Rain like this is always shocking, but tonight, it’s also making things awkward. It’s early evening on a Friday in New York City, and the muggy day has distilled into an ominous choke of clouds, which moments ago broke open like a dam. Because of it—torrents, buckets, cats and dogs, you-name-the-cliché—I am early and Ed Harcourt is late.
He arrives predictably wet, but the weather has hardly soaked his spirit. On the final weekend of an American tour with Neil Finn [formerly of Crowded House], Harcourt is supercharged and, dare I say it, merry—even about the rain. “England—it just drizzles and it’s really pathetic,” says Harcourt. “This kind of rain is actually really romantic.”
For Harcourt, embracing the totality of life experience seems as natural as breathing. His most recent release, Here Be Monsters (Capitol), is a case in point; it is steeped all the way through with self-reflective songwriting that’s unafraid to show his true colors, whether they’re dark or light, in-between or both simultaneously. If anything, I’d call this openness—within his music and himself, without pretense or regret—his manifesto. Or, in his own words, “I wouldn’t want try to be anything that I wasn’t. I’m definitely making sure that I’m myself.”
What follows is a glimpse into the other tenets that guide that self.
ON HIS BEGINNINGS
When I was about nine or ten I had piano lessons with a very elderly woman down the road. Most kids would probably run away and play hockey or something, football. But I actually really, really liked it. And I suddenly realized while I was playing the piano that I wanted to do music for the rest of my life. And then I learned the cello and the saxophone, and I taught myself everything else. I remember drumming to Guns ‘N Roses when I was like 13 and that’s how I learned to drum—to Guns ‘N Roses and Nirvana. I played bass in two rock bands and then I started teaching myself guitar. The reason why I listen to so much music is because my brothers introduced me to stuff like Jane’s Addiction and Nick Drake, Beastie Boys and stuff. My mum had Beach Boys, Beatles, Dylan, Johnny Cash. And my dad doesn’t really get into any kind of popular music, so he had loads of classical, loads of jazz like Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie, a lot of world music, like Latin music and African music, Chinese and Irish folk songs. So I had the whole range.
ON HIS CREATIVE PROCESS
I just write a lot. It’s probably close to 400 [songs that I’ve written]. I use a four track and I have dozens of tapes stacked up. I have to do it all the time. I’m obsessed with creating the perfect song, which I won’t ever do, because there isn’t one.
[Being a musician is all about] not ever getting to the top of your game. And once you do get to the top of your game, it means you’re going to fucking fall. I don’t want to do that; I’d rather just strive for it, and keep driven as an artist.
This tour [with Neil Finn] has been amazing, unbelievable. We’ve been fucking everywhere. On all the California dates Johnny Marr [formerly of the Smiths] was playing, Eddie Vedder [of Pearl Jam] played in Seattle with Neil. And Neil’s band played with me onstage for a few songs because Lisa Germano is on my new album. It’s like this big extended family. [Neil Finn] has become like a bit of a mentor—he’s kind of adopted me.
Glastonbury [an enormous British music festival where Ed recently performed] was mad. We went on really early, at about one thirty, and I got quite drunk. On the last song, “Shanghai”—that song ended with this massive, kind of krautrock chime on one chord—I went right down in the front. I don’t know what happened, but I’ve been through quite a lot in the last few months and something snapped and I smashed the guitar to pieces completely. And John Ertswhile had died that day. It was totally weird. I think I was possessed by The Who. It was very out of character for me to smash a guitar that I loved so much. Though, it’s become kind of a bit of a novelty trademark [for me to knock over my piano at the end of the show] and I think I need to stop it. Everyone expects it—after awhile you think it might be becoming a bit predictable. I need to find something else. Maybe I’ll set it alight or something. Take out a sledgehammer.
I’ve toured America this year for about eight or nine weeks, on three tours. It’s been amazing though. The first and the third tours have been the best tours, the second [earlier this spring] was a bit of a weird vibe. It was like “okay, let’s send him out,” and some of the decisions were a bit weird. Like, we played Colorado in a student town two days after graduation. So everyone had left and we were like “uh, yeah.” It was a bit Spinal Tap, really. But I like touring America. [American audiences are] very enthusiastic. People always pat me on the back and say, “oh, we really dig it.” They’re much less snide [than English audiences]. They seem a bit more straightforward, like “I like your music,” and there aren’t any kind of connotations.
I love New York. I actually really want to come here for a month in September and write. I’ve written all my songs in this old country house in Sussex, and I’d like to come here and get a different sense of feeling in the atmosphere, there’s always something happening—funny, weird, odd, coincidental thing.
ON THE NEW ALBUM
Well, that’s completely mastered, done. We did 20 tracks and 12 tracks made it and I’m really, really proud of it. It’s a bit more creative, a bit different. It still sounds like stuff off Here Be Monsters but it’s just a huge step. I know, everyone always says that. Still, I’m not even worried about people going “oh, I liked his earlier stuff,” because there’s going to be stuff coming out all the time.
