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Ed Harcourt Interview
by Alexander Laurence

Photo by Steve Gullick
Ed Harcourt is a singer/songwriter who grew up in the remote English village of Lewes, known for its annual Guy Fawkes Day gathering at which townspeople congregate to burn effigies of Pope Paul V, George Bush, and other historical figures. He is the son of a diplomat and moved around a lot as a child.. Harcourt eventually left the nest and formed the aggressive pop-punk outfit Snug. They were infamous for attacking the audience and destroying equipment. The group split, and Harcourt - struggling to pay the bills as a solo act - took a variety of odd jobs, including prep work in an upscale French restaurant. His time away from the kitchen was spent at home, writing - a lot. Harcourt emerged with close to 300 songs, prompting his girlfriend to push him into industry waters.

Harcourt hooked up with Heavenly and Capitol Records two years ago and finally saw his major label debut, Here Be Monsters, hit the U.S. last month. Before that he released an EP called Maplewood on Heavenly Records. Harcourt's album has been in stores in the U.K. since last summer. People have compared him to everyone from Tom Waits to The Beatles. His music is very literary. Though he has been doing more intimate shows during the past few months, this summer he will be doing a tour with Neil Finn. Harcourt's music is surreal, psychedelic and Monsters is one of the great releases of this year so far. We talked recently about touring and recording. Harcourt had just caught the flu so we couldn't talk as long as I would have liked.


AL: It's May 16th. Are you going to see Star Wars today?

Ed: I would if I could. I am trying to get some premiere tickets from the record company. I'm finding it hard. I don't know about the film. I heard this one is going to be better than the last one, which I thought was pretty crappy. I don't know why. I guess that I was put off by all the CGI effects.

AL: How were you introduced to music?

Ed: My grandparents were very good classical musicians. I learned the piano when I was nine or ten. I taught myself dozens of instruments. I have always been into music. I was also interested in animals. I was a fairly good painter when I was young but I gave it up. I don't why. It's seem like I have been doing music ever since I can remember.

AL: I heard that you wrote 300 songs when you were twenty years old. You must have about 500 by now?

Ed: I guess so. I have to keep writing. It's hard to write when you are on tour. You don't really have any focus. First of all, you have to have quality control because some songs are not going to be as good as others. Secondly, it's important to get a good mixture. Not like eclectic in a sort of obvious way. If you want to release a body of work, it has to work conceptually, but yet, keep the person interested I suppose. At the same time I am always writing the music for myself.

AL: Do you think that since you have written so many songs already you'll release a few albums right away?

Ed: Yeah. I have already finished recording the second album.

AL: What was it like working with Tim Holmes from Death in Vegas? Their music is very intense and dark.

Ed: Yeah, maybe live they are like that. But on record they are more psychedelic. They are dreamlike. I was introduced to him by Heavenly Records. Tim Holmes was a fan of Maplewood which is a mini-album I did before. They were demos that I did that on my own. I didn't want anyone who was a big shot producer. I wanted someone who was an engineer and a musician. That's how we got together.

AL: Do you have a proper band?

Ed: Yeah I have a proper band now. They play with me live and they are on the new album, Here Be Monsters. I wanted them to play. I teach them the parts and then they bring their own character to them. I wanted to do some takes that were live. I wanted some spontaneity. Like "Those Crimson Tears" was done completely live. We did it at five in the morning. We were completely off our faces.

AL: I heard that you smashed up pianos and jumped in the audience. Do you get really excited onstage and react violently?

Ed: Yeah, I have done that before. I like to have fun. I like to give the impression that I'm not just a fey, winsome, sensitive singer-songwriter. At a festival in Italy I smashed a piano in two. It was an electric piano. It was fun. You get carried away and caught up in the moment.

AL: I see what your doing as having something in common with Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, and Mercury Rev. It's funny because I just read that you worked with Dave Fridmann at Tarbox Studios.

Ed: I love those bands. Yeah. We mixed two tracks at Tarbox with Dave. It was great. I have met Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips a few times. I have talked with Sparklehorse. I am part of several different families. It's great to meet people whom you respect. I met Flaming Lips in Louisville, Kentucky the other day. They were doing a radio convention. They were playing the next day. They came to see me play with Nora Jones. She's lovely.

