Interview: British Songwriter Ed Harcourt to Play 'Russian Roulette' at Bordello Bar This Monday
Although London-based multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt is hard at work recording his next album, he'll be playing a special one-night-only US gig at Bordello Bar on Monday night.
Ever since his Mercury Prize-nominated album debuted eight years ago, Harcourt's music has consistently balanced the dark with the light—rock and pop with instantly hummable depth. His most recent release, an EP called Russian Roulette, covers the emotional and musical gamut—from epic and haunting tracks to an upbeat piece he wrote about his newborn daughter. LAist spoke with Harcourt last Friday to get the scoop on the new album, his obsession with microphones, and the sea shanty writing process.
You've sometimes referred to yourself as a "collector of weird instruments." What’s the weirdest instrument on the EP?
Probably the musical saw. It's the instrument from Jack Nitzsche's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest soundtrack where it comes in and you hear that haunting sound—like a theremin—something weeping, but almost absurd at the same time. It's a lot of fun, but very difficult to play.
You're currently recording at Bear Creek Studio in Washington, and you’ll soon be in LA. Do you take your collection of instruments with you when you travel abroad to record?
This time I just brought my old Fender Jazzmaster with me. I'm traveling light on this trip. I'm not sure how the TSA people would react to the saw!
What are some of the other "weird instruments" in your collection?
Ed Harcourt - "Sour Milk, Motheaten Silk"
Is Russian Roulette the first EP you've released since Maplewood?
Yeah, it is. We came up with this Russian Roulette concept because it's a six-shooter—there are six songs on the EP. We put it on a USB drive shaped like a bullet, along with six videos.
Do you think this EP would be a good place to start for people who are just learning about your music?
I think so. Going along with the concept of Russian roulette, there's only one bullet in the gun, so you don't know what you're going to get. It's a bit of a dark analogy, but the idea is that each song is in a different genre.
Yet even though the styles are varied, it's still a cohesive EP.
Yeah, it's got to have cohesion for sure. I'm inspired by so many types of music that I guess it translates into my writing and my recording. One minute I'll be on the piano playing some Grieg or Debussy, and the next minute I'll be listening to doom metal. All kinds of aspects of music and walks of life appeal to me—even cheesy pop songs. I love a good pop song.
No, it was all recorded digitally, though most of my full-length albums have been done on tape. We're using ProTools for the album I'm recording now, but I reckon I'll probably end up mixing it on half-inch tape. People forget how important tape is—just because something's technologically advanced doesn't necessarily mean it's better.
I know that your wife plays violin on a couple of the songs on Russian Roulette. I love the pizzicato stuff she does on "Sour Milk, Motheaten Silk." Do you ever write music with her?
We do a lot of work together. She's played on my film scores, and many times I just sing a melody that's been in my head, then she plays it and we tweak it from there. It's quite an arduous process but we work really quickly.
On "Black Feathers," is that a megaphone you use to get your voice to sound so trippy, or is that a filter?
I think I was using an old mic, and with that song, I was going for a low-fi rustic feel. I'm an avid collector of old microphones, and I've got this old Shure 55, which is kind of an Elvis-type mic. It's an original I bought off a guy in Long Island, and he claims it belonged to someone who was in Frank Sinatra's band or something like that.
The story behind "Caterpillar" is really touching—how you wrote the song about your newborn daughter as you and your wife looked on helplessly as she was fighting for her health in an incubator. Did you actually write that in the hospital?
No, I started thinking about it there, then I had to go home to shower and change, and at that point I sat at the piano and wrote it. That's what happens when these things materialize out of nowhere; you feel compelled to write something and there's no way of stopping it. With "Caterpillar," I was trying to write a lighthearted song about something that was quite a heavy experience. I didn't want it to be overwrought.
Which song does your daughter seem to respond to most when you sing to her?
She seems to respond to everything. She especially loves the piano—we've bought a mini-piano for her and she whacks it with her little fist.
How old is she now?
I have a feeling she's going to be a musician.
Probably! It's pretty much a massive part of her life already. She can't avoid it. She's come to gigs and been backstage, so she hears music all the time. I'll be shocked and confused if she wants to become an accountant.
You've mentioned in the past that you love musicals. Did this stem from the fact that you were taught piano by the original Phantom of the Opera's (Michael Crawford’s) mother?
You know, I don't think so. She never talked about that. To be honest, I'm not a huge fan of the whole "I just want to siiiinnnngg!" thing—the hammy side of musical theater. I'm more a fan of the songwriting.
Stuff like West Side Story, Cole Porter's Anything Goes, and even animated films such as The Jungle Book. I love the old songwriting pairings—Rodgers and Hart and the golden era of the Brill Building and Tin Pan Alley—the sheer workmanship of those songs.
It's something I think any artist now should go back to and try to emulate. I try to do that when I find myself being lazy with lyrics or songs and thinking, "That'll do." It's like if you were a painter, you'd go back to the old masters. You just go back to the old guard and look at what they did and then try to do it in your own way.
