those artists that is always moving and never looking back. If you are new to PJ Harvey or have not listened to her work in a while, have a listen to the playlist below and go and buy her albums. (It would be good to see more of her albums on vinyl because, for some reason, one struggles to buy her albums I this form). You can stream her work and witness the brilliance. PJ Harvey is a fearless, vital and inspirational artist whose music will stand and influence…
FOR generations to come.