Stories From the Queenie
An accolade from the former Mrs. Cobain may not hold much credence for most people, but when it comes to describing Polly Jean Harvey she's right on the money. Behind PJ Harvey's lean frame and midnight black locks is a performer both ferocious and gracious, who can channel any sort of character convincingly, while leading many on with her ambiguous songwriting bite. Since she first crossed our ears with the uncompromising guttural rock of 1992's Dry, PJ Harvey has eschewed any sort of categorisation other than being arguably the most fascinating and consistent songwriter of her generation. Her consistency, however, is only in the quality she brings to her work, for her seven albums couldn't be any more different from one another. Her newest release, White Chalk, furthers her evolution as a re-inventor, as she drops the guitar — an instrument she's won accolades for playing — for the piano to produce a surprisingly subsided and beautiful effort that is hands down her most challenging work yet. Even more importantly, it reinforces the notion that we can never know what to expect from the extraordinary Polly Jean Harvey.
1969 to 1987
Polly Jean Harvey is born in the small town of Yeovil, Somerset, England. She is raised in Corscombe, Dorset on a sheep farm by a sculptress and a quarryman. Life on the farm has a strong influence on Polly; she begins nursing lambs at a young age and dreams of becoming a veterinarian. Around the same time, she is also introduced to music by her parents, who turn her on to blues artists like Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, Bob Dylan and Captain Beefheart. She takes up the saxophone, which she studies for eight years, and quickly changes her focus to music. Polly joins her first band, an eight-piece named Boulogne, which she plays sax, guitar and sings backing vocals. In a 1998 interview with Dazed & Confused, she describes her childhood: "I was a tomboy, I was one of the boys. In the village where I was growing up, there weren't any girls of my age… I spent a lot of time on my own, I was used to that. Being with animals, being outside a lot. Up until I started obviously becoming a girl. Right up until I was 14… I was a classic tortured adolescent. My mum would often refer to me as a 'troubled child.' I used to enter black holes of depression for months on end and be incredibly angry with everyone. I had a tough time. I always felt ugly. I can't ever remember feeling gorgeous. I spent a lot of the time feeling like the back of a bus." She begins penning lyrics in a folk trio called the Polekats, and also plays in the Stoned Weaklings, but she also starts to forge a solo career by writing material for herself. She invites a Bristol-based band call Automatic Dlamini, led by John Parish, to play her 18th birthday party, but they can't due to their ill guitarist Rob Ellis. Parish still attends the party and befriends Polly, who gives him a demo tape of her work. She meets a visual artist named Maria Mochnacz while she studies foundation at Yeovil Art College; Mochnacz begins to work with Polly artistically and the pair form a partnership that continues to this day.
1988 to 1990
Polly is invited to join Automatic Dlamini, again as a saxophonist/guitarist/backing singer, right as Rob Ellis leaves. They tour Europe and record an album called Here Catch, Shouted His Father; Polly sings with Parish on a song called "Johnny Pineapple." The album never gets a proper released but finds a life as a bootleg.
Polly leaves Automatic Dlamini to form her own band with bassist Rob Ellis and drummer Ian Olliver; the trio adopt the name PJ Harvey. Olliver is quickly replaced by Steve Vaughan. They play their first gig in a hotel's skittle alley (a form of bowling); the performance is a disaster and when customers begin to leave, the owner pleads with the band to stop. Polly finishes her foundation course at art school and applies to study sculpture in London at Central Martins College of Art & Design. She moves to London but not for school; their demos are sent to indie label Too Pure, which sign the band immediately and release PJ Harvey's first single in October. "Dress" is praised by critics, including John Peel, who reviews it forMelody Maker, writing "the way Polly Jean seems crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements, as if the air is literally being sucked out of them... admirable if not always enjoyable." Peel becomes one of Polly's biggest fans and invites the band to play their first Peel Session on October 29. "John was the first person ever to take notice of what I was doing, and he was the first person to place my music on the radio," says Polly. "He became my friend early on; I remember sending him my demo tapes before anyone had heard what I was doing." The band record their debut album with Head at the Icehouse in Yeovil.
