A Woman A Man Walked By may be the first collaboration credited to PJ Harvey & John Parish in more than a decade—the pair issued Dance Hall At Louse Point in 1996—but it’s hardly an occasional partnership. Parish and Harvey began working together in Somerset, England, band Automatic Dlamini in the late ’80s, when the latter was 18 years old; Parish continued to work with Harvey on several of her solo albums as a producer and multi-instrumentalist. Their close musical relationship comes to full fruition on A Woman A Man Walked By (released last month on Island), a wide-ranging album that matches Parish’s music with Harvey’s lyrics and vocals, with assistance from bassist Eric Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, Frank Black), drummer Carla Azar (Autolux) and Italian guitarist Giovanni Ferrario. MAGNET spoke to Parish and Harvey (check in tomorrow for her interview) about their long-distance collaboration, the process behind the album and a curious mermaid suit.
“Black Hearted Love”:
MAGNET: I wanted to get your take on the album title, A Woman A Man Walked By. Seems like the perfect description: a man and woman did walk by, they made an album, then they went their separate ways, as they usually do. Fair statement or kind of a banal one?
Parish: [Laughs] It’s a fair interpretation, but I never considered it like that. The title’s actually inspired by a Don Van Vliet painting: A Woman A Dog Walked By, which made me laugh. Calling it A Woman A Man Walked By gives it several other interpretations. I think both Polly and I were surprised by how long it had actually been since our last official collaboration, Dance Hall At Louse Point. Because we consider that pretty much everything we do musically is a collaboration to some degree. Even if we’re not officially working on records together, we’re sending each other the demos we’re working on. We use each other as touchstones constantly. So it doesn’t feel as if it’s been a 12-year gap between records. It’s only when you look at it on paper where you realize, “This is how it appears to people.”
Given that you two do have this constant collaboration going on, visible or not, how did this process different from Louse Point but even To Bring You My Love and White Chalk, which were collaborations to some degree?
There’s a noticeable difference when we’re working together as co-writers on a project versus when I’m involved as a producer. Simply in the same way that it’s different to producing an album for someone else as it is to writing my own music and records. Obviously it’s easier to have a degree of objectivity as a producer, and it’s not my material I’m thinking about. It’s a different thing. As co-writers, we use each other as co-producers as well, in that we need a view into what the other person’s doing. I use Polly to judge my music, and she uses me to judge her singing on top of it. So it is different when we work together on a co-written project, but practically, the way this one took shape is very similar to how Dance Hall At Louse Point took shape in that I wrote the music first. There were comprehensive recordings made of the instrumental tracks before I sent them to Polly, and then Polly independently wrote the lyrics, sang the vocals, then sent me back the recording of what she’d done. The same process we’d used on Louse Point, really; but the main difference with this one is that we both progressed—it has been 12 years—as writers and artists, and that’s demonstrated in the new album.
It made me wonder if you’d written this music with Polly in mind or if you’d simply turned this new batch of music into the latest Postal Service-style project, kind of a happy accident.
It was absolutely written with Polly in mind. I don’t think there’d be many, or any, other people who could sing over some of those things. [Laughs]
My theory: The album is a summary of everything you guys are capable of doing both together and apart. Stylistically, I’m not sure you’ve left even one corner of the vast musical universe untouched on this record.
[Laughs] Yeah, we covered a lot of ground, that’s for sure. It was funny, it wasn’t something we necessarily set out to do—no manifesto set out when we starting writing the record, the only rules were not to repeat ourselves, to make something we hadn’t made before, that nobody else had made before. When we sat back and took stock of the songs we had, we realized it did cover a lot of ground. It was difficult to describe it to people! Inevitably, you’d hear, “Well what does the new record sound like?” and we’d be kind of stuck. It was like, “Well where do you begin?” All I could think to say to people was, “It seems very dynamic to me.”
“Black Hearted Love” is how I wish rock radio would sound; I’ve never thought to put Baudelaire to music before, for sure. There’s blues, country music, a lot of breadth here.
Yeah, there is, and because of that, we were very vigilant to make sure the thing hung together as an album. Sometimes it’s possible … you don’t even have to put that much contrast in it and it starts not to hang together. There’s something interesting to both of us to be able to produce these radically different pieces of music that still seemed to hang together as an album.
Thematically, is there anything I should take away from this as a listener? “This record’s about X.”
We certainly had no concept behind it; the songs have no theme running through them; they’re all very much individual pieces of work that just seem to complement each other. There was no master plan, no concept behind the record.
How do you personally think about arrangements? Most musicians I know tend to start with melody or with fragments or ideas, then arrangements suggest themselves or are tried on to fit. Were there any radically different versions of these songs that you tried on before arriving at what we hear on the record?
It was very much a solitary thing. The writing of the music happened by myself at home. I usually have some kind of idea: a melody in my head, something I’ve played on a guitar and recorded into my Walkman, it could come from any instrument, really. Or sometimes it’s just kind of an atmosphere I have in mind. “Sixteen, Fifteen, Fourteen”—I had an idea in mind; I wanted the same feeling I get from a track on Led Zeppelin IV called “Four Sticks,” there was a tumbling sort of sound. And I didn’t want to write something like “Four Sticks,” I just wanted something that made me feel like that song makes me feel. It might be kind of an abstract idea like that which kicks off a song, then I’ll build arrangements. Since I’m doing it all myself, I have to record one instrument at a time. I could start anywhere—sometimes drums, sometimes guitar, sometimes with a keyboard, whatever was the initial spark for the song. Then I’ll have one thing down, and that immediately suggests something else. Or I think, “What’s the least likely instrument you’d put with that?”—try it, see if it works. It’s an instinctive, random process.
