I slip out of bed, stagger in the dark, bounce off the door frame to my office, power-up my laptop, stumble to the kitchen, turn on the coffee machine, quickly turn it off, grab a mug from the cupboard, try again.
As much as I’d love to be the kind of person who wakes up beating my chest and singing PJ Harvey’s “Me Jane” to start the day, all I’ve got to motivate me this morning is, “Ahh, coffee.” Which is more than most mornings, at least.
Although we both get four to six hours of sleep every night, I’m not nearly as functional as Polly Jean. She often wakes from vivid dreams, scrambles for her notebook, and scribbles down her subconscious visions.
Kitchen. Coffee. Terrace.
I used to be able to write in school halls swirling with students, on packed subway cars and noisy cafés, or at home with music blaring.
Similarly, there was a time when Polly Jean wrote music anywhere. Throughout the 90s and into the 2000s, she’d write songs in hotel rooms and tour buses, and she’d write lyrics and music simultaneously – as she told Irish poet Paul Muldoon at the launch of the Lancaster Words literary event in 2017:
Her entire process changed for Let England Shake, though. Perhaps, in part, as a result of her collaborative work with John Parish, writing the lyrics for his music on A Woman a Man Walked By; or maybe because of an inspiring poetry workshop she attended in Dorset, which opened her mind to the power of words. Whatever the event or series of events, only after months or years of thorough research of British conflicts throughout the twentieth century, did she start thinking about the words — and when she did, she sat at a desk, with notes, war songs, and poems pinned to her wall, and crafted the lyrics as strong standalone pieces before walking the countryside and beating the melodies out with her feet.
The result earned PJ Harvey a second Mercury Prize. Being the only artist to have ever received two should automatically earn her the title of ultimate alternative artist, but I have never used the word ultimate to describe anything, let alone a musician.
“No, I distinctly remember you used the word ultimate to describe an orgasm.”
Lauren was right. “I’d forgotten about that!” It was so long ago that I can’t recall the entire title of that piece, but I do remember that it was for the sole purpose of enticing click- and other ‘bates.
“I once told my grandmother that the Bay City Rollers were the ultimate band,” Adam starts. “I was seven. She didn’t stop buying me their albums until sometime in the mid ‘80s.”
“Did you get a tartan skirt?” Lauren asks.
We laugh and exchange stories about Donny Osmond fans’ obsession with purple socks and Lauren’s intense desire for an eye-patch during her Ziggy Stardust phase, which starts our trip down the rabbit hole of first albums bought with our own money and concerts with and without our parents at the long-gone original Ontario Place Forum, which almost everyone growing up in the province during the 70s and 80s experienced.
“My first PJ Harvey concert was at the Opera House,” Adam says, referring to the historic music venue in downtown Toronto.
I’ve almost always been in the wrong place at the wrong time to see PJ Harvey live: as she toured down the Pacific Coast from Seattle to Los Angeles, I had been driving up from Seattle to Vancouver; as she played in Porto, I was learning about Viking ships in the Roskilde Fjord in Denmark — and, ten days later, flying back to Porto just as she arrived in Copenhagen.
“I might need to reconsider hanging out with you if I hope to ever see her in concert again.” says Lauren.
The only time I finally got to see Polly Jean in concert, I didn’t plan for it. I didn’t even know about it.
It was my birthday and Miguel suggested we enjoy a few days in Lisbon. I hoped to sip great wine and sample amazing food over the course of a few romantic hours at a restaurant I’d read about. Instead, we rushed through an unremarkable meal near our hotel, before a brisk walk to the Aula Magna auditorium at the University of Lisbon, where the night would prove much more remarkable.
“No fucking way,” I laughed. “When did you get these tickets?!”
I had half-expected the frenetic energy of a stadium concert because of that instant explosion of anticipation and excitement, but I knew that Let England Shake was unlike any of her previous work. In fact, the setting was intimate and calm, more like an evening at the theater than a concert, which affected my behavior, but not my giddy fan-girl thrill.
The audience settled. Lights flooded the band as they opened with a riff inspired by “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” before PJ Harvey materialized, stage right, like a ghostly widow in black with a willowing feathered headdress, strumming her autoharp as she floated into the spotlight singing the title song, “Let England Shake”. There was nothing but me and her in that initial moment. She transported me from present to past, from the modern concert hall to the English countryside with waves of sound and story, until claps and whistles brought me out from under her influence into the exuberantly shared sing-a-long encore of “Big Exit” and the appropriate “Silence,” before the theatre lights came back on. It was everything I’d hoped it would be.
Kitchen. Coffee. Office. Google.
If you research enough, you can sketch a picture of almost anything, and the internet is loaded with information about PJ Harvey. No matter how many books you read, though, no matter how many interviews and songs you listen to or documentaries you watch, the complete picture of a person, place or time always remains elusive.
I wonder if this thought crossed Polly Jean’s mind in the years that followed, when she decided that research from her comfortable Dorset home was no longer enough; that she needed to push it further and share the experiences of her subjects for herself, document their lives, walk the same paths, breathe the same air. As she traveled with war photographer Seamus Murphy — to Kosovo, to Afghanistan, to the housing projects of Washington, DC — she wrote a poetry book, The Hollow of the Hand, and started to create her next album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, along with the documentary, A Dog Called Money.
It’s easy to create lists of the greatest bands or best musicians, alternative or otherwise, but to choose a single representative of an entire genre? Not so simple. Or at least not for me, even if it might have seemed that way as I edited my initial ultimate alternative artist list.
I haven’t chosen PJ Harvey simply because of how many albums I’ve owned. If that were the case, I could just list her output and achievements, and then be done with a 600-word article. Or maybe I’d write 1,200 words using the Grammy definition to make an argument. After all, PJ Harvey is a progressive musician, constantly experimenting and innovating, redefining herself again and again. She may be adamant about never wanting to repeat herself, but it’s this constant determination to progress as a musician, to innovate as an artist, to change and to evolve from one album or project to the next that I truly admire, and which has kept me on the journey with her.
And just as PJ Harvey isn’t trying to persuade listeners to form an opinion about subjects on any of her albums, I’m not trying to convince anyone that PJ Harvey is the ultimate alternative artist. My choice is ultimately very personal, as your own choice for an ultimate musician might be.
One of the most interesting things I’ve known Polly Jean to say in the last decade, and which might surprise some fans, was to BBC2’s Miranda Sawyer:
It’s a quote that has stayed with me; and when I play it back in my head, hearing her confess her newfound love of words, I can’t help but imagine that our paths might one day cross again. Perhaps it will be at a book reading or signing — will she be signing my book or will I hers? — but if I’ve learned anything from my ultimately alternative relationship with PJ Harvey, it’s that I best not make any plans.
Interested in Alternative Music?
The musicto curators recently came together to answer the question: “What Is Alternative Music” and Jane curated a playlist to go with the answers.