Arts & Entertainment

Holding Court

Nic HarcourtHe’s been called a taste maker, trend setter and a bellwether, but KCRW DJ Nic Harcourt says there is really just one term that defines him.

 

It’s been 11 days since Nic Harcourt has been at his office and he’s deathly afraid of opening the door. Since he took off for the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Tx. and a two-day trip to visit his mother in England, mail and CDs have been piling on top of his desk like snowflakes in a New England blizzard. The music comes from all over the globe, sent from bands, managers and publicists hoping that a meager mention by Harcourt during the broadcast of his show, “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” will push their act into the limelight.

Thus is the perceived importance Harcourt has garnered through his work as Music Director at Los Angeles’s KCRW radio station. New York Times Magazine labeled him “the country’s most important disc jockey.” Esquire praised him in its 2003 genius issue by saying “a handful of tastemakers can make or break a musician’s career. The most artistically savvy of them all is Nic Harcourt.”

When Harcourt first came to the Los Angeles public radio station in the spring of 1998, he wanted to get ahead of the popularity curve and expose listeners to a variety of new music — a goal he has achieved to the benefit of both listeners and performers alike. Artists like David Gray, Damien Rice, Norah Jones and Dido trace their ascent back to Harcourt’s broadcasts. Coldplay’s first live performance on American soil took place on Harcourt’s show. As the list of Harcourt’s first-spun success stories blossomed, so did his reputation as a bellwether and before long, he wasn’t just in front of the curve, he had become the curve.

“It just has to do with listening and making the choice to play it rather than waiting to see if someone else plays it,” Harcourt says over the phone from the KCRW studios last Thursday.

And anything he does decide to play garners a lot of attention, not only from music moguls, but among tune-savvy Hollywood producers looking to score their film or show. Harcourt himself has worked as a music consultant for a number of titles, including the motion picture “Anchorman” and ABC’s “What About Brian,” a show usually choc-a-block with indie artists.

“Some nights I’m sitting down in a studio with Ben Affleck looking at music for his movie,” says Harcourt, who counters that glamorous image with another, more routine evening activity. “Sometimes I’m picking up my two children.”

Harcourt is afforded this taste-making power not only for his own skill at picking which songs to spin, but by the versatile format of his aptly-named show, “Morning Becomes Eclectic.”

While most of the modern radio world is dominated by narrow, pre-determined playlists, “Morning Becomes Eclectic,” which airs 9 a.m. – Noon PST Monday through Friday, features an array of music that spans from folk and progressive pop to African and world beat tunes. Often the show will feature live performances by bands well out of the mainstream, compared to most of the corporate-owned stations where a record deal with corporate backing are pretty much pre-requisite to get air time. On the publicly-funded KCRW, artists can earn a spot on “Morning Becomes Eclectic” just by turning Harcourt’s head.

Another notable aspect of the show is the amount of information Harcourt divulges about each song he plays: album titles, production credits, upcoming live shows. By the time he wraps his lengthy spiel, it feels as though he’ll disclose the lead singer’s dental records during the show’s next segment.

On Thursday, he touts an Australian group called The Panda Band, one of the groups Harcourt came across at South by Southwest. In a previous broadcast, Harcourt recommends another recent find, Austin native singer-songwriter Dana Falconberry, who joined the show for a live performance. In both instances he provides a wealth of knowledge about them, in his laid-back, near-zen manner.

The combination of all of these aspects has made “Morning Becomes Eclectic” a hit not only in Hollywood, but across the nation, thanks to online streaming (and archived shows) at KCRW.com. The show also releases a number of lengthy podcasts through iTunes.

Harcourt’s vision of getting ahead of the trend curve first originated when he worked as the News Director and later the Music Director and Program Director at WDST-FM in Woodstock, N.Y. There he hosted “Nic In The Morning,” where he was credited with providing the first American radio play for artists like Moby and Garbage. While WDST’s programming had more of a modern rock bend to it, Harcourt’s playlists span all genres at KCRW.

“I’m pretty lucky that when I got this job I was exposed to lots of different music,” Harcourt says. “Here, I can play anything I want to, from singer-songwriter tunes to Latin stuff.”

Harcourt’s choice of what to play on the show, a moment that can and has made artists’ careers, is often a spontaneous one. Beyond the first few songs, Harcourt rarely knows what songs he’ll play before he arrives at the studio each morning. It’s one of the things he treasures most about his position.

“It allows for a bit of experimentation that wouldn’t happen if a computer was lining things up,” he says.

What Harcourt savors the most however, are those stacks of CDs waiting for him in his office. They might currently be a source of dread, but the promise they hold will undoubtedly drive him to devour all of them.

 “That’s the stuff that juices me,” Harcourt says. “The best part of this job is the thrill of discovery.”

In addition to the CDs, Harcourt typically hits up one live show a week, with The Troubadour serving as his usual venue of choice.

“It seems that’s where a lot of bands kick off their career,” he says. “It holds about 250 people and you can pretty much see from wherever you are.”

There’s one caveat to his live performance policy. He almost never attends a show for a band he has already seen live. Is he that dedicated to finding new music that he’ll forgo seeing some of the acts he helped make famous? Kind of.

“If one of my favorite bands is coming through, I’ll just try to book them on the show,” Harcourt says. “It’s kind of a personal performance. It’s one of the nice perks of being the music director.”

While Harcourt is credited with launching acts like Coldplay and Damien Rice, not all of the bands he comes across are diamonds in the rough. Of the hundreds of bands he airs, those that have enjoyed major commercial success are still a small minority. And that number shrinks even further compared to the amount of new music Harcourt hears.

“Sometimes I definitely think, ‘God, I’m listening to so much stuff that is just not inspiring me.’ Then, all of the sudden I hear something that is and I want to play it on the radio.”

With all of the notoriety, it feels like Harcourt has earned the aura of a kind of Musical Mystic, someone able to divine some sort of brilliant sonic future through a higher level of consciousness or a deeper level of understanding for the music he hears. But Harcourt, who sounds as grounded and casual on the phone as he does over the airwaves, doesn’t give much weight to those kind words, noting that his process of discovery is far from an exact science.

“I don’t think about that stuff,” he says in response to his trendsetter status. “If you over think that stuff, then you’re not doing what they say you’re doing. I put a lot of work in, and some parts of it are luck, but I do it without worrying what other people think.

“[Choosing the music] is such a subjective thing. I might like something because it’s something I haven’t heard before or haven’t heard for a long time. It might be a lyric that touches me. It’s really just emotional.”

That’s it. No science. Not mysticism. For all of the import imparted to him by Esquire and the like, it really just comes down to one thing above all.

“I’m just a fan,” Harcourt says. “A lucky fan.”