It isn’t every artist that returns after a gap of three years with a release recorded in just six hours. Yet that’s exactly what Ed Harcourt has done with Back Into the Woods, recording the entire album at Abbey Road over the course of one evening last year.
“I was in a funny place where I was making another album, which I’m still in the middle of doing” he explains when asked what led to making the record in such an unconventional way. “It’s a very different record – lots of found sounds, field recordings, samples and glitches. I was so in that world that I needed to take a break from it. I went and did some session work with Ryan Hadlock who produced Lustre, playing some blues piano. At the end of the session I got talking to Pete Hutchings, the engineer. We went into Studio One of Abbey Road and I started playing some songs unconnected to the album, that were more melancholy. He came up with this idea of doing a record in one night in Studio 2. It was like a challenge. I gave myself a month to write the record, locked myself indoors with a bottle of whisky – all the clichés – and wrote the album. I spent lots of time editing and singing the songs every day, so when I got there I knew the songs back to front and knew exactly what I wanted.”
It is clear that the challenge excited Harcourt; the constraints fuelling the creative processes and pushing things in different directions. Is it an approach that he would revisit for future records? “I’ve always been under the strong impression that songs are written as a sort of allergic reaction to whatever came before,” he responds. “I think I’d been lost in the more complex process of writing songs based on purely just production and sonic concepts. Back Into The Woods was something that seemed to come out of nowhere, forced itself out I guess. Various friends and peers had always bent my ear a little about recording a back to basics record so to speak, so I did. I wouldn’t change anything. The other record may take six months, it may take six years, who knows! I like to work quickly, but this next record is an entirely different beast. I’ll get there in the end hopefully.”
As for the one-session recording process itself, Harcourt seemed to enjoy it. “It was a lovely evening. I had the whole order ready, and it was all done live. We recorded using the celeste thats on the Harry Potter films, and we did a drinking song on the ‘Martha My Dear’ Mrs. Mills piano, that might come out at some point – it didn’t really fit with the mood of this album.” This isn’t the first time Harcourt has used ‘historic’ instruments of course. ‘The Storm is Coming’ from Strangers was recorded using the piano used on ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, and the history of Abbey Road’s studios was certainly not lost on Harcourt. “The two things that have had an effect on me throughout my life are The Beatles and Tom Waits. They have this grip on me that I can’t really get free from, and I think they always will. Just being in [Abbey Road] is inspiring, and knowing the history of the room… It’s unusual and eerie.”
As well as working on his own records, the time that has passed since 2010′s Lustre has seen Harcourt write and collaborate with a vast array of artists across a variety of different genres, including work with Kristina Train, Paloma Faith and many more. Once again it seems to be the challenge of working on something different that seems to drive his creativity. “I will do stuff that seems like a challenge or interesting,” he says. “The other day I had Josh T Pearson in and recorded a couple of old gospel tunes with him, he’s a friend and someone who manages to retain his integrity and dignity – although I would add that he pilfered my jokes. They are terrible, but he got them from the master! The next day I had a couple of guys who had worked with Ne-Yo and Usher. I did wonder at times if there would be a way to bring the two genres together…” Later in the interview Harcourt returns to the idea of mixing genres, laying out his concept for clownstep, which seems to mostly involve “whacking clown shoes against a plank with shit loads of reverb” and “building a massive clown horn to generate a massive sub-noise like the band Earth”. Look out for a crossover album in the future, perhaps.
Before the concept of a ‘Josh T Pearson goes clownstep’ concept record begins to loom too large, we ask how working with other artists has changed the way he writes. “For some reason, I seem to work with a lot of female singers. I don’t know why, I guess they are just drawn to my animal magnetism… it’s a curse I have to bear…” he chuckles. “It’s interesting working with a different register. I like to work with people who have got something unique about them. The thing is to be a facilitator bringing out things they didn’t know they had in them, acting as a sort of musical exorcist in a way. It can be quite intense at times, but pouring any problems or tough times into a song is very satisfying and cathartic. Like all music or art, when you are in a bad situation you can turn it into a song or piece of work – there’s no bad thing about that.”
Building on all these experiences, and stripped of the layers and textures that have often accompanied Harcourt’s work, Back Into The Woods throws the focus onto Harcourt’s songwriting. Lyrically siding with the underdog, or positioning himself as the man that time forgot, the record is an emotionally open and honest piece of work. One of the album’s highlights is ‘Hey Little Bruiser’, which seems to be a companion piece to Lustre closer ‘Fears of the Father’. We ask if fatherhood has affected his writing. “I had to write ‘Hey Little Bruiser’ for my son because I’d written a track called ‘Caterpillar’ & ‘Fears Of A Father’ for my daughter. I was worried he might resent the fact I’d written some songs for her but not for him. I’m forever aware that it’s a fine line when it comes to songs about your offspring, being a little saccharine or cheesy, but I wanted to write a song that was more half love song to him, half warning about how dark and dangerous the future world may be. Something I think most people can relate to, feeling passionately protective and all that. I would say that the album is basically an apology/thank you letter to my wife for putting up with my shit over the years, with a few odd tangents along the way. I’m not always the easiest person to be with.”
Late last year Harcourt premiered the album at a show at London’s Cecil Sharp House. It turned out to be something of a family affair. Although the nature of the record means that the shows are mostly solo, Harcourt’s wife and her sisters came on to add vocals to one song. “I had four sisters singing and my mum in the front row. I used to get a bit uncomfortable when there were songs with swear words, looking at her sitting there. After shows she’ll sometimes comment that some of the songs are “a bit dark”. But then her favourite song is a b-side called ‘Here Be Monsters’, which is about a boy who gets trapped down a well, which isn’t really that cheery.”
Harcourt will be taking Back To The Woods out on the road again in late May and June, and in the meantime has returned to working on the new record, with hopes of completing it by the end of the year. “I’m hoping to work with lots of different people, some of my favourite composers and artists are going to be on it, I hope. I’m not going to divulge who just yet as I want it to be a surprise, although I can say I’ll be working with Van Dyke Parks.” Quite if either record will see Harcourt finally recognised by a wider audience, his songwriting talents richly deserve remains to be seen, but one thing is certain – his way with a melody, expressive playing and tender romanticism will continue to enchant those whose ears chance upon his music for a long time to come.
Back Into The Woods is available now through CCCLX Music.