Early last year, in an enclosed box in what was once a gymnasium and rifle range for Inland Revenue staff at London’s Somerset House, P J Harvey invited the public to watch her at work.
Conceived as a “multi-dimensional sound sculpture” in collaboration with the arts organisation Artangel, the installation offered glimpses of Harvey’s creative process as she, her band and her producers recorded her ninth album, The Hope Six Demolition Project.
Such a concept may have seemed out of character for the 46-year-old, Dorset-based musician, who has long maintained an aura of mystery around her work and who fiercely guards her privacy.
Comparatively little is known about Harvey’s personal life and, on the rare occasions they are granted an audience, interviewers know better than to enquire.
Yet here she was, over the course of a month, inviting strangers to gawp at her through one-way glass.
Musicians and Actors on Growing Old Disgracefully
Musicians and Actors on Growing Old Disgracefully
The Motorhead frontman recently revealed his excessive lifestyle - rumoured to involve drinking a bottle of whisky a day - had to be scaled back after he started being unable to stand up during a recent show.
82-year-old Nelson says he started smoking cigarettes when he was just six, and that his love affair with marijuana was the “smoothest” of all his marriages. He even has his own brand of marijuana called 'Willie’s Reserve'.
The Pogues singer was kicked out the band in the nineties for his excessive drinking, and was given just six weeks to live, and is still partial to a G&T after a doctor suggested he stick to clear liquids.
The Rolling Stone guitarist is still a fan of marijuana. "“I smoke regularly, an early morning joint. Strictly Californian,” he told Mojo.
The legendary actor knows his limits, even if they are extreme. “I’ve woken up in trees, I’ve woken up almost hanging off cliffs, but I’ve always known how to sort myself out.”
On the other hand, it’s possible that Harvey’s own discomfort at allowing onlookers to watch her up close in a confined space was the point. Whether contemplating love and menstruation in 1992’s “Happy and Bleeding”, committing matricide in 1995’s “Down by the Water” or depicting the horrors of combat in 2011’s “The Words that Maketh Murder” (in which she observed soldiers falling “like lumps of meat/ Blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees”), what has remained constant through Harvey’s work is its visceral and unswerving nature.
The music producer Flood, who has produced Harvey’s albums since 1995’s To Bring You My Love and worked alongside her at Somerset House, sees the project as evidence of her boldness as an artist.
“She has always challenged others’ perceptions, and she likes to challenge herself,” he says. “This might be through picking up a different instrument, or looking at love, hate, war, our country, or sealing herself in a box in a gallery with loads of people coming to watch.
"For me, [recording the album] was a real throwing down of the gauntlet – her challenging all of us, not just herself. It was an intense and difficult and enormously creative experience.”
Among the visitors who came to watch Harvey in action was Jehnny Beth, singer of the rock band Savages. “It was just before we began recording our own album, Silence Yourself, so the whole band went,” she recalls. “At the time they were recording backing vocals.
"Polly would tell everyone how she wanted them to sing and exactly what she wanted. She was very precise in her directions and her concentration was clear. There was laughter but there was also an atmosphere of great seriousness.”
Certainly, Harvey’s commitment to her art goes beyond that of the average singer-songwriter sitting snugly in a studio, agonising about the world. While her previous album, Let England Shake, was the result of studious research on the First World War and indigenous folk music, the Somerset House recordings were the culmination of four years of research during which she visited Kosovo, Kabul and Washington DC with the Irish war photographer Seamus Murphy.
Last autumn, the pair published The Hollow of the Hand, a book of poetry and photographs based on their travels and concerned with war’s aftermath. The Hope Six Demolition Project is its companion piece, a powerful response to conflict and deprivation with its stark snapshots of blown-out government buildings (“The Ministry of Social Affairs”), depressed neighbourhoods (“The Community of Hope”) and the psychological scars of war (“Chain of Keys”).
Contemplating the political content of Harvey’s recent work, John Parish, who has produced and performed on her albums since her debut, 1992’s Dry, suggests that Harvey “doesn’t so much consider herself a protest singer as an observer. Though of course that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a view on things.
"There’s a fairly long period of time between each record and in that time she thinks very deeply. She also does a lot of work gathering material, in the same way that you might in writing a book.”
