Gig preview: John Parish, Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds

John Parish
John Parish
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John Parish is the man Polly Jean Harvey refers to as her “musical soulmate”.

A guitarist and producer, he has also worked with the likes of Eels, Giant Sand, Tracy Chapman and Goldfrapp.

But his latest album is something different; called Screenplay, it’s a collection of atmospheric pieces that the West Countryman has composed for the soundtracks of various arthouse films over the past decade or so.

This month he extends it to live performances across the UK and Europe.

The 54-year-old explains Screenplay began life as project for a festival in home city. “There was a festival in Bristol organised by The Watershed and St George’s Hall, it was a celebration of film and film music,” he says.

“They asked three composers to do a show and curate a month’s worth of films and to do a talk at The Watershed.

“They asked myself and Philip Glass and Will Gregory [of Goldfrapp]. I thought it would be a great thing to do.”

To make it worthwhile assembling his band, who are based across Europe, Parish decided to “do a few more shows and put a record out as well”. The project offered him the chance to “cherry pick” from largely unreleased soundtrack material as “the films I do are fairly obscure arthouse – apart from the last one, Sister, which just missed out on getting an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film”.

His introduction to writing music for films began with Patrice Toye’s film Rosie in 1998. The Belgian director had been using the John Parish and PJ Harvey album Dancehall at Louse Point as a “temp score” then decided she would like Parish to write music for the entire film. “I was very interested, I was into film music anyway, so it wasn’t a complete shock.”

By a “superb coincidence” he had just finished writing eight pieces of instrumental music “to see what I could come up with”. Toye “loved half of them” and immediately chose one as the main theme for her film so “it was already written before I had seen scenes from the movie”.

His own favourite soundtrack composers include the “obvious classics” Ennio Morricone and John Barry – the former for the sense of space in his work, “particularly the Westerns with Sergio Leone”, whereas with York-born Barry, it’s his “harmonic sense”, not only in his soundtracks for the James Bond films but also The Iprecress Files. He also cites other inspirations such as Wim Mertens and Michael Nyman. “I don’t think you can hear that, but I know these things seep in,” he says, before adding: “I don’t want to just emulate somebody I like. I try to pick as big a pool as possible.”

Parish’s working methods vary, depending upon where film-makers are in the process when he becomes involved. Sometimes he will sit and play along with a guitar to scenes; with Toye, who he’s worked with three times, “I might start working on the music with the script and photos and locations and characters”.

Some of the best music he has written has only been with “vague notions of what’s happening...then it’s not tied to a specific time frame”.

“The pieces that work best as standalone are quite free-form,” he reckons. “I have an image in my mind. It’s writing with a feeling and seeing where it goes.” Though he insists “it’s not as random as it sounds”.

When it comes to performing the album live, Parish promises something out of the ordinary. For the Leeds date – at Hyde Park Picture House, a venue he’s familiar with – “there will be scenes from movies projected [behind the band]”.

“Most are montages that a couple of film-maker friends of mine have put together and there are some images from Sister. It won’t be as it appears in the movie – it’s difficult to co-ordinate and too confusing for the audience.”

Some short snippets of films will be used “as a bridge” between songs.

“I think Hyde Park Picture House should be the perfect venue. My sister was at college in Leeds, I remember it being a brilliant place.”

He’s “not sure” exactly when he and PJ Harvey will start work on her next album. “Hopefully next year,” he says. “We have talked about it, but Polly is very meticulous about her writing, she won’t go into the studio until she’s happy with it, so I can’t put a date on when.”

Her last record, Let England Shake, was her second to win the Mercury Prize and was critically regarded as the defining album of 2011, yet Parish doesn’t find the prospect of following it up daunting. “In a way you have to put that out of your mind,” he says. “It’s an impossible task but I have great faith in Polly as a writer and an artist. I know there’s something interesting to come.”

September 7, Hyde Park Picture House, Brudenell Road, Leeds, 7.30pm, £11.