Born in Hastings, John Wesley Harding, otherwise known as Wesley Harding Stace, took the name of the famous American outlaw, celebrated and misspelt by Bob Dylan, when he began performing in 1988. He adopted the alias, at the beginning of his musical career whilst studying for a PhD at Cambridge University, so that “when it all went badly wrong, I could go back to what was likely to be my career path, which was in the social and political sciences”.
It all worked out well for Stace. Signed by Seymour Stein to Sire in 1989, he’s released at least 25 albums and EPs of insightful and melodic songs for a variety of record labels. He’s the master of ceremonies at his Cabinet Of Wonders, which are vaudeville affairs, bringing together musicians, comedians, authors and poets. He’s also been joined on stage by Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and John Prine to name just a few. He wrote the libretto for Errollyn Wallen’s opera ‘Dido’s Ghost’, which had its world premiere at the Barbican in London in 2021. His polymathy doesn’t end there. Stace has written four well-received novels and a biography of the dancer Mark Morris. Despite not finishing his doctorate, he’s lectured at Fairleigh Dickson and Princeton Universities. His live shows are always worth catching, not just for the songs, but also for his wit and wisdom. He’s resided in the USA since the early nineties, so unfortunately gigs in the UK are few and far between. This list hopefully captures the diversity of his musical talent and output over the past 30 years.
Number 10: Wesley Stace ‘Late Style’ (2021)
‘Late Style’ marked not only a different sound for Stace but also a change in the way he worked. David Nagler, Stace’s musical director for his Cabinet Of Wonders, was enlisted to write the music, with Stace contributing the lyrics. The album sees Stace working outside his singer-songwriter comfort zone and producing a jazzy, easy-listening record with some beautiful songs. It’s best listened to late at night with a drink in hand. Fittingly, the deluxe version of the album was accompanied by a lowball cocktail glass, coaster and a napkin featuring a recipe for a cocktail formulated by Stace.
Number 9: John Wesley Harding ‘John Wesley Harding Sings To A Small Guitar, Volumes I & II’ (2010)
Stace is a prolific writer and hence always seems to have a large number of “songs otherwise unknown” languishing in his vaults. Twenty-nine of these previously unreleased demos, recorded between 1991 and 2006, saw the light of day on a two CD set put out in 2010. The recordings are stripped back, comprising just Stace and an acoustic guitar. Gems which never made studio albums include ‘The True Story Of Buddy The Kid’ and ‘The Bullet Catch’.
Number 8: John Wesley Harding ‘The Man With No Shadow’ (2020)
In May 2002, Disney wound up Mammoth Records, just a few weeks before John Wesley Harding’s ‘The Man With No Shadow’ was about to be released on the label. A few advanced copies were sent to journalists and eventually most, but not all, of the songs came out on Harding’s 2004 album ‘Adam’s Apple’. In 2020, as part of Record Store Day, ‘The Man With No Shadow’ was finally released as Stace intended, plus a few extra demos and outtakes, with the audio remastered from the original tapes. The album features an array of great tunes including ‘Monkey And His Cat’ and ‘Negative Love’. The highlight of this record is ‘Sussex Ghost Story’, the tale of a phantom seeking retribution for her unjust death at the hands of her husband. Co-written with Gavin Bryars, it features a beautifully arranged string quartet.
Number 7: The Love Hall Tryst ‘Songs Of Misfortune’ (2005)
The song ‘Miss Fortune’ first appeared on the John Wesley Harding album ‘Awake’ in 1998. The song inspired Stace to flesh out its character’s story in the novel Misfortune, a Dickensian tale of cross dressing, greed and misery published in 2005. This album, recorded under the moniker The Love Hall Tryst, comprises 11 folk songs related to the novel. The Love Hall Tryst consisted of Stace and three of his friends, Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor and Brian Lohmann. Apart from the last two songs all the tracks are acappella, aside from the addition of a hurdy gurdy here and there. The Love Hall Tryst’s voices combine together so beautifully that you almost forget the tragic nature of each of the 11 songs which document a total of 13 deaths.
Number 6: John Wesley Harding ‘Confessions Of St Ace’ (2000)
This is a record filled with witty and wry songs. ‘Goth Girl’ manages to reference Bauhaus and Nine Inch Nails, a typical couplet being ‘Goth girl who is the guy on the leash? Does he wash dishes? Goth girl, he looks like Pete Murphy to me, he wishes’. ‘I’m Wrong About Everything’, which was included on the soundtrack for the film High Fidelity, is a soulful number, which sounds like it’s related to Macy Gray’s 1999 hit ‘I Try’. With Steve Earle working in a studio next door, when the album was being recorded, Stace managed to get him to contribute to the countryish ‘Our Lady Of The Highways’. Overall this is an excellent power-pop record.
Number 5: John Wesley Harding ‘Trad Arr Jones’ (1999)
‘Trad Arr Jones’ is Stace’s tribute to Nic Jones, the British folk singer whose professional career was curtailed in 1982, at the age of 35, as the result of a road accident on his return home from a gig. The 11 tracks recorded for the original release are acoustic affairs with additional instruments added by long-term Stace collaborator, Robert Lloyd. The result is a fine homage to Jones. It includes ‘Little Musgrave’, the tale of an adulterous rendezvous between a young man and a noblewoman which doesn’t end well and ‘Annan Water’, another story of ill-fated lovers.
After sending Nic Jones a copy of the first edition of the record, Stace got the impression that Jones had expected the arrangements “to rock out a little more”. As a result, the re-release of the album features Stace backed by a band he put together called The Minstrels In The Gallery who perform an additional four of Jones’ songs through a “Glam folk filter”.
Number 4: John Wesley Harding ‘Why We Fight’ (1992)
Perhaps the clue is in the title of this album, because many of the songs seem to allude to some form of conflict. The scornful ‘Kill The Messenger’ starts the record off. It’s followed by ‘Ordinary Weekend’, a co-write with Stace’s university friend David Lewis, which is the story of a bank heist that goes horribly wrong for the unwitting main protagonist. Now thirty years old, ‘Hitler’s Tears’, seems prescient, ‘One man’s tears, he was fascist before it was cool, ‘Cos now it’s so expected, Just accept it that power is cruel’. The stand out track is the subtle and beautiful ‘The Original Miss Jesus’, which has two lovers pondering the fate of Jesus’s sister or what would have happened if Christ had been born a girl.
Number 3: Wesley Stace ‘Self Titled’ (2013)
After recording under a moniker for 25 years, Stace finally released his first record under his own name. The songs are mostly autobiographical, so Stace felt that “it seemed ridiculous to sing them under any name but my own”. The album comprises a fine collection of songs by a man gracefully accepting middle age and reflecting, mostly with fondness, but sometimes with a hint of sadness, on past relationships. Its centrepiece is ‘We Will Always Have New York’, which poignantly muses on the city and an old flame; it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Number 2: John Wesley Harding ‘Here Comes The Groom’ (1990)
Stace’s debut album, ‘It Happened One Night’, a solo acoustic outing, recorded live in west London in 1988, is slightly unconvincing. A couple of years later Stace released his first studio album, ‘Here Comes The Groom’ which was adroitly produced by Andy Paley. Backed by a band called the Good Liars, who included Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas from Elvis Costello’s Attractions. It’s a record which sees Stace confess to being the illegitimate son of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan and reference, amongst others, Phil Ochs, Steve Goodman and the Everly Brothers. Highlights range from the folky, six minute long ‘Red Rose And The Briar’ to the bold and brassy ‘Devil In Me’.
Number 1: John Wesley Harding ‘John Wesley Harding’s New Deal’ (1996)
‘John Wesley Harding’s New Deal’ was recorded in the San Francisco Bay area and co-produced by Stace with his friend Chris von Snidern. Stace described the record at the time, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, as “gangsta folk”. The instrumentation is certainly more acoustic compared to his first three studio albums. Many of the songs are observational and the lyrics astute and droll, from ‘Cupid And Psycho’, ‘In Paradise’, a possible sequel to The Kink’s ‘Waterloo Sunset’, to ‘God Lives Upstairs’.