Lessons We Can Learn From PJ Harvey

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Who better to offer guidance in creative expression than the one and only Polly Jean Harvey?

For 25 years, Polly Jean Harvey has carved a unique, sinuous path in pop culture. As an artist, she keeps surprising her fans, less reinventing herself with every record than constantly pushing at her many talents. From the grungy waif of her band's blistering debut album Dry to the glossy metropolitan creator of Mercury Prize-winning Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and on to her current incarnation as poet-observer of the dispossessed, Harvey is in a pop cultural league all of her own, and is possibly Bridport, Dorset's most famous export. This summer, in addition to touring the festival circuit following the release of her critically lauded ninth album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, she is also exhibiting The Hollow of the Hand, her lyrical project with photographer Seamus Murphy based on their travels to Kosovo, Afghanistan and Washington DC, as part of the Rencontres photo festival in Arles. (Harvey's poems and Murphy's photographs were collected in a book of the same name, published by Bloomsbury last year). Coming up: a European and UK tour, as well as an original composition for a production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's play The Nest, premiering in October. Here we try to extract some lessons from her life and work. 

1. Collaborate often, stay in control
Harvey is a fearless experimenter and frequent collaborator – in addition to old friend John Parish, with whom she has co-written two albums, she has worked with Nick Cave (their relationship is believed to have inspired a clutch of songs on his lush record The Boatman's Call), Marianne Faithfull, Tricky, and the producers Flood and Steve Albini, to name a few. But right from the beginning, she has kept control of her output, hollowing out her own niche within the recording industry, and working only with the people who inspire her. Her first ever contract was reportedly written to allow her full artistic control and her fiercely individual discography proves that she has maintained it ever since. 

2. Let the work speak
Almost every article about PJ Harvey, even the rare interviews, mentions her reticence and lack of interest in the fame game. After suffering some form of breakdown early on in her career, Harvey took herself home to Dorset to recuperate and her interviews from then on have been guarded affairs. But she has always seemed an old soul, never one to bare all, even when appearing on the front cover of the NME topless with her back to the camera, or recording her last album publicly as part of an installation at Somerset House. "I want to give, but I have to remember that I must keep what's private to me intact," she once said. She lets the work speak, and the rest of us fall about trying to decipher it. 

3. Be a constant student
With nine studio albums under her belt, two Mercury Prizes (for 2000's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, and 2011's Let England Shake), and an MBE, Harvey could be forgiven for resting on her laurels. But she is an eternal student, forever fine-tuning her craft: as a teenager, she taught herself to play guitar by ear, and for 2007's swooning record White Chalk, learned to play the piano from scratch. She writes daily, is alert to global affairs, and poured hours of historical research into Let England Shake, an album infused with narratives of conflict and loss. "I’ve always kept learning," she has said. "It’s very important to me, so I often go and do writing classes or painting or drawing classes. Even language classes. I’m always doing night school."

4. Make fashion work for you
Right from the start, with her unruly black hair, sombre features, and tomato red mouth, Harvey has been a magnet to fashion. Some of her earliest editorials are icons of 90s style – whether shot by Rankin in a simple white tee decorated with red lips for a 1998 issue of Dazed, or cast as Wonder Woman in a stars-and-stripes bikini top for a 1995 i-D cover lensed by Craig McDean. Then there are those striking photos of Harvey in a black leotard shot by Juergen Teller. Though tiny, she owns every image and makes the fashion work for her. Never one to follow trends, she looks as comfortable – and indomitable – in a hot pink catsuit as micro-mini or dramatic Victoriana.    

5. Retreat when necessary; speak when necessary
Just as she knows when to retire from the media, she has a keen sense of when and how to speak about issues which matter to her, without coming across as preachy. As Britain reeled from the Brexit result, she punctuated her Glastonbury set by reading aloud John Donne's poem No Man Is An Island. When she guest-edited the Today Programme in 2014, her curation spoke volumes – guests included an unedited Julian Assange, and featured a poem by ex-Guantanamo detainee Shaker Aamer. Her work is a collage of voices, invented and real, that burrow away in the mind – protest songs without any posturing, and more powerful for it. 

The Nest premieres at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast on October 1 – 22nd, 2016, before enjoying a run at London's Young Vic’s Maria from October 28 – November 26, 2016. PJ Harvey is also due to appear at Woerdz Spoken Word Festival in Lucerne, Switzerland on October 22nd, 2016.