Ed Harcourt once got into a fight during his own gig at the Wedgewood Rooms. Now, as he prepares to headline
Southsea Fest, he tells Chris Broom he’s older and wiser.
If you’ve caught Sophie Ellis Bextor performing at either Bestival or Victorious over the summer, you may have noticed the chap on the piano over at stage right.
That man is Ed Harcourt, who has been the co-writer and producer on her latest album, Wanderlust, which has seen her move away from the dancefloor sound of her earlier hits.
But Harcourt is a notable artist in his own right, with six full-length albums under his belt including his Mercury Prize-nominated debut Here Be Monsters in 2001, as well as the beautiful gothic-pop of this year’s mini-album Time of Dust.
And tomorrow the piano-playing singer will headline the Kings Theatre stage at the eighth annual Southsea Fest.
But most of his solo work has gone on hold while he supports Sophie, promoting the album.
‘I met Sophie when I worked with her on her last album – I wrote a song for it and did the string arrangement,’ he says.
‘We kind of got along and I became close with her husband Richard (Jones, bassist with The Feeling) – we became good family friends.
‘We started writing together for the new album, but we’re very different as people and musically, but for some reason it just clicked.
‘I think she was in the right frame of mind, and what she wanted to write about was darker, more fairytale-esque, kind of a little bit gothic. It made sense really.
‘It’s been kind of our baby.’
‘When it came out, we thought ‘‘it will be all right if it does 20,000, we’ll be really happy’’, and now it’s about 80,000 worldwide.
‘We’ve been nurturing a generation who don’t understand what it’s like to buy music. I’m not trying to be a Victor Meldrew or anything, it’s all relative, but 80,000 sales back in the day would mean a lot more.’
But playing musical director to popstars is a relatively new role for Harcourt – for several years he was happy to adopt the role of troubled troubadour. He talks of having ‘those dark night of the soul aspects, definitely, and that stuff that comes out is cathartic – that last man standing vibe, you against the world, it’s that tortured angry man syndrome.’
He recalls one gig in particular: ‘I remember a gig about 10 years ago, it was at the Portsmouth Wedgewood Rooms, that was one of... I think it’s probably out of all the shows I’ve ever played, it’s the one I regret the most.
‘I went out beforehand and drank two bottles of wine with friends and didn’t really think about it. Then I got back to the venue and realised I was completely drunk. It was just a nightmare, I got in a fight with someone, I couldn’t remember the words, people were walking out, it was a car crash gig.
‘I think I’ve got that out of my system now.’
Harcourt released four albums in quick succession, leaving EMI in 2007, and there was a period where he describes how he went ‘a bit mental’ for a year.
‘I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t want to write for myself, I was sick of myself to be honest.’
It was around this time he began writing for artists like ‘Lissie, Paloma Faith and Josephine Oniyama, lots of female singers.’
When he eventually decided to record for himself again, he released the well-received Lustre in 2010 on his own Piano Wolf label, but that proved to be a financial disaster, resulting in the liquidation of the label and Harcourt acknowledging that ‘I’m not very good at the business stuff.’
The next album was 2013’s stripped down Back into the Woods, which was recorded in a single session at the renowned Abbey Road Studios, and ‘was basically an apology/tribute to my wife.’
Now father to a son and daughter, being a family man has changed Harcourt’s life, but it has also had an unexpected effect on his music: ‘It’s changed me in a way that’s made me more focused and made me aware that the time I have is more precious when I make my music, because I’m juggling that and being a father.
‘At the same time it’s inspiring. I don’t know why, but my music got’s darker. I was trying to work this out and I think it’s maybe because when you bring a child into this world, you see how dangerous and terrifying the rest of the world is and you bring an innocent life into this bad, mad dangerous place, and it’s quite an unfathomable feeling – the responsibility you have, you wake up every morning going: “Aaargh!”
‘When you see what’s going on, every day you open the paper and it’s bad news, and I think an element of that has seeped into my subconscious in the songs that have come out.
‘It’s not like a judgmental thing, but it’s about things have upset me, or things that we’ve done as a race, or as mankind, not in a Cain or Noah, Biblical way – I’m an atheist. Without sounding like a horrible hippy – not that hippies are horrible – I believe in love, and spirituality, and community, and getting on with each other, I guess... The first track on my next record is called the World Is On Fire. That says it all really.’
But the new album will have to wait for now. Sophie’s on tour in the autumn and then he hits the road as part of Marianne Faithfull’s band.
‘She’s much more important than people give her credit for. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She’s very funny and doesn’t care what anyone cares, but there’s a vulnerability and a fragility to her that’s enticing.
‘And she has so much character in her voice, I would rather listen to her than someone with a technically excellent voice.’
I know Portsmouth quite well. My father was born on the Isle of Wight and I used to sail across the Solent and go mackerel fishing.
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They’re a good band, I’m looking forward to seeing them. They’re with Transgressive Records and Toby from Transgressive is one of my best friends – I think the drummer has got Toby’s face tattooed on his leg.
I can appreciate vocal aerobics a la Christina Aguilera or whoever, but because of things like X Factor a lot of kids think that’s the way to express emotion and it’s not.
Where & when...
Ed Harcourt is headlining the Kings Theatre stage at Southsea Fest. More than 120 acts will be playing on 13 stages in the Albert Road area tomorrow. Tickets cost £18, go to southseafest.com