PJ Harvey release a second single "Sheela-Na-Gig" in February and their first album the following month. Dryis released by Too Pure (Indigo/Island Records in North America) in limited quantities with a bonus disc of demos called Demonstration; it becomes an instant, critically acclaimed hit. NME raves: "Fulfilling our greatest expectations… A great power trio harnessing and bending the rawest, most elemental rock format with... pure power." In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Polly describes her shock at the attention her band receives. "I couldn't believe it. It didn't make sense to me at all to start off with. I thought, 'Why do people want to buy this nasty, bendy sounding music?' It's touching some nerve somewhere. I like the rawness of it, and I think maybe that is what people are looking for now. They want a bit of rough around the edges." Reflecting back on the album in 2004 with Filter, Harvey admits: "Dry is the first chance I ever had to make a record and I thought it would be my last. So, I put everything I had into it. It was a very extreme record. It was a great joy for me to be able to make it. I never thought I'd have that opportunity, so I felt like I had to get everything on it as well as I possibly could, because it was probably my only chance. It felt very extreme for that reason." Rolling Stone names Polly Best Songwriter of the Year, as well as Best New Female Singer. Dry reaches number 71 on a 100 Greatest Albums of All Time list in 1993 that NME critics compile and Kurt Cobain lists it as one of 50 favourite albums. Polly becomes a feminist icon without even trying. Nearly every review or interview discusses Dry's assumed feminist skew or labels her a riot grrrl, but she rejects the notion. "It's quite simple," she explains to Vox in 1993. "I wouldn't call myself a feminist because I don't understand the term or the baggage it takes along with it. I'd feel like I really have to go back and study its history to associate myself with it, and I don't feel the need to do that. I'd much rather just get on and do things the way I have been doing them." Polly causes a fuss and throws the when she not only appears on the back of Dry topless, but also on the cover of NME in April with her back to the photographer; neither truly deserve such controversy, however. She tells Option: "I was very surprised when all this thing happened. I thought, 'What is all the fuss about?' He was taking pictures of my back and I had the vest on and my friend said, 'I think it would look better if he could just see your back.' And so I took my vest off and we did the pictures. It taught me a lot, really, that everybody wants to read so much into every single thing that you do; even if you do it in the most naive of ways and innocently, it's going to get things put on it. I don't think it's changed the way that I do things — I wouldn't ever want it to either, because then you're being influenced before you even create something." Automatic Dlamini release From A Diva To A Diver featuring Polly. The band go on an extensive tour that culminates at the Reading Festival. Once the tour finishes, Polly reportedly has a nervous breakdown due to the increasing pressures and expectations — though, The Guardian later explains it was because of a break-up. She tells the newspaper: "I couldn't do anything for weeks — little things like having a bath and brushing your teeth, I just didn't know how to do it. I never want to go back there again." However, she disregards it when talking to The Observer in 1995: "I ran home back to what I knew and felt safe around and I did a lot of repairing for the next year. I didn't stop doing things. I was writing new songs. I was working on new material. I was fine. I didn't have a breakdown. People seem to want to imagine I went into some kind of sanatorium for a year — nothing like that. I worked on building up my stamina, emotionally and mentally and physically." PJ Harvey regroups and ends the year recording their second album in Minnesota with renowned engineer Steve Albini at Pachyderm Recording Studio. They record the album live off the floor with very few vocal overdubs for an austere, stripped down sound. In a press release, Polly reveals she chose Albini because "more than any other engineer I know, he captures the sound of a band playing live — the sound of real instruments, of a drum kick. It doesn't sound processed, squashed or recorded in any way. It sounds like you're standing in front of a playing band. I think the instruments on the album sound like they're breathing and real. That's what I've always wanted to capture on record." Meanwhile, in an interview with Gourmandizer, Albini confesses: "Polly Harvey ate nothing but potatoes, with occasional sauces, during the entire recording of her Rid of Me album." A bidding war arises for the band and they choose Island Records worldwide.
