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Ed Harcourt traveled a lot as a child. His father was a diplomat, and Harcourt spent much of his childhood in Holland and Germany. His parents exposed him to all kinds of music, including jazz, blues, pop, soundtracks from musicals, and the Beatles. The music of Cole Porter and Fats Waller "gave me a feel for the importance of lyrics and narrative in songs. They take a lot of care with their lyrics---I try to do that," he told Stephanie Merritt of the London Observer. Other influences were the albums of Tom Waits and Randy Newman.
Harcourt's mother recognized her son's talent for music, and set him up with piano lessons when he was nine years old. "While other kids were out playing football I was in this little room with an old lady and the Fanny Waterman book of piano lessons," he told Merritt. As time went by, Harcourt also learned to play many other musical instruments.
When Harcourt finished school, his parents wanted him to attend university, but Harcourt was afraid he would feel trapped. He went to live with his grandmother in Lewes, East Sussex, England. He worked a variety of jobs, including work as a beekeeper and a chef, before starting his first band, a punk group called Snug. From there, he then went on to play as a cocktail pianist. It was at this point that music became an obsession, and he wrote hundreds of songs while living at his grandmother's house.
His debut release in 2000 was a mini-album of six songs called Maplewood, on which he played multiple instruments. It was released by EMI's Heavenly label, and although it was a small album, it caught the public's ear.
After he got his first taste of recording, Harcourt released Here Be Monsters in 2001. The album was written during a dark time in Harcourt's life. "I wasn't a particularly happy person when I wrote it," he told the Scotsman. His grandmother had died, he had broken up with two girlfriends within a year, and had experienced a run-in with his manager. "So when the album was written, I was fixated on death and the death of love. It's a bit of a heavy album." Despite its shadowy aura, the album received a nomination for the Mercury Music Prize, given annually for Best British Album.
The album lost out to PJ Harvey's Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea. However, the nomination helped Harcourt increase his visibility in the business. "My career took off really quickly," he recalled in the London Times. "I was signed one minute, had a record out the next, then was suddenly being compared to Tom Waits. Career-wise, nothing had ever gone wrong for me."
Despite not continuing his formal education, Harcourt continued to learn and stretch his mind. "I'm reading five books at the moment---Gogol, Herman Hesse, Raymond Carver, Hunter S. Thompson and Woody Allen's prose. My parents really wanted me to go to university but I would have felt stuck, I'd have been just like everyone else. I'm really happy educating myself," he told Merritt.
Harcourt released From Every Sphere in 2003, and dedicated it to his grandmother. "It is gritty, addictive, blinding and powerful music at its finest," stated Hannah Jones in the Cardiff, Wales, Western Mail. Harcourt told Jones, "My favorite songs are always hopeful. I don't wants to wallow in self-pity. Here Be Monsters was me coming out of adolescence, and From Every Sphere is me coming into my mid-20's, a little wiser, a little surer about everything."
From Every Sphere did not do as well as Harcourt's previous releases. Still, he stuck to his music, and in 2004 he released his third full-length album, Strangers. "I need this album to come out and then I can move on," he told the Scotsman. "In a way, I'm walking before I crawl. I can't really stop, although I have slowed down quite a bit, which is good because it means I take more time over songs. I'm forever trying to write the perfect pop song and I'm too hard on myself. I give up when I don't think it's good enough. Now I've got so much music that I haven't finished, it's starting to do my head in."
Harcourt's albums do not capture the flavor of his live performances. He tends to chatter between numbers, often heckling the crowd. "He still has a coltish enthusiasm, bordering on arrogance, when he performs. He delivers a stream of bad jokes and wry asides throughout his performance," stated Akin Ojumu of the London Observer. "Aside from his banter, he has tons of passion and energy. He hammers away on his keyboard like a man possessed, then jumps up, straps on a guitar, and does a rock 'n' roll walk (bent almost double with his guitar thrust in front of him) across the stage." On Here Be Monsters Harcourt played the guitar, piano, Wurlitzer organ, vibes, saxophone, harmonica, bass, beat box, and drums. His intensity extends beyond performances, with 15-hour rehearsals.
"Until recently," he told the London Times, "I was terrified of growing old. ... Now though, I'm actually looking forward to getting older. I'm looking forward to making music for a long time, seeing what I can achieve. I feel like I'm going to get better and better."
Harcourt has two more albums in the pipeline. "There just isn't enough time to make all the music I want to make," he told the London Independent. "I know I'll get to the age of 70 or 80 and then go: "Doh!" And then die." The Independent went on to reflect, "There's a sense of restless ambition about Harcourt that has you believing he'll be around for a while."