At 43, British singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt is entering the most productive, creatively successful period of his career, which began with his Mercury Prize-nominated “Here Be Monsters” in 2001.
He’s been boldly exploring new frontiers, including composing film soundtracks, collaborating with — then joining the backing band of — rock legend Marianne Faithfull, and recording two velvety instrumental albums, 2018’s “Beyond the End” and the new “Monochrome to Colour.”
The recording, released on his private imprint Piano Wolf Recordings, runs the sonic gamut from the jazzy “After the Carnival” through a thoughtful piano-violin etude called “Her Blood is Volcanic,” a lounge-smoky “So Here’s to You, Hally,” and a closing title track that’s almost hymn-like in scope.
The singer owes it all to one of his biggest commercial failures.
Ironically, Harcourt sensed trouble coming when the major imprint that signed him, EMI, kept him around for four inventive albums, then issued a greatest-hits collection, which he saw as unwarranted.
“It was ridiculous, because I was only 30 years old at the time, and it all seemed a little bit presumptuous,” he says.
By 2016, he’d inked a deal with another big-time company, and was ready to release “Furnaces,” a fiery, Wagnerian rock opus with a big budget that he’d spent four years carefully constructing with the producer Flood. It bombed. Big time.
“Polydor just basically buried it, murdered it,” he says. “Three months after the album came out, Polydor said, ‘We’re not going to put any more money into this record,’ and then three months after that, they dropped me. And — without sounding over-dramatic — I sort of went into a depression, a deep, dark hole, and I didn’t write a song for a full year.”
But everything that’s happened since has been quite serendipitous, Harcourt clarifies.
Word on his work with Faithfull had circulated, and he jumped headlong into songwriting and production for other artists, like Paloma Faith, James Bay, Jamie Cullum and Lisa Marie Presley.
A lifelong keyboard geek, he finally tracked down the same model of Hopkinson baby grand piano that he’d learned to play as a kid, right around the time that he moved his family to a small English village and built a rustic home studio he christened Wolf Cabin.
“The only stuff I was writing then ended up being this Erik Satie and Debussy-type piano stuff,” he says. “And weirdly, that’s when Rich Machin from The Soulsavers rang me up and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do an all-instrumental record?’ And I said, ‘I can’t believe you asked me that, because that’s all I’m writing!’”
“Beyond the End” was completed in 10 easygoing days, which immediately invited the “Monochrome” sequel.
It helps that Harcourt’s wife Gita is a professional musician. The couple often works together, especially during the current pandemic, when not seeing to their two children, Roxy, 11, and Franklyn, 9.
“She’s played violin and sung on all my records since 2004,” he says. “My kids just look at me with bemusement. They’ve gotten to that point where they’re old enough to just take the piss out of you, so now I’m the brunt of everyone’s jokes. But hey, that’s just part of being a parent, isn’t it? Especially during this pandemic.”
With “Monochrome,” Harcourt’s dry spell ended, and he’s begun writing what he considers to be pop songs again. Enough, in fact. to have formed a new garage-trashy spinoff group (with Senseless Things drummer Cass Browne and The Feeling’s bassist Richard Jones) called Loup Garoux, which really lets him flex his lead-guitar muscles.
“We’re all just really good friends, and we’ve been making recordings here in the Wolf Cabin for two years, on and off, and we have a full album ready to go in January, and we’ve started writing the second record already,” he says.
The coronavirus clampdown still feels unsettling to Harcourt, who admittedly vacillates between being a glass-is-half-empty and glass-is-half-full guy: “The days just flow into each other, and some days you wake up and have this manic energy, like, ‘Yeah! There’s no routine, no discipline! I’m just going to do what I want!’ And other days? I just can’t be bothered to get out of bed. I have total lethargy.”
There’s one sanctuary where he frequently returns by himself for peace of mind. He says, “I’m really lucky because I have my little Wolf Cabin at the back of the garden. And I can just shut the doors, and the whole place is soundproof and I can play anything I want. I have that freedom. So it’s actually a really good thing to go and hunker down in the bunker!”