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Interview: Musician and producer Ed Harcourt

The songwriter is releasing a new album

Fifteen years after the release of his debut album Here Be Monsters, Ed Harcourt is ready to release a new beast into the world. Mike Hillier discovers there are plenty more hiding under the bed

How did the new album come about?

Ed Harcourt: After I made Lustre (album of 2010), I did a lot of touring. When that ended, I had a lot of time on my hands. Lustre hadn’t done as well as I’d wanted it to, and my son was about to be born so I felt the pressure was on. I came back into the studio and started writing. But rather than sitting at the piano, or the guitar, I got really lost in the computer, discovering and experimenting with electronics and software production techniques. I wrote three songs that way, before questioning what I was doing. I came out of that and ended up writing Back Into The Woods as a response to it.

Around 2012 I approached Flood and asked him to produce my next record. I played him three songs and he said, These are really good, but where are the others?

We met up again, in a coffee shop and I gave him headphones like an eager little student. He already had a vision. He’s like a Machiavellian master when it comes to working with artists, he has a plan all along but you don’t know it until you’ve made the record.

How much of the songs were complete when you brought them to Flood?

All the songs gestated from me experimenting with synths and software and bouncing it down as wave files and then putting it through old pre-amps and then coming in and playing over the top with live instruments, merging the electronic with the organic.

Almost all of the album came from that. Everything I did here in Logic I’d give to John Catlin, who was working with Flood, and he’d bounce it down and put it in Pro Tools. We spent the first half of 2015 in Flood’s little room, which he calls ‘The Ghetto’, spending a lot of time sync’ing up the modular synths making beeps and bleeps and drum machine sounds, and things that would be triggered off my live drums. I don’t really know how that works, but I’d sit there saying, I like that, or, I don’t like that.

You’ve also produced quite a few records yourself. How do you find working and writing for others?

I’ve just done the new Sophie [Ellis-Bextor] record. We did that in State of The Ark [in Richmond]. We did the whole thing in 10 days and Cenzo [Townshend] is mixing it again. It was quite a departure from the record before and it was really weird for me, there’s a couple of disco songs in there!

We did the Kathryn Williams album (Hypoxia) here in [my studio] and then mixed it with Dave Isumi Lynch down in Eastbourne. I know how the room works here, and how to get the drum sounds I want. Jim Sclavunos (Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Grinderman) taught me to put a mic in the top corner to get a massive room sound. And there’s another rule John Parish talked about where you put a mic right down on the floor. It sounds huge.

A lot of production for me is just being a magpie. I’m lucky enough to have worked with some of the best, and I always sneak up on them, looking at what they’re doing and being a sponge really.

Tell me about your studio?

When I first moved in there was a wall in the middle, which I’ve knocked down to make more space. A lot of the gear I have is pretty old. I’m not the kind of guy who can sit in a room with a keyboard and one mic. I feel like my brain has exploded on the walls, everything on these walls is what I’m into and what I’m about; animals, weapons and skulls! I’m a bit of a hoarder and collector. I love old dirty mics like Grampians and Amperites.

Being a piano player I always have a ridiculous amount of keyboards scattered around the place. But of late I’ve got really into guitar pedals, so I’m amassing a collection of those too.

What recording gear have you got?

Only in the last 3-4 years have I started collecting proper analogue hardware for recording purposes. So I have my lunchbox, which was the first thing I acquired. I use the Shadow Hills [Mono GAMA] and the Neve [1073LB] for pretty much everything when recording. Vocals come through the Neve, and then the Anamod [AM660], which acts like a mini-Fairchild. But I chop and change depending on my mood. And everything goes through the amazing Gear & Loathing SSL G-Buss clone [Mike actually built this for Ed Harcourt – Ed]. I also use the console [a Trident Fleximix] on piano and drums. I have been using it for mixing, but it’s more of a sidecar for processing things through. I don’t like to work totally in the box, so I need to use a mixture of outboard and plug-ins.

No big, proper desk then?

I’d love to get a big proper desk, but I’m more of a songwriter…