A number of years ago you said that it's nonsense when people say you need to be miserable to make good music, because everyone works better when they're happy. With a beautiful wife and daughter, and your recent albums, would you say you're making the best music of your life right now?
I do feel like right now is the most amazing time. I haven't stopped writing since my daughter was born. I'm writing with other people, just feeling so creative, producing stuff and working on films. I've created this life for myself and it just feels right. I'm so excited about the album we're working on now. We've already done six songs in four days!
When I get to LA, I'm going to record The Langley Sisters, a group comprised of my wife and her two sisters, and they'll be playing at Bordello with me as well. There's going to be a lot of three-part harmonies on the record. It's going to be really choral and beautiful and there's stuff on there that's playful and cheeky, and then there's stuff that's really dark and weird. It'll be pop songs, but done in a way that hopefully doesn't sound like anyone else.
When will the next album be released?
I really don't know, because I'm funding this myself and making the whole record. Maybe in January or February 2010. This is the first record where I'm going to own all the rights completely!
Have you ever played Bordello Bar?
This will be my first time.
Apparently, it was an actual bordello many decades ago…
Oh, brilliant! I'll make sure to dress like a pimp.
Speaking of LA, what are some favorite restaurants you like to visit when you come to down?
I really like Canter's Deli on Fairfax. I went there with Rodney Bingenheimer once. They have a little plaque there with his name on it, and he sat beneath the plaque as he was eating. I was really bemused, just looking at him, then looking at the plaque, and thinking, "This is great!"
I love going to Mexican restaurants in LA, though I can't remember the names of my favorites at the moment. I remember one night, after we had done the Tonight Show, we went to a party and someone offered me some mushrooms, and pretty soon I was out of my mind. We ended up going to this Mexican restaurant and our waiter looked like a 50s throwback kind of guy. To everyone else, he was normal, but to me he was this big cartoon wolf trying to take my order. I was literally in hysterics, hiding behind the menu. I was definitely everyone's entertainment for the night. After that, I thought to myself, "I'm never doing mushrooms again!"
Oh my! Do you get to eat much Mexican food in London? What's your favorite place?
I'll tell you what, there's a restaurant called Santo on Portobello Road that does authentic Mexican—not Tex Mex, but the proper stuff, and it's amazing.
Thanks for the tip! Now, getting into your hobbies a little bit, I know you're a voracious reader. Which book is currently on your nightstand?
I've been reading Lowside of the Road, which is a Tom Waits biography by Barney Hoskyns. It's meant to be the definitive one and it's quite interesting because I'm a massive fan of his. He wasn't interviewed for it because he's a very private person, but it's still amazing getting to see how he developed as an artist. In the book, there are a few people he meets along the way who are also friends of mine, so it's great reading about them as well!
What's your favorite book?
I think my favorite is Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It's set in Russia and it's very surreal.
Was that an influence on Russian Roulette?
Could be—perhaps subliminally!
Other than reading, what else do you enjoy doing in your free time?
Ive just finished watching The Wire. I'm on the last episode of the fourth season. I'm completely addicted to it; it's like it's a drug.
Earlier this morning, I looked on Twitter and saw the update you’d made about recording the sounds of the frogs near your studio.
Yeah, I was just out there last night. I was recording some bullfrogs because they sounded great. I'm in Snohomish County and apparently there have been sightings of the Sasquatch. But honestly, this is the most amazing studio and I'm loving it. I can't recommend Bear Creek and Ryan Hadlock highly enough!
A while back, you posted the fact that you were writing a sea shanty. Did you ever finish it?
I did, yeah. I had an accordion at home and I was walking around and singing to my daughter. I started singing and this melody just came to me with the words "So I've been told, it's all in my mind..." It's quite a weird, dream-like song and it materialized into a little sea shanty about someone who's going insane. It'll be on the album I'm making now.
Do you have a name for the album yet?
Provisionally, I'm thinking of calling it Lustre. I went with the English, Shakespearean spelling, because if you spell it as "luster," people just think photo finish. (laughs) I see it as this lust for life, so it's a very positive, affirmative record without being cheesy as hell.
It's also a big family record because I've got my wife and her sisters, plus my daughter's godfather, Raife Burchell, on drums. We also have people such as Ashley Dzerigian on bass—she used to be in Great Northern and now plays in a band called My Jerusalem.
I'm looking forward to hearing the Langley Sisters perform with you at Bordello.
They're amazing. They have the potential to be huge: Three sisters, all gorgeous, singing amazing three-part harmonies about depravity and the devil. What more do you want?
Thanks for speaking with LAist, Ed!
Don't miss Ed Harcourt, the Langley Sisters and Nicole Simone at Bordello Bar (901 E. First St.) this Monday, June 29, at 9 p.m. Russian Roulette is available on iTunes and the special edition USB stick is available for purchase here.