Rid of Me is released in May to universal acclaim; it surprises many by debuting in the UK album charts at number three. Spin gives the record a perfect ten and Melody Maker writes: "No other British artist is so aggressively exploring the dark side of human nature, or its illogically black humour; no other British artist possesses the nerve, let alone the talent, to conjure up its soundtrack." In 2004, Polly tells Filter: "Rid of Me was when I'd first signed to a major label and I felt that I wanted to — more than ever — demonstrate that I was not going to be the kind of usually expected major artist material [laughs]. So, I chose to work with Steve Albini, who is definitely not a particularly commercial engineer and I made a very difficult record. And I'm glad I did because I think it really did set the tone... I just wanted the people involved to know that I can only do things that follow my heart, that I cannot make music to suit other people. It has to be the way it has to be and if you don't like it, then leave me alone. So, that was part of that, but having said that, I've been with the same label for 12 years and I think they know me very well and just let me get on with it now." The album is nominated for the band's first Mercury Music Prize (they lose to Suede) and spawns a modest hit with single "50ft Queenie," the video of which makes it onto MTV's Beavis and Butthead — their verdict is "This chick is weird." Polly begins experimenting with her image, adorning herself with feather boas, leopard skin coats, massive sunglasses and gold lame. She tells Rolling Stone, "These costumes aren't sexy. They're ridiculous. They're funny. And that's why I like wearing them. When I was younger I used to dress up all the time — in Mum's clothes. Then I got serious. And wore black." Rid of Me is ranked ninth in Spin's greatest albums between 1985 and 2005, and listed third in Rolling Stone's essential albums of the '90s. It quickly doubles Dry's sales, and five months later in October, Island capitalises on the success by releasing 4-Track Demos, a collection of self-recorded songs that reveal even more of Rid of Me's naked murky blues. A strictly solo outing, it features eight songs from Rid of Me and six unreleased tracks; unlike most compilations of this sort, the album holds up as both a cohesive document and one of Polly's best. She later tells Filter: "[It] was partly encouraged by Steve Albini. He loved the demos for that album so much he thought they should be out there and I tended to agree with him. It seemed like showing another side of what I do and introducing new songs that I hadn't recorded on a record. It was a lovely thing to do and it felt like the right time because my three-piece band had fallen apart and I was kind of in limbo before deciding where I was gonna be going again. So, it was just like a small interjection piece of me before I knew where I was going to be next." Ellis and Vaughan leave the band in August, just after the band finish a European stadium tour opening for U2's Zooropa tour, and PJ Harvey becomes a full-fledged solo act. Polly tells Option in 1995: "I've always felt like a solo artist really. The whole change in band was something I knew would happen. I've always known that I want to work with different musicians for what they can bring to the songs."
Polly joins Björk on stage at the Brit Awards to perform a cover of the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." Reeling, a film based on a London performance as part of the Rid of Me tour is released on video. Polly also contributes a cover of Kurt Weill's "The Ballad of the Soldier's Wife" for a tribute film called September Songs. Kathryn Bigelow's millennium catastrophe sci-fi flick Strange Days, starring Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett and Juliette Lewis, features Lewis singing two PJ Harvey songs: "Rid of Me" and "Hardly Wait." She contributes backing vocals to five tracks on Moonshake's The Sound Your Eyes Can Follow. Q sets up a three-way interview between Polly, Björk and Tori Amos where Polly playfully describes herself as a "mad bitch woman from hell. I can't get enough sex or blood!" In the interview, she also tells her two peers of how easily she can be misunderstood by certain crowds: "I've had people from beginning to end just shouting, 'You fucking bitch! Go back to fucking Yeovil!' I always wonder why they've paid money to do that. I just smile and sing at them and that seems to work." Polly begins working on her third album in London and Dublin with alt-rock super producer Flood (Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode) and former band-mate John Parish; she uses a session band made up of Parish, the Bad Seeds' Mick Harvey, Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Pere Ubu), Joe Gore (Tom Waits, John Cale) and Jean-Marc Butty (Calexico).
