For the better part of two decades I’ve held a deep, abiding, love of PJ Harvey and her music. From the alt-rock of her debut, Dry, and the abrasive punk of Rid of Me, through to the electronica-tinged Is This Desire? and stripped-back gothic-folk of White Chalk. Even when I haven’t been all that taken with her musical direction – as I wasn’t with Let England Shake – I have always maintained a deep respect for Harvey and her desire constantly evolve her sound and image, and to not repeat herself creatively.
Harvey’s penchant for reinvention has seen her consistently nominated for Best Artist and Album of the Year awards, and she is the only artist to have won the prestigious Mercury Prize twice; first in 2001 for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and again in 2011 for Let England Shake – I said that the music didn’t do it for me, not that I thought it was a bad album. Collaborations with Nick Cave, John Parish, Mark Lanegan, and Josh Homme (through his Desert Sessions project) have all enabled Harvey to affect additional musical personas, and push forward into new sonic territory.
Aside from her musical endeavours, Harvey has occasionally acted, is a visual artist – being accepted to Central Saint Martins College of Art & Design in the early ’90s, just as her musical career gained traction – and in 2015 published The Hollow of The Hand with Seamus Murphy, a collection of her poetry accompanied and his photographs, taken and inspired by the pairs journeys to Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Washington DC.
I have been lucky enough to see Harvey perform twice – three times if you count the 5 minutes I saw of her set at a Big Day Out one year, as I fought my way through the crowds to go see a different act – first at the Sydney Opera House as she toured White Chalk in 2008, and again in 2012 at the State Theatre. Both concerts were very different events. The former being a low-key, mostly solo performance, with Harvey charmingly engaging the audience between songs – from where I sat I could hear the clicks of her effects pedals, and I was occasionally blinded as the sequins on her dress caught the light. The latter performance saw Harvey clad in black, not acknowledging the audience until the show’s end, while backed by a three-piece band which included Parish and Mick Harvey.
Before attending the State Theatre concert I had read a review of her previous show on that tour, so I was aware that there would be minimal engagement with the crowd which, on paper, seemed fitting given Let England Shake‘s denser subject matter. As the concert progressed something clicked for me; the feathers in her hair, her awkward, avian, movements; she was acting. She was performing in character. As a crow! I was amazed by the depth of her performance, her immersion into character. It is something she has done her entire career, raising the question; will the real Polly Jean please stand up? My respect was deepened.
PJ Harvey has managed to remain relevant for over 25 years, despite the changing preferences of the listening public, and she has managed to do so by following her artistic vision, not the fickle whims of “the market”. Women-Who-Rocktober would not be complete without her inclusion.