Ed Harcourt - The RFB Interview
30 May 2013
Out of the forest, back into the woods - RFB sat down with Ed Harcourt to discuss a decade in music, mariachi records and the importance of family.
Photo: Josh Hall
Ed Harcourt is a man that knows the music industry inside out and back to front and has the scars to prove it.
From emerging as a solo singer-songwriter with his critically lauded, Mercury nominated debut, Here Be Monsters, released by Heavenly/EMI in 2001, the troubadour has felt a full spectrum of emotion from the buzz of being a major label signing with the prestige and opulence that goes with it to the dejection of being dropped by that said same entity. Though the albums that followed his split from EMI and Heavenly still garnered the same ardent support from critics and fans alike, the solo artist has spent the last three years immersed in the anonymity of being a silent songwriting partner, penning pop songs for other artists whilst his own musical career was left unsettlingly quiet.
That all changed earlier this year when Harcourt announced via Twitter that he would be releasing a new album, Back In To The Woods, written in a little over a month and recorded in just under six hours in Abbey Road Studios. The announcement soon caught the attention of Drowned in Sound founder and long-term admirer, Sean Adams, who offered to release the record on his new label CCCLX and the songsmith prepared himself to step back into the spotlight.
Shortly after its release, and a celebrant return to the stage at Cecil Sharp House in London, RFB sat down with Ed to dissect his last decade in music.
I guess that quite an interesting place to start this interview is by talking to you about doing interviews again and the fact that you haven't done any, or many, for a while...
Yeah, I guess I've just been in the studio. I tend to kind of disappear off the map for a little bit. I've been working with all these other people as a of gun for hire and I tend to disappear and just get lost in that world and forget about what I'm meant to be doing for my own career.
Does it feel like you've been away then, do you feel absent from your own work? Obviously when you co-write it's still your work but...
I think the whole thing with songwriting is that... I can't really force myself to write a song that I feel I'd be able to sing or perform in front of people, it usually just comes when it comes; after an argument or when I read something in the paper. Whereas when someone comes and sits in my studio and we write together from 11 until 6, we have to come up with something there and then. Sometimes we'll only have one day, so theres a kind of urgency there and the pressure to write a song - and write a song that everyone is going to want to hear. It's very much separated and it's become much more so as I've developed as a writer, I've kind of separated it so I think the songs that I'm writing for myself I'm becoming less and less worried about. I don't have EMI or Heavenly, who were great, but I don't have them breathing down my neck and I don't have that pressure on myself. Not having a deadline as well, sometimes might be detrimental, but I feel like I've suddenly hit my stride.
So what pressures do you have on yourself then? Because I imagine in writing, or any creative process, there's things you have to enforce upon yourself...
What I've enforced upon myself and how it's happened as I've got older and developed is, let's say that ten or twelve years ago I wasn't really much of an editor. I was also, in my mind, into those people like Jack Kerouac and those beat writers as well as studying Shakespeare. Literature and novels and books were my big love and I was of the impression that if you wrote songs that were more of a stream of consciousness and you didn't edit them then they would be...you wouldn't taint their purest form. Whereas now, I want people like my manager or someone to say “I'm not sure about this bit”.
And why do you want that?
I'm more open to it I guess. I'm less arrogant. Although, you know, there are still glimmers of arrogance. But I'm just more open to editing and changing things and doing something that I haven't done before... I suppose it's important to grow creatively and not to limit yourself by your own flaws. I'm not trying to be humble or anything but I just think... I'm thirty-five now and every now and then I think about what I was like when I was twenty two and it was hot headed, pigheaded. That's pretty normal I guess but I'm just more considered now.
I guess for you it's been a very natural ageing process... it feels like you're the twenty two year old arrogant, hot headed, pig headed guy who hit this point of consideration but entirely naturally. I doubt there's ever been a point where you've gone “I have to change...”?
Oh no, I have the compulsion, I am completely compelled to make my own records and I've always said that. When I started doing the whole co-writing thing, that was five years ago, I needed the break from myself. It was a transitional period when I left EMI and I just needed a break from doing my own stuff and wanted to try something new and it's been great because bouncing off other people is something I've never really done as a writer. Even though I was doing it for them I sort of learnt more about songwriting. All I was trying to say was that I kind of wish I could go back ten years ago and do a little bit of...
