A rapid-fire montage of ideas for this PJ Harvey article flickers through my mind. I sketch an outline, write paragraphs, scrap them, open a new Google doc, start over. Before I know it, there are a dozen tabs open on my laptop, I’m frantically searching notebooks where I’ve worked out thoughts in cursive and trying to remember where I put that damn post-it. It has a killer line on it — albeit not so killer that I remember.
A story plays out in my mind, one that makes me acutely aware of the gap between what I want to write and what I’m writing. I pop the headphones over my ears and listen to Polly Jean’s discography from the point when PJ Harvey the trio (with Rob Ellis and first Ian Oliver, later Steve Vaughan) dissolved and PJ Harvey the solo artist was born.
It’s not just her music that inspires. Her admiration of other artists like John Parish and Nick Cave, her take-aways on collaborative projects like Desert Sessions 9 & 10, and her unique creative process are just as inspiring. Official music videos and live performances energize me. Radio interviews encourage me. However, it’s a CNN financial network interview recorded on the press tour for Uh Huh Her in the mid-2000s that emboldens me:.
I’ve been holding myself back by assuming Andrew’s expectations for an article might be along the lines of a more conventional musician profile, album round-up, track listicle. I abandon that assumption, write, send him a partial draft, and a simple question. “Continue or change course?”
He responds with three magic words: “Go for it!”
“Alternative music is a bit vague,” Adam says.
“Embodies the spirit of alternative?” I ask. This is the first time I’ve been able to meet up with both of my expat friends since the pandemic began.
“Grunge?” Lauren pulls a duck face.
Ghosts of music past aside, genres in almost any media are easy to define, but alternative? Even the Grammy organization has changed the definition a half dozen times since 1991, “as recently as last year,” Lauren points out as she reads off their website. “Jesus, it’s like trying to piece together the criteria for ice dancing competitions,” she laughs, referring to the controversies of that same decade.
“I love ice dancing” I really do. “It’s my favorite sport.”
“Sport?” Adam cringes, like so many Canadians who grew up on a heavy dose of hockey.
“Oh wow, I didn’t know PJ was nominated so many times,” Lauren says scrolling through the recipients’ list.
We gush over the album Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, discuss how “Good Fortune” channels Patti Smith, debate whether or not it’s sung by a fictional composite New Yorker or by the city itself personified, question if the album was mainstream before or after critics labelled it so, and then agree that we’re reading too much into things.
“Stories played everywhere,” Adam laughs, reminiscing about the album.
It did. Videos were on regular rotation as you walked by MuchMusic (Canada’s answer to MTV) on Queen West in Toronto. This Mess We’re In backdropped conversations over Crantinis near Church and Wellesley. This is Love became my personal soundtrack as I longed to show up to work wearing that fringed white power suit from the Sophie Muller-directed music video.
Tracks from the album played constantly, except on September 11, the day Polly Jean accepted her first Mercury Prize, by phone, from her Washington, D.C. hotel room. On that day, as downtown office buildings emptied shortly after noon and I traveled home, only the rattling of the King West streetcar broke through the overwhelming melancholy.
“I couldn’t listen to the album for the rest of the year.” Lauren takes a deep breath and presses her lips together.
“Uh Huh Her, the transitional album,” Adam begins. “At least according to some critics.”
“Say that five times fast,” Lauren perks up with a dare.
“Uh Huh Her, Uh Hum Her,” Adam gets tongue-tied on two. I stumble on my third try. We laugh at ourselves apologetically, a Canadian trait that seems stereotypical, but which is a truism.
Unless you’re from Alberta.
Nevertheless, Stories is an easy album to fall head-over-heels with, and one that many listicle writers agree is the best place to begin your love affair with PJ Harvey.
I disagree. I might be alone in that, but the beginning is where my journey with PJ Harvey started, and I don’t think I would appreciate, relate to, or adore Uh Huh Her as much as I do if I’d eased in with Stories. “I totally connect with this album.”
“Underrated,” Adam says.
“Really?” Lauren questions. “I’ve always seen it as her least cohesive.”
Buzzy clickbait rants voice similar reservations, but to me, it embodies the very essence of alternative. It was the first album since 4-Track Demos that PJ Harvey wrote, played every instrument (aside from drum tracks by Rob Ellis), recorded and produced. And she did it on her own terms, traveling between Dorset, East Devon, and Los Angeles. It’s a simple album, but one she considered difficult. It’s soft and loud, sludgy and beautiful. The cover art contrasts with the inside sleeve filled with selfies and notes to self, which sees Harvey looking in and looking out, much like I was doing during those same years.
I imagine Polly Jean writing the lyrics for “The Letter” while I was sharing a similar tongue-in-cheek poem about lipstick with a man I’d met on a poetry board. I picture her teaching herself piano for her next project while I was learning the hard way my worth as a freelance writer in the growing digital age.
By the time Uh Huh was released in 2004, I had quit corporate life for good to do my own thing. And as Polly Jean began recording White Chalk, I was selling or giving away all of my belongings — my music collection included — buying an open-ended ticket, and boarding an Airbus to London.
I envisioned touring Europe, swimming in the Mediterranean, eating olives straight off of an olive tree (a very bad idea, as it turns out), and sleeping under the stars in the Moroccan Sahara, but instead fell in love with Portugal, as well as Miguel, the poet behind the avatar on that discussion board four years earlier.
“PJ was really obsessed with Vincent Gallo in those years,” Adam offers up gossip gleaned from the lyrics of Uh Huh.
“And you say you’re only semi-obsessed?” I laugh.
“You’re such a yenta,” Lauren teases him. “Actually, I read Gallo and John Parish are her go-tos when she needs honesty about music she’s working on, but who knows if that’s true.”
“Yeah, I definitely don’t think she writes songs specific to her life.”
In fact, Polly Jean has said as much to any interviewer who dared to ask. “No album that I’ve ever written is an autobiography of my life,” she explained during a 2004 radio broadcast. “Certainly, this one isn’t, the one before wasn’t. I think that people often make the mistake that you’re somehow trying to put forward the diary of your life for the last two years. There’s no WAY that I’d want to do that, obviously there are parts of my life and experiences in there, but it’s not a documentary.”
Returning from a quick trip to Canada with my Schengen Visa in hand, Miguel was waiting for me as I dragged myself and my luggage, after a sleepless red-eye flight, out of the fluorescence of customs and into the natural light of the arrival terminal at Francisco Sá Carneiro Airport. He greeted me, as all Portuguese people do, politely with a peck to the right cheek and then the left. I laughed, threw my arms around his shoulders, and pressed my lips against his.
“Here,” he offered a slim square present, perfectly wrapped. “Something for this next chapter.”
The lyrics of PJ Harvey may not be autobiographical, but the innovative music that she did create for Stories, Uh Huh and White Chalk set a tone that mirrored my own journey through that decade. And after the release of Let England Shake, our paths would finally cross.
The musicto curators recently came together to answer the question: “What Is Alternative Music” and Jane curated a playlist to go with the answers.