To Bring You My Love is released in February to both critical and commercial success. First single, "Down By the Water," becomes her biggest hit to date; Maria Mochnacz's sopping video gets heavy rotation on MTV, thanks in large to Polly's new makeover of heavy, caked on makeup, an ornate wig and an elegant, bright red nightgown. Polly becomes more of a visual spectacle in photo shoots and on stage, bringing a new element of theatricality, wearing everything from a hot pink cat suit to ball gowns. She tells I-D, "I enjoy looking like a tart and thinking like a politician" and describes her style as "Joan Crawford on acid" to Spin. "I do think as fond as I am of it and as glad that I tried, it was the To Bring You My Love era [that makes me cringe]," says Harvey. "I'm really glad I did it; it was quite astonishing, some of the costumes I was wearing at that time. It was much more of a theatrical performance. But sometimes I do look at images and think, 'My god, I had the nerve to go out looking like that!' [Laughs] At the time it was great, and I look back on it quite affectionately, but in terms of completely cringing I think that was a bad idea. I can very specifically remember one time in 1995, it was in Seattle, and for some reason I decided that I wanted to go on stage dressed like mermaid and had spent about a thousand British pounds having this mermaid costume made. But I actually couldn't move in it, because the fish tail was so tight. John Parish was in my band at the time and I remember him coming backstage and saying to me, 'Polly, I really don't think I can go on stage and play music behind you when you're dressed like a fish.' [Laughs] So I think that was probably the ultimate moment of embarrassment and feel that was a bad move." The new five-piece band embark on a ten-month world tour, which includes a bizarre three-month opening stint for college rockers Live. In a 1996 Spin interview, Polly explains the decision: "Basically, it was a chance to put my case forward to a lot of people who never would've heard my music otherwise, and I enjoyed the challenge. I did worry if it was going against my principles to support a band that I didn't have a tremendous amount of respect for musically, but it was quite a good discipline. You have to work very hard and remember you're a very tiny part of a very big picture. It's like, 'No, not everybody came to see you and most people couldn't give a toss,' and those people over there are chanting, 'Get off the stage, we want Live!'" Polly earns her second Mercury Prize nod (she loses to Portishead), as well as two Grammy nods and Artist of the Year honours from Spin and Rolling Stone. The song "One Time Too Many" is featured on the Batman Forever soundtrack. In an interview with Hot Press, Polly divulges her favourite pastime: "I love my garden. I grow flowers and vegetables, both. I take a lot of pride in the process of growing things and it's so rewarding when it pays off. It's just fascinating, so grounding. It's a miracle seeing things grow. It's an art form. Everything I do, everything I look at, I have to do it in a certain way. Which vegetable will I pull up first? Where will I plant that flower? All the time I'm not working, I'm in the garden. Or else making things with what I grow."
1996 to 1997
Polly begins working on a number of collaborations. In February, "Henry Lee," her duet with Nick Cave from his Bad Seeds album, The Murder Ballads, reaches the UK Top 20 singles chart; she also contributes vocals to Cave's "Death is Not the End." The pair are linked romantically. She writes "Who Will Love Me Now?" for Phillips Ridley's The Passion of Darkly Noon. Rob Ellis's project Spleen releases the album Soundtrack to Spleen, which features two songs, "Daddy" and "Rest Sextet," which feature Polly. A collaborative effort called simply John Parish & Polly Jean Harvey produces the album Dance Hall At Louse Point; Polly writes the lyrics, Parish writes all of the music and the pair record the album with Ellis, Feldman and Jeremy Hogg. Once again Polly finds herself in another creative space, following a much more free-formed path than normal. Her label Island deems the avant-garde lean of the album "commercial suicide" and it doesn't sell very well, however, it receives glowing reviews from all major publications. Polly later tells the Chicago Sun-Times: "People don't even count that, yet that's the record I'm really proud of. It was an enormous turning point. Lyrically, it moved me into areas I'd never been to before. Faced with John's music, which is so different to my own, it just made me write lyrics in a very different way and structure songs in a different way." In early 1997, Harvey and Parish launch a brief UK tour with Mark Bruce Dance Company, a group of interpretive ballet dancers that move to the duo's live music on stage. Polly stars in a short film by Sarah Miles called Amareu Fallout 1972, which also uses a Harvey/Parish track called "When Will I See You Again?" Polly brings back Flood and Head to co-produce her next album, which also features contributions by Parish, Ellis, Feldman, Gore, Hogg and Mick Harvey; they begin recording in April.