AL: I heard you were a fan of the Wizard of Oz. If you play your album "Here Be Monsters" as the soundtrack like people do with Pink Floyd, does it have weird correspondences? Like when you hear "Hanging With The Wrong Crowd" that's when Dorothy goes down the yellow brick road. Or when you hear "Birds Fly Backwards" that's when it jumps into color?

Ed: Wow. That's something that I have never thought of. Yeah, that sounds like something that I might have to do. I know that the album is 50 minutes long and the movie is much longer. Maybe if you put it with Maplewood and the new album that might be the right amount of time.

AL: Are there any other films that you like?

Ed: I am a huge fan of films. I like One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, To Kill A Mockingbird, mostly old films, like Easy Rider, Raging Bull, anything from the 1970s. I like Serpico and early Woody Allen, David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. I like all the usual cult stuff.

AL: Are your songs about specific personal emotions or do you speak through characters?

Ed: Yeah. Sometimes I am quite vague because I am already giving so much away. My characters in the songs are quite honest and personal. I don't take any prisoners. Sometimes I am feeling a particular way and I will use a story or a metaphor. I don't really know how I write a song. It just seems to appear from nowhere. I never try to analyze it too much.

AL: I have read that you like isolation. Do you need a quiet place in the country to write songs?

Ed: I find it very hard to write around lots of people running around. I like to experiment. I wouldn't mind staying in a hotel for a while and writing about characters there. That would be quite interesting.

AL: You have toured America and travelled around this country a few times. What are some of your impressions?

Ed: Yeah. My favorite cities are New York and San Francisco. I think LA is great as well. I don't really want to say what my impressions are. I love America. They definitely serve more food. We were stranded for fourteen hours on the border of Iowa and Nebraska. That was an eye opener. We met some interesting and special people. I have been a fan of all sorts of American music. It's great going to all these different places and all these legendary venues. I played many places where my heroes played when they started out. I am living the dream.

AL: Are there any books that you have read recently?

Ed: At the moment I am reading The Demon by Hubert Selby jr. He's a great writer. Actually, I think Requiem For A Dream is one of the best new films I have seen recently. It's amazing. Catcher In The Rye has always been my favorite I guess. I like so many books by Hunter S. Thompson. I am into The Brothers Grimm, Alice in Wonderland, and Where The Wild Things Are. I read a lot of biographies too. I read a biography of Billie Holiday, John Belushi, and Charles Bukowski. Bukowski was a good writer but you get the impression he was not a nice guy. He could write some of the most tender poems and little vignettes. I like anything by Raymond Carver. He's like a modern day Chekov. The way he draws you in just talking about the most ordinary things. There's like never any plot nor resolution, but it seems to flow so well.

AL: What do you love about music? What qualities draw you to it?

Ed: I don't know. The fact that I am obsessed with it. I can't get away from it. In a way, music consumes me. Music in general, beauty and violence, I guess. There's also music that grows on you, that isn't immediate, that takes ten listens to get into, because it will be always something that you will be listening to for the rest of life. If it has a feeling that it could have been made fifty years ago or fifty years from now, the person who is creating it is doing something right. Does that make sense?

AL: Yes.

Ed: I'm sorry. I'm really ill at the moment. I'm not really in a lucid mood. I am not able to articulate myself very well at the moment. I feel like I'm not making sense. The qualities in music? I don't really think about it.

AL: You are going to be making music for many years?

Ed: Oh, God yes. I hope so. I just hope that people will allow me to develop and let me breathe.

AL: What is the next album going to be like? Is it the second chapter of the same novel?

Ed: Yeah. It's the sequel. It's going to be called "From Every Sphere." It's a lot more positive sounding and it's a better album.

AL: When people come see you play this summer, what should they expect from the live show?

Ed: They should expect to be surprised. They will be enamored, I hope, to the fact that we are reinterpreting the songs. When I am onstage I try not to think about what I am actually singing about. Sometimes I do. Live it's a bit more automated. When you are recording it in a studio you are trying to put some meaning into it. Some people use Pro Tools and they edit it and it loses its freshness. If you can do one take and not think about the song too much then you can definitely get the best interpretation of it.


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