PJ HARVEY & JOHN PARISH – A WOMAN A MAN WALKED BY
The bare facts, to start with. A Woman A Man Walked By is the second
album co-written and jointly performed by Polly Jean Harvey and John
Parish, and comes over 12 years after 1996's Dance Hall At Louse Point.
It was initially recorded at Parish and Harvey's homes – and later, at
a studio in Bristol where it was assisted by the contributions of three
other musicians. Some of it is quiet, considered and reflective; at
other moments, it verges on the deranged. By turns, it is mischievous,
deadly serious, elegant and poetic, and possessed of a brutal power –
and it is doubtful that you will hear a record as brimming with
creative brio and musical invention this year.
As with just about all the records that have featured its authors'
names either together or apart, it is based on one insight above all
others: that repetition and comfy formulas are always to be avoided.
So, though you can draw lines between this record and Dance Hall At
Louse Point, there are occasions when you'd assume you were listening
to the work of different people.
"That's really important to me in everything I do, and John as well,"
says Harvey. "John wrote some music which we didn't use, because I
might have liked it, but it just reminded me of something we'd done
before. Likewise, there were a couple of lyrics where we thought, 'No,
we've done that before.' For me, that's the most important thing with
anything I'm working on. It becomes very natural to me to write a
certain kind of song. I could really easily keep doing that same
formula, and a lot of people would probably love it. But I'd start
dying inside. I can't do it."
The story that led them here stretches back to the late 1980s, and the
first encounter between Parish – then in charge of a renowned West
English group called Automatic Dlamini, co-founded by drummer Rob Ellis
– and Harvey, who had somewhat optimistically booked them to perform at
her 18th birthday party. Thanks to "internal band problems", they
didn't actually play, but John soon received word of Polly's talents
from a friend, and suggested she join the group.
"Whenever I've put bands together, it's been based on the most spurious
of hunches – and I just had a feeling that she was going to be the
right person," says John. "I thought, right away, that she had a
fantastic voice – and something about her made me want to work with
her. A lot of my friends were quite surprised: they didn't see the
sense in it. But it didn't take that long to see her change from being
quite a nervous, inexperienced performer to really contributing
interesting musical ideas. And I felt it was possible to trust her
judgement: she had opinions I could relate to."
Harvey cut her teeth in Automatic Dlamini, playing saxophone and
contributing vocals, learning an abrasive, wonderfully rhythmic guitar
style from John, and massively growing in self-confidence. She left the
group in 1991, and John called time on the group not long after,
commencing an admirably productive career as a songwriter, musician and
producer that has seen not just three albums of his own - Rosie
(2000), How Animals Move (2002) and Once Upon A Little Time (2005) -
but collaborations with artists as varied as Giant Sand, Eels and
Between 1994 and 1995, he co-produced and played on the PJ Harvey album
To Bring You My Love, and joined her band on tour. In 1996, after Polly
heard music John had written for a production of Hamlet and asked him
whether the two of them could work on music that was as exciting and
convention-breaking, the pair of them collaborated on the
aforementioned Dance Hall At Louse Point. Towards the end of the 1990s,
John was a featured musician on the Is This Desire? album and
subsequent tour. And eventually – after eight or so years during which
he and Polly recurrently sought each other's opinions about their
ongoing musical projects and ideas – he took up the same co-production
role on 2007's White Chalk, the album that many people see as Harvey's
most perfectly realised album thus far.
"With every record that Polly's made, and every record that I've made,"
says John, "we've been sending each other stuff and talking about what
we've been doing. Everything we do – to some degree – is a
"I always ask for John's opinion on whatever I'm doing, even if he's
not involved," says Polly, "So during the years when I made records
where he's not been there, I've still been sending him every single
demo I do, and I want his opinion of the songs. I've always valued his
judgement on whether anything's any good or not."
A Woman A Man Walked By first stirred in the summer of 2006, when
Harvey was completing the writing of the songs that would make up
White Chalk. "I stumbled across a piece of music that we'd had floating
around from about five years before, that we'd done nothing with – and
that became Black Hearted Love," she says. "I'd written the lyric to
it, and we'd never recorded it. I said, 'That song's really fantastic –
can you write another nine songs so we can make an album?' That's
pretty much how it happened."
At root, what fires this partnership is simple enough: that each brings
talents and qualities to the creative process that working alone rules
out. To take things down to the bare bones, Polly sings and writes the
lyrics, and John composes the music, plays most of it, and takes charge
of the arrangements – though behind that division of labour lurks a
real empathy and shared intuition.
"Polly, vocally, is far more adept than I am, and that frees me up to
write much more extravagant music, because I know that she's capable of
matching it," says John. "If I was to write something for myself to
sing, it would have to be much simpler, much more straightforward. For
me, it's a liberating process – because I feel I can write pretty much
anything, and throw almost anything at her, and something interesting's
going to come back."
"We both play and perform with the same feeling," says Polly, "so it's
completely natural for me to feel the music that he's written. But John
comes up with music I could never come up with – I'm just not as adept
as he is on many different instruments; I just wouldn't be able to come
up with that intricate a sound. I use an instrument as a tool to sing
the song over, but I can't go much further than that. Whereas I think
the music that John makes is just so full of melody and rhythmic
changes and all these things that it's very exciting for me to
construct lyrics over that. I come up with ways of singing, and words,
that I never would if I was left to my own devices."
Behind the combination of words and music, there lies a fascinating
combination of accident and design. On this record, for example, the
music for three songs – 16.15.14, The Chair and A Woman A Man Walked
By – came with ready-made titles from John, which either sparked
Polly's imagination or pointed towards already-written lyrics that had
accidentally suggested similar themes.
"As a lyric-writer, I've changed quite a lot over the years," she says.
"These days, I tend to work on words very separately from music. I like
to make them work on the page. I keep books and books of finished
lyrics – and with this record, I would listen to the music and see what
it suggested, and I'd know where I could reach for in my lyrics, and
think, 'Oh yeah – that.' But also, John would sometimes come up with a
title, which was really exciting. I was given a piece of music, and it
was called 16.15.14, and immediately, I was thinking, 'You're in the
garden, playing hide and seek.' My mind just goes straight away. I love
it when that happens."