It’s called From Every Sphere, which is the last song on the album. It seems to make sense because every song is quite eclectic. I mean, there aren’t twelve planets in the solar system, [but still], in a way, each song is sort of from a different planet. “From Every Sphere” itself is about afterlife and the stars as souls—lost, forgotten souls in the sky. It’s a very ethereal song, about eight minutes long. People say it sounds like Simon and Garfunkel meets Spiritualized.
I get good comparisons, bad comparisons. It will always happen. I’ll get someone compare me to like Elton John and then they’ll compare me to Tom Waits, Jeff Buckley. I seem to get so many different comparisons. I guess that means that they can’t really pigeonhole me really. I’d rather have that. I mean I’m not a demographically thinking kind of person. I get bored of writing one particular song. I listen to all different types of music—punk rock to Marvin Gaye.
ON WHAT’S IN HIS STEREO
[Right now, I’m listening to] the new Sonic Youth album. It’s fabulous. I’m really a big fan of Jim O’Rourke, the guy who plays bass with them. And the Beachwood Sparks, their new album. Bright Eyes, I quite like Bright Eyes, and the new Vines album. There’s a lot of stuff—Flaming Lips new album, and Chet Baker, I always listen to him. Velvet Underground I listen to a lot. Beatles, Beach Boys—Sunflower and Surf’s Up. And Led Zeppelin, I always come back to that because it rocks.
I’m 25 on August 14, which is actually two days before Elvis died. Maybe I have a little of the King in me. (Laughs.) No, really, a quarter of a century, man. I’m not worried, really. 20s is such a tough time, isn’t it? Trying to work out what you want to do in your life, finding your vocation. I’ve found mine, so I feel pretty balanced. My feet are on the ground. I know what I want to do until I die. I’m fucking lucky.
ON THE KEY TO HAPPINESS
Why do people have these midlife crises? The only reason why you have a midlife crisis is because you get to the age of like, 40, and if you’ve been stuck in a shitty job or a shitty marriage, you get to that age and you suddenly realize, “what have I done with my life? I’ve wasted it, I haven’t followed my instincts, my gut instincts.” And that’s what happens to a lot of people. You know, I didn’t go to university and my parents wanted me to go. But I followed my instincts and it seems to be working. That’s what I’d say to all the kids out there. Don’t do drugs, and follow your instincts. (Laughs.)
ON HERE BE MONSTERS NOW
I can’t listen to it, really, now that I’ve got into the new album. Today, I did this radio and they played “Hanging with the Wrong Crowd”, and I was like “who is that sappy young troubadour? Who does he think he is?” Some of it I’m pretty proud of, but being a perfectionist, listening to that stuff, it’s like “ah, I could have done that so much better.” I did Here Be Monsters in a bit of a haze. There was a lot of alcohol consumed making that album. Working with Chad Blake on the new album, I’ve learned so much about mixing. About taking everything off and space and the air within a song. You’ve got to let a song breathe—don’t crowd it up doing too many things. I love doing that.
It’s true [when people call me a hopeless romantic]. I guess I am. You know, it’s better than being called a dickhead. Being in love makes you feel good, and it makes everything all right. I feel it’s the only thing that can save this world—god, I sound like a hippie. But you know, I don’t mind being called that. But I don’t want to be a cliché. There’s a bit of aggression in me as well, being a man. I have a bit of a temper sometimes. The violence that anyone can commit—the will is there, it’s always there I think, within any man. It sounds like a bit of a feminist statement, but I just think it’s true. So I’m not just a hopeless romantic. Maybe just a hopeless case.
ON HIS PLACE IN THE MUSIC BUSINESS
In this day and age, it’s hard to get your music played on radio without shoving it down people’s throats. And I don’t really like that idea. I think it’s much more satisfying when people find it out for themselves, without knowing anything about it.
I think, as an artist, you’ve always got to change direction. You’ve got to be aware—not in a self conscious way or be contrived—but you’ve got to compete with yourself and not repeat yourself. So many people do it and it’s really annoying. So many bands think “well, I sold shitloads on this album, so I might as well repeat the tricks and make more money.” Well, that’s not the reason you’re an artist, is it? The reason is to searching for that particular truth or whatever, a holier quest.
Like at the moment, the whole garage rock thing. They’re all brilliant bands—I like the White Stripes, I love the Vines—but you know that within a year there’s going to be loads of labels signing bands just like that, and then they’ll all get dropped because they won’t be as good as the real thing. So I think for me it’s the thing of sustaining. I’m a bit of a survivor. Staying in it for the long haul and just constantly moving ahead, making each album interesting and different. So I think I know what I want to do on the next album—I want to do piano pop songs with lots of noise, feedback and guitars, and I want to make a real accessible album but completely weird, weird pop. And then after that I’ll do something really fucking dark and messed up. And then after that I’ll do a flowery psychedelic album. You know, there’s so much to do, I don’t understand people who get really stuck. There’s so much you can do.