1998 to 1999
Polly appears in a "Playboy bunny" costume for A Bunny Girl's Tale, another Sarah Miles film that explores Hugh Hefner's subculture; she also sings "Nina in Ecstasy." A collaboration with Tricky called "Broken Homes" appears on his album Angels with Dirty Faces; it's a minor hit that allows them to perform it with a full gospel choir on The Late Show with David Letterman. She also works with French songwriter Pascal Comelade on three songs for his album L'Argot Du Fruit and Swing Slang Slong EP. The fourth PJ Harvey, Is This Desire? is released in September to strong reviews and sales, though not without some disappointment over the more atmospheric, experimental direction. Polly tells Q: "I started making the album in early 1997 but I wasn't in the right place. It was a low time for me so I put the brake on. I said, 'I don't want to do these songs while I am like this.' When I came back to the songs in 1998, they changed quite a lot. An important part of the creative process is knowing when it is the right time. The songs weren't ready and nor was I." She also tells the Sun Telegraph "I do think Is This Desire? is the best record I ever made — maybe ever will make — and I feel that that was probably the highlight of my career. I gave 100 percent of myself to that record. Maybe that was detrimental to my health at the same time." Rumours circulate that Harvey wrote the album about her supposed break-up with Nick Cave, but she claims otherwise. "I wanted to write for myself, about myself. Like someone looking in on me," she informs The Sunday Observer. The album's lead single "A Perfect Day Elise" becomes her biggest UK hit. She's nominated a third time for a Grammy. Polly gets her first role in a feature film, starring as Mary Magdalene in Hal Hartley's The Book of Life; her performance is praised by critics. Polly relocates to New York City for nine months to begin working on her next record.
2000 to 2001
Polly plays and sings on, as well as produces Funny Cry Happy Gift, the debut album by Tiffany Anders. She also finishes writing her fifth album at her home in Dorset, and then records it in Milton Keynes, London with Head, Rob Ellis and Mick Harvey. When it hits the streets in October, Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea is heralded as her finest work to date; Rolling Stone calls it "the happiest-sounding album she's ever made… it may also be the best" and NME proclaims it "a magnificent, life-affirming opus." Featuring Thom Yorke on three songs, the album is commonly mistaken for an "I love New York" tribute, because of its album cover and its undeniable, stripped down NYC rock sound, which many feel is indebted to Patti Smith — an artist whom Harvey has never claimed as an influence. Harvey denies it's the product of the Big Apple, telling NME: "I keep trying to reinforce to people that this isn't my New York album… It wasn't just written there — some songs were written in London, some in Dorset." Of the album, Polly explains to Music 365: "I think in terms of strong structures and lyrics these are some of the best songs I've written. On Is This Desire and To Bring You My Love I was getting very involved in creating atmosphere rather than songs. They were reliant on the mood created by studio technique. This was a reaction to those albums. I wanted to get away from that almost to prove to myself that I could still write straight-ahead songs. I even changed the way I wrote. I didn't demo the songs I just put them in my head. That got me back to a simpler approach. They had to be simple for me to remember them!" Polly earns two more Grammy nods and a BRIT Award nomination for the album, as well as the top spot in Q's "100 Greatest Women in Rock Music" poll. After receiving her third nomination, PJ Harvey finally wins the Mercury Music Prize on September 11, 2001. Unable to attend the gala ceremony in London, England because they're on tour in Washington DC, Polly makes her celebratory speech in a hotel across the street from a burning Pentagon building. She tells Q: "[During] the gigs that followed, the response of the audience was verging on hysterical — in the sense of people just not being in control. And that made me think, 'This is crucial... people need this... they need somewhere to let out their feelings and their sadness and their anger. And the last gig that we did in L.A. — L.A. of all places, which is known for being quite cool — the crowd were making so much noise between songs that we couldn't hear each other to start playing." Polly contributes to "Eyepennies" and "Piano Fire" on Sparklehorse's It's A Wonderful Life, which is co-produced by John Parish.
