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The Auteur in the Background

Frontman, sideman, writer, producer, performer: John Parish happily goes his own way.


PJ Harvey ... Eels ... Tracy Chapman ... Sparklehorse ... Giant Sand.

That's a diverse bunch of distinguished pop artists, but they have at least one thing in common besides piles of rave reviews--a bloke named John Parish.

His teamings with these pop auteurs have quietly established the low-key musician and producer as the consummate collaborator. Now he's being nudged out of the shadows, sharing in the acclaim for Eels' current "Souljacker" album, then landing the co-producer assignment on veteran singer-songwriter Chapman's upcoming record. He's also planning to team again with Harvey after a long hiatus, and on Tuesday, Thrill Jockey Records will release Parish's first solo album in the U.S., "How Animals Move."

"There's no kind of shift in career--'Oh, I don't want to be a sideman anymore, I want to be a frontman,' " says Parish, 43. "I don't really have any desire to be a frontman full time, because that's not really where my interest is.

"I like writing music by myself, I like writing with other people and I like producing stuff, and I'm quite happy to shift from collaborator to main protagonist. It's kind of whatever seems the most interesting thing tends to be what I get drawn to."

That list ranges from projects with little-known bands in England's West Country, where Parish grew up and still lives, to that remarkable string of albums he's participated in, from Harvey's "To Bring You My Love" in 1995 to, more recently, Giant Sand's "Chore of Enchantment" and Sparklehorse's "It's a Wonderful Life."

"He's an incredible person, John. I'd trust him with my life," says Harvey, who's known Parish since she was 17 and counts him as her best friend. "Having that trust in somebody is always what I look for in who I collaborate with, because that's when you can be open and yourself....

"John is an extremely good judge of music.... He's got a brilliant ear for hearing when something's good, when something's bad or what's wrong with it. And he's such an intelligent and articulate person that he can then describe it to you really well so that you understand it."

"He gets some amazing sounds," says Eels leader E, who granted Parish a major writing, performing and producing role on "Souljacker." "We both have a love for the kind of sounds that make people get up to check their stereo to see if something's gone wrong.

"One of the great things about him is that he's not that diplomatic." He will just come out and say that something doesn't work. "And in the end," says E, "you want that on your side."

Chapman, whose more traditional style makes her the odd fit in the Parish resume, was looking for a co-producer who could bring "a musician's sensibility" to the recording process.

"I found that, in spite of our different backgrounds, we had some overlapping musical tastes--T. Rex, David Bowie, Johnny Cash," says Chapman. "Upon meeting John, I was impressed by his forthright nature and sense of humor--qualities he displayed throughout the making of the record, along with his willingness to let the method serve the song, the needs of the musicians."

T. Rex and Bowie, along with Led Zeppelin, were early influences on Parish, followed by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, among many. He played in a band called Automatic Dlamini, which along the way added a young Harvey on guitar, saxophone and backing vocals.

She had gone on to become one of rock's most provocative artists when she enlisted Parish to co-produce her third album, 1995's "To Bring You My Love." Parish then played with her on tour, leading to their 1996 co-billed album "Dance Hall at Louse Point."

All along, Parish was recording bits and pieces of his own, ranging from spare, classical-sounding works to grand, eccentric pieces of instrumental pop. When he formed an 11-piece band of West Country musicians for some recreational playing, he rifled through this catalog to find material for shows. The songs sounded pretty good when put together in a set, so he decided to make an album with them.

Though it's the rare Parish project that bears his own name (his first solo work, the soundtrack for the Belgian film "Rosie," wasn't released in the U.S.), "How Animals Move" isn't designed to make him a star. Mostly instrumental, it's as demanding as it is evocative and mainly somber in mood until a bawdy old blues song sung by Harvey shifts the balance at the end.

"I know everybody says they make music for themselves," says Parish, who plans to tour here with his group next year. "But I think probably most people do, and you kind of figure if I like it, then other people like me will like it, I suppose.

"I tend to work very instinctively. I'm not sure I've ever sat down and planned something in advance.... At the time I don't really think about it. Stuff just comes out, and I try to collect it in the best way that I can."

That will do for a mission statement. Meantime, Parish, who lives in Bristol with his wife, artist Michelle Henning, and their two young daughters, finds himself surprisingly far along a path he dreamed about some 15 years ago.

"I had this thought that, wow, Robert Fripp must have a nice life: He gets to play on really interesting records, he gets to produce a few things, gets to do his own stuff, and I guess nobody's ever gonna bother him when he goes out shopping.

"I remember thinking that must be a really good position to be in, and I kind of thought the other day, well, I guess in some ways I'm headed to that kind of place, and if I end up there that would be great."

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