Once Upon a Little Time; An interview with John Parish

Though John Parish’s name might not instantly connect, his long line of work is certainly familiar to many. As a producer, Parish has worked with the likes of PJ Harvey, Giant Sand, Tracy Chapman, Sixteen Horsepower, and Sparklehorse. As a musician, he’s worked in scores and as a part of the extended PJ Harvey band on their Hope Six Demolition Project world tour. You may not have heard his name, but you have heard his music. Turning his production focus inward, Bird Dog Dante is out now on and features a collection of new original songs and a few pieces selected from his soundtrack work.

Ghettoblaster: It’s been a number of years since your last non-screenplay release, what inspired you to put together Bird Dog Dante?

John Parish: I’d been toying with the idea of doing an album that was split in half between songs & instrumental pieces for some time – but I’ve had a pretty unbroken run of production work, and live work with the PJ Harvey Hope Six demolition project tour for the past two or three years, so it took a little longer than I was anticipating. Also, once I’d started the writing I realized it was leaning more heavily toward songs – possibly because I’d been doing a lot of singing on the PJH tour and I’d been really enjoying it.

GB: Bird Dog Dante contains a few of your pieces for film, how did you decide that they’d be included on the album?

JP: Sometimes I write a piece for a film & maybe only 30 seconds or so of the actual piece ends up in the movie. There are a couple of pieces on Bird Dog Dante that I really liked and felt they’d only been glimpsed in their score setting so I wanted to present them as they were written.

GB: Are there more songs you’re working on outside of film that might find their way to another album in the near future? Once Upon a Little Time is still on fairly regular rotation in my stereo and I feel Bird Dog Dante will too.

JP: Glad to hear that! There are a couple of others and maybe we’ll play them when we tour later in the year. I’d really like to not leave it so long between albums, but I find it very hard to turn down really interesting offers of work.

GB: Working on soundtracks I would imagine providing a good deal of direct inspiration for your songs. Outside of those pieces, where do you draw inspiration from?

JP: I’m fortunate to be able to work with many inspiring artists, so I’m constantly learning – and they set the bar high… which is probably why I’m also slow at producing my own work. But inspiration can come in any shape or form, from the sublime to the mundane. The song “Rachel” started with a bad cup of coffee in a Starbucks.

GB: Interesting, can you tell me that story?

JP: I was sitting drinking a coffee in a Starbucks in Bristol, and although it was a terrible cup of coffee I was kind of enjoying the ambiance, and I started musing on the ambiguous nature of Americanisation on global culture. From the point of view of coffee. I wrote some words down under the title Rachel, referring to Rachel from ‘Friends’, who was, of course, a barista. But the song is not really about Rachel. I recently read a poem by New Zealander Hera Lindsay Bird called ‘Monica’, and although there are more ‘Friends’ references than in my song, her poem is also not really about Monica.

GB: Soundtracks are also cinematic in nature – do you have visuals in mind with all of the music you write?

JP: Not specifically, but often particular images attach themselves to particular songs. I don’t know how that happens… and I hadn’t actually thought about it before.

GB: When sequencing the songs, is cohesive lyrical content as important as the music fitting together? Is there an over-arching story to Bird Dog Dante

JP: There is no overall lyrical concept to the album. But I do think very much about the flow of the music from one song to the next when I’m sequencing an album… and lyrics obviously affect that so I take them into account of course. But I’m not telling one story.

GB: How did working with PJ Harvey on “Sorry for Your Loss” come together? Did you have the song finished before you approached her or was it more collaborative than that?

JP: Polly & I had both worked with Mark Linkous and had remained good friends with him. We were both deeply upset by his death, and I originally wrote the words to ‘Sorry For Your Loss’ as a personal response. When I decided I wanted to record the song for the album I knew immediately that I wanted Polly to sing it with me as I felt there was a strong connection between the three of us. As well as being a wonderful singer, Polly is a great critic and she picked out a couple of lazy lines which she encouraged me to rewrite. I did and the lyric was much improved!

GB: What advantages do you feel you have as a songwriter from your work as a producer? Do you think there are any disadvantages? 

JP: The advantages are numerous. I get to learn from great writers. I get to criticize great writers, which means having to think deeply about what they’re trying to do and how to make that better. All these things I try to apply to myself when I’m writing – with varying degrees of success.

The only obvious disadvantage is that takes up a lot of time and mental energy. I’m happy with that trade-off.

GB: You recently helped organize a Nick Drake concert with Remembered for a While – The Music of Nick Drake – can you tell us a little about that? What inspired you to pull together the event and the people you involved.

JP: Phil Johnson, who promotes shows at this great venue in Bristol [St George’s] wanted to do something celebrating what would have been Nick’s 70th year and asked me to put something together. I thought it would be an interesting challenge to try & rework some of his songs. I asked three great singers to be involved, Aldous Harding, Nadine Khouri and H Hawkline – each doing four or five songs – I didn’t want either a revolving door policy where there was a band onstage and a different singer would pop out for each song, or put the whole weight of the show onto one voice. Rob Ellis and Enrico Gabrielli arranged three songs each for strings [played by the Lochrian Quartet], and the band was myself, Enrico, Jeremy Hogg & Jack Ogborne. The show was filmed and there’s talk of maybe reprising it at some point… let’s see!

Photos: Michelle Henning

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