PJ Harvey is probably my favorite musician ever. Not just female musician, not just guitar player, not just singer-songwriter — I mean favorite out of anyone who has ever written and/or performed music. I have loved Polly Harvey for well over half of my life, when I first played “Oh My Lover” in my car when I was 16 and was instantly arrested by the first few doleful yet urgent notes. Sometimes I think I never really became a musician because of PJ Harvey, because she already made the music that sounds most like my soul.
Polly Harvey is 44 years old today. She is a Libra, a fact that never ceases to astonish me. Early on I had pegged her for a Scorpio, with her emotional intensity and her dark hair and eyes, and the general quiet composure and reserve with which she holds herself. It’s an amazing contrast to the unbridled, unabashed passion and emotion in her music. I still think of her as spiritually Scorpio, because she has that sense of a still, almost frozen passion — dark, deep waters concealing huge icebergs of churning emotion underneath.
When someone becomes your favorite musician early on, it’s almost as if they’re your spiritual teacher, your spirit guru. A musician or band when you’re a teenager opens up a vista of references for you to explore. Without Polly, for example, I’d never have an appreciation for Bob Dylan or Captain Beefheart or Leadbelly — or perhaps I’d have come to them much later. I’d never be compelled to explore Arvo Part, one of her favorite composers, or any of the farther reaches of modern classical. I probably would’ve read Georges Batailles’ Story of an Eye at some point, but not in high school like I did, when I read an interview when she mentions the book. (Reading Story of an Eye as a high schooler = WHOA. I’m not sure I was fully ready for that madness!)
But it’s not just books and other musicians. Music, I think, teaches you how to feel — or rather, how to make sense and create narrative around often tumultuous, inchaote emotions. I like to think back to that 18th century idea of a “sentimental education,” and how we grow wiser, happier, sadder or more compassionate through our emotional experiences. We don’t get to choose many of our emotional experiences: broken hearts, sudden passings, illness, those kind of things. But we do get to choose our music and movies and books, and these are sometimes just as valuable in bringing us closer to ourselves and the secret melodies of our hearts and souls. Choosing a PJ Harvey record often means choosing uncanny, melancholy, almost pagan-like experiences filled with strange, distinctive imagery and uncomfortable, primal emotion. But what safer guide do you have through the underworld than Polly Jean?
You can argue that there are better lyricists — though I think, reading over the lyrics of Let England Shake, she really stands among the rock greats like Dylan now. You can argue there are more innovative melodies written out there, more technically accomplished singers, better guitar players. But in terms of emotional range and a kind of open-veined expressionism, she’s second to none. She’s taught me a lot about being an artist and a soul here on earth, and I’m forever grateful that such a person exists in the world that puts such beauty and honesty into it. Here are some of the wise things that my rock star spirit animal taught me:
Mystery is Beautiful
Sometimes I forget Polly’s music, though it can be harsh and surface-ugly, is often just innately beautiful on some level, but then I listen to something like the live versions of “Water” or the guitar lines in “You Come Through” and it rings out loud and clear. My definition of beauty, of course, has to do with riveting authenticity and vivid imagination, an ineffable quality of the soul that finds its way to expression, no matter what the avenue. And that’s suffused in almost all of her music.
But interestingly, for someone with such direct access to emotion in her work, she’s always been a bit Garbo-like: reclusive, never giving away much, no personal Twitter or nothing. She probably exists in some self-contained corner of the world, somewhere tucked away in the moors, blissfully free of the bullshit that mucks up the lives of the rest of us. Who knows? I love that she’s remained mysterious and private, even in a time of “transparency” and everybody knowing everything on the Internet. The contradiction between a shadowy presence sending forth such strong, clear emotional music makes it — and her — even more appealing, sexy and beautiful.
Be Restless in Your Art
I’ve always been slightly in awe of Polly as a craftsperson and artist: her discipline, her ethic, her commitment to always learning and growing. Sometimes you read about artists doing their “art,” and it’s very groan-inducing, but with Polly, it feels very genuine — mostly because you can hear and feel the results in her music. She’s always trying something new, switching up instruments, going from very direct, traditional rock songs to oddly composed paeans and hymns to just strange soundscapes and noise. (My favorite phase was the very spectral Bronte-like English-folk she did on White Chalk.)
