PJ Harvey: The Evolution Of An Icon

Trying to pigeonhole PJ Harvey is impossible. With haunting new album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ out this week, Leonie Cooper traces her brilliant career

The Teenage Sax God
Polly Jean Harvey grew up on a farm in Dorset, where she picked up the saxophone and played with local bands such as Boulogne. In 1988 she joined experimental Bristol-based group Automatic Dlamini, featuring songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Parish, who became her main collaborator.

In her own words: “We were terrible! But the music was beautiful.” NME, January 1995

The Art School Dropout
PJ had planned to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins College, but an increasing obsession with music led to her recording her debut album instead. The result – the primal, bluesy punk of 1992’s ‘Dry’ – was full of starkly sexual imagery and jagged passion.

In her own words: “It’s not just extremes of loud and quiet. As a writer, I want extremes in the lyrics as well.” NME, April 1992

The Difficult Grunge Years
The raw, grunge-inflected ‘Rid Of Me’ followed in 1993. NME visited Harvey on her family farm to discuss her reported breakdown.

In her own words: “I feed chickens. And then there’s this glamorous pop star bit – or so people think.” NME, April 1993

The Breakthrough
In 1995, ‘To Bring You My Love’ brought PJ to the masses. “It’s not trying to hammer you into the ground,” said NME’s review. “It smothers you gently.”

In her own words: “I’m not driving people away now. I’m inviting them in.” NME, January 1995

The Iconic Performance
PJ stomping onto the Pyramid Stage in June 1995 in a hot pink catsuit is one of Glastonbury’s most memorable moments. Wearing make-up as warpaint, she ushered in a theatrical aesthetic, celebrating fearsomeness and subverting the conventions of beauty.

In her own words: “People think I’m some kind of axe-wielding bitch cow from hell… I think that’s the biggest joke of all.” NME, July 1995

Polly Down The Disco
Bringing in the influence of Tricky and Aphex Twin, Harvey’s multi-textured fourth album ‘Is This Desire?’ pushed her towards electronica, although she was yet to fully embrace the world of dance music. “I haven’t managed to make it to a rave yet,” she explained. “I don’t think I can stay up that long.” In 1998 she also branched out into acting, playing a Playboy bunny in the short film A Bunny Girl’s Tale.

In her own words: “I feel very happy at the moment. I have done for quite some time.” NME, October 1998

The New Yorker
The glossy ‘Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea’ in 2000 was a bohemian waltz through the underbelly of New York City and featured Radiohead’s Thom Yorke.

In her own words: “I felt like I was covering the same territory. I needed a big shake-up.” NME, October 2000

The Mercury Win
PJ Harvey won her first Mercury Prize on September 11, 2001, a victory overshadowed by the tragedy of 9/11. PJ was in the US, and gave her acceptance speech from her hotel in Washington D.C.

In her own words: “This whole city is in shock, myself and my band are all partly involved in that. We can see the Pentagon… It’s just been a very surreal day.” NME, September 2001

The Balladeer
Another about-turn came with 2007’s ‘White Chalk’, an album of piano ballads. Harvey also took to wearing white cotton Victorian gowns during gigs.

In her own words: “The world doesn’t need any more art that’s just alright. It only needs mind-blowing, life-changing stuff.” The Guardian, September 2007

The War Poet
Appearing on The Andrew Marr Show in 2010, PJ debuted the lyrically brutal ‘Let England Shake’ – inspired by first-hand accounts from soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq – in front of the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In 2011 she released the album of the same name, framing herself as a modern-day war poet and winning a second Mercury Prize.

In her own words: “If you’re going to talk about giant subject matter, you’ve got to do it well and I didn’t think I had the skill as a writer to do that up until this point.” NME, September 2011

The Living Exhibit
Last year, Harvey recorded new album ‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ before an audience at London’s Somerset House. For £15, fans could gawp at PJ and her collaborators through one-way glass as they wrote lyrics, recorded, experimented and drank tea.

In her own words: “Somerset House feels right because of its resonance… All that history will help [me to] tap into a different level of consciousness.” Recording In Progress programme, January 2011

Check out NME’s Apple Music playlist celebrating the genius of PJ Harvey below: