A Conversation With PJ Harvey

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 (read yesterday’s interview with him) about their long-distance collaboration, the process behind the album and a curious mermaid suit.

MAGNET: You and John have been collaborating for 20 years. What keeps you two coming back to each other? It’s an unusual partnership that can last 20 years and still be fresh, relevant and functional.
Harvey: It is an unusual partnership, and the relationship we have is very rare, I realize that more and more as I get older. That’s why we keep coming back to each other; it’s a special working relationship but also friendship as well. John’s always been, from the first time I met him, someone I respected enormously, and his judgment, I think, is very keen. I trust him implicitly. He has extraordinarily good ear for judging what’s good and bad with music. I value his opinion and judgments just on the stuff of life, really—he’s a remarkable human being and I realize that more as I get older. But throughout our friendship, even if I’m not working with him on a particular project, he’s always one of the first people I’ll send my new songs to in order to get feedback and to help me gauge what’s good and what isn’t. John, Flood and Mick Harvey—those are my three people I’ll send songs to before anybody else because I know them so well and they know me so well, we have this relationship where they can be completely, honestly critical of my work and I can return that and it’s all done in the right spirit, if you know what I mean.

If it makes you feel even better, he uses almost exactly the same words to describe how he feels about working with you. He said, “It’s a delicate thing to deliver really honest feedback to somebody without damaging their confidence”—there’s a balance to how it’s done. He told me a funny story about touring with youthat on the To Bring You My Love tour you went on one night in a mermaid’s costume, and it freaked him out, and he told you backstage afterward it freaked him out. And …
And I never wore it again. [Laughs] That’s true … my extravagant creation that had been made months beforehand. Well, we had a good laugh about it, and I never wore it again. On a more serious note, very often I might send John demos of my own new songs, and there may be songs that he doesn’t think are good. And it doesn’t mean I’ll always go with thathe’s usually right, unfortunatelybut I might go ahead and record it anyway, because it’s something that I just need to do. And he’ll do the same; work that he might feel he believes in and has to do, so we can also critique each other’s work but then ignore it, take it on board but then carry on the way we were going anyway. We’ve both done that in the past, too. That’s another important part of this equation; we’re not at each other’s beck and call. We value each other enormously and take each other’s opinion on board as we go.

It surprised me how well this album hung together as a piece considering how all over the place it is stylistically. You guys cover a lot of ground here, musically speaking.
Well, it surprised me, too. Because we made it over a few years, graduallyall the songs were written at quite different times to each other, and there’s disparity between them all. They sound like individual songs, individual worlds. And to bring them all together on an album, I was worried about whether it would really work. Initially, we had different running orders, and that didn’t work, didn’t complement each other. In that good old fashioned way of thinking about it as an album still, which I tend to do, we eventually hit upon a running order and found it could work, as well as each song working on its own.

Over what period of time did this collaboration occur? It’s been 12 years since Louse Point, but how many years were you guys sending tapes back and forth?
I think it began in 2005; I’m certain, I remember calling him in the latter part of that year. I’d stumbled across a demo of “Black Hearted Love.” We’d done it but never done anything with it. And I was in the process of going through all my unused songs to see what I wanted to do with them, I always have a backlog of things I’ve never used. And this was sitting there amongst them, and I thought, “This is amazing,” and rang him straight away: “Can you write another nine songs like this one, please?” [Laughs] “Yeah, all right then.” So that’s how it began. He wrote five or six pieces of music at a time and sent them to me; then there might be a gap of five months or so, then he’d send me another block of music. Some we didn’t use, some we vetoed because it felt too similar to something we’d done before. Likewise, with some of the lyrics, a few we scrapped because they reminded us both of another song we’d done together but maybe slightly different. We both like to keep learning, but that means going through new territory.

As an artist, I would think that’s one of the hardest things or disciplines to enactthere are just comfort zones you go to lyrically or with melodies and chords, and it becomes difficult not to repeat yourself or to consciously pull away from what you’ve done so successfully before.
It is extremely difficultit takes a lot of hard work, there’s no easy way around it. The reason we can come up with an album like thisvery different materialis through really hard work. I throw away a lot of things; I have to write an enormous amount. The longer you’ve been an artist in a certain fieldwe’ve both been doing this for 20 years or more, like you were saying—then that increases the chance you’re going to repeat yourself in some way. It’s natural to drop into certain melodies, chord changes, lyrical topics. It gets increasingly harder. I find myself pitching a much larger percentage of work than I used to for that very reason. So it becomes harder work to find the goods, really.

