It was the late '80s. Just shy of 18 years old, Polly Jean Harvey had already gigged as a sidewoman in several bands, playing the guitar or sax that she had learned during her childhood spent on a sheep farm in Yeovil, England. Looking for a band for her birthday, she found one led by a fellow Yeovillian, John Parish, called Automatic Diamini.
Automatic Diamini ultimately didn't play because of "internal band problems." But Parish got the chance to hear Harvey sing and play, and asked her to join the band. A creative union between Harvey and Parish was forged, one that's taken them from being bandmates to confidants and that has ended up with them as co-writers of two acclaimed albums.
"The thing we keep coming back to is trust," says Parish by phone from his U.K. home. "We very much trust each other's opinions and judgments."
Harvey left Automatic Diamini in 1991 to pursue a solo career. Parish has also released music under his name and became an accomplished producer, including for Harvey. They've remained in contact even when not working together, giving each other advice and opinions on nearly all creative projects.
"We've had a good working and personal relationship pretty much from when we started working together," Parish says. "Sometimes you run into somebody where it's just easy to communicate. We found we had that relationship. We feel fortunate that we've been able to sustain it over all this time."
Eventually the idea of jointly releasing a record came about. That became 1996's Dance Hall at Louise Point
. Parish wrote the music, then sent it to Harvey, who came up with lyrics and recorded vocals over the top.
Their music together is full of unexpected flourishes. That's due in large part to Parish's penchant for writing music with variegated instruments - some arcane - and Harvey's equally unpredictable vocal range. Parish records the melodies he considers keepers, then eventually listens to them again to mark the "Polly tracks" that may be grist for a collaboration.
"I certainly have no preconception of what she's going to do with any particular piece," Parish says. "Obviously some pieces are more conventionally song-structured than other pieces."
For instance, the song "Leaving California" off their new CD, A Woman A Man Walked By
, has a fractured melody that strongly suggests how the singing should go - in this case a fey falsetto. Conversely, the garage-y blast of "Pig Will Not" was open to interpretation in Parish's mind. It prompted loudspeaker ranting with an animalistic abandon from Harvey.
"I didn't expect what she did come up with," he says. "It's always really nice to be surprised in that way. Which I think is amazing after all this time of working together. But I'm still surprised when I get the CDs back with her writings on top of mine."
If 13 years seems like a long time between album-length projects for Harvey and Parish, perhaps it's because genius doesn't come easily or often.
"We both have respect and high standards for each other, and of ourselves, when we're working together," Parish says. "The music we write we want to be challenging for ourselves. We're trying to do something different and not repeat ourselves, or anybody else's ideas. Ideas like that don't come every day for sure."
Thursday's show at the Vogue is one of 14 on the two's tour. Indianapolis is one of the smaller markets on the itinerary, but they aren't coming here because of Parish's production credit on local icon Jennie DeVoe's last two records.
"That's just a nice coincidence," Parish says. "It'll be a nice excuse to hopefully hang out for a couple hours."