So for any creative person, it’s really hard not to repeat yourself. Are there any tricks you guys employed—maybe you bought a bouzouki with this album?—to make sure that you and Polly could live up to your credo of not repeating yourself or others?
We’re quite strict with each other, so if either of us feels we are repeating ourselves, even if it sounds good, we’d say, “Even though that sounds good, we’ve been there before, so that’s not gonna be on the plate for this record.” One simple and effective tool for doing that. Whenever I’m sitting down at the beginning of a writing session, over the next few weeks, I’ll spend a couple of days fiddling around in my studio for sounds I haven’t used before. Usually I’m a habitual purchaser of odd instruments anyway; there are new things kicking around that are going to inspire me in some new direction.
So is my ear off or is that a mellotron I hear on “Leaving California”?
Yes, it is; not a real one, unfortunately, it’s a sample. I haven’t the space at home or haven’t found one for sale anywhere over here. I love the sound of mellotron, I’ve got this really nice old sample. It’s tweaky; an old analogue tape machine, an old British version of the Echoplex.
You guys have both worked with Flood (Mark Ellis) before, right? What keeps you going back to him as someone you’re comfortable with even when you’re pushing yourself to make something perhaps a little uncomfortable for both of you?
We’ve used him several occasions—he’s had different roles at different times. On this one, he was just mixing the album, we’d already recorded it and produced it. We think he did an absolutely fantastic job, things we couldn’t do because we were too close to it and Flood’s technical skill in the studio is second to none, really. He brought out things in it that I’d never have been able to do, that’s for sure. In this particular case, with White Chalk and To Bring You My Love were co-produced by myself, Flood and Polly, and I would say this was a different thing; he was involved at the beginning of the recording process. Here, he plays a role somewhere between me and Polly—I’m a very fractious critic of Polly’s work, as she is of mine. That’s why we have a really good working relationship. But Flood is a good person to come between us when things can get a little tense and need to be worked out or a smoother way than we’d be able to do on our own.
You’ve touched on something I wanted to ask you about—you have this long-term relationship. A lot of ground has gone beneath your feet in all the years you’ve worked together. What keeps you guys coming back to each other as touchstones or as “fractious critics” of each other’s music? Set of ears to test things with?
Sometimes you’re lucky enough to find someone you can feel close like that to, on that level. From the first time we met, we felt that we could trust each other’s opinions; it just was an easy thing to do, to listen to each other. And it’s gotten stronger as the years have gone on. It’s very difficult to criticize people’s art, their work; it is a very sensitive issue, and you can easily destroy somebody’s confidence or push them into something they’re uncomfortable with. We’ve found that we can be very direct in our criticism with each other, regarding our work, and we’re able to take that criticism from each other because we’re totally secure in the knowledge that there’s a huge bond between us and no personal attack in any of the criticism; it’s purely an artistic thing, we’re able to take that on board, on the chin, and it means that we’re able to be more experimental, take more chances, because the other person will let us know if we’re about to make a fool of ourselves for any reason. [Laughs]
Is there an example from the record that would be a good one to use? You brought something in, she didn’t agree; she wrote a lyric, you didn’t like it or think it fit on this record?
There were a number of pieces of music I brought to the table that Polly didn’t think were right for whatever reason, and a couple lyrics Polly brought that weren’t working, either. But everything that’s on the record we were both completely happy with and didn’t have to be changed at all. Basically the way we feel about things is that, when we’re working together, if either of us has a doubt about something, then that thing does not get done. We both have to be completely confident about how everything we’re working on comes together or it gets shelved.
Do you have a favorite Polly story? Or some anecdote that might show something special about your partnership? Or, quite frankly, just make for good reading?
I admire your honesty. That’s hard to do. We’ve had 20 years of working together, so many times I’ve felt it was such an … honor. There’s something very liberating to be able to write the most extravagant, outrageous, dense and discordant piece of music and send it to Polly knowing it’ll come back with some equally extravagant lyric that I managed to send her. There are very few people in such a fortunate position.
For example, she wasn’t known for a Ziggy Stardust-like stage persona until the To Bring You My Love tour. I’m thinking maybe one night you saw one of her cabaret-style outfits and were like, “What’s going on? That’s an … interesting choice.”
[Laughs] I was surprised then, but probably the most surprised was in Seattle. We didn’t know what Polly was going to be wearing, and she turned up in this mermaid costume. She basically … looked like a fish! [Laughs] And there was something about it that was like we’d stepped over the line from this grotesque cabaret thing into … a bit of pantomime. I certainly felt like, “I’m not too comfortable with this.” I remember going backstage after the show and knocking on her door, and it was surprisingly sensitive for me, actually. Not barging in saying, “What the hell are you doing dressing up like a fish?” [Laughs] But knocking and telling her, “I’m not entirely comfortable standing onstage behind you when you’re dressed like a fish.” And we just kind of fell about the room laughing, and thought, “Let’s regroup and see where we are.” And the tour went on from there.