Ed Harcourt - 'I always make music, I write all the time. I can't do anything else'

Singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt breaks a six-year silence to tell Elisa Bray about a new album that draws on unusual instruments purchased on the internet and the contrasting lessons of failure and new fatherhood

How am I doing?" Ed Harcourt asks, hopefully, midway through our interview at a pub near his west London home. He is, understandably, feeling cautious. This is the singer-songwriter's first interview in six years. He released his last album four years ago.

"I don't think anyone wanted to interview me about The Beautiful Lie," he says. "I think people weren't really interested in it. My friend said it was half anthemic, half anti-social. It's like the bête noire of the albums."

The Beautiful Lie was released two years late in America and Harcourt was dropped by EMI. He began to question what he was doing.

"I didn't really know what to do with myself," he recalls. "I was really bored and sick of myself and my music. I had tried for seven years to make it and break into the mainstream and it didn't happen so I thought, 'I'll have a break, go on the back burner.'" So he went away to write a film score and started collaborating and song-writing with pop artists such as Paloma Faith and Lissie. With an obligation to produce a fifth album for EMI, he was pushed into making a "best of", which seemed somewhat premature, considering he had made only four records and was just 29.

That his break from writing new material was a good move, however, is proven by his newest album, Lustre. The maudlin approach of The Beautiful Lie has been replaced by uplifting songs. Some critics have called it his finest work yet.

"In places [The Beautiful Lie] is rather maudlin and morose and I didn't want to make an album like that," he says. "Every record is like a reaction to the last one. I was a lot more focused and knew what I wanted to do – there was no fluff around the edges. I went in with the 11 songs arranged and ready for recording."

Any thoughts he had about giving up songwriting were not to last. "I think I'm a bit over dramatic, to be honest. Like most egocentric, dictatorial musicians I'm a bit of a control freak and I just said, 'I'm never going to do another album.' I always make music – I'm writing all the time. I can't really do anything else."

Born to a diplomat father, he and his two brothers grew up all around Europe while the family lived at various British embassies. At the age of nine, Harcourt started to learn the piano. He had achieved grade eight by the age of 17 and he was offered a place at university to read music. He turned it down.

"The idea of having to analyse, dissect and everything would com-pletely destroy any enjoyment," he says. "Can you imagine having to write a whole dissertation or spend three months studying one piece of music? You'd never want to listen to that piece of music again."

He puts on a posh voice and bellows: "'In the 46th bar, the augmented fifth occurs after the glissando...' I couldn't imagine anything worse."

You wonder why he applied to read music in the first place, but then Harcourt could undoubtedly have passed with top marks. At one point, our conversation turns to the American instrument creator Harry Partch Later, Harcourt shows me his studio. Tucked away in Kensal Green, its sound-proofed chambers are filled with eccentric pictures, guitars and obscure antique instruments, many bought on eBay. Like a child wanting to show off toys in a play room he takes me round, demonstrating a mechanical xylophone, a Marxophone dating from 1912, an octophone, an orchestron, mellotrons and a bowed saw.

"I like writing songs around the instrument – the instrument dictates how the song's going to sound," he says. "I've recently been buying lots of plug-ins for instruments like mellotrons and orchestrons, Chamberlain strings and glass harmonicas and cloud chamber bowls."

At 32, Harcourt has achieved a lot as a songwriter and producer. After he released his first album, Here Be Monsters, he supported REM and Neil Finn. He recalls the golden days of being signed to a major label. "When I was on Capitol, I remember coming to [the industry festival] SXSW in Texas for the first time. I got to the airport and this guy walked up to me and said, 'Are you Ed? I'm Brett, I'll be your limousine driver for the four days that you're here.' I was 23 years old and was like, 'OK! Bring it on!' All the people I met there would come in the limousine – we had quite a good time. That definitely added to the bill, I think."

Does he resent EMI for dropping him? "They gave me a head start and I don't think they really knew what to do with me," he says. "But they helped me along the way, which was good. I can't imagine that I helped with their massive debt. I probably helped the debt get bigger."

Of all the people Harcourt has written songs with, there is one artist who makes him nervous – Patti Smith. "I don't know what it is about her," he says. "She's such a force on stage and I played a song with just her singing. And then even more nerve-racking was the Songs of Innocence at the Meltdown that Patti Smith did [in 2005]. We were doing "Inchworm" from Hans Christian Andersen and it was Yoko Ono, Marianne Faithfull, Sinead O'Connor, Patti Smith, Tori Amos, Beth Orton, Miranda Richardson and Tilda Swinton all on stage.

"I was playing piano, just sitting there, not really knowing the song. The man who runs the Festival Hall had his hand on my shoulder, going, 'It's OK'. Sinead O'Connor was looking at me, saying, 'What do I do now?' and I'm like, 'I don't know!'"

Harcourt's home is surrounded by music. He married Gita, the first violinist he auditioned for his band, and she has been touring with him ever since. Their baby daughter is perhaps responsible for the lighter mood of Lustre.

"You can't help but be inspired by it," he says. "Being someone who evidently wears his heart on his sleeve, I tend to write about things that happen to me. I try to put it in a way to communicate so people can relate to it."

The album's final song is called "Fears of a Father". "It's just about trying to be that person and be more responsible. It's a growing-up album, I guess. It's so personal, it's like an open letter to what was, when I wrote it, an unborn child. It's saying I've changed a lot in the last four years – I was always worried that if I matured I would become really boring and conformist and too comfortable. I'm a bit more zen about things, whereas I was a lot more hot-headed, knee-jerk, reactionary. But I'm still passionate about stuff."

Seeing his enthusiasm today, and hearing his latest songs, who could doubt it.

'Lustre' is out now on Piano Wolf

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935