Brooklyn Skyline: Interview with John Wesley Harding

It’s hard to believe that John Wesley Harding (real name Wesley Stace) has been officially releasing albums for twenty years. At one time, he was just another brash, British, albeit highly intelligent and extremely witty singer-songwriter, trying to make his way in the waning days of the most musically challenged decade to exist in the annals of pop music. Now, with countless official, unofficial and downright impossible-to-find albums, singles and books to his credit, the hero of our story has found domestic bliss in Brooklyn with his wife and two young children and with the help of the ultra-hip Pacific Northwest band the Minus Five, has made what has to be his best album yet. Although, to be fair, every time he releases a new album it seems like his best yet. Even amidst the tumultuous aftermath of a late night of performing in Manhattan, with his home in Brooklyn overflowing with musicians and crying children, Stace, between yawns and while attending to the many details that consume him, is a delightful interview subject. Amiable, enthusiastic, articulate, charming and overflowing with ideas and plans for upcoming projects, Stace is obviously thoroughly enjoying life.

Any conversation with Stace has to begin with writing and not just songwriting. The author of two well-received and critically acclaimed novels, Misfortune (which will be made into a movie) and By George, Stace is the consummate wordsmith. In another time and place, he might have been a troubadour going from town to town singing his songs, or a Vaudevillian song-and-dance man. But to confine him to being just a songwriter misses the point. “I wrote songs in a number of different styles and I think lots of songwriters do,” he began. “Your choice is then, to either try and make them all sound as much the same as possible, or to do what I do, which is to mostly let every song live as large as possible in as good a way as it possibly can.” It’s the need to do something different that drives him. “I’m always just trying to make the best thing that I can make that seems to me something I haven’t done before,” Stace stated. This is certainly the case on his new album Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead. Diverse and accessible and benefitting from help by the Minus Five (which includes guitarist Pete Buck of R.E.M.), it is an album that sounds like it was effortless and loads of fun to make. Countering the ease with which Stace makes music and particularly writes songs, he said, with more than a trace of irony, “I work hard on [the songs] to make it look like I don’t work hard on them.” He added, about writing songs, “It becomes interesting to try and say something new and to say it in a different way.” As for this wonderful new, self-released album he said, “It’s probably more representative of me than any other record I’ve made.”

Stace is involved in many other projects. In addition to releasing albums and writing books, he performs as part of the loose aggregate known as the Cabinet of Wonders. The day I interviewed him, he was still rubbing the sleep from eyes after having played with a host of musicians at Le Poisson Rouge on Bleecker Street in Manhattan the night before. The night’s particular Cabinet of Wonders featured Stace with Eugene Mirman of Flight of the Conchords fame, John Auer of the Posies, and Steven Page, formerly of Barenaked Ladies, among others. He describes the free-floating group as a mix of “comedy, music, reading, variety and Vaudeville.” He also “performs” with the novelist Rick Moody in a band called Authros. He’s also just completed his third novel, which revolves around a classical musician who murders his wife and her lover. He said he writes novels because “music was using up only so much of my brain.” With all his non-musical activities, the conversation kept coming back to his ability to write such amazing songs. After citing Randy Newman, Ray Davies, Warren Zevon and Leonard Cohen as songwriters he admires, he said, “I don’t like purely autobiographical songs.” He admitted, though, that he greatly admires the way Loudon Wainwright III can write autobiographical songs so well. He also said, “I don’t really do bitter.” Citing his comfort with being not just a songwriter, but an “entertainer,” he said, “There’s a bit of Gilbert and Sullivan in what I do,” and then with a laugh added “and there’s a little bit of Gilbert O’Sullivan.” With his energy waning, Stace, while stifling another yawn and trying to figure out various transportation schedules for his house of musicians summed up the often-sad state of mainstream pop and rock songs. “Modernism still hasn’t happened in rock music,” he stated.

John Wesley Harding will be appearing at the Stony Brook University Café on November 8th at 2pm.