PJ Harvey and John Parish: "An express train with the doors welded shut"

June 8, 2009


Though it has garnered much less attention than many of the albums in her stellar career, the first disc that PJ Harvey released as a full-on collaboration with frequent sideman and multi-instrumental wizard John Parish, "Dance Hall at Louse Point" (1996), stands as one of the most creative of her career.

Freed from the responsibilities of crafting all of the music and lyrics, the British art-punk heroine stretched out and let loose, inhabiting a wealth of different characters we'd never met before, from the Patti Smith on steroids of "Taut" to the postmodern cabaret chanteuse in her cover of the Peggy Lee standard "Is That All There Is?"

Now, nearly a decade and a half later, Harvey and Parish have given us a new team effort, "A Woman a Man Walked By," and it's even more powerful and impressive. Why the long wait between these two discs?

"Good question!" Parish says with a chuckle. "It's funny: We always intended to do another record, and it hadn't really occurred to us how long it had been, really. It was just we'd obviously both been doing lots of other stuff, sometimes together and sometimes independently. I guess we needed a reason to actually make it happen at a specific time.

"It was really Polly kind of rediscovering the demo tape that we'd made of the song 'Black Hearted Love.' It was actually written somewhere between the two albums, initially for a solo project of mine that was going to be my music and several different singers, but I ended up getting distracted from that project and never finishing it. That song has just been sitting around until Polly found it again and said, 'This is a fantastic song; we've got to do something with it. Let's do a new album, and let's do it now!'"

Although Parish has recorded three worthy solo albums, been a prolific composer of film scores and has contributed to recordings by other artists ranging from Giant Sand, M. Ward and the Eels to Tracy Chapman, Goldfrapp and Sparklehorse, his friendship and musical partnership with Harvey remains a special one, based on what he calls a rare ability to honestly criticize one another's work.

"Since we first met, which was in 1987, we just got along and found it easy to communicate... Artists are all sensitive about their work, and it's difficult to take criticism. If you find someone that you're able to criticize and also that you're able to take criticism from, it can be an incredibly fortuitous relationship, because you really are able to help each other move on.

"We expect good things of each other and we set high stands for each other, and if either of us doesn't live up to that in the other person's opinion, neither of us are frightened to tell the other person. We might not like to hear it [laughs], but we're both able to accept it and to take it in good faith."

Both of the Parish and Harvey albums were created through a process by which Parish crafted all of the music and sent it Harvey, whereupon she chose the pieces that inspired her and developed lyrics and unique vocal "characters" based on those sounds. On the new disc, the results find her literally barking like a dog on the Captain Beefheart homage "Pig Will Not," channeling a haunted old woman in "April" and fantasizing (one hopes) of violent and bloody revenge in the title track.

"One of the most exciting moments of the project is when I get the CD back from Polly and see where the songs have gone," Parish says. "Up to that point, they just existed as instrumental pieces for me. I probably really like them, otherwise I wouldn't have sent them off in the first place, but they're definitely one thing, and then when they come back, they're another thing again. That's really exciting, because I never know what Polly is going to do.

"As she describes it, she's really responding to the music that she hears, so that's where those other voices are coming from. She's not making a conscious decision to sing in a certain way or anything; she hears those finished pieces of music and then, provided they work, she just responds to in an emotional way and starts singing with them, and that's how those voices are formed and that's what triggers the lyrics."

And what did he think the first time he heard the scathing fury of "Pig Will Not"?

"Obviously, that one was such a surprise! I knew it was an intense piece of music anyway, and I thought there were very few people who could have tackled it. Very few singers could have come up with anything to go over that. She described it as 'an express train with all doors welded shut.'"

Though PJ Harvey (the band) and Polly Harvey (the woman) have never failed to deliver whenever they've taken the stage in Chicago, fans should expect something extraordinary when the express train of her current tour with Parish and backing musicians Eric Drew Feldman on keyboards, Jean-Marc Butty on drums and Giovanni Ferrario roars into the Riviera Theatre tonight. Be sure to hold on tight.