“It’s a very personal, direct album; I’m not trying to be vague or secretive. I started writing most of these songs as soon as I met this girl: I was completely inspired by her. A lot of them are from the getting-to-know-you stage, and I was completely flowing. The more open you can be, the more you can connect and relate to people.
It’s just me. It conveys what I’m trying to say. It represents where I am fully, complete with flaws and mistakes, which is why I believe in it 100%. It’s what I do, it’s how I live my life.”
And how do you live your life?
“I drink, I laugh, I cry, I love, I write and sing songs, I pass out.”
Since being Mercury Prize-nominated for 2001’s ‘Here Be Monsters’ (preceded by the ‘Maplewood’ mini-album), then winning innumerable accolades with last years ‘From Every Sphere’ (which included the hit, ‘All Of Your Days Will Be Blessed’), Ed Harcourt has been falling in love, striding through Swedish snow in search of wild boars, recording with crack-addled cultish American rockers, touring U.S. arenas with R.E.M. and Wilco, rapping in karaoke bars, getting beaten up and almost run over by Mexican skinheads for accidentally throwing gravel at their car in Colorado, performing at tributes to Gram Parsons, Jeff Buckley, Randy Newman, Neil Young and The Beatles, and deciding that every moment of every song should be the most important thing you’ve ever done.
With this in mind, he’s written and recorded his new, most honest and exposed album, Strangers, which is due to be released in September. The opus was produced by Jari Haapalainen (The Concretes, etc) at the Aerosol Grey Machine Studio in the middle of woods in Sweden. “I’m not kidding, there were wild pigs, stray cats – I’ll show you pictures if you don’t believe me. Though you won’t like our moustaches.
The place affected us. For one thing, the shops all shut at six so you have to stock up on alcohol. For another, I’d be singing The Trapdoor and it’d start snowing. As I played I’d see it through the window. And I’d feel like I was going out of my body as I sang, it was very odd, but such a release as an artist. It was all done pretty much live, and I felt like I was coming home to roost. It really felt like I was singing at my best.”
Thinking that ‘From Every Sphere’ had been too big and unfocussed (though in answer to protests, he concedes that it’s always easy to be critical of the past) you want to move on – “I’d just rather that record had been my Heavens Gate”. Harcourt, a multi-instrumentalist, played nearly everything on this album, with assistance from long-time friends Hadrian Garrard and Leo Abrahams. The sessions were freer, more spontaneous than any he’d experienced before. “Jari reined me in and I wasn’t self-indulgent. And I had to get these songs out of my system, its cathartic – otherwise I’d have gone mad. I’ve realised that you don’t have to be insanely prolific to be good. Less can be more. It’s about the emotional connection to the listener. They’ve got to be moved by it.”
In the past, Ed Harcourt, well-travelled at an early age, has been described as a highly talkative bundle of contradictions, crushingly self-deprecating one minute, verging on arrogance the next. And he still is. Certainly, no donkeys in the vicinity are ever going to get their hind legs back in a hurry. Ed’s generous, racing, scurrying mind and Schumacher-driven mouth will give you pathos and morbid obsessions in one breath, cheery and earthy humour the next. He still loves Carver, Salinger, Tom Waits and Chet Baker; Shakespeare, The Kinks and Lift To Experience. Adores good movies from Lynch and Jarmusch to Milos Forman and Coppola. But as he says now, “You can live with these worlds, explore them, but although you have your inspirations, you always write differently to everyone else.” There’s a feeling that he’s known exactly what he’s shooting for this time around. The man who once said, “The phrase singer-songwriter makes me sick to my stomach, I don’t understand why that should make you Mr. Sensitive – you should be aggressive and angry and pissed-off and happy and melancholy, you should run the entire gamut of emotions, there have to be equal amounts of beauty, violence, humour and pathos”, now adds an appendage. “It’s a cliché you fall into the category of the dark, gothic, lonely, lonesome, drunken songwriter. I still feel like I’m starting out, a whippersnapper, a terrier snapping at the heels of every artist that’s come before. I’m still trying to make my mark.
Every album should be different from the others, should demand that you live with them and they grow on you. I might have been depressed when I made the last record, but this one’s about the whole redemption thing. Coming back from the grave, back from a bad place and feeling stronger as a result. My little obsessions are always going to filter through, but this is a truly romantic album. It’s basically all about love.”
Ed Harcourt, born in the seventies, recalls that the first song he ever wrote was about wolves with little red eyes in the forest. He was about eleven. His dad was in the army, so the family moved around a lot. He remembers wandering around mysterious fields in Holland, aged six. The youngest of three brothers, he believes his youth made him quite independent, and more likely to blurt stuff out than repress it and store it up, English-style. He admits to a lingering preoccupation with death (now that everyone’s so full-on and raunchy about sex, it’s the one thing no-one will talk about), and to being overly self-critical to the point of launching pre-emptive strikes on imagined critics. But whereas he used to love writing about what he didn’t know (other worlds, fantastical stories, the tornado in The Wizard Of Oz), he’s now leaning towards writing what he knows. Vis-a-vis Strangers, “this one’s from the heart. I like the idea of documenting a love affair. I think that’s really cool. And besides, I can’t help it. The idea that the artist can only write a song if he’s despairing or tortured, I don’t believe that at all. So condemn me for being happy! I write what I feel.”
