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 Goldfrapp.
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 collaborative effort.”
“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.”
A Woman A Man Walked By is probably the most out-there song on the album: a Beefheart-esque snarl about a comic grotesque – a “mummy’s boy” with “chicken liver balls” – delivered with an almost pantomimic relish. “That song is just enormous fun for me,” says Polly. “It’s very funny, and it’s great to perform.”
Which brings us to qualities much overlooked in some of Polly’s lyrics: mischief, playfulness, and the sense that contrary to the more crass understanding of what songwriters do, their work need not be a matter of aching earnestness. “I’ve got very used to being perplexed by this from an early age,” she says. “I have such enormous fun writing and singing music, and people very often take things extremely seriously, all the time. I find it really strange, as well, when I’m very obviously doing very silly voices [laughs]. There’s a part of Pig Will Not when I sound like I’m doing a Dalek impression.”
On the musical side, A Woman A Man Walked By features additional musical contributions from Polly’s close associate Eric Drew Feldman, the California-based drummer Carla Azar (from the left-field band Autolux), and the Italian guitarist Giovanni Ferrario. Quite apart from the cracked time signatures and shifting arrangements that occasionally give its songs the air of creations pulled from its creators’ irrational, emotional, sometimes almost dreamlike thoughts, it’s also streaked with touches that push it even further beyond the orthodox: on The Soldier, a ringing ukulele mends with the merest frosting of piano to absolutely haunting effect; 16.15.14 features a banjo part that lends it the flavour of sepia-tinted Appalachian folk music; elsewhere, there are parts played on wonderfully arcane and obsolescent keyboards.
That said, at the start of the album there is the aforementioned Black Hearted Love, the album’s lead-off single – a gloriously straight-ahead rock song that seems to have taken both of them by surprise. “Like all the things that become your favourites,” says John, “it happened quite easily and quite accidentally. There was no effort in writing a simple, straight-ahead rock song; it happened by itself. I can be very moved by something that is a really quite simple, quite straight-ahead piece music. I know that’s not what I’m known for, but those are often my favourite pieces.”
“I love that so song so much: it just feels like a great pop song to me, and there’s nothing I don’t like about it,” says Polly. “But it was like a freak child, really, because the others didn’t come out like that at all. I love that monstrous guitar riff that keeps on happening: it’s almost Morricone-esque.”
And so to the immediate future. Polly Jean Harvey and John Parish will soon be performing songs from A Woman A Man Walked By and Dance Hall At Louse Point on the live stage. When it comes to their respective solo work, John has “half an album” written, and Polly has already begun work on her next project, which she anticipates being co-produced by John, Flood and Mick Harvey. As to when the two of them might co-write another record, Polly claims the long gap that separated Dance Hall At Louse Point and this album points up the right way to go.
“I think it’ll be absolutely necessary to wait at least another twelve years,” she says. “I’m serious: just think how great it’ll be. I was listening to both records over the last couple of days, and I loved hearing that journey. So I’m really excited to see what we can do another twelve years’ time.”
2021 is approximately 4350 days away. But don’t worry: on the evidence of A Woman A Man Walked By, the wait will be worth it.
– John Harris, January 2009Go Back