What would you have done?
Just a few lyrics and things like that where I wince now. Things like rhyming 'rocket' with 'pocket'.
But I imagine you were immensely proud of it at the time?
But I am still, completely, I'm so proud of everything that I've ever done and I don't regret anything. I don't regret any of the decisions that I've made or the things that I've done. Well... a few things.
Do you feel there are decisions that you've made that others would deem regrettable?
I think I was quite reckless. It's the typical 'guy get's signed, big deal with a major label, goes a bit mental for a few years'. You know? Then suddenly, he keeps going with the label and then he goes a bit more mental and goes into the darkness and comes back out renewed. Redemption and all that.
But were you just doing it and not really aware of it?
I didn't really know what I was doing. I was given all this money from EMI to go and record albums in huge studios with orchestras and I was basically allowed to do what I wanted. That was back in the day when record labels signed artists like myself and I could just go and spend hundreds of thousands on an album. I don't know if I'd call it 'the golden years' but I just wish that I could of... I sort of wish I had a bit more guidance.
Were you left to your own devices?
Yeah. I think so. And I also did things where I didn't really play the game and I wouldn't let anyone control me. I just sort of did stupid things. I think I tried to put on a humorous edge to offset all the seriousness of what I was really saying. It's just playing the clown sometimes to create a kind of diversion. There were just these things that I did that were ridiculous, like going on live TV and making my guitarist dress up as a gorilla and then saying 'ban ESSO' just because I thought the dichotomy of it was funny.
And do you think you were right in doing it?
No! Clearly not. Or just a few things that I'd done, I'm not going to go into them, but I'd just piss people off. I don't even remember doing them, like touring America and, someone told me this and I don't even remember doing it, being in a big radio station in America where you're meant to go into the office and perform for the DJs and you actually have to play your song which is a bit weird and demeaning, and half way through it my phone went and it was a friend from England, I think I was in Seattle or something. I don't remember doing this, but apparently I got up, stopped the song and just went 'sorry just wait a minute' and went outside and they could hear me going 'hey, alright mate, how's it going?'. I had about a two minute conversation, came back in and went 'sorry about that' and then continued the song. For Americans, they're very like 'you have to play the game and be really subservient' say 'thank you so much for having me here, i'm not fit to lick your shoes' and suck up to them and I just didn't really suck up to anyone. I wouldn't change it for the world because it makes me laugh now but I don't remember doing it.
Has there been a weird balance between your artistry and this sort of rockstar lifestyle that was put upon you, that you sort of chose to do?
It's just been a lot of fun. Then it got a bit boring, I think it's time to pull the reigns in a little bit. I had two children and it was like, 'now you've gotta actually start being a bit more responsible with your life'. Because living that rockstar lifestyle is all just diminished responsibility. You don't really have to worry if you're on tour all the time and you have a tour manager. You're just a bit of a baby the whole time. I feel like I'm in a very solid, stable, good place and all I'm trying to do now is look after my family really. That's the biggest responsibility, that's the most important thing for me above all. A hundred times more important than music, even though music is my life.
In context, has that come with this record?
I've been making a different record for like three years. I'll play some of it to you in a bit, it's very different. It's going to be lots of guests and people I admire. I've been in the middle of making that and I want Flood (New Order, Nick Cave, Foals) to produce it but we'll see. He and I have had three meetings about it and he basically kicked my arse. The first time he kicked my arse I got a bit down about the whole thing because I'd been working on it for so long and I was so wrapped up in it. Hearing someone's outside opinion sort of floored me a bit and I was suddenly like 'it's all crap' and just left it. I was a bit down about the whole thing and then I ended up going and doing a session in Abbey Road with this comedy band called The Saints of British Rock 'n' Roll. They were from Canada and a bunch of really rich stoners who were just making this album for a laugh. I got in there and they were even talking in rubbish British accents, it was so weird. It was Ryan Hadlock who was doing it but I think he was doing it just as something to do and I came in and was just like, 'god, they're in Abbey Road just doing whatever they want to do, they have the freedom to do whatever they want to do'. Life is so weird. I ended up going into the other studio and I was just sitting there on my own playing and Pete who was the engineer came in. I had started writing a few other songs... it was all very minimal and stark but they were quite melancholic. I played some of them to him and he was like 'these are great, we should do an album in a night in Abbey Road. I'm leaving, come in and do a night with me'. We made a date for me to come into studio 2 where the White Album was done. I had a month to write the album, so I did.