What he feels is that if a storm’s brewing, the best way to tackle it is to face it head-on and push through to the other side. And enjoy the journey. Rousing, visceral album-opener The Storm Is Coming, was one of the first songs written. “Maybe the best way to deal with your problems is head bang into the storm and confront them. I have a thing about the elements and nature, I often seem to write about fire, whirlwinds, the earth, rivers, rain, monsoons, snow. It’s a song about being a strong, fearless motherfucker and not caring what people might say.
Born In The 70’s, is a mischievous bombardment of words and sounds, written at 5.a.m. during an exhausting American tour. It’s stream-of-consciousness, child-like, but perhaps it’ll reach people of that generation, born as Punk Rock broke and Elvis died. It’s a subtle dig at older musos who reckon it’s all been done before, that there’s nothing left to subvert. It’s saying: why are you putting this wall in front of me? I’m trying to do something here, and I have big issues about failing! But I have a massive, heartfelt passion for music and the need and the urge to make it.”
First single This One’s For You is “a romantic drinking song. The vocals, piano, trumpet and drums were all recorded live, first take. That makes it all the more special for me.” Ed’s already been startled to hear Michael Stipe sing it between songs onstage in front of tens of thousands, after hearing Ed play it on the tour, before it had been recorded. “It’s one of the best songs I’ve written. It’s my calling card, heart on sleeve. I’m not holding anything back or trying to be cool and collected.” Likewise, title track Strangers refers directly to his relationship. “It’s another little tribute to new love. A romantic song which hopefully isn’t smug or conceited. It’s that Bonnie and Clyde, us-against-the-world, Badlands thing. And it’s about those tentative early moments where you don’t want to show your bad side in case they go off you! A lot of people said it’d never work, having witnessed my track record – but we proved them wrong. Hey, I still hate the world and loathe people though!”
Let Love Not Weigh Me Down (ask him about the tattoos) is equally optimistic. “People assume love will fail you; I’m saying this is amazing, it completes me. It makes me feel like a proper human being and not a worm who’s making no contribution except turning the earth.” Something To Live For is also flush with positivity.
Those old childhood story obsessions of Ed’s re-emerge on The Trapdoor. It has a narrative concerning unspecified violence. “I’m interested in the aggression that lies within every man. I just want to know where it comes from, whether it’s a fight in the pub or genocide.” The Music Box also wonders what war’s good for. “It was inspired by friends of my parents who lived in East Germany, and had to flee from the Russians who were coming to burn down the village in a revenge act. An eye for an eye. All the Biblical crap which is still happening now. They had to wrap up the little silver they had, get on a cart, and leave. In the aftermath the soldier wonders what he’s doing, and pitiful relics like burned dolls and the music box remain in the rubble. I just try to evoke a feeling with each song. Perhaps for people to feel something they haven’t felt before. We wanted a dreamy, melancholy feel here, a bad dream, with the drums sounding like they were underwater.”
On the other hand, instant crowd-pleaser Loneliness is a chirpy, upbeat track, even if the title leads you to anticipate otherwise. “Exactly. Imagine thousands of people singing along at a festival! I’m trying to stop worrying what people think about my music, or I’d end up in this big cycle and just go mad, and get stressed till my legs bounced up and down, and then kill people.”
“Open Book is a riposte to someone who did me wrong, saying: I’m still around. Kids (Rise From The Ashes) is, like Bowie’s ‘Kooks’ one of the few songs to express the time-honoured sentiment that children are the future without lolling into cheesiness. And that’s a strong statement, man, cmon! So the world is dumbing down? All the more vital that we break the pattern! Failing that, a kid could be handy as a mini-me, a sort of butler who could bring me my slippers.”
With Black Dress we’re back on the love train, with all its glorious doubts, uncertainties and euphoric joys when you least expect them. “Another song from the start of the romance, written drunk, on my Wurlitzer. Spaces are left so that listeners can interpret it in their own way, relate it to their own feelings and moments.” It features one of Harcourt’s habitual ruminations on love and death. “We’re all gonna die, so let’s have some fun here, let’s live it up, baby!”
So Strangers is Ed Harcourt at his intimate, intricate, infuriating and exhilarating best. Who will become friends of Strangers? “Oh I’m not going to say my music’s for all the lost souls out there or something like that. Love can make you happy, and this is a concerted effort to make a more immediate, upbeat album or at least I try. I’ll make music till my last breath, and it’s for everyone, really. Everyone with a soul, anyway.”