The alt rock singer, born Polly Jean Harvey, grew up on a sheep farm in Corscombe, a small village in Dorset, England. Her parents owned a stone quarrying business but were also heavily involved in music, organizing small gigs around West Country. Ian Stewart of the Rolling Stones was also a close friend and frequent guest in the Harvey household.
Harvey was inspired by her parents' record collection that included blues legends like John Lee Hooker, Howlin' Wolf, and Nina Simone, along with rock musicians like Captain Beefheart, Jimi Hendrix, and The Rolling Stones. Harvey said her teenage rebellion consisted of going to school discos and listening to Duran Duran. "My mum was horrified that I was buying Spandau Ballet records," she added.
PJ Harvey started out as a trio after the singer met drummer Rob Ellis and bassist Ian Oliver while performing in John Parish's rock ensemble Automatic Dlamini. Oliver ended up returning to Automatic Dlamini and was replaced by Steve Vaughan. (Parish went on to co-produce Harvey's third studio album, To Bring You My Love.)
PJ Harvey remained a trio through two acclaimed albums, Dry and Rid Of Me, until the pressures of fame and touring drove them apart. Polly Jean continued to record as a solo act using the name PJ Harvey.
Harvey rarely shares the meaning behind her songs. She explained in a 2004 interview: "I don't explain lyrics, and choose not to. The beauty of it for me is that everyone can interpret it in their own way. I don't choose to psychoanalyze my own lyrics either. Sometimes words come together because they sound really beautiful together."
But unfortunately for Harvey, letting listeners come up with their own interpretations can lead to some pretty off-the-wall conclusions, as with her US breakthrough, "Down By The Water
," about a woman who drowns her daughter. She told Spin
: "Some critics have taken my writing so literally to the point that they'll listen to 'Down by the Water' and believe I have actually given birth to a child and drowned her."
In the mid-'90s, she had a brief but intense relationship with fellow alt rocker Nick Cave after performing together on his album Murder Ballads. Their breakup influenced his subsequent album, The Boatman's Call.
PJ Harvey's last tour as a trio was in support of U2 on their Zoo TV tour in the summer of 1993. A few months later, U2's manager Paul McGuinness started managing Harvey's solo career. Also, the band's frequent engineer and producer Mark Ellis, aka Flood, went on to co-produce several of Harvey's albums, starting with Is This Desire? in 1998.
She won the UK's esteemed Mercury Prize twice (the first artist to do so): in 2001 for Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea and in 2011 for Let England Shake. The first prize was awarded on 9/11, Harvey remembers: "It was very strange, particularly since we were in Washington. I woke up to people hammering on the door, saying the Pentagon was on fire – which we could see from our hotel. Sadly I didn't I feel at all present in terms of winning the Mercury Prize. And it was an honor for me to receive it."
Harvey's earlier work has her fighting for dominance over her male counterparts, whether she's twisting off the head of her cheating lover in the explosive "Rid Of Me
," or stomping out the competition in the power anthem "50ft Queenie
." But Harvey refused to be the feminist hero that critics wanted her to be. "I don't spend time thinking about feminism as an issue," she told Puncture
in 1992. "To me, that's backtracking. You can talk about things too much and nothing will be done. I prefer to go ahead and do things and not to think about them. You get more done that way."