What was that month like?
The day before I was still finishing the title track 'Back Into The Woods', editing it and going 'this bit's not good enough'. I wrote four of the songs in a weekend and Gita and the kids went away and I locked myself in the house and didn't go out and just wrote these songs. I just sat at the piano with a guitar and just didn't move. It was just really easy to write for some reason. Retrospectively I guess it's a thank you or an apology to my wife for putting up with me.
Is that the sound of the record then?
Was it a necessity? Did you have to write this record?
I think so. I think it came from a thirty-five year old man who's married with two kids. it's from that perspective.
So is that month an exorcism in a way? For you, sort of sitting down, two bottles of wine...
You know what, I honestly can't remember because I just never remember how I've written songs, once they're done. It's so weird they're just sort of there and they exist and then you forget about how they were created because it feels like they've always been there. So for some reason I always forget how a song is written. It just sort of seems to come out of nowhere
Was there a pivotal track in that process?
Well, I think that the first one that I wrote was 'Man That Time Forgot' and I had actually written that a while back and I was kind of like “I wonder what I'll do with this one... that'll be for the piano album”. I had a lot of friends who were in bands and whose opinions I respect, who kept saying “you should do a stripped back album, I want to hear you do just you and your voice and a piano or guitar”. They'd bend my ear and really get under my skin so eventually I was like 'OK, alright, I'll do it!' But it was really lovely because it's so complimentary for them to give a shit.
It seems like there were a lot of different people around you, and things inside of you, telling you to make this record?
But it's also that over the years I've made lots of friends through music and there's a lot of people that I'm very lucky to have become friends with. I value their opinions. Like I said earlier, I just don't think ten years earlier I would have given a shit.
Why do you think people were saying 'Ed, you should probably make a record like this...'
I'm proud of all my records... but I've never done anything that just shows the song itself, I haven't really done anything that's just no production, just me playing the song. It just seemed like the right thing to do and we did it in six hours and it came out really well I think.
What was it like doing the album in six hours?
I got there and we started recording at eight and we had three piano's set up. Pete was in the control room and I didn't really leave the live room. A couple of friends came in and out. Steve Gullick was there taking photos and Jess my manager came in with Christina Train and then Gita was there and that was about it. It was quite weird because Gita hadn't really heard the songs that much so she was sort of hearing them for the first time... The title track it came after we had a row. I went out of the house and I was on the tube and the first four lines and the melody came into my head for some reason, which was 'she wears a thinly veiled contempt'. It's in my phone, I'm on Edgware Road platform singing it. That's what I mean about 'where the hell did that come from?' But thank God we had that argument... we should argue more.
So you've got six hours in Abbey Road, three pianos, people are coming in and out. Was that a purposeful concept?
I wanted friends to be there as well but I didn't want it to be like a party of anything. I wanted them to be there because I love them and I trust them and I just kind of wanted them there for support because it was a big thing for me. I feel like because they were there it made me perform better and it made me want the songs to be as good as they could possibly be because I was doing it for them. It was quite a personal experience. We finished at two a.m and I suddenly just felt all delirious after six hours. It was one or two takes and it was done live with a couple of overdubs like the Celesta that was in Harry Potter.
It seems like the whole album has been built on the idea of you being happy enough to let other people get involved in your work, whether it be a face in the room smiling or frowning whilst you're playing the piano or...
It's a solitary thing I do for myself. But I guess it feels like I'm suddenly at this point where I'm ok with that, with having other peoples opinions and actually value them so much more than I ever could before. I need them.
Is there a fine line there between whose opinion matters and whose doesn't?
