This past spring at El Rey, PJ Harvey and John Parish introduced California to songs from their rich, velvet-upholstered recent collection, A Woman a Man Walked By. It’s the pair’s second collaboration, a dozen years after the sparse yet fierce Dance Hall at Louse Point. With four musicians backing her, Harvey was in full diva mode at the El Rey show, never touching a guitar but shaking maracas like Mick Jagger, twirling and freaking and dancing and yowling and whispering and, in general, delivering an absolutely riveting performance that, at times, suggested exorcism and denial, at others, conjured a melancholy beauty that drove her to waltz around while bemoaning our fair state — “Leaving California,” with a refrain that includes the line, “Get me out of here.” The day of that spring show, West Coast Sound sat down in West Hollywood with Harvey and Parish in the restaurant at Le Parc.
Describe your collaborative process.
PARISH: Both Dance Hall at Louse Point and the new record were made with me writing the music and recording the music, and giving copies to Polly, and she would put the words on top, and then we get together and record the songs and the words that we’re completely happy with. I think the main difference between the two collaborations is really how we’ve developed and progressed as writers and performers in the dozen years between the two records. So while we were basically following the same template, the end result, we both feel, is quite a considerable progression, on a much broader record. And it was nice, because it’s difficult to judge your own progress as an artist because the records tend to be closer together, so you don’t have that distance.
Does it get easier over the years to handle each other’s criticism?
HARVEY: Yes, and I think that’s why I value our relationship so much in that working capacity. Because it’s very rare, I think, to find somebody whose opinion you really respect but also whose judgment will be truthful, no matter what. And to be able to receive that, and give it in good heart is fantastic. It’s rare, and I think it’s difficult for some people to receive criticism, even from a friend. It can be quite destroying.
This being L.A., I feel compelled to ask you about the song, “Leaving California.” Can you talk about that song, Polly?
HARVEY: Well, I’m sure you know I choose to not discuss lyrics, because it seems very unnecessary to me. I think the beauty of a song is how the words completely coexist with the music to create the environment for the listener to make what they will out of it. So I don’t choose to talk about that.
I understand. John, can you talk about the music for that song?
PARISH: Yeah. I didn’t know what the lyrics were going to be about, but I felt it was a piece of music that was very much more a song than some of the others. Because some of the pieces for this record are really quite abstract explorations and sonic journeys that don’t really follow a traditional song template. But that song, for me, is the one that will probably work best if you just sat there and played it with a guitar and sang it. I could imagine it almost as a folk song. There’s something really lovely about it. The odd thing was that I really had it as a four/four song for a very long time, and it wasn’t quite working for me, and I knew that the chords — there was a real beauty and atmosphere to the chords, but it wasn’t really doing what I was hoping it to do. And then on a whim, I just happened to play it in waltz time, and then immediately I thought, “Oh, yeah, of course. This is how this song should exist.”
There need to be more waltzes about California, for sure. I actually can’t make it all the way through “Pig Will Not” yet. And I like loud, aggressive music, but that song kinda freaks me out.
HARVEY: I can talk a little bit about that song. What I always try to do vocally with what John presents to me musically is to match the environment that that piece of music is inhabiting, and strengthen it more. So I just absorb the feeling of the music that is given me. Obviously, music like “Pig Will Not” and “A Woman a Man Walked By” are very difficult pieces of music, and it took me a long time to find a way in which I could convincingly deliver some sort of narrative that would not only match the music but even enhance it. What I do vocally always has to be absolutely together with the music in that they were made for each other and you cannot separate one from the other. So it took me a long time to find the way to present this piece. And I tried many different ways. I tried singing them. I tried intricate melodies. And none of that was working for me. And I felt what the song needed was to become a savage narrative in order to at all inhabit the world of the music.
PJ Harvey and John Parish perform at the Wiltern on Saturday, June 20.