Between albums, Harvey sends Parish and Flood demos of what she is working on and they offer thoughts on what works. Harvey then continues writing and refining. “Her vision is always clear,” says Flood, “and we are there to help her realise that. It’s important that she has people around her that she trusts.”
Harvey’s appeal is by no means populist – her albums can be raw, confrontational and, on occasion, downright difficult – although, over 25 years, her cultural standing has grown to the point where she can take over a wing of Somerset House or call up a celebrated war photographer about a new project.
She has won the Mercury Music Prize twice – in 2001 for Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea and in 2011 for Let England Shake – and in 2013 was awarded an MBE for services to music.
Her distinctive gothic-folk sound and lyrical ferocity loom large in the work of scores of contemporary musicians – Juliette Lewis, Bat for Lashes’ Natasha Khan, Perfume Genius, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, Sky Ferreira and Patrick Wolf have all expressed admiration.
For the poet and rapper Kate Tempest, Harvey’s legacy isn’t just her music, but her dogged dedication to her vision. “I’ve always been fascinated by the singular nature of her work and only now have I started to really appreciate what she’s had to do to keep it that way,” she reflects.
“In terms of growth from album to album, she hasn’t repeated herself and she hasn’t compromised. It’s a difficult journey but, in her hands, the work never suffers. Her work is about ideas, and everything else is about finding ways to facilitate those ideas. It’s her entire life.”
For Savages’ Jehnnie Beth, Harvey’s genius lies in “that identity shifting that to my mind she shares with Bowie. She is always looking for new ways to express herself. It’s very brave. There’s an honesty of the soul there, and of the voice. For a musician like me, she’s a true example.”
Harvey has repeatedly batted away suggestions that her lyrics are autobiographical, though that hasn’t stopped critics and fans from poring over her songs for clues as to the woman behind the music.
In the mid-1990s, under the scrutiny of the music press, there were rumours of depression and an eating disorder. There was also a brief but tantalisingly public romance with Nick Cave, who it is said wrote the 1997 album The Boatman’s Call about her.
“When she started out, everyone was talking and writing about her and she was young and naive,” notes Parish. “I think she felt damaged as a result and consequently closed down. It was a hard lesson to learn. Because she’s made emotionally very raw music, people often identify with an idea of her and that can also make things difficult. She’s always been uncomfortable with being pigeonholed in any way.”
Tempest believes that Harvey’s work should be enough to satisfy our curiosity. “The journey that she’s on is none of anyone’s business,” she says.
“Polly has years of experience and she now knows what she needs to do to be able to survive. She’s set her own rules and people have learnt to take her on those terms. The respect that she now receives isn’t something she has to demand. I mean, look at her. She’s just doing it.”
‘The Hope Six Demolition Project’ is released on 15 April on Island Records
The sound of rebellion: five key PJ Harvey songs
‘Sheela Na Gig’ (1992)
Written when she was only 17, this blues-punk squall was Harvey’s breakthrough single. Named after statues of women with exaggerated vulvas found in churches around Britain, and featuring confrontational lyrics such as “look at these, my child-bearing hips”, and “put money in your idle hole”, it established her as a force to be reckoned with.
‘Man Size’ (1993)
From Harvey’s full-throttle second album Rid of Me, this is a classic example of her subversive toying with gender and sexuality; assigning herself a male persona, she declares:
“I’m coming up man-sized” and “Got my girl and she’s a wow”.
‘Down By The Water’ (1995)
A highlight of Harvey’s third album To Bring You My Love, which saw her gain a following in America and add electronic instruments to her sound. Told from the perspective of a woman who has drowned her daughter, it is a superbly menacing murder ballad.
‘Good Fortune’ (2000)
The lead-off single from the Mercury Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea marked her shift into a glossier rock idiom, drawing her comparisons to Chrissie Hynde and Patti Smith. A bittersweet love song to New York where she was living at the time (“When we walked through/ Little Italy/ I saw my reflection/ Come right off your face”), it has a deliciously lithe melody.
‘On Battleship Hill’ (2011)
P J Havey’s artistic interest in conflict began on her second Mercury-winning album Let England Shake; this astonishingly poignant haunted folk song is one of three songs from the LP that were inspired by the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign, which wiped out much of New Zealand and Australian’s regular armies.