Harvey was born in Yeovil, Somerset, England, and was brought up in nearby Corscombe, Dorset. The daughter of a stonemason and a sculptor, Harvey grew up on a small sheep farm. At an early age her parents introduced her to the blues, jazz and art-rock, which, she told Rolling Stone in 1995, would later influence her: “I was brought up listening to John Lee Hooker, to Howlin’ Wolf, to Robert Johnson, and a lot of Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart. So I was exposed to all these very compassionate musicians at a very young age, and that’s always remained in me and seems to surface more as I get older. I think the way we are as we get older is a result of what we knew when we were children.” She later spent time listening to Soft Cell, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet. In her teens she became a fan of the US indie guitar bands Pixies, Television and Slint, though not, as many critics have suspected, Patti Smith (a frequent comparison that Harvey dismisses as “lazy journalism“). More recently she has claimed inspiration from Russian folk music, Italian soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone and classical composers like Arvo P??rt, Samuel Barber and Henryk recki.
She studied saxophone for about eight years, and contributed sax, guitar and backing vocals to her earliest Somerset bands Bologna, the Polekats, the Stoned Weaklings and Automatic Dlamini (John Parish’s band). At the age of 17 she finished school and began writing her own songs. Harvey said that while in Automatic Dlamini, “I ended up not singing very much but I was just happy to learn how to play the guitar. I wrote a lot during the time I was with them but my first songs were crap. I was listening to a lot of Irish folk music at the time, so the songs were folky and full of penny whistles and stuff. It was ages before I felt ready to perform my own songs in front of other people.” In January 1991, she formed the original PJ Harvey three-piece band, with herself on vocals and guitars, ex-Automatic Dlamini bandmate Rob Ellis on drums and Ian Olliver on bass (though Olliver was swiftly replaced by Steve Vaughan). The trio’s debut gig at a skittle alley in Sherborne’s Antelope Hotel ????? was so disastrous that the proprietor begged the band to stop playing as nearly all his customers had fled the venue.
By that time Harvey had also completed a foundation art course at Yeovil Art College and had applied to study sculpture at Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in London, still undecided as to her future career.
Harvey released her debut single “Dress” on the independent label Too Pure in October 1991. It was voted Single of the Week in Melody Maker by guest reviewer John Peel, who admired “the way Polly Jean seems crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements, as if the air is literally being sucked out of them??… admirable if not always enjoyable”. The following spring she released an equally acclaimed second single, “Sheela Na Gig“, and her first LP Dry in 1992. At that time she also released a limited edition double LP containing both Dry and the demos for Dry, called Dry Demonstration. The trio’s raw, guitar-driven hard rock which mixed elements of punk, blues and grunge quickly won rave reviews and a strong cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, with Rolling Stone naming the then-22-year-old Harvey the year’s Best Songwriter and Best New Female Singer.
She drew fire in April 1992 when she appeared topless on the cover of the British magazine New Musical Express. Harvey quickly avoided being adopted as a feminist spokesperson, telling Vox that “I wouldn’t call myself a feminist because I don’t understand the term or the baggage it takes along with it. I’d feel like I really have to go back and study its history to associate myself with it, and I don’t feel the need to do that. I’d much rather just get on and do things the way I have been doing them”, adding that “I think I’d find it quite patronising to be called a Riot Grrrl if I was one of them, but they obviously don’t think so.” More recently she told Bust: “I don’t ever think about [feminism]. I mean, it doesn’t cross my mind. I certainly don’t think in terms of gender when I’m writing songs, and I never had any problems as the result of being female that I couldn’t get over. Maybe I’m not thankful for the things that have gone before me, you know. But I don’t see that there’s any need to be aware of being a woman in this business. It just seems a waste of time.” She added, “I don’t offer [support] specifically to women; I offer it to people who write music. That’s a lot of men.”
Harvey then signed to Island Records amid a major-label bidding war. In 1993, she released two albums in quick succession: Rid of Me (engineered by Steve Albini at Pachyderm Recording Studio) with the original trio; and, later in the year, the solo release 4-Track Demos, which contained eight of the homemade 4-track demos for Rid of Me alongside six previously unreleased tracks.
