Ragged Glory: John Parish
Best known for his work with PJ Harvey, John Parish is recognised for capturing her poetic range, her grit and her grace, through grunge and folk. His skill is to detect nuances in verse and capture them in the music. Starting out in a New Wave group before going on to form Automatic Dlamini, which Harvey joined in ‘87, the pair have been friends ever since. In John’s collaborators he finds confidantes, he builds trust through his fidelity to their music. Some artists are isolated by their genius, but Parish finds his through collaboration.
What makes John great, and what PJ Harvey praises in him, is his ability as an editor. It’s his honesty as a musician that has created strong relationships. Something he modestly plays down. “Obviously Polly [Jean Harvey] and I have a strong relationship going back a few years so that she’s probably got an astute view of what I do. And yeah it’s very much about criticism. I think about that a lot. Having just finished a production session now and I’m aware that an awful lot of producing is about being able to criticise in a way that moves things forwards. Sometimes that can mean being quite blunt and harsh.”
Working with others has been fruitful for John and Tracy Chapman, Mark ‘E’ Everett of Eels, M Ward, and hard-hitting French groups Dominique A and Dionysos are all in his little black book. Another recurring partner is alt-country legend and Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb, who once described John to me as “Sir John Parish, one of those people who are already knighted in my head. His ability to tackle cacophony and render it musical is like no other.”
A career highlight came in 2011 when PJ Harvey won the Mercury Prize for a record Parish produced and performed on. Let England Shake was a record of great majesty and met with critical acclaim. Much like Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston there’s an intimate magic in their recordings. There’s a mysticism around the relationship that tells of Polly as the timid muse, confiding in John things that are seldom put to record. Rather than falling back on the morbid, which Harvey has a habit of doing, when the pair are at their best a there’s a holism that occurs. On tracks such as When Under Ether from White Chalk with Harvey intimating a porcelain beauty, Parish’s deft drumming and ukulele playing bring it to life. He offers the track a fullness while the tone requests otherwise. Undoubtedly Harvey has produced her best music with Parish because he allows her to express the intangible. For this the pair is seen as inseparable, creating something unique and in the minds of the listener something romantic.
Last week he completed an installation work with film maker Gavin Bush, five original recordings and a show for The Quad Gallery in Derby. The project employed a John Smedley knitwear factory as a location to document a week in the workshop. “It worked really well. It was a fantastic sounding room and a great acoustic space. I would really love to have had that as a permanent workspace.” New musicians would arrive each day and, against the backdrop of the factory’s working harmonics, a melody was created – machines clanging and groaning, forming fragments of composition. In the works Parish harnesses the ill-defined nuances of the setting.
This week sees the release of Soundtrack, a record that plays through pieces Parish initially composed for film. All newly recorded and interspersed with soundbites from the movies they represent, the pieces draw upon the pastoral and the Baroque. Instead of formal structures there are fleeting guitars travelling left to right and a litany of spoken languages, rocky signifiers, and synthesised strings. Because of this the record’s completeness stems from its curation rather than its component parts.
The impending solo album runs against this whole flow. To take leave of those he’s embedded himself among is refreshing. His career of ghosting great talents has left him outshone by his peers and undone by his modesty. He has an ego, he assures me, but one not big enough to feed from the limelight.
“Occasionally it’s pointed out to me that [being invested in other people's projects] isn’t necessarily to my advantage. So that when I do want to put a piece of my own work out it’s treated as almost peculiar, really, because some people feel that if you’re not constantly putting out and concentrating on your own work you’re not a serious about it. Like, we live in this age where individuals are sold and marketed, rather than their work.”
There’s a fear that John will end up a man forgotten in the wake of those he’s helped. Hoist by his own petard Parish will continue to operate in the liminal spaces. Knowing that his constant pursuit of creativity without presence is as much his making as it is his undoing.
‘Soundtrack’ is released this week on Thrill Jockey.
The films from The Developer in Derby can be viewed here
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