It's been more than a dozen years since the release of Dance Hall at Louise Point, Polly Jean (a.k.a. PJ) Harvey and multi-instrumentalist John Parish's last co-authored musical venture.
But to hear them tell it, hardly a day goes by without the two of them trading ideas, input or recorded material.
“Both Polly and I were surprised by how long it had actually been [since that album], because we consider everything we do musically a collaboration to some degree,” Parish says about the release of their new album, A Woman A Man Walked By. “Even if we’re not officially working on records together, we’re sending each other the demos of the new material we’re writing. We use each other as touchstones constantly.”
For her part, Harvey agrees that she and Parish have formed something of a permanent—if sporadic—creative bond. “It is an unusual partnership, and the relationship we have is very rare,” she concurs. “From the first time I met him when I was 18, John’s always been someone I respected enormously; I trust him implicitly. He has an extraordinarily good ear for judging what’s good and bad with music. But beyond that, I value his opinion on the stuff of life, really. Even when I’m not working with him on a particular project, he’s one of the first people I’ll send my new songs to in order to get feedback and help me gauge what’s good—and what isn’t. I need people like that, someone who’ll talk straight with me.”
A Woman A Man Walked By is indeed an album of straight talk: 10 tracks of bracing, experimental music that travel the full distance of everything Harvey and Parish are capable of delivering on their own, or as a pair. The duo has collaborated in any number of ways over the last two decades—Parish produced 1995’s To Bring You My Love and served as a band member on that tour; he played on Harvey’s 1998 release Is This Desire?; and was co-producer on her more contemplative, piano-laced 2007 album, White Chalk. This new release finds them bouncing from jarring, arrhythmic guitar rock (a musical ode to Baudelaire’s The Rebel, “Pig Will Not”) and radio-ready pop (“Black Hearted Love,” the track Harvey found in her outtakes pile two years ago that set the project in motion) to aqueous Verve-like space rock and even mellotron-sampling tone poetry. “We’ve covered a lot of ground, that’s for sure,” Parish laughs. “We had no manifesto when we started writing this record, other than one rule: not to repeat ourselves.”
Both Harvey and Parish agree that it’s the honesty of their partnership that’s kept them coming back to each other over the years. “Halfway through the Bring You My Love tour, we were playing a show in Seattle, and Polly turned up in this mermaid costume. It was as though we’d stepped over the line from a grotesque cabaret into a pantomime. I went backstage after the show and knocked on Polly’s door: ‘I’m not entirely comfortable standing onstage with you when you’re dressed like a fish!’”
“It’s true,” Harvey remembers. “My extravagant creation that had been made months beforehand, just for that purpose—we had a good laugh about it, and then I never wore it again.”