Doesn’t that sound funny to you, Polly? That you’ve been going for 20 years. I mean, I bought Dry when it came out, and it just doesn’t feel like it’s been that long.
It doesn’t feel to me, either. It’s actually really odd; it’s been more than 20 years. My first record came out in 1990, so that does feel really odd. I feel about 18, like I haven’t even begun yet. That’s something we all feel. I remember talking to my grandmother on her deathbed about that. She was saying, “I still feel 18.” She was so sweet; she had a crush on the doctor who kept coming through to see her and he was about 30. [Laughs] And that’s how we got talking about it. I can see what she means. In some ways I feel like a kid, like I’ve barely started. Presumably, that’s how one keeps carrying on. Next thing people will be calling me a “legend” and I’ll feel like I’m in the grave already!

I’ll do my best not to contribute to that. I don’t want to set you up for deification just yet. But my impression is that over the years, people have taken your lyrics and been too literal about themthey’re seeking for you somewhere within them, where it’s always been my impression, maybe more so as you’ve gotten older, that you’re about storytelling, and the fantastical, and weaving little tales or worlds through your lyrics. That’s what this record felt like to me as a listener.
Well that’s such a lovely thing to hear you say, really. I feel, too, that as a lyric writer, I’m getting betterit gives me a huge, wonderful feeling to be able to say that because I work so hard on it, it’s a very difficult thing to do and get right. Over the last four or five years, I’ve come a long way as a lyric writer. I work very differently these daysI tend to work on words constantly, and as separate entitiesmeaning, they have to work on a page, so I’ve always got lots of little short stories or poems I’m working on at that level before I even begin to worry about them as songs. And I’m doing that much more than I was even when I was working on A Woman A Man Walked By, and it’s definitely becoming more realized, I think. Stronger, like you’re saying; they inhabit their own worlds. Becoming a better storytellerI’ve always felt like a bard in that older tradition of how songs began; they came from storytelling back in the Dark Ages, people would sit ‘round the fire and tell each other stories at night because there was no other form of entertainment. And I feel a bit like that and always havetraveling around the world singing songs to people, these little stories I want to tell people.

So many things about this album indicate the work you’ve put into itsomething like the “chicken liver hearts/parts” couplet is almost like getting punched in the chin, whereas a line like “Dear god, you’d better not let me down this time” is so different than that, so much more introspective, and yet they still work together in this context. It’s just really striking to me. Tone poetry almost.
When I’m working with John’s music—and it’s already written by the time he sends it to me—it’s a very different quality; I’m trying to enhance the atmosphere and world that’s already there. I’ll sit down and listen to what he’s given me, the song’s already within that music, you know, somewhere. The key is strengthening that, not weakening that, so I might have to try quite a few different times, ways of singing before I can match or strengthen it. Until I’ve found the right voice, the right lyric, it’s a very delicate balance to get right. A Woman A Man Walk By is such a combination of aggression and black humor, reallyit took quite a time to find the way it needed to be sung, but also the right type of lyric. That’s where the words finally came through it. With him, it’s always listening to what he’s giving me, then drawing the song out of what’s already there.

Any great John anecdote you can share about working together? The fish thing he told me was so perfect.
Gosh, you’ve put me on the spot with that! [Laughs] I sent him the demos for the Stories From The City album, and he hated the lot of it. John certainly doesn’t hold back in his verbose use of language when he’s criticizing; he can sort of hammer it into the floor with the detail with which he might attack one’s work. But that’s also why I love him; I need people like that, people who’ll talk straight with me. A running joke over the past 20 years: He’ll say, “This is where I’m right and you’re wrong.” And it’s not only a joke between me and him, but him and his wife; he’ll say it to her sometimes, too. Anyway, when we were making White Chalk, we had this almost stereotypical moment in the studio where we’d been working on a song for a week straight—a song called “The Devil”—and I thought it was in 6/8 time, and he thought it was in four. And this argument escalated all week; we were swearing at each other, and then the words came out of his mouth. “This is where I am right and you’re wrong.” [Laughs] That was just the end of it right there. Have you heard that Troggs tape? It was just like that: “In four four, not in three. One, two, three, four.” On and on and on. He can definitely get on his high chair. But he can also laugh about it.

—Corey duBrowa

“A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go”: