PJ Harvey and her fearless collaborators have navigated three decades and six albums without repeating themselves, and her new album is another masterclass in innovative production.
Flood, John Parish and PJ Harvey have been a production team for almost 30 years. They first worked together on Harvey’s third album, To Bring You My Love, in 1995 and have now produced her 10th and latest, I Inside The Old Year Dying.
John Parish met Polly Jean Harvey when, as a 19‑year‑old, she joined his Bristol band Automatic Dlamini in the summer of 1988, contributing guitar, saxophone and vocals. Flood, meanwhile, was first brought in by Harvey’s then‑label Island Records to co‑produce To Bring You My Love at a time when his credits already included Nick Cave, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode and U2.
Sitting in Parish’s home studio in Bristol, he and Flood admit that there are up sides and down sides to such a lasting and close working relationship. For Parish, the main benefit, as he sees it, is “that level of trust that develops and builds over time that is just absolutely foundational to what we do”.
“Yeah, absolutely,” Flood says. “There’s never any question about one’s intent. There’s this sort of level of [relieved sigh], ‘Ah, I don’t need to worry.’ If things are going terribly...”
“...You know that there’s always somebody there to pick up the baton,” Parish adds. “So when we’re kind of hitting a wall, and you’re like ‘Aarrrgh!’, one of us will go, ‘Well what about...?’ and you think, ‘Thank God for that.’ You can move on. It could be a totally mad idea. And it might be rubbish, but nobody’s going to think badly of you. They’re going to think well of you for putting that out there... because it might have worked. And sometimes it does work. It makes it a very freeing sort of situation because you do feel that everyone’s going to support you.”
Both agree that their main challenge, however, is pushing themselves to help create a fresh sound for each new Harvey record and avoid venturing back down well‑worn routes. “She’s an artist in the truest sense,” Flood says of the singer, “so she’s pushing all the time. But, working with people that you know, there’s a lot goes unsaid. So you don’t go, ‘Oh, that sounds amazing.’ Even though we’ve done it 300 times. Somebody will chirp up and go, ‘Nah. Heard that one before. Should we try doing something different?’ So that is very, very draining.”
“Yeah, it’s tiring,” Parish says, “even though the sessions that we did on this record were incredibly creative, and really, really thoroughly enjoyable. But it’s still tiring, because everybody’s trying to make something that we all haven’t heard before, to make something that’s really emotionally engaging, and that hopefully has an engagement beyond the room. That takes a lot, you know. There are very few artists that come to a new record each time with a totally new body of work, and a really new sound.”
When Parish, Flood and Harvey first pooled their talents on To Bring You My Love, it was at a transitional point for the singer, who’d broken up the power trio that bore her name on 1992’s Dry and the Steve Albini‑recorded Rid Of Me in 1993. The result was a more experimental and sonically varied set spanning dusty blues, lovelorn country and the bossa nova murder ballad ‘Down By The Water’ that freed PJ Harvey up for the future.
“It was such a bold move of Polly’s to effectively [say], ‘I’m going out on my own,’” Flood stresses. “And it doesn’t happen very often, but I have been very privileged to work with a handful of people who you just know, from day one, it’s going to be OK.”
“Yeah, from day one, it was a good fit,” says Parish. “We were kind of, ‘OK, we immediately know we’re all on the same page about things.’ We might have different ways of going about doing things or different opinions, but the goal is the same.”
There have been many adventures for the three down the years, not least when Harvey chose to record much of 2011’s Let England Shake on location in Eype Church in Dorset. “But that’s my day job,” Flood points out. “‘I can build a studio for you.’ If you go to a studio, the band has to impose their vibe, energy, whatever it is, on that space. Whereas if you, as the studio, go to a space... you can work with the environment. There’s a reason why it’s been chosen. Then all I do is just bring a load of microphones and off we go.”
“The only challenge,” Parish points out, “was when somebody died and we had to take the studio out while they had a funeral, and then put it back in.”
More unusual still was the making of 2016’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, which involved the team working in a bespoke, white‑walled studio at Somerset House in London, in an art installation titled Recording In Progress. Ticket holders were given the opportunity to watch the sessions from behind one‑way glass for blocks of 45 minutes. Obviously, some were luckier than others in terms of what was actually going on in the studio when they randomly observed the proceedings.
“It seemed like a mad idea at first, I have to say,” Parish admits. “But we quickly embraced it. The funny thing is that you got used to it very, very fast. It was only really the first couple of days that we were even aware that there were people watching. It would have been distracting if you could see them. I think that would have made it not work.
“The only time I think that you became aware of it was if you did something particularly good or particularly bad and you thought, either, ‘Well, I hope somebody saw that,’ or ‘I hope nobody was in for that really terrible take of that song!’”
Flood adds with a grin, “I do remember one session of about 30 minutes of me trying to tune a foot pedal to the tuning of a tom‑tom, and me and Polly lying on the floor just weeping with laughter.”
I Inside The Old Year Dying arrives after a seven‑year gap between albums for PJ Harvey. Exhausted in the wake of the long tour for The Hope Six Demolition Project, she had grown so distanced from music that she wasn’t even sure whether or not she wanted to carry on as a recording artist and live performer. But, as John Parish points out, “Polly’s not the only artist who I’ve heard say, ‘That’s it, I’m never going to tour again!’ or ‘I’m never making another record.’ I think that’s a pretty common thing for an artist. But after a while, y’know, you’ve got some new songs, you’ve got some new ideas, and the whole thing becomes suddenly a bit more appealing again.”
Up until this new record, the making of almost every one of Harvey’s albums had involved her creating very minimal, but very precise demos for the team to reference when they got into the studio. This time around, the process was different. In 2022, Harvey...