THE LONE STRANGER
10th anniversary of the release of Strangers
“Loneliness – what would I do without you?”
So goes the chorus of Ed Harcourt’s gloriously upbeat ode to melancholy, Loneliness – one of the many highlights of his third album proper, and testimony to the sense of duality that runs throughout the album. Strangers is a sad-happy record; a jubilant lament; a celebration of the untrammelled harshness of life. Ed Harcourt, the man responsible for this sumptuous surfeit of emotional ambivalence is himself something of a dichotomy. An affable and instantly likeable person, he parades an extroverted persona that cannot quite disguise the deeply reflective and vulnerable person lurking just beyond his wide-open, ceaselessly searching eyes.
He fidgets frequently, yet is generally laid back. When he laughs, it explodes out of him like he’s surprised by his own merriment – an endearing attribute that fits his personality perfectly. Ed Harcourt, it appears, is a serious bloke hibernating with introverted watchfulness inside a fitful socialite’s body.
“I’m a very sociable,” he explains, sitting across from me in a pub where we’re getting the old sociable beers in. “When I’m with people and I’m out of my head, I’m the life and soul of the party. When I’m on my own, I’m quite melancholy, I suppose. So I guess a lot of the time when you’re writing on your own, a lot of it comes out – you can’t avoid the sadness that’s there, or escape whatever state your mind is in.”
And yet the album has an optimistic feel to it.
“It has, yeah,” he says, aptly perking up. “With this record I wanted to do something more direct. I think it’s very easy for a singer-songwriter to write a really sad, melancholy record. I wanted to do something a bit more ‘up’.”
Certainly there’s an ‘up’ feel to Strangers, but this is not a mindlessly cheerful disposition we’re talking here. The songs possess a happiness, but of a more realistic, stoical nature.
“I’m quite reflective, I suppose,” he says. “But reflective in a ‘no regrets’ type of way – you know, of moving on. As you get older, you’ve got to stop worrying about all this shit you’ve done or had done to you, or situations that have happened in the past, because that’s all it is – the past.”
Would you say, then, that Strangers represents a sort of catharsis?
“Yeah, absolutely! I mean, writing a song is a cathartic experience in itself. It’s the reason for existing, really – certainly in my life. I don’t really think I could cope if I didn’t write…” He pauses, Guinness halfway to his lips. “I can’t really imagine not writing.”
As serious as he is about his creative drive, Ed Harcourt is also quick to point out he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Though the song Loneliness is lyrically an earnest reference to an artistic source of inspiration, its incongruously up-tempo mood is suggestive of something much more tongue-in-cheek.
“It’s just a subtle comment, really. Some writers feel they need to be tortured – to suffer for their art.” He smiles, emphatically: “And I just think that’s bullshit.”
The dichotomy evident in Ed Harcourt is also the pervading aspect of Strangers – an album that is tender at heart yet wilful in resolve, where insouciant songs of innocence locks arms with those sombre songs of experience – a transgression best illustrated in the Brothers Grimm-like portentous tale of The Trapdoor.
“There’s an innocence there that’s changed by the harsh realities of the world,” Harcourt states. “And that’s what everyone’s always been interested in, since time immemorial, this thing of the taking of innocence – of innocence lost; paradise lost. It’s just a running theme in humanity. It’s always going to be about redemption of the soul or the human spirit. Society loves a survivor, or someone that’s been knocked over and risen from the ashes…”
You feel that, with Strangers, Ed Harcourt has burned a few bridges to his past and is now looking forward without fear. From these ashes, watch him rise…
*This article was originally published in The Fly magazine in August 2004. For more information on Ed Harcourt, visit www.edharcourt.com