You could write a whole book on Polly’s artistic and creative progression, how one record doesn’t sound like the one before, the willful, relentless beginner’s mind approach to her music. She always makes it challenging for herself, and therefore always challenges her audience — and it’s much appreciated and expansive.
The Difference Between Personal and Intimacy
One trick that PJ Harvey has managed in her music and her persona is the trick of being very intimate, open and honest without being overly personal. There is just no doubt when the woman sings that she feels. The emotion is so strong and clear — it’s probably the most direct aspect of her art. A voice teacher I had once said technically her voice can be pretty thin and weak at times, but the power in it derives from the sheer force of drama and emotion it communicates despite its flaws. And yet there’s no overly revealing detail, which seems even more alien and antique in a world where Facebook, Twitter and the like let us communicate even the smallest details of our lives. But does any of this really project and express and capture who we really are and what we’re experiencing in the world? I could sit here and tell you the nitty-gritty of my sex life, my adventures in love, what I ate for breakfast, what I think about feminism and politics — but is this really going to bring you closer to me? Or even bring me closer to myself? Is it going to bring you my love? (Har har!)
When you listen to a PJ Harvey song and feel a direct connection to the sentiments and emotions, you realize what genuine intimacy really is — a wide open channel, bypassing the mind and quotidian details of life into a visceral, shared emotional experience that’s of the moment, responsive, immediate, there. It helps me in my own life — that intimacy isn’t just telling or sharing someone what I think or feel, it’s the courage to feel things in front of them…and the relief that, through compassion and empathy, they feel it alongside me as well, and I’m not so alone. Among many things, music can be a community of feeling, and to be in the audience at a PJ Harvey show sometimes is to feel the deepest, most private emotions in tandem with thousands of others in a dark room.
Femininity is Strength
I came of age at a time when post-structuralism and the like exerted a strong influence in academia, and grew up suspicious of binaries like masculinity vs. femininity, men vs. women, and all that. And for the most part, I think that still holds — you can’t and shouldn’t so narrowly ascribe values and the like to people’s bodies, genders, appearances, race, or what not. I think policies and laws shouldn’t circumscribe or limit anyone’s movements or freedom based on narrowly assigned values. People should be free!
But I do think, on an emotional and creative and I daresay soulful level, that what we traditionally call masculinity and femininity as kind of energies are interesting to play with. Take away calling them masculine or feminine if that helps: think of it as action, force, will, direction and drive vs. receptivity, listening, intuition, emotion and flow. Think of it as the Magician vs. the High Priestess: both are powerful but exert it in different ways. And these forces are entwined in really interesting ways in Polly Harvey’s music.
I used to like to joke that PJ Harvey was so macho, but actually, when I think about it, it’s rare that she’s ever been “butch” or guyish in certain ways. Now I like to argue that she’s actually an ultra-“feminine” musician — I mean this is a kind of archetypal Jungian, almost pagan way — with her access to instinct, emotion and intuition, her privileging of physicality and bodily response in music over over-intellectualization. But she wears this kind of femininity with a real swagger; she throws it into space and isn’t afraid to take up a ton of room. She stakes out her terrain with her voice and songs and doesn’t apologize.
I’ve been really interested in this kind of witchiness, this Eternal Feminine as a source of power, how women can project glamour and confidence into the world and command attention and space. It doesn’t take the place of real structural change and activism — but the world would be a joyless, less interesting place if we didn’t have it as well. I’m still thinking this out and fascinated, but in a way, just listening to a song like “Fountain” very early on made me realize that I didn’t have to buy into what being a woman meant on a boring, mass-media level — it could mean something else entirely. It could mean something uncanny and unbridled, like the howl of a guitar or a voice ringing out against the darkness. Epic and grand — a bit like Polly’s music itself.