John Parish and Polly Jean Harvey have been making music together for more than two decades. And while Harvey is better known for a solo career that has made her one of the most vital artists on the planet, Parish is the guy who initially recognized and nurtured her singular skills. He in turn has produced and played on three of her solo albums (1995’s To Bring You My Love, 1998’s Is This Desire? and 2007’s White Chalk) and has long been a sounding board whether in an “official” capacity or not.
Their latest release as a duo (following 1996’s Dance Hall at Louse Point) is A Woman A Man Walked By, a diverse collection of songs that range from the straight-up Rock of “Black Hearted Love” to the acoustic-driven melancholia of “Leaving California” to the dirge-like, Beefheartian Blues of “Pig Will Not.”
CityBeat recently phoned Parish, who was preparing for a tour stop in Paris, to discuss the duo’s long-running history (they met in 1987, when Harvey was 17), creative process (he writes and plays the music, she writes and sings the lyrics) and the decision to finally play in the Queen City.
CB: How’s the tour going so far?
JP: Every audience has been quite stunning. We’ve all been kind of awed really. It’s been a fantastic tour. It’s a very dynamic and extreme show, but the response we’ve been getting from audiences is really quite phenomenal. I guess it’s working.
CB: I’m pretty sure neither of you has ever played Cincinnati, which should be quite a dichotomy from Paris. Why now?
JP: Yeah, I think you’d have to speak to the (booking) agent (laughs). I’ve certainly never played there, so I’m really looking forward to it because it’s really nice to see a couple of cities pop up that aren’t on the normal itinerary.
CB: You’ve known Polly for more than 20 years — over half of her life
JP: I used to have a band called Automatic Dlamini, which was based in Bristol (England). We used to play a lot of shows around the area where Polly grew up, where she was going to school, and she used to come to the gigs. She was a fan of the band. After a while she started giving me tapes, little cassettes of these songs she’d been writing. I listened to them and thought, “Wow, that girl’s got a really good voice.” We got to chatting after shows and got along well. When I needed somebody to do backup vocals and play some guitar in the band, I thought, “I’m going to ask that girl Polly; she’s really good.” It was the beginning of a really fortuitous relationship.
CB: It’s been 13 years since you put out a record as an official duo. Why now?
JP: We’d always intended to make another record. I guess we just needed some sort of catalyst to make it happen at a specific point in time, and it was actually Polly rediscovering an old demo that we’d made for the song “Black Hearted Love.” When clearing out old, unused material while she was writing songs for White Chalk, she came across this tape and stuck it on and immediately phoned me up and said, “This song is fantastic. We’ve never done anything with it, let’s make a new album now.” She said “now,” but it was obviously three years before we actually came back to it (laughs). But that was the point at which I starting writing the music for this new record.
CB: How has your relationship changed over the years?
JP: If you have a bond with somebody there’s a sort of unspoken understanding that’s always there. That was there very much from the very beginning between the two of us. Writing songs is quite an emotionally exposed position, and you don’t necessarily play rough ideas for just anybody, but we found that we were comfortable sort of playing each other ideas and being able to take criticism from each other.
Obviously we’ve both grown up and grown older and both have a lot more experience in many different things. She’s changed and developed phenomenally as an artist. But, you know, she’s still Polly and I’m still John. We’re still who we were to a great degree.
CB: Stylistically, the new record is all over the place. Did you have any sort of overriding theme when putting it together beside the fact that Polly would be singing over your arrangements?
JP: There was no overriding theme. The only thing was to not repeat ideas, not do something like I’d done before. Hopefully something nobody had done before, something that was exciting and emotionally engaging and moving on some level. That was what I was attempting to do with the music.
CB: The two of you often talk of not repeating yourselves. Does the idea of audience expectation ever enter the equation?
JP: It doesn’t enter at all. But that doesn’t mean that we either take it for granted or are not interested in what an audience thinks. Obviously we hope that people are going to like it and be inspired by it. I’m certainly speaking for myself, but it’s not something that is remotely on my mind when I’m writing a piece of music. I’m just trying to write something that’s inspiring and challenging and moving for myself. I think, “If it works for me then it’s probably going to work for other people as well.”
CB: Were you surprised by her take on some of the musical arrangements you sent to her?
JP: You’re always surprised (laughs). I’m not sure that I’ve ever not been surprised by her.
JOHN PARISH AND PJ HARVEY play the Madison Theatre June 3. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.