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Ed Harcourt

Tipped for greater things so many, many times over, London-based piano virtuoso ED HARCOURT seemed to be somewhat overlooked after the mid-00s, as new kids on the block (JAMES BLUNT, JAMES MORRISON, PAOLO NUTINI et al) positioned themselves as contenders for the singer-songwriter crown of creation. Still, there was much for Ed to be proud of when his debut set, `Here Be Monsters’, nearly walked away with the 2001 Mercury Prize.
Born Edward Henry Richard Harcourt-Smith, 14 August 1977, Wimbledon, London
(some say: Lewes, East Sussex), the brainy boy turned down a place at music college to become the co-vocalist/bassist/pianist for up and coming ASH-like indie-rock outfit, Snug. Along with James Deane (vocals/guitar), Ed Groves (guitar/synths) and Johnny Lewsley (drums), a handful of buoyant singles (from `My Girl (Keith)’ and `Caroline’, to `Ode To The Day’ and `Beatnik Girl’) surfaced for WEA Records, until it was down to their own Howling Duck imprint to drop off a couple of rather average albums: `Snug’ (1999) and `From Solar To Polar’ (2000).
ED HARCOURT was growing up fast, though it was time to settle down; at least musically for now. Initially known for his youthfulness and eager talent, the musing troubadour erupted into the column inches of critical fare via his inaugural solo release for Heavenly Records: MAPLEWOOD (2000) {*6}. An edgy and sometimes frustrating mini-album, Ed ambitiously recorded the whole thing on a 4-track. There were certain mellow folk-rock elements that suggested he was in love with the romanticism of TOM WAITS’ lush Americana; tracks such as the gruff hobo dirge, `Become Misguided’; with its plinky-plonky banjo and obscure drifting lyrics et al, gave the artist the confusing tag of “new country”, when it was clearly old country that he’d gleaned. Jazzy, late-nighter `Attaboy Go Spin A Yarn’ showcased his tender vocal muscle, whilst `Whistle Of A Distant Train’ harked back to DONOVAN’s “Summer Day Reflections” period.
After supporting SPARKLEHORSE on a brief tour, HARCOURT recorded his sophomore release, HERE BE MONSTERS (2001) {*8}. More technically enhanced, the Dave Fridmann-album received rave reviews for passionate pieces such as `Those Crimson Tears’, and refined ballads like `Something In My Eye’, `God Protect Your Soul’ and minor hit, `Apple Of My Eye’. It was also indeed a pleasant surprise to hear muted trumpets, soft strings and whispering piano peppered all over the set; a reason then for the lad to ink an American-only deal at Capitol Records.
HARCOURT followed up this acclaimed record with FROM EVERY SPHERE (2003) {*7}, an album produced by Tchad Blake and just as delicate in arrangement and song structure as Ed’s previous work of art. Taking the troubadour mantle head-on, the young crooner displayed his knack for songwriting once again via the timid `All Of Your Days Will Be Blessed’ (like its parent set also a Top 40 entry). The record flirting with the more jazzy aspects of his musicianship via the swagger of standout track `Ghostwriter’. Astralwerks took over Ed’s US contract, and the future looked decidedly bright for the young man; he also covered `Still I Dream Of It’ (The BEACH BOYS) and `Atlantic City’ (BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN).
Now co-producing along with Jari Haapalainen and resident backer Hadrian Garrard, 2004’s STRANGERS {*7} was significant for featuring his wife-to-be: violinist/backing vocalist Gita Langley. Lazy comparisons to JEFF BUCKLEY, ERIC MATTHEWS and BADLY DRAWN BOY didn’t quite have the desired knock-on effect, though the rainy-day/slap-happy chamber-pop record still managed to resonate his audience with a trine of introspective minor hits, `This One’s For You’, `Born In The ‘70s’ and `Loneliness’.
Having supported on stage everyone from R.E.M. to WILCO prior to his previous set, Ed was duly proud to feature alongside his long-time heroine PATTI SMITH (on a duet of `Pissing In The River’) at London’s Meltdown Festival of 2005. Ed’s next set: THE BEAUTIFUL LIE (2006) {*7} failed to generate enough sales; despite decent reviews. The appearance of wife Gita, The MAGIC NUMBERS, GRAHAM COXON, LEO ABRAHAMS and aforesaid musician/co-producer Jari, multi-instrumentalist HARCOURT couldn’t cross-pollinate his smorgasbord of genres (from indie-pop to jazzy psych-blues) on the likes of `Visit From The Dead Dog’, `Revolution In The Heart’ and a title utilized by a forthcoming compilation, `Until Tomorrow Then’.
Just at a time when it was very important for Ed get his act together, so to speak (wife Gita was having their first child Roxy), he was out of contract. A spell with Dovecote Records in the States helped a little. However, a digital EP entitled `Russian Roulette’ and an unyielding score penned for movie sequel, s. DARKO (2009) {*5}, marked time while he collaborated on songs with the likes of PALOMA FAITH and his contribution (`Isabel’) for Haiti’s SOS Children’s Villages Emergency Relief Fund.
The independently-dispatched LUSTRE (2010) {*8} – for his own Piano Wolf imprint – brought Ed back into the fore. Produced by Ryan Hadlock, by way of studios in Washington and L.A., and pictured with wife and toddler on the photo-sleeve, the whole affair was rather grandiose and symphonic. Still trying to shake off the “Grace” of JEFF BUCKLEY or the moody romanticism of NICK DRAKE or RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, the sad-sack element of `Haywired’, `Heart Of A Wolf’, `Do As I Say Not As I Do’ and `A Secret Society’, should’ve restored his popularity, at least two-fold.
In a time that saw wife Gita have their second child, Franklyn, work as a songwriter for others kept from the wolf from his piano, so to speak. As he scribed songs for several major artists, including SOPHIE ELLIS-BEXTOR, MARIANNE FAITHFULL, JAMIE CULLUM, HAPPYNESS and JAMES BAY, there were two new releases for manager Sean Adams’ CCCLX label, namely the Abbey Road-recorded BACK INTO THE WOODS (2013) {*6} and the six-track mini-set TIME OF DUST (2014) {*6} – the latter featuring a duet (`Come Into My Dreamland’) with folk artist KATHRYN WILLIAMS.
Reciprocal appearances on stage, in summer 2015, at Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, with The LIBERTINES, raised Ed’s profile to anyone who’d missed the man first time around. And with umpteenth set, FURNACES (2016) {*6}, HARCOURT could at least rely on a consistent audience for his Flood-enhanced/Polydor-endorsed apocalyptic chamber pop. On 22 October 2017, with a little help from his friends The LIBERTINES, SUPERGRASS, STEVE MASON and others, Ed led out and performed The BEATLES’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album in its entirety – surely his biggest honour to date.
Buoyed by feature slots on PALOMA FAITH’s `The Architect’, NORMA JEAN MARTINE’s `Only In My Mind’ and MARIANNE FAITHFULL’s `Negative Capability’ albums, it was again time to press out another ED HARCOURT solo set. Delivered for Point Of Departure Records (licensed to PIAS) in the fall of 2018, BEYOND THE END {*6} was his most ambitious and ambient record to date. With simply Ed and his piano at work, cinematic-styled instrumentals `Diving Bell’, `Wolves Change Rivers’, `Empress Of The Lake’ et al, worked well within the context and confines of his mindful landscapes; poignant point was that his former backer/producer LEO ABRAHAMS once collaborated with BRIAN ENO.
© MC Strong/MCS 2003/GRD // rev-up MCS Nov2018

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