LUNCHING at his local, "with a nice glass of wine", Ed Harcourt is in convivial mood. "My daughter is asleep – it's a good time," he confides.
As his lobster arrives, he ponders: "Don't they mate for life? I'll be getting letters from PETA."
Ed is about to release his first album of new material in four years. Called Lustre, it's the long-awaited successor to 2006's The Beautiful Lie. In between, his former record label EMI insisted he release a 'best of'. Ed, who was then only 29, thought it "a bit weird and a bit presumptuous", but did it anyway.
"I filled it with my most accessible songs," he says. "I have a love of melody and harmony. There's a part of me that aspires to try and create a three-minute pop song every now and again.
"I balance it out with completely unlistenable music."
The sizable gap between albums was intentional. "When I left EMI I decided to start producing and writing and collaborating with other people – in my mind, anything that was not my music. I needed a break from myself, really.
"After a year and a half I started scratching an itch and began writing songs myself again. I financed the whole album. I went out to Seattle and recorded it with Ryan Hadlock. Everything about it is completely home-grown."
The record's upbeat tone stems in part from his decision to "run away from public society", and start a family. (His wife, Gita, is a singer in the 50s-influenced girl group the Langley Sisters.)
"A lot of it is creating your own world," says the 32-year-old, "becoming a more responsible and better person."
Fatherhood, he says, is an "open and joyous" experience, but he's wary that many songwriters in his position resort to "cloying sentimentality" to describe "the miracle of childbirth".
"It gets a bit sickly. I wanted to be careful about that."
Lustre, then, is "more an open letter, in a way".
"Every album describes exactly where you are in that moment in time," he explains. "I'm definitely more focused and more creative. I'm not as reckless and ram-bunctious as I used to be.
"That doesn't mean I'm cuddly," he hastens to point out. "I've still got my edges."
The album's title was inspired by King Lear, the Shakespeare play that Ed was obsessed with in his teens. Edgar speaks it, "Out, vile jelly – where is thy lustre now?", as he's gouging out Gloucester's eyes. "It means light, when something's shining really brightly," says Ed. "It's never used much but it's such a seductive word. I became obsessed with it. I wrote a song around it."
Musically, Ed feels Lustre is "more generic than most of my albums".
"I have a form of musical ADHD," he says. "I listen to so many different types of music – it all seeps in. Everything from doom metal to the Beach Boys, classical music, old soul music – it seeps into the mix. I just want to write great songs, that's what I'm attempting to do."
To coincide with the album's release Ed has launched a competition. "That was my managers' idea," he explains. "They said, 'Wouldn't it be great if you went round to somebody's house and played their piano?' So that's what I'm going to do. I will play as long as they want." Fans, with an upright piano, have until tomorrow to enter via his website, www. edharcourt.com.
As a songwriter, Ed has two approaches to his craft. "A lot of the time when I'm writing with people it's very different," he says. "It's regulated time; we're in the studio from 11am to 6pm. My studio has a roof terrace. We go outside and take a guitar or a wind instrument or a marxophone, that sounds like a dulcimer, or an Omnichord. We talk about what we want to write. I did it yesterday with Paloma Faith.
"When I'm on my own there's no particular method to it. It's very disorganised and scrambled. Even just before I get into the vocal booth I'm still writing lyrics and editing."
The songwriting process doesn't get any easier the longer you do it, he says. "With songs I'm quite hard on myself. I've accused myself of being lazy in the past. It's a good thing, otherwise you get to a pinnacle and the only way from that is downhill."
He's desperate to avoid smugness, he adds. "You have to be self-aware to write songs, but you can be too self-aware, it can get in the way."
Ed's talents, though, seem to be appreciated by his peers. In recent years he's been much in demand as a co-writer with the likes of Paloma Faith, Jamie Cullum and Lisa-Marie Presley, as well as Australian songstress Lisa Mitchell and new Scottish tunesmith The Boy Who Trapped The Sun. Most approaches come via management but sometimes artists send him messages on Facebook or his MySpace page. His simple rule is "if you are fantastic I will work with you".
"It's amazing, I've never been busier," he says. "I'm building up my studio and I've become a bit of a nerd. I've been buying all this analog studio equipment. I enjoy producing stuff as well."
His other sideline is playing on other people's records. He's "done a lot of sessions" with Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) and still hopes that his work with Tom Jones will see the light of day. "God knows what's happened to those recordings," he says. "They sound amazing. We did a couple of Nina Simone covers. He did a Ron Sexsmith song that's amazing and the Prince song The Cross."
For now, though, he's focused on a short UK tour that visits the Brudenell Social Club in Leeds the week after next. "I've had some good times in Leeds and Yorkshire in general," he says. "I've played at the Brudenell before, about three years ago. Hopefully people will turn up. There will be eight of us on stage."
After that, he's aiming to finish the Langley Sisters' album. "It's sounding really amazing – big strings and brass," he says. "It's like nothing you will hear this year. It's been a labour of love; I'm doing it for nothing." They still have to find a distributor – if none bites, Ed will release it on his own label Piano Wolf. "It deserves to be heard," he says.
Jun 15, Brudenell Social Club, Queens Road, Leeds, 7pm, 14. Tel: 0113 2752411. www.lunatickets.co.uk