There's only a few people, like Toby (Transgressive Records). I value his opinion massively. But there's only a few. There's a lot music that I've put out and it's kind of like... where do I go now, what do I do next? I think I also have a slight ADHD tendency, I kind of start one project and then I forget about it and do another. While I was writing this album I also had this Mariachi album which I've started, I wanted it to be more of a conceptual thing and I think some of the songs that made it onto the backend of 'Back In To The Woods' were going to be for that Mariachi record as well... I will write this Spanish album. I've always wanted to do a different language album, it'd be quite fun.
You speak Spanish then?
Ci. Well...not really. That's also another thing that I get worried about, it just makes me think about Nathan Barley. It's a fine line between genius and fucking ridiculousness.
So is it a genius idea or a ridiculous idea to record an album in six hours?
I think it's a great idea for anyone to do really. It was also a bit of a challenge. Pete and I were both really excited. We had a deadline. It's Abbey Road... it's expensive.
Were you thinking 'I've got to find a label for this, I've got to get it out there'?
I kind of made the album and then I went on Twitter and said 'hey, I just did an album in six hours'. Then I started sending it round to labels. Some people weren't even interested... my reputation precedes me. I probably have an inflated impression of what my reputation is. It's probably not that bad. I'm just exaggerating for the sake of artistic license. It's my prerogative.
So you've been an artist in the industry for a long time, was it strange having social media there and to think, 'I better Tweet this'?
Yeah, I think I felt the need to but I also got to the point where I was sending the album out to various people and I wasn't really getting much response and didn't really know what to do, so I put up another thing on Twitter saying 'hi, I really need to find a label for my album' and immediately I suddenly had loads of people contact me. Sean happened to be like 'hey, send in the album' and then we got talking. I hadn't had a manager as an artist for about 8 months because my old manager lived in LA and he was wonderful and I loved him to pieces but it just didn't make sense because of the logistics. Sean asked me and took me on as his one and only clientèle. It's been great, it's been a turning point and he's just been amazing.
I'm quite fascinated by the idea that when you're making something, creating the art, there's a bit before it's unveiled where you think about what could happen...
I never thought about that at all. Sometimes when you're writing with someone else and you're there to write a pop song with them and for them, then there's times when you know you've written a huge chorus or something and you just both look at each other and go 'ah, we're onto something'. But with Back In To The Woods it just felt like something that I had to do and something that was just lovely, I loved the experience but I don't think I could do it again because also there were moments when listening to it was quite weird for me.
I think that's quite an impressive thing. There's an honesty to what you're saying. If someone wrote that down on some paper and said 'look, there's this guy who's done a few records but he's got six hours in Abbey Road and he's written this album that's really about his life,' it's clear there's something special there...
You do write conceptually I guess, but without thinking about it. I think that's the way I've always written my records. It's after the fact that they've been made that I go back and look at them and go 'ah right, now I know what this album is about' but while I'm doing it I'm kind of not thinking about that.
So at what point did you realise with this album?
It was after I listened to it. Suddenly I was able to see a generic kind of conceptual trend that was going through lyrically and aesthetically and I was like, 'right, now I know what this album's about, it's kind of about where I'm at now'.
Just for clarity, where are you at now?
Fuck knows. I feel like I'm always in a transitional period and I don't know why. I feel like I'm the one that got away as well. There's an element of that, that I could have done so much better than I did. One of the things that I seem to have read about, which I haven't been able to avoid is, 'he's slightly under-rated, he could of done so much better, where is he know?' There's a part of me that kind of likes that.
But you mentioned that you were in a transitional period. Again. That you're always in a transitional period?
God this is like fucking therapy! I think the reason why I feel like I'm always in a transitional period is because I guess I'm not really that content. I'm not really a content person because I'm always trying to get to that pinnacle or get to that point as a songwriter or a singer or a solo artist and I don't feel I've ever made that. You know, every album is going to be different, everyone is going to have their favourite album. If you try and please everyone you'll end up going insane so I think you just have to kind of keep going and not think about it too much, not analyse it too much.
Do you almost think that's kind of just a recognition of what life is as much as anything else?
I guess, life is...Live. Eat. Fuck. Die.
I guess the point is that, whilst you're not content, you're as content as you can be?