After the departure of Ellis and Vaughan in August 1993, Harvey embarked on a solo career exploring collaborations with other musicians. To Bring You My Love (1995) was produced by Flood and John Parish, and was a worldwide success, selling over one million copies, according to BPI. A more bluesy record than its predecessors, it saw Harvey broadening her sonic palette to include strings, organ and synthesizers. It also generated a surprise modern rock radio hit with the single “Down by the Water”. The album received a glowing critical response and ended up being voted Album of the Year by The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, USA Today, People, The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. Harvey was also voted Artist of the Year by Rolling Stone. Her album was ranked third in Spin’s Top 90 Albums of the ’90s, behind Nirvana and Public Enemy.
Around this time, Harvey began experimenting with her image and adopting an elaborate, theatrical, almost cabaret edge to her live shows. Where she once performed on stage in simple black leggings, turtleneck sweaters and Doc Martens, she now began performing in ballgowns, pink catsuits, wigs and garish, vampish make-up (including false eyelashes and fingernails), and using stage props like a broomstick and a Ziggy Stardust-style flashlight microphone. She denied the influence of drag, Kabuki or performance art on her new image, a look she affectionately dubbed “Joan Crawford on acid” in a 1996 Spin interview, but admitted that “it’s that combination of being quite elegant and funny and revolting, all at the same time, that appeals to me. I actually find wearing make-up like that, sort of smeared around, as extremely beautiful. Maybe that’s just my twisted sense of beauty.” However, she later told Dazed & Confused magazine, “That was kind of a mask. It was much more of a mask than I’ve ever had. I was very lost as a person, at that point. I had no sense of self left at all”, and has never again repeated the overt theatricality of the To Bring You My Love tour. She also sang the theme song from Philip Ridley‘s adult fairy tale, “The Passion Of Darkly Noon” (released in 1996).
Harvey wrote much of her fourth album in 1996 during what she referred to as “an incredibly low patch.” In 1998 she released Is This Desire?, which met a more muted but overall still positive critical reception. Despite the few naysayers, Harvey herself cited it as her personal favourite; it saw her temporarily leaving the guitars behind and focusing on building dark, studio-based mood pieces around electronics, keyboards, piano and bass.
She reunited with her old bandmate Rob Ellis and multi-instrumentalist Mick Harvey (no relation) for her 2000 album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. Written in Dorset, Paris and New York, the album was a critical and commercial success, selling over one million copies worldwide and taking the Mercury Music Prize in the following year. It mixed uncharacteristically lush, melodic pop rock sounds with the gritty, thrashing, guitar-driven punk energy of her earlier records. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke was featured on three of the album’s songs; he took lead vocal duties on “This Mess We’re In“, and provided backing vocals for two others.
In 2001 she topped a readers’ poll conducted by Q magazine of the 100 Greatest Women in Rock Music. Her seventh album, Uh Huh Her, was released 31 May 2004. For the first time since 4-Track Demos, Harvey produced it alone and played every instrument bar the drums. The album, which was a sparser, more intimate, lo-fi and low-key affair than its predecessor, met with a generally positive response from critics and fans. She told Rolling Stone “when I’m working on a new record, the most important thing is to not repeat myself … that’s always my aim: to try and cover new ground and really to challenge myself. Because I’m in this for learning.”
In May 2006, Harvey played her first UK gig of the year, revealing that her new album would be almost entirely piano-based. Later in 2006, she released her first concert DVD, Please Leave Quietly, directed by Maria Mochnacz, which contained songs from her entire career as well as behind-the-scene video clips between performances. On 23 October 2006 she released The Peel Sessions 1991-2004. In November 2006 she started working on her eighth studio album, White Chalk, with Flood, John Parish, and Eric Drew Feldman. It was released in Europe on 24 September 2007, and in the United States on 2 October. The album marked a radical departure from her usual style, consisting mainly of piano ballads.