2002 to 2003
Rolling Stone ranks Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea as its eighth Essential "Women in Rock" Album. Polly spends most of 2002 working on other people's records; she provides vocals on Hitting the Ground, an album by Violent Femmes' Gordon Ganos, as well as Giant Sand's Cover Magazine and John Parish's How Animals Move. She begins writing and recording her sixth album, but in 2003 tours Australia and New Zealand to premiere new songs. Polly also performs the first-ever concert at the Tate Modern gallery in London. Stories From the City's "This is Love" is used in a television ad for T-Mobile. Polly enters the studio with Marianne Faithfull to record the "girl on a motorcycle's" comeback record. She takes some time off to hang out in California with Joshua Homme and friends to cut the ninth and tenth instalments of the Desert Sessions. "I learned an enormous amount from the Desert Sessions. I went into that completely terrified; I've never really collaborated with a lot of people and totally improvised. That's what it was, it was going into a room, full of people I've never met before, you grab any instrument that's nearest to you and you improvise together and make songs in ten days. It was a tall order and I was absolutely mortified, and I came away from that feeling liberated. I realised that I can write around other people, I played loads of piano on that session that I'd never done before, I watched other people in the process of creativity. You have to be so disarmed to do that around others. The studio in the desert is tiny; it's only two rooms and everyone's in the same rooms together. You're right next to somebody who's in that moment of creating something, and to watch that happen at such a close proximity is quite wonderful."
2004 to 2005
Written and recorded in both Dorset and Los Angeles, PJ Harvey's sixth album, Uh Huh Her is released in May. A self-produced record, Polly plays every instrument on the record herself, with the exception of the drums (performed by Ellis). Continuing the rock'n'roll direction of Stories, Uh Huh Her actually takes the music back to her early days, mirroring the naked ambition of 1993's 4-Track Demos. She tells Nylon: "I always go about it in the same process: Make a rough recording of it to work out what and how. I went about that usual process — but then I just felt that they seemed complete. They were emotionally working. It seemed a bit silly to re-record and tell other players how to re-create these songs. I think you always sing it the best when you're right inside a song, working on it." Rumours circulate that the album is a reflection on her split from model/ actor/ director/ musician Vincent Gallo, but neither their relationship nor a possible break-up theme is confirmed. Just a few months later, Marianne Faithfull releases the much-anticipated Before the Poison, which features five songs written, produced and performed by Polly; Rob Ellis and Nick Cave also lend their hands. Polly finishes the year by guesting on two tracks from Mark Lanegan's solo album, Bubblegum.
TIME includes Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea in its list of the "All-TIME 100 albums." Directed by Maria Mochnacz, a DVD called PJ Harvey On Tour: Please Leave Quietly is released, documenting performances on her Uh Huh Her tour. Island issues Peel Sessions 1991 – 2004, a collection of PJ Harvey's best performances at the legendary DJ's Maida Vale studio; Polly hand scribbles the personal liner notes. "That was a lovely, lovely body of work," says Polly. "I felt extremely attached to them because John was a friend of mine and I really enjoyed putting that together for him, in honour of a great friend. I also think it's a great body of work because you can see how I grew and changed over the years." Polly begins recording her new album with Flood and John Parish in November. Blender includes Polly in their "Hottest Women in Rock" list, calling her a "blues-rock sorceress trafficking in social politics and dark, tormented songwriting."
PJ Harvey takes another unexpected turn with her seventh studio full-length, White Chalk, released by Island on September 25. Recorded mostly on piano by her two favourite producers — Flood and John Parish — the album finds Polly in an unlikely state of serenity, opening up her subconscious to reveal a vulnerable, almost childlike side. Despite its delicate, hushed frame, it's easily her most radical work to date, surpassing the challenge of Dry's stark, uneasy listening. Q writes "it's not an easy album, but it's so alluring you have no choice but to follow," while Mojo says "Polly's come up with her quietest, and possibly finest, creation yet." "It feels like a very new kind of music to me even though I made it. I find it difficult to find any reference points. It's quite a timeless sort of piece; it doesn't feel like it belongs in this age — it could be a hundred years in the future or a hundred years past," says Polly with laughter. "It just feels like a different world and I find it really exciting. I think I had to have a lot of courage to put out this record the way it is. It's a very peculiar and difficult piece. And I would completely agree that it is one of the most radical things that I've done. If I had any references in my other work I think I had a similar feeling with To Bring You My Love, as being a real about turn when that record came out, and a totally difficult direction. The same with Is This Desire? I mean I think those two albums I felt were the most I was able to realise my idea for that particular piece of work. Sometimes I don't see it through as well as others, but with those I really did manage to see through what my intentions were. And I feel the same with this one."
Click here to read a full transcript of Exclaim!'s interview with Polly Jean Harvey.
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