Ed Harcourt: Something to believe in

Ed Harcourt is smarter than your average singer-songwriter. But he doesn't have all the answers, he tells Emma Field
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The Independent Culture

A surprisingly warm and windy autumnal day sets the tone for a host of surprises upon meeting the singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt at his flat in Kensal Rise, west London. He arrives sporting shaggy rock hair, a beard and black shades, and making grand gestures of welcome.

A surprisingly warm and windy autumnal day sets the tone for a host of surprises upon meeting the singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt at his flat in Kensal Rise, west London. He arrives sporting shaggy rock hair, a beard and black shades, and making grand gestures of welcome.

What happened to the clean-cut, maudlin and introspective troubadour familiar from his press? Harourt is accompanied by Errol, the head of his US label, Astral-werks - they brim with the bonhomie of close friends - so his demeanour could be interpreted as an exercise in image-maintenance. Finally, however, it seems as blusteringly open and honest as Harcourt himself.

"I'm going to shave my beard off and get my hair cut... I was actually scaring Errol - he said I look like I was out of Deliverance - and not Jon Voigt. So I started saying, 'You got a pretty mouth, boy. You wanna get on your knees and say a prayer, boy?' He was very intimidated."

Initially, it is difficult to know whether to love or hate a brazen host who comes across like a crude stand-up comedian with a talent for imitation. One soon realises, however, that the only option is to warm to Harcourt.

Listening to his new album, Strangers, there is a strong sense of déjà vu. Harcourt's talent is in creating beautiful pop melodies that are so innocently familiar that you are not merely imagining but often certain you have heard them before. Perhaps the best thing is that he combines this almost manipulative penchant for a sugary hook with savvy and imaginative lyrics, words that temper the giddy heights of the choruses with doses of disenchantment, surrealism and absurdity. His singing just verges upon being affected, still inspired by Jeff Buckley, and at times evoking the glam cabaret of Queen. "This One's For You" has all the ingredients of a hit love song; "Born in the 70s" ironically observes the need for some generational antagonism, perhaps as a spin on The Police's "Born in the 50s"; while "Music Box" follows a surreal story and has a more textural feel, evoking Radiohead- style soundscapes.

The response to this album has generally been very positive, a return to form after the hit-and-miss nature of 2003's From Every Sphere, which followed his Mercury Music award-winning album of 2000, Here Be Monsters. "I am a romantic person and it almost feels like this was my first proper album. I've done two albums that veered between moments of glory and patchiness. This one is a very personal statement."

Looking around his house, it is not hard to pinpoint the source of Harcourt's newly found joie de vivre: a make-up box sits on the couch and photos of Harcourt and his fiancée are all around his colourful bohemian flat. As to whether he himself feels like he's nailed it, he says, "I go through stages. I can't listen to it, and I can't listen to anything else I've done." Is it a case of cringing at one's own self-exposure? "Yeah. Oh, you know, it sounds so smug: 'I'm in love!' "

Despite his personal happiness, like many people he's cynical about the global situation and questions the efficacy of musicians getting involved. "I think U2 and Coldplay are very good at making people feel comfort. I think Radiohead are the opposite: it's much more bleak. I think that's the reason why U2 and Coldplay are bigger. It's because people need that warm touching hand on the back after 9/11. I don't really know what to say about the world because I can't make sense of it. I'm confused about Bono because I respect him as an artist and a musician but sometimes I can't help but think, 'Why are you speaking at the Labour Party conference and saying Blair and Brown are the Lennon and McCartney of politics?' "

Mindful of some of the darker aspects of human nature, Harcourt's lament on war and violence develops into a treatise on sexual politics that could come straight from a radical feminist library: "There was a song on my mini-album ( Maplewood) called 'I Hate the Violence that Dwells Within Me' and I am aware - every man should be aware - of his primal aggression. Because all the (bad) things that happen - rape and killing - they are always done by a man... I'm sorry, I just think men are restrained arseholes, you know."

Harcourt's mind is firmly on the next two albums, which will be released in close succession - one a "light" album entitled, appropriately The Importance of Light and the other entitled The Poisoned Mind, featuring songs with titles such as "Satan Made Me Do It". "The cover is going to be me coming out of a lake of fire... And the back cover is going to be me playing an upright piano underwater with my right leg chained to the piano - like an anchor."

The label doesn't know any of this yet. "There just isn't enough time to make all the music I want to make," he concludes. "I know that I'll get to the age of 70 or 80 and then go: 'Doh!' And then die."

Ed Harcourt tours Europe from 31 October. 'Strangers' is out now and the single 'Born in the 70s' is out 1 Nov, both on Heavenly/EMI

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