Music interview: Ed Harcourt

Ed Harcourt. Picture: Steve Gullick
Ed Harcourt. Picture: Steve Gullick
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Ed Harcourt’s career is on the up again. He spoke to Duncan Seaman ahead of his appearances in Yorkshire this weekend.

One of rock’s great raconteurs, Ed Harcourt is rarely short of an anecdote – and with his career on an upswing as he prepares to release his new album on a major label the singer-songwriter seems in particularly good form today.

An inquiry as to how his recent Hyde Park show with 70s legend Carol King went elicits an entertaining tale about waiting impatiently in the wings for Don Henley of The Eagles, another of the big name acts on the bill, to vacate the neighbouring stage.

“Don Henley decided to come back for an encore and I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going into Hotel California’, which is, like, eight minutes long, and we all burst out laughing because it we were basically going to have to cut our set by a ridiculous amount of time,” Harcourt chuckles. “And Don Henley then went into Desperado and that was it, I just couldn’t take any more, so I went on stage and played my loudest song whilst he was playing Desperado – so that was my experience.”

That said, he enjoyed the headline act. “I luckily managed to get down the front and watched her show and it was just mesmerising. I’ve never seen so many people crying during You’ve Got a Friend, it was almost like a post-Brexit, healing thing. You know the nation’s so divided and so messed up and there doesn’t seem to be a solution and everything’s in disarray, she seemed to capture a moment.”

Having released his last couple of albums on his own label while also writing numerous songs for other artists, Harcourt is deservedly back in the limelight with Furnaces, his seventh full-length studio LP, which is coming out next month on Polydor. Its gestation, he says, began five years ago when he approached Flood – whose credits include New Order, U2 and Depeche Mode – to oversee it.

Ed Harcourt. Picture: Steve Gullick

Ed Harcourt. Picture: Steve Gullick

“I played him a couple of songs and said, ‘Would you be interested in producing my next record?’ and he said, ‘Yes, this is great but you need more songs’. So I kept coming back to him every six months and he’d be like, ‘These two are good, those ten are not good enough’, he was really brutal and this just happened [repeatedly] over the next four years, basically. In the meantime I made Back In The Woods and Time of Dust because I had to. I was meant to be going into the studio with Flood but I had no budget, no label, nothing, other than publishing.”

At Easter weekend last year, Harcourt and friends went to some Turkish baths followed by a trip to two local pubs. At the second he bumped into the singer – and recent judge on The Voice – Paloma Faith with whom he has worked several times. “I ended up getting quite drunk with Paloma and we went to her house. She’d bought all these Easter eggs and we ended up in my studio with all these Easter eggs and bottles of wine and one thing led to another with me, her and her boyfriend and I was like, ‘Do you guys want to hear what I’ve been up to?’ I was just bemoaning to her that I couldn’t find a label and I played about eight songs to her and she said, ‘You have to send these to Ferdy [Unger-Hamilton] at Polydor’.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t have confidence in myself but I know how the game works. I was a bit like ‘Nah, why would anyone want to sign me? I’m damaged goods with my reputation.’ She kept badgering me over the next week so I sent five songs to her and she sent them on to Ferdy and within three days I was meeting him and he said, ‘This is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time and we want to do this, we want to sign you’ and I could not believe it.”

Suddenly armed with a budget, Harcourt was able to draft in Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint on drums, Tom Herbert of Polar Bear on bass, Hannah Lou Clark to sing vocals and Tom Waits collaborator Michael Blair on percussion. “I could make the record that I wanted to make,” he says. “It was a beautiful bolt of lucky lightning.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t have confidence in myself but I know how the game works. I was a bit like ‘Nah, why would anyone want to sign me? I’m damaged goods with my reputation.’

Furnaces is arguably the most abrasive record that Harcourt has yet made over a 15-year career. It’s a response, he says, from a husband and father to the internet age. “I guess since the impact of the internet we’ve had an overload, an oversaturation of information so we’re just barraged with news and everyone is a news anchor on social media, everyone can be a comedian, everyone thinks that they can be a critic, everyone thinks they can be a debater and it feels like it’s reaching some kind of boiling point. I just felt like it’s almost too much to take in, and the album itself I think it comes from some kind of rage at man itself, everything that I take in it reflects inwards.

“I thought that it wasn’t a personal album, that it was very outward-looking, but a lot of people have said to me they think it’s quite personal because it comes from a father’s point of view, that I’m worried for the future. I think that maybe it runs the gamut of emotions, it’s not nihilistic but it is observant of that nihilism, and I guess that’s the way it’s turned out, you can’t really control it.

“But I’m working with Flood so it was always going to be that way. He’s known for embracing the darkness,” he laughs. “We were both on the same page, we both had the same outlook, and the one thing with the record is there are glimmers of hope, there’s always hope.”

Ed Harcourt plays at Hebden Bridge Trades Club on July 23 and Deer Shed Festival at Baldersby Park, North Yorkshire on July 24. For details visit http://thetradesclub.com/ or http://deershedfestival.com/

THE ARTWORK FOR FURNACES

The artwork for Ed Harcourt’s new album was painted by Ralph Steadman. “It was going to be inspired by John Martin’s apocalyptic paintings but obviously not on that epic scale, it was going to be much more Ralph’s persona coming through,” the singer says. “Ralph is so influenced by Picasso and Rothko and Pollock, also the satirists, people from the 19th century who were drawing in Punch.

“I basically said to him, ‘Could you draw something akin to a tsunami of fire?’ and what I got back was kind of an approximation of that combined with something that looked like someone had coughed up all the blood that was in their body onto the page. You can see there’s a city very faintly in the background. If you look at it you keep seeing different things. I love it. Then you have these old wood blocks for the furnace for the title that he bought from an old wood block factory for 20 quid and he put up the letters.

“It’s just such a pleasure going down there and watching him paint. He’s given me the original as well so that’s now hanging up above the desk in my studio.”

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