PJ Harvey poster by Darren Grealish © 2015
PJ Harvey began her career in 1988 when she joined local band Automatic Dlamini as a vocalist, guitarist, and saxophone player. The band’s frontman, John Parish, would become her long-term collaborator. In 1991, she formed an eponymous trio and subsequently began her professional career. The trio released two studio albums, Dry (1992) and Rid of Me (1993) before disbanding, after which Harvey continued as a solo artist. Since 1995, she has released a further nine studio albums with collaborations from various musicians including John Parish, former bandmate Rob Ellis, Mick Harvey, and Eric Drew Feldman and has also worked extensively with record producer Flood.
Among the accolades PJ Harvey has received are the 2001 and 2011 Mercury Prize for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea (2000) and Let England Shake (2011) respectively—the only artist to have been awarded the prize twice—eight Brit Award nominations, seven Grammy Award nominations and two further Mercury Prize nominations. Rolling Stone awarded her 1992’s Best New Artist and Best Singer Songwriter and 1995’s Artist of the Year, and listed Rid of Me, To Bring You My Love (1995) and Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea on its 500 Greatest Albums of All Timelist. In 2011, PJ Harvey was awarded for Outstanding Contribution To Music at the NME Awards. In June 2013, she was awarded an MBE for services to music.
To Bring You My Love and Is This Desire?: 1993–1999
As PJ Harvey embarked on her solo career, she explored collaborations with other musicians. In 1995 she released her third studio album, To Bring You My Love, featuring former bandmate John Parish, Bad Seeds multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey and French drummer Jean-Marc Butty, all of whom would continue to perform and record with Harvey throughout her career. The album was also her first material to be produced by Flood. Simultaneously a more blues-influenced and more futuristic record than its predecessors, To Bring You My Love showcased Harvey broadening her musical style to include strings, organs and synthesisers. Rolling Stone said in its review that “PJ Harvey sings the blues like Nick Cave sings gospel: with more distortion, sex and murder than you remember. To Bring You My Love was a towering goth version of grunge.” During the successive tours for the album, Harvey also experimented with her image and stage persona. PJ Harvey.
The record generated a surprise modern rock radio hit in the United States with its lead single, “Down by the Water.” Three consecutive singles — “C’mon Billy“, “Send His Love to Me” and “Long Snake Moan” — were PJ Harvey also moderately successful. The album was a commercial success selling one million copies worldwide including 370,000 in the United States. It was also certified Silver in the United Kingdom within seven months of its release, having sold over 60,000 copies. In the United States, the album was voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Rolling Stone also named Harvey 1995’s Artist of the Year and Spin ranked the album third in The 90 Greatest Albums of the ’90s, behind Nirvana’s Nevermind(1991) and Public Enemy‘s Fear of a Black Planet (1990).
In 1996, following the international success of To Bring You My Love and other collaborations, Harvey began composing material that would end up on her fourth studio album, during what she referred to as “an incredibly low patch.” The material diverged significantly from her former work and introduced electronica elements into her song-writing. During recording sessions in 1997 original PJ Harvey Trio drummer Rob Ellis rejoined Harvey’s band, and Flood was hired again as producer. The sessions, which continued into April the following year, resulted in Is This Desire? (1998). Though originally released to mixed reviews in September 1998, the album was a success and received a Grammy Award nomination for Best Alternative Music Performance. The album’s lead single, “A Perfect Day Elise,” was moderately successful in the United Kingdom, peaking at number 25 on the UK Singles Chart, her most successful single to date.
Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and Uh Huh Her: 2000–2006 PJ Harvey
In early 2000 Harvey began work on her fifth studio album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea with Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey. Written in her native Dorset, Paris and New York, the album showcased a more mainstream indie rock and pop rock sound to her previous albums and the lyrics followed themes of love that tied into Harvey’s affection for New York City. The album also featured Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke on three tracks, including his lead vocals on “This Mess We’re in.” Upon its release in October 2000 the album was a critical and commercial success, selling over one million copies worldwide and charting in both the United Kingdom and the United States. The album’s three singles — “Good Fortune”, “A Place Called Home” and “This Is Love” — were moderately successful.
The PJ Harvey album also received a number of accolades including a BRIT Award nomination for Best Female Artist and two Grammy Award nominations for Best Rock Album and Best Female Rock Performance for the album’s third single, “This Is Love“. However, most notably, Harvey was nominated for, and won, the 2001 Mercury Music Prize. The awards ceremony was held on the same day as the 11 September attacks on the United States and Harvey was on tour in Washington, D.C., one of the affected cities, when she won the prize. Reflecting on the win in 2011, she said: “quite naturally I look back at that and only remember the events that were taking place across the world and to win the prize on that day — it didn’t have much importance in the grand scheme of things”, noting “it was a very surreal day”. The same year, PJ Harvey also topped a readers’ poll conducted by Q Magazine of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock Music.