Exclusive: The 13-Year Itch: John Parish on his Close Collaborations with PJ Harvey

A good ear is hard to find. John Parish and PJ Harvey have relied on each other for decades, trading demos, contributing to albums, and enjoying an uncomplicated, no-holds barred ability to critique without worrying about offense. Featuring Parish’s music and Harvey’s lyrics and singing, their new album, A Woman a Man Walked By, represents only the second of two formal collaborations after half a lifetime of close partnership.

“We’re both really solitary writers. We like to experiment with things by ourselves, to get it to a certain stage, so that we can play it for somebody,” said Parish in a recent phone interview. “But we almost always play things for each other first… We’re always curious what the other thinks, because we use each other very much as sounding boards for our own work.”

The relationship started in the mid-1980s when Harvey slipped Parish a demo tape at a club called the Electric Broom Cupboard. She was an unknown 17-year-old. He was in a band called Automatic Dlamini. “I was immediately struck by her voice,” said Parish. “The songs were very simple, strummy guitar folk songs. But, you know, her voice had real character already.”

Harvey and Parish started hanging out at gigs together, and eventually Harvey joined Automatic Dlamini on guitar and backup vocals. For three years, they worked together, honing a sound that relied on interlocking melodies and vocal harmonies for texture. Harvey eventually left to form her first trio, but the two kept in close touch.

Parish co-produced Havey’s 1995 album, To Bring You My Love, and, around the same time, began working on incidental music for a student production of Hamlet. “The music was also very dynamic and confrontational,” said Parish. “Polly came to see one of the performances and was completely blown away by it.” She called him up and asked if he would write some music for her, in a similar style, and she would put words to it. He worked on music, alone, and sent her the tapes. She sent them back with her singing and lyrics. The two of them were never, or almost never, in the same room writing together, yet the end result represents a deep, thoughtful melding of their separate energies. The first album, Dance Hall at Louse Point, came out in 1996 to critical acclaim, if very moderate sales.

And then 13 years passed.

“It’s funny, we weren’t aware of how long it was between the records until we started doing interviews about them,” Parish admitted. “It is kind of a long time. But I suppose because we’d worked on records in the interim period it didn’t seem like such a gap.” Parish played multiple instruments on Harvey’s 1996 album, Is This Desire, and produced Harvey’s most recent studio album, White Chalk. He also began building a reputation as a producer, working with artists including 16 Horsepower, Giant Sand, Sparklehorse, and Tracey Chapman. He’s recorded three solo albums over the last decade, Rosie in 2000, How Animals Move in 2002, and Once Upon a Little Time in 2005.

Harvey has been busy, too, but that doesn’t entirely account for the long hiatus. “The collaboration is something that we feel that we’re not able to repeat that often,” said Parish. “It does take quite a long time. We feel that we have to be into a different space. We need time to grow as artists between these records.”

Writing for A Woman a Man Walked By started in 2005 — and the earliest song, “Black Hearted Love,” bears a striking resemblance to Harvey’s Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea material. Yet the rest of the songs reflect a diverse set of styles and influences, everything from acoustic blues and all-out rock to the spooky, breathy lullabies of White Chalk.

Parish says that writing for Harvey is different from writing for himself, in a subtle, hard-to-define way. “I guess when I was thinking of things for Polly it meant that I would write much more dynamic music than I would write for myself. Because I think as a singer she is so much more amenable to perform over something that’s much more dense and much more abstract and much more ferocious than something I would be able to sing over.”

He added, “I approach it almost more as though I would approach writing music for a film, where I’m thinking, okay, it’s got to have really strong rising melodies, it’s got to have a very definite atmosphere. Because that’s what Polly expects and kind of thrives on. If I send her something with a really strong atmosphere, she’ll respond to that and she’ll come back with something that enhances it.”

The bargain that the two made was that Parish would write music and Harvey lyrics. Anything that didn’t work — for either of them — would be discarded, rather than fixed.

“We decided that rather than change things, anything that either of us was remotely uncomfortable with, we just wouldn’t work on it. We limited ourselves to the songs that we were really excited about,” Parish said. That meant no going back, no overdubbing, no tinkering with instrumentation or mood.

It also meant being willing to let songs go in unexpected directions. Asked if any of Harvey’s treatments surprised him, Parish chuckled and said, “Pretty much all of them.”

He consciously tried not to imagine what she’d do with the melodies beforehand. But even so, there were some turns he didn’t anticipate. “No one, obviously, could have predicted ‘A Woman A Man Walked By'”, he began, referring to a song where Harvey growls “I want his fucking ass,” repeatedly in a bracingly feral tone. “‘Pig Will Not’ was pretty, uh, shocking when I first heard it, too.”

“Even something like ‘The Soldier.’ I had no idea what she was going to do with that sparse ukulele piece. She’s taken probably the heaviest lyric on the record and it’s married with that really light open breezy instrument,” he mused.”

The album is varied, with the mood and texture of the music driving the lyrical content. Parish said that Harvey wasn’t trying to mix things up, exactly, but rather just responding to what she heard on the tapes. “The singing, the lyrics … it’s all very much Polly’s emotional response to the music,” he said. “She reacts to a piece of music and just starts singing with them. That’s why she’s singing with so many different voices and things. She says, I’m not acting or trying to be a different character. It’s what the songs make me there.”

Harvey has said that her collaborations with Parish have helped her grow as a lyricist, and Parish, too, finds that working with his old friend helps him stretch and expand his musical capabilities. “We’re quite hard with each other, critically. We expect a lot from each other,” he said. “But I think it’s really good to find people like that that you can work with. Where criticism becomes a very positive thing and you can really move each other on without making them lose confidence.”

Parish and Harvey are currently touring the US, playing songs from the new album, as well as Dance Hall at Louse Point with a five-piece band. When the tour finishes, Parish plans to take the summer off, then begin work on Harvey’s next studio album, which he will prodcue alongside Flood and Mick Harvey. He’s also finishing up the writing for his next solo album, and hopes to get into the studio before the end of 2009. And someday, perhaps in another dozen years or so, there may be another Parish/Harvey album. But ,Parish says that if there is, it won’t sound anything like the first two. “What makes Polly such a great artist, really what makes anybody a great artist, is to take a risk,” he said. “And that means going into really different areas and not be recycling old material. So if we do it again, and I hope we do, it’ll be completely different.”