It’s hard to label Wesley Stace, and that is just how he prefers it. He has released 20 albums of superb English folk-pop under the name John Wesley Harding and for his last two albums, under his own name. He is a critically acclaimed author who has written four novels. Since 2009 Stace has also hosted a series of shows he calls his Cabinet Of Wonders, which brings luminaries from the worlds of literature, poetry, comedy and music into a multifaceted evening of spoken word and music. On Stace’s new album, “Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding,” he is backed by The Jayhawks for 12 songs of keen wit and insight. Stace spoke with The Weekender from his home in Philadelphia.
Why did you decide to start using your given name for your recordings rather than John Wesley Harding?
It’s pretty simple actually. It’s because I’ve written four novels under Wesley Stace and I’ve been making music under John Wesley Harding since the late ‘80s. I didn’t want to put the novels out under John Wesley Harding; that seemed silly. It would just be bizarre. It’s a totally fine rock and roll name but it wouldn’t have been good for my first novel which was set in the 19th century. It was getting boring with these long introductions so I thought I’d just use one name. And then I thought I’ll just use my own name. Why not? I think the brand can survive.
You sort of combined them in the title of the new album.
The reason for that is because the last album, “Self-Titled,” was actually the first record I put out under Wesley Stace, but I really felt the word did not get out. I know that it’s a problem changing names because of segments in record stores and those computer databases muddles all these things, I understand. But people like Will Oldham puts a record out under a different name every time, so it can be done. “Self-Titled” was an album, coincidentally, of very autobiographical songs which was the first time I experimented in writing strictly from things that actually happened to me. So because of all these things together I suddenly thought, oh yeah, I’ll put this album out under Wesley Stace. But I had so many fans who didn’t know that album was out. They had no idea I’d put out an album, I’m still meeting these people. So I thought I could rescue a few of these people by putting John Wesley Harding in the title of this album.
When did you start doing the Cabinet Of Wonders?
The first one was in 2009 at Le Poisson Rouge, and then in 2010 we had our first one at City Winery and we’ve been at City Winery ever since. We’ve done them in Philadelphia and LA and in London but generally our regular place is City Winery in New York. … What it is is a variety show—a night of vaudeville and variety with an emcee, me, who curates it, in the modern word, books it, throws it together, but throws it together very carefully. There’s poetry about everybody in the beginning; everyone is on stage at the beginning. Everyone’s on stage at the end, be it Salman Rushdie, Aaron Neville, Rosanne Cash, whoever it is, they sing with us at the beginning, they have a poem at the beginning, and the show is very lengthily thought out by me beforehand. The house band is incredibly good. It’s a night of a thousand stars. I like a kind of Dick Cavett kind of atmosphere. There’s comedians, there’s the most brilliant writers I can find, and generally three or four musicians who do two or three songs each. They always sell out and it’s a great show.
What gave you the idea to put that together?
The fact that I both write books and make music. A friend of mine suggested, “well why don’t you do them together? You always try to pull them apart. You always differentiate between them like you don’t want to be the guitar-playing author, and you don’t want to be the musician who comes out and reads to people. Why don’t you just give in to it and just be that guy?”. They were right. I did try and keep those things apart; generally because I think people don’t like people who do too many things. People like people to be pigeonholed. If a musician puts out a novel they just like to stick it to them. I think when my first novel came out under Wesley Stace it was actually quite useful because a lot of the people took it seriously who might not have done if it had been under my musician name. We didn’t really emphasize that aspect. It was almost like I had a pseudonym, which I did—my real name.
It’s quite a coincidence that Ray Davies’s album just came out with The Jayhawks as his backing band as well.
It’s a very strange coincidence really, because I don’t think they’ve been a backing band for too many people. What is funny about it is that Ray Davies called his album “Americana,” so you can tell what he wanted from The Jayhawks. He wanted the “No Depression” roots-rock kind of thing. That’s not what I wanted from them at all. I wanted their amazing harmonies and I wanted my record to sound like The Kinks. In a bizarre irony, if you listen to a song like “You’re A Song” off my album, it’s meant to sound like a country version of The Kinks, which is the greatest Kinks album of all: “Muswell Hillbillies.” That’s great. If they’re good enough for Ray Davies, they’re good enough for me. But by the same token, if they’re good enough for me, they’re probably good enough for Ray Davies. We’re both just British songwriters in the end, it’s just that one of us has been knighted.
“I Don’t Want To Rock And Roll” is kind of a funny song to start your new album isn’t it?
I’m not blind to the ironies of that but the “I” of that song is not the me of me, it’s like a Randy Newman song. He doesn’t do the things in his songs, it’s an aspect to his personality that he’s getting in touch with sometimes, a character which perhaps reflects a little bit of him. That’s a story about somebody feeling so disillusioned by a lover, perhaps, or a rock star who’s let them down. But they’re like, “I just don’t want anything more to do with this”. It also reflects certain negative feelings I have. I mean I just couldn’t give a sabout the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. I just can’t believe anybody gives that stuff the time of day. Rock ‘n’ roll in a museum; I don’t dispute the fact that it’s important but I don’t want to be the person looking an exhibit of Train lyrics in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame next to Robbie Robertson’s shooting script for “The Last Waltz.” I can’t stand that stuff. It’s an awards ceremony mentality and I’m not into it. That kind of feeling is coming through in that song a little bit. It’s an ironic song of course, because the guy’s saying I don’t want to rock ‘n’ roll, meanwhile Gary Louris is about to lay the loudest guitar solo on the album on you. That’s how irony works.I think The Jayhawks sound great on the album.
Fantastic. I never do things twice, ever, but I might do this again. Now I understand what we could do, I think I could take advantage of the parameters even more than I did before and do something even better this time. The next one I’m just going to call “Wes Hawkz” with a “z.”