I don't know where the compulsion to write came from though, it just sort of exists.Iit's just there and...I'm not very good at analysing or dissecting the reasons, the motives behind what drives me. I just sort of know that it's there. I am ambitious and I do want to be successful but I think that there have been elements in my past, maybe it's just a part of my psyche or my personality, but I tend to always put a little twist in something. And I'm also one of those people I think where I'm maybe too indie for mainstream and I'm too mainstream for indie and I'm somewhere lost in some sort of no-mans land. I'm quite happy with that to be honest.
You seem quite... this all seems quite nice? It seems like this is all quite good?
It is. I could make a kraut-rock record if I felt like it. Why not? I could make a really cool, obsolete, obscure, white label record. Why not?
I don't want to.
I like the fact that obscure and obsolete seem like synonyms for you...
I don't really want people to know everything, I'd rather they just know a little bit. If people knew everything about you... I don't think it's cool at all, surely you want a bit of mystery or some sort of intrigue. Then otherwise why would you want to invest any interest in these peoples albums because you already know everything about them. Maybe I'm just not very good at communicating as a person and the albums are just a mouthpiece.
What do you want people to know about you?
I want them to know that I'm a lover and a fighter...that's about it.
Why are you those things right now? And in context of the new record and your work and what you're doing now, why a lover and a fighter?
Because I've got a lot of love in my life and I've got a lot of fight left I guess. I think I'm kind of fighting to prove myself to myself rather than anyone else really. I'm kind of not bothered about pleasing anybody else. I don't know the reason why I do it, I just love doing it. But it's not always the easiest thing to do as well so I kind of need to fight for it.
Do you enjoy it being a bit of a battle?
I think so. I think otherwise it's not worth it and if it was really easy you'd get too comfortable and I don't ever want to be that. I like the idea that as I get older, i'm going to be in my late thirties later this year, and I like the idea of confounding people as well, doing something different and I think the transitional thing... I do always base everything on a transitional period, I don't know why. But i'm definitely about to go into one. Or I'm in one. Or maybe I was in one. But it's time for a change... I think after this Abbey Road album it's time to completely change what I've done before.
What would you like to do?
Something...I just need an overhaul of everything. I haven't toured with a band for a long time, I don't really have a band. I've done most of the touring since I left EMI as all solo because I haven't had any budget so it would be nice eventually to get a band together again. Each album I do is usually a reaction to the last one so I don't want to try and repeat myself
You haven't thus far...
No, I don't think I have. Every album's been recorded in a different way. With Here Be Monsters we did it in a month and it was a lot of stops and starts because I got really ill. Then From Every Sphere was done on a bigger scale and we were experimenting with tape a lot, spooling four tracks into quarter inches into two inch. Then Strangers was done in Sweden and was done mainly live. That's when I started doing stuff mainly live, when I was like 'this is how you're meant to make records'. And then Beautiful Lie was done with no computers, all on eight track and one inch tape and done in my parents house. Lustre was done in Seattle with Ryan in a big barn and we did everything in a month and everything seemed to have been done pretty quickly until Back In To The Woods. It's like, where do I go from here? Oh I know where I'm going, now I've got another year to work on my four year record, an opus that's totally like this bloated, indulgent, double album with lots of guests.
So are you going to go back to that record then?
Yeah I'm about to, I'm already back in it, I'm already in the middle of it.
Who are you working with? Or are you not there yet?
