Accept no limitations

There's no pleasing Ed Harcourt. Not only does he want to make the perfect album, he will smash his piano if his fans don't make the grade
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The Independent Culture

Ed Harcourt, 23, and six months ago an unsigned unknown, is already attracting comparisons to his 1970s songwriting heroes from Tom Waits to Randy Newman. Listen to the precocious variety and gravelly voice of his debut mini-album, Maplewood, and you begin to see why. Ranging from the polka-based evocation of male violence "He's Building a Swamp" to the surging pop of "Hanging with the Wrong Crowd", it comes closer than most to bringing the organic oddness of classic singer-songwriting into the 21st century.

Ed Harcourt, 23, and six months ago an unsigned unknown, is already attracting comparisons to his 1970s songwriting heroes from Tom Waits to Randy Newman. Listen to the precocious variety and gravelly voice of his debut mini-album, Maplewood, and you begin to see why. Ranging from the polka-based evocation of male violence "He's Building a Swamp" to the surging pop of "Hanging with the Wrong Crowd", it comes closer than most to bringing the organic oddness of classic singer-songwriting into the 21st century.

If you've been to one of his few gigs, you won't have forgotten it. For his debut at London's easy-listening Kashmir Club, he surveyed the passive thirtysomething audience and the fey meanderings of other acts and smashed his piano in disgust. During a chorus, a sudden scream of: "Get off my back!" ensured a staggered response from patrons.

All of this is just a prelude to the album he's currently making in Surrey with dance-rock producer Tim Holmes of Death in Vegas.

The sounds they've taken in to inspire them are revealingly off-kilter, ranging from PJ Harvey to a 70-minute, classically orchestrated loop of a tramp singing. They're working through the night to fulfil the ambitions that Maplewood's four-track home demos only scratch.

"It's going really well, getting psychedelic in a new way, adding marching bands, dark riffage," Harcourt babbles happily. "Sometimes I can't believe what I'm doing. Six months ago I was nothing; now I'm in this residential studio. I didn't really have any idea about anything before. But I can feel something big happening with this album. I think even people who don't particularly listen to music will appreciate it. Even the stuff that's a bit extreme and out there, they'll get it."

Harcourt knows this is the first real test of the potential that made EMI's hip affiliate Heavenly sign him. But he's unnerved, not by doubt, but the conviction that what he's recording already puts him in range of his songwriting heroes. Even as he participates in these sessions, he's looking past them to the pitfalls of possible fame. This isn't arrogance, either. It's the relieved opinion of a man who, since his mother identified his musical leanings from rhythms tapped out as a three-year-old, has felt the world moving too slowly. That, at only 23, with 300 songs and a record contract already in the bag, his life's a losing race. Pacing the studio, he hits the walls with hammers, with the frustrated energy that made him smash that piano. But when he speaks, his enthusiasm is endless.

"What I do", he ponders, "is think too much ahead. When people are talking to me, I've already finished the conversation in my head. I have so many thoughts at the same time it makes me disjointed. I'm like a little kid - the way they run out of breath when they're speaking. My angle on the world isn't linear, it zigzags all the time. It's why I'm able to write so many different sorts of songs, and so quickly - about three a day."

Like several young British singer-songwriters - Oxford's 20-year-old Thea Gilmore, for instance, a fellow Waits fan - there's a sense not only of precociousness, but unnaturalness to Harcourt. His burning desire to take on the job at all seems to make him a man out of time.

"I don't really feel connected to other musicians out there," he agrees. "Not English bands, anyway. But I feel very much connected to the times. It seems like we're going back to the late Seventies again, with floods and wars started by orthodox religion, and a feel of impending doom. I am political, but it's hard to express that directly in music now. All I can do in opposition is express hope. To make music that's exceptional, that you can listen to at night and go, 'Fuck'."

That music began three years ago, in almost monastic seclusion. In his family's rambling home deep in the woods in East Sussex, he'd drink and write far into the night. He eventually amassed his huge songbook with, essentially, only himself as raw material. "I was on my own a lot, in the middle of nowhere," he recalls. "There were things like banjos, mandolins, even wine glasses lying around. I used my imagination to make different sounds, recording them on four-track. That's where Maplewood comes from."

The isolation at the heart of his songwriting approach may be explained by his childhood. The son of a diplomat, he was regularly relocated across Europe. It was in this period that his musical appetite formed. Trained classically in several instruments from the age of 10, he was soon playing Duke Ellington and Fats Waller instead, moving on to bluegrass, the Beastie Boys and Sixties American punk. At the same time, he watched films almost indiscriminately.

"I'd be in somewhere like Holland," he recalls, "a little kid, on his own, watching Charles Bronson. Films influenced my music. I think about imagery when I write, not chord structures. It's where the surrealism in some Maplewood songs starts."

Where Harcourt's songs end up and how much of his potential is fulfilled, we'll know with his album's release next year. At any rate, it won't satisfy him.

"I want to make something that's so 100 per cent right," he says. "I listen to the mini-album now, and it's nice, but it's not there. I'll say the same about the album when it's finished. I always feel I haven't done anything yet. When I am content, I will stop."

 

' Maplewood' is out on Monday on Heavenly records

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