“I wanted to write something that makes me feel like I’m riding into battle on a giant
wolf,” says Ed Harcourt.
Ed is talking about his new album, Monochrome To Colour. It’s a bold mission
statement, but musical ambition and off-kilter inventiveness are unsurprising here.
After seeing his debut album nominated for the Mercury Prize in 2001, Ed has
released eight subsequent studio albums. He’s also co-written extensively, including
songs with Marianne Faithfull, Lisa Marie Presley, Paloma Faith, Sophie Ellis-Bextor
and Orbital’s Paul Hartnoll. Ed has performed onstage with Patti Smith – at London’s
South Bank – and with The Libertines on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage. He’s
featured on albums with Mark Lanegan and alongside an intercontinental array of
musicians, from Egypt and Tanzania to Argentina and Russia (this global cast
featuring on the 2019 album Beyond Music: Same Sky). Moving from bands to the
big screen, Ed has written for several soundtracks, including the recent superhero
comedy Supervised and the 2014 drama Like Sunday, Like Rain.
Despite the extent of Harcourt’s collaborative work he’s never abandoned solo
composition – hence Monochrome To Colour, Ed’s ninth studio album. Following
2018’s Beyond The End album, Monochrome is Ed’s second consecutive album of
powerful, cinematic instrumentals – but where Beyond The End was beautifully
melancholic, gliding amid the dissipating vapour trails of precious memory,
Monochrome is a more ecstatic collection. The “battle wolf” track is a case in point,
one better known as Ascension.
“A friend said Ascension sounds like something from Braveheart,” says Ed, “but it’s
also got Clive Deamer from Portishead playing drums on it… It’s maybe like
someone trying to write soundtrack music for a huge action film but getting it slightly
wrong. This new album is maximalist rather than minimalist, a bit over the top. if I
listen back to Ascension, sometimes I feel really proud, but other times I just think,
‘This is ridiculous.’”
Ed’s conversation comes with a smile in the voice – he’s not afraid to invoke big
themes, but he underpins this with laughter and self-deprecation.
“The new album,” he says, “definitely has a sense of explosion and euphoria in
places. A massive thing for me is melody. I grew up playing Mozart and Beethoven
and that has stuck with me. Melody is the central thing.”
Given the Monochrome album’s widescreen, string-laden expansiveness it’s striking
that it’s such a family affair. Apart from Clive Deamer’s drums on three tracks –
someone who’s also worked with Radiohead, Dr John and Roni Size – the album is
all played by Ed, his violinist wife Gita Langley and Gita’s sister, the cellist and string
arranger Amy Langley. (Amy brings her own broad musical church, having worked
with people including Primal Scream, Kano, Little Mix and ELO).
Monochrome To Colour was recorded in Ed’s own studio, the Wolf Cabin, a well-
appointed super-shed in the Harcourt family garden in rural Oxfordshire. Ed’s
recording history also began in earnest out amid the greenery, in East Sussex. Ed
had played the piano from an early age – taught, as it happens, by the co-creator of
a UK comic legend. Ed had piano lessons with Michael Crawford’s mum. Thus
prepared, Ed recorded 2000’s Maplewood EP on a cassette-based four-track in his
grandmother’s rambling home. This was by the Sussex Downs, beside the old hill
figure The Long Man Of Wilmington. The EP was released by the great Heavenly
Recordings label, kicking off a fruitful relationship and a stream of acclaim. “A
bedroom gem,” said The Guardian of the EP. “A unique pop genius,” the same
newspaper would report a little later.
Ed’s debut album was Here Be Monsters, a record that revealed a rich narrative
voice – love-drunk and, sometimes, just drunk. The Mercury nomination followed,
alongside a strong presence in magazine end-of-year polls. There were three more
studio albums for Heavenly, a sequence that contained enough tunes and heart-on-
sleeve romanticism for a best-of collection in 2007, before Ed had turned 30.
For his next album, Lustre in 2010, Ed headed to Bear Creek Studios, a wood-built
recording fantasia in Washington state. He released the album on his own Piano
Wolf label. Abbey Road sessions led to 2013’s Back Into The Woods album,
released on CCCLX Music. Ed’s next full-length album saw a return to major-label-
dom. Furnaces, released in 2016, was made in intense collaboration with producer
Flood (Nick Cave, Depeche Mode, PJ Harvey). The album took shape as Ed
developed an interest in boxing (after returning from tour and finding he’d “morphed
into Billy Bunter”). Furnaces included environmental alarm calls and deep
dissatisfaction with the UK government. But there was another kind of frustration
when the record was released with half-hearted label support. However, a pearl
formed around this bit of grit in the music-industry oyster. Ed built his Wolf Cabin
studio. Thence the compelling instrumental records Beyond The End
and Monochrome To Colour.
“Building Wolf Cabin tied in with becoming a father and having a family,” says Ed.
“It’s very well soundproofed, so I can be out playing drums at 4am and not annoy
anyone. During the day I can be sat making music and look out of my window and
see my kids.”
The video for Monochrome track Drowning In Dreams was filmed in Iceland, shot by
the regular Harcourt sleeve photographer and video maker Steve Gullick. The pair
found themselves in a remote cabin with little sustenance beyond whisky and M&Ms, then shot some hypnotic footage among the trees and snow-fields. Ed has had an
itinerant life. As the child of an art-historian mother and a father who was in the
British Army and then the UK’s diplomatic service, he spent parts of his childhood in
Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Sweden. Ed says these years gave him the
ability make friends quickly – but also meant he could operate on his own. This
duality is perhaps there in his instrumental albums.
“The new album is much more of an escapist record than Beyond The End,” he says.
“The last one was was quite minimal, very melancholic. The new record opens its
arms to the world.”
The new album is indeed full of rapturous outreach. It was made with an interesting
blend of instrumentation, ancient and modern. There’s a 1910 Hopkinson baby grand
piano, and also a dulcitone, a 19th-century oddity where hammers strike an array of
tuning forks. “Broken old instruments mixed with modern software,” says Ed. The
latter is represented by digital drones, plus computer emulation of the
Hammond Novachord, a vintage synthesizer.
Ed says he felt no urge to sing over this music or to write lyrics. But he’s clearly put
some thought into the track titles. An intimation of Ed’s musical gregariousness
comes with the title So Here’s To You, Hally. It’s named after a short story by Ray
Bradbury, a narrative that was sent to Ed by Greg Dulli, frontman with The Afghan
Whigs, another musician Ed has toured with. The title Death Of The Siren can be
traced to a particular copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. King Raman is named after
Ed’s boxing instructor and friend, who recently suffered a premature death.
Monochrome To Colour occasionally draws on some established Harcourt
inspirations – the Mozart and Beethoven beside Debussy, Satie, Max Richter and the
soundtracks of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. There are also a couple of noir-ish
interludes, albeit underpinned by groove-led drum patterns from Clive Deamer (After
The Carnival and Last Rites). But the album’s signature mood is a kind of hyper-real
elation. The title track has an echo of Vangelis’s Chariots Of Fire soundtrack.
“Yes,” says Ed, “I was thinking, it would be pretty good if I could soundtrack footage
of the athlete arriving with the Olympic torch… The big-music mood is funny
because some of my favourite film directors are people like Wim Wenders or Hal
Ashby, people who fit with the more understated aspects of what I do. But here I am
writing this music that could go with a huge blockbuster action film. This music is
totally visual for me. It fills my head with images and ideas. With the title track I was
kind of trying to get a feeling of death and euphoria at the same time – like an alien
was transporting you up into the spacecraft, ascending in a beam of light.
Exhilarating and unsettling at the same time…To put it a more simply – it’s escapism,