Well, I do have people in live, Van Dyke Parks is going to do a string arrangement. Ah, fuck it I might as well tell you. This is going to be exclusive I guess...I'm hoping to get Max Richter on a song, he's one of my favourite composers of all time, I've got to try and pencil him in, I've been trying to get him for two years and I'm hoping to get Angela Badalamenti, who did Twin Peaks, on a song. I've already got Catherine Williams on a song and Foe is on a song. Romeo is doing a little guitar solo but I've got to redo that because it's not right and then I've got a few other wish-list people that I've been thinking about. I did record Josh Pearson's voice just humming 'Swing Low Sweet Chariot' but I didn't tell him that I was going to put it on a song, I might put it just in the middle of a song. I was hoping Flood would do it but I kind of want to get Mushtaq involved as well because I've played some stuff to him and he loves it. He's a big producer at the moment but he's also an incredible musician and as a hip hop beat maker he's insane. He did a lot of insane things back in the nineties, Wu Tang and all those sort of people. Since I got into technology and I had a computer I've got a lot of samples and loops and weird things, I went out to things like the playground and record the gate creaking and recorded a firework in the sky and various things like that and started to put them in the songs but I think what happened was I got lost in the production writing process rather than just going back to the basic song and so that's why Back In To The Woods was such an allergic reaction to that. I think that's how anyone that creates work, you do one thing and then it''s done and you move on and then you look back at what you did with pride and respect but then you think 'I can't repeat myself, I can't do a version two of that, I've got to do something different.
So are you already in that place with Back In To The Woods?
Yeah, but I'm happy to perform Back In To The Woods for the next year because it's great, it feels so complete as a record and it's really easy, you know, I don't have to have a band or anything.
I was at your Cecil Sharp House show. What was that for you because that was a man walking into a room, everyone standing up, applauding and you sitting down? Everyone being silent and you playing a record?
It was quite intense. It was quite nerve-racking. I've got a lot of songs and because I don't perform that much anymore it's kind of like having to get back behind the wheel again. It's just weird because I've got all these songs swimming around in my head and it is a natural thing for me to perform but having to remember all the words sometimes and if I think about it too much or I look at anyone in the audience I go into this weird blackout and I can hear myself going, 'OK next verse, next verse, what's the fucking next verse, it's a new song what did I write again? What's the fucking verse?' And then suddenly either it comes and I sing it or I just have to stop and go 'I'm sorry, I've forgotten the fucking song' but luckily that didn't happen with that album. Then when I came to do the second half I'd forgotten shit loads of songs, it was embarrassing.
One of the fascinating things about that gig for me was that it felt quite intense because not only was it a culmination of your work and what you've done but it was a body of the people that you've met...
Yeah it was quite a family affair. At one point I had the four sisters of my extended family singing and I had my mum in the front row and I could see neighbours of my mum. There was a lot of my best friends there but then there was also a lot of fans, people who've bought my music throughout my whole career. I love the fact that there's a lot of love and I guess I do feed off of it, I would deny it if I didn't and it is a really good feeling to still have that. I think they're quite protective and I think they really care about what I do and that means more than anything.
Questions aside it was really interesting to walk into that room and see so many different people. There were people sitting there really prim and proper and then people literally on the stage right pissed and dancing round in circles. How have you met these people?'
The thing is that I've met people like that and then I've also done gigs that are completely crazy and where I've been hanging off a balcony and doing shots from fans on-stage. I did a gig in Brisbane where I invited the whole audience on stage and they were worried it was going to collapse because there was a grand piano on there as well. And I've done various gigs where I've been writhing around on the floor.
Will they come again?
I hope so. Not with this album. But you never know, it depends where I am and what state I'm in. Probably sober...
Can you tell me a funny story Ed? This has been a really sombre, contemplative interview. I want to know something that happened during the making of this album and I want it to be something that's about three minutes long.
(Laughs) About this album?
Or anything, just a funny story.
I don't really know where to start.
It's not that funny really but there's a song called wandering eye and I sang it and I came back into the control room and Gita was sitting there just like 'what's that about' and I was just like 'baby it's just fantasy, just about a guy I know...do you want to sing on it because we need a harmony?' and then they ended up singing on it, all four sisters. She's a songwriter in her own right and a very good one so sometimes we write songs about each other. Most of my songs are about her. In fact she's not written enough songs about me...she needs to write more about me!
Quick, have an argument about it!
I think we will, we'll have a big argument and then write some songs about it!
'I'm shouting at you to further your career!'
'I'm being really passive aggressive so you can write some more songs!'
'Particularly about me!'
'I'm looking out for you...why are you trying to start an argument? For the sake of art baby!'
Do you want a gold record or not?'
'You want to hit the big time? Slap me!'
Ed Harcourt plays Cadogan House tonight (30th May). Back In To The Woods is available now through CCCLX Records.