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: