Interview: Wesley Stace AKA John Wesley Harding on touring the UK after a 15-year absence

Credit: Ebert Roberts

A continuum of songs, novels, opera and variety shows.

There was a time in the ‘80s when Demon Records seemed to be a beacon for good music in the UK with its reissues and new releases helping to sow the seeds for what we now know as americana. In 1988 a young artist with the eye-catching name of John Wesley Harding released his first album on Demon, ‘It Happened One ht’, and he fit right into that melting pot of singer-songwriters who were influenced by classic pop, folk, and roots rock. His first studio album, 1990’s ‘Here Comes The Groom’ included the Attractions’ rhythm section, Tom Robinson, and Kirsty McCall, but in 1990 he moved to America and found what he felt was an audience that was more sympathetic to singer-songwriters with an acoustic guitar. John Wesley Harding is also author Wesley Stace, and Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with him at home in America over Zoom as he prepared to tour the UK, a tour put together by Americana UK’s own Darren Lumbroso, for the first time in 15 years. It was comforting to find out that there was no hint of schizophrenia when talking to John Wesley Harding and Wesley Stace, with Wesley Stace explaining he took the stage name John Wesley Harding while he was still working as an academic at Cambridge, and he didn’t want them to know he was moonlighting as a singer-songwriter.  He sees songs, literature and comedy as one continuum, which has been the impetus of his regular variety shows under the banner of Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders which has featured the likes of Shirley Collins, Lou Reed, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, and John Prine over the years.

We are here to chat about your first tour of the UK in 15 years.

I’ve been there, I just haven’t been doing gigs there.

Why is now the time to come back and tour the UK?

That’s a good question, I’ve been a little lazy in not coming over, and it’s not that I haven’t done shows in the last 15 years, it is generally they have been The Cabinet of Wonders, a show I do. I’ve been doing them in New York for years, and we did a very nice one with Nick Lowe and Shirley Collins at Cecil Sharpe House, and we did another very nice one with Neil Innes and Linda Lewis, both have sadly died, at Bush House, we did another at Cecil Sharp House, and we might do another one this time. The long and the short of it is my mother died right before COVID, and that means I find myself with a base in the United Kingdom because with my mother passing away it felt weird not having my own solid landing spot in the UK, so I got one. Right before COVID, there was a tour planned, my friend Darren Lumbroso put together a tour very like the one coming up in May, and then COVID hit and we had to cancel it. So, you can actually remove four or five of those years, because that was just the COVID fuck up, and as soon as everything got back on track Darren said let’s do it now, and I said yes, we had to put it off and now it’s time for those eggs to hatch. It’s a kind of combination of those sorts of things.

What can people expect from your shows?

I don’t know, I know what I might expect, but I don’t know what people might expect seeing me, it’s been so long. I toured England regularly from 1988 to 1989 and 90, those were my regular years of touring England. I had a little record deal with Demon, and then I got a deal with Sire and that brought me out here touring, and in 1990 I moved out here. I’ve been here for 34 years and, apart from COVID, I’ve been touring consistently here ever since, and I’ve only ever popped back to England to do a few dates every now and then, so what can people expect, they can expect anything from my catalogue over the last 35 years, including my first album on Demon.

When I’m planning a tour what I generally do is make a list of songs that I want to play on the tour, and I group them into new songs that people may not know, songs from the first couple of albums, and I generally go through each album and pick five or six off each album, and I’ll list some songs I want to play when I’m halfway through the tour. So I have a set list for the entire tour, and one good thing to do is for people to contact me well enough in advance, and let me know if they want to hear a particular song, either through the Comments Section on Americana UK or by emailing me, and let me know your playing in Streetly and I live near there and I’m coming to your show, and I’d love it if you played ‘The Devil In Me’. It’s very kind of people to come to the gig at all, and I don’t want to deprive them of songs they want to hear in the first place. I’m always happy to meet people in the middle, but on the other hand as a performer you have your most recent songs lodged in your mind. What happens is that the songs lodged in your mind are the ones you play all the time and can play at the drop of a hat, and your most recent ones because you’ve been playing them a lot. So the idea is to make it a grand retrospective of John Wesley Harding/Wesley Stace, the covers I play, just everything.

You had a pretty traditional English upbringing, public school and Cambridge and were set for an academic career. You then became a musician and moved to America. What has 30 years of living in America done for your personal and professional outlook?

It is what’s made me as a person. I can’t say what it means to me as a person because that requires me to imagine what might have happened if I hadn’t done those seismic things. I was supervising things at Cambridge when I started doing gigs, and I took the name John Wesley Harding because I didn’t want people to know I was doing gigs. I was offered this gig with the Hothouse Flowers, and I did that under the name John Wesley Harding and then moved to America.

Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans, and that saying is what life is. The only thing I can do is look back, and if I wasn’t completely happy aged 58 with two kids in a nice house in Philadelphia, looking forward to my tour of the UK in May, and my tour of the Midwest with Loudin Wainwright in June, that’s the real thing, and all I can do is speculate what would have happened if I hadn’t done those two things. If I’d stayed in academia I would probably be an academic teaching English Literature, probably to do with the 18th Century somewhere in England, or perhaps I’d have moved elsewhere. America is disgusting on many levels, and it’s a very worrying year for democracy in America, and we feel that, but I did like when I first moved here the capaciousness and the long memory of America, where it was still possible to play an acoustic guitar and not to be seen as out of time and old fashioned. In England at the time you weren’t allowed to play the acoustic guitar, except at folk festivals which then was a very small kind of ghetto of music in England. It wasn’t like the Cambridge Folk Festival where you get all these great people, it was a real little ghetto. I always joke that the only person who was allowed to play the acoustic guitar was Billy Bragg, and he had to play an electric guitar even though he was essentially playing a protest acoustic guitar, he just did it with electricity.

I loved the glory and I could feel the long memory of the music I liked when I came to America, the John Prines, the Roaches, that was alive and humming in America still. That was great but I think that stopped a bit later on when grunge took over almost entirely as it did, but that was a few years later. It never occurred to me at the time, but people told me later my rise to the top was curtailed by grunge, and I was like, I hadn’t thought of that. Again, while you are living life you don’t notice those things. I’ve made some folky records, I’ve made some loud rock records, I’m a songwriter and I try to write the best songs I can. What I do like to do is play solo acoustic, and that will be what I do when I tour the UK in May, bar when a few friends turn up. Except that my voice is a bit more gravelly, and I’m 58 rather than 24, it will be the same thing I was doing way back then.

Is there any difference between Wesley Stace author and educator and John Wesley Harding singer-songwriter?

I know what you mean. I’ve made records under the name John Wesley Harding, and with my novels coming out I put them under my real name, Wesley Stace because John Wesley Harding as a pseudonym only seemed to apply to a folk rocker somehow. I didn’t think it could be a novelist’s name, though there was a little pressure from the publishing company for me to put the novels out under John Wesley Harding which I thought was very shortsighted. I had my agent say we don’t want to sell a couple of novels based on a minorly successful music career, we want to have a successful literary novel, where people can go, oh, fuck, he did duets with Bruce Springsteen and Lou Reed. I thought it would be better if people found that out on their own, rather than being spoon-fed. That worked well, but the outcome of that was I had one career under John Wesley Harding, and one under my own name Wesley Stace, and after a while it got rather silly so I thought let’s do it under one name, Wesley Stace. I don’t feel in any sense a schizophrenic, purely because I was the last person who needed a pseudonym to go out on the stage like I now have a persona, and my persona is the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, or it’s Ziggy Stardust.

I’ve never been that kind of person, it is not an act, I’m certainly cynical and satirical in my songwriting sometimes, but that is all perfectly sincere, it’s just my thoughts coming from me. I think, and I think a lot of people would agree with me, that the arts are a big wide world, and as my friend Eugene says, just cobbling a life together in the arts. So many musicians nowadays are painters, there are whole exhibitions of Jon Langford, Walter Sallis Humaris, all these musicians who are now also painters, Bob Dylan was one of the original musician-painters, Joni Mitchell is a musician-painter, Captain Beefheart. That’s a completely acceptable thing I suppose because you can play your guitar and come home and throw some paint around, and that’s satisfying. There are almost as many musician novelists, there are countless articles on the internet about musicians who’ve written novels. Sometimes you’re in them sometimes you’re not, and then you find the woman from Elastica has written a novel, Nick Cave’s written a novel, so these aren’t unusual things for musicians to do and by the same token, and I don’t mean this in a snobby way, the cleverer ones are involved in academia in some way, Scritti Polltti and all kinds of people.

Some of academia is teaching a subject, and some of it can be teaching by example of how to write a novel, well I know because I’ve done it four times, or how to write a song lyric, I did teach an amazing class with the brilliant Irish poet Paul Muldoon at Princeton, we talked song and lyric composition. I know how to do those things, I didn’t go to University to learn but my practical knowledge is unimpeachable, really, except I haven’t won an Oscar or had a number one single. To me, it is a great big wide world of art, and there are many things that I enjoy. I am very proud of my shelf of books that have been translated into many languages, the records I’ve made and getting them all reissued. They require different skills, but to me, they are all part of that same project, which is the use of the imagination in a creative way, and I do it in many other ways as well. If you are lucky enough to get away with a career in the arts at any level, you will want as many arrows in your quiver as possible because it all adds up in the end, and I do mean financially.

Is there any synergy between your literary work and your songwriting?

I think there definitely is. With the first novel ‘Misfortune’ I put out this record ‘Love Hall Trist’ with the great Kelly Hogan, Nora O’Connor and my friend Brian Lohmann, and we sang the songs written by the balladeer in the novel.  That novel, you could say, came out of an album I made called ‘Trad Ar Jones’ where I really got into the arrangements of folk singer Nic Jones, a great genius. So I made an album of his folk songs, and very specifically his arrangements of them, not folk songs I liked done in a style but trying to copy for two people his beautiful arrangements of those songs. That love of folk music fed into my first novel ‘Misfortune’ in the first place, which luckily for me did well enough for me to write more novels, and in the novel, a balladeer was a central player.  So that’s a whole circle of life in my songwriting and novel writing.

One of Britain’s leading composers now is a Belizean woman called Errollyn Warren, and I think she’s a CBE, but I call her a Dame because I just want to know a Dame, and she asked me to write the lyrics and scenario, and dramaturg for her new opera, which I did, and it’s called ‘Dido’s Ghost’. I’m quite into musicals, but I don’t like the idea of actually writing a musical because it seems like a lot of work and very compromised, with too many cooks spoiling that broth. It’s just not for me, but I very much enjoyed writing that opera with Errollyn. Again, what could be more about bringing it all together, thinking about Purcell, and then I wrote this novel ‘Charles Jessod, Considered as a Murderer’  that’s about a composer writing a novel that’s based on ‘Little Musgrave’. To me they are all part of the same thing, sure, some have more to do with music, and some of them a little bit less, but a lot of the songs tell stories, it is the need to communicate through music and stories.

How did “John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders” come about and what are your favourite memories?

Basically, that came about because when I wrote my first novel the woman who was doing my press for my first novel asked why was I so intent on keeping my writing life and music life apart, she said she understood the John Wesley Harding and Wesley Stace thing, but why don’t I want to celebrate them together? I thought that was a bit like a show I used to do at the Mean Fiddler in 1988 called The John Wesley Harding Medicine Show. I saw that Vince Power had died the other day, and God love him, I remember peeing next to him in New York City right before Van Morrison was going to play, and I said, “You won’t remember me, but I’m John Wesley Harding and I used to play many times…”, and he said, “Of course I do, we booked The Medicine Show”. He did a lot of marvellous things for that music, I remember seeing John Prine in The Mean Fiddler, I remember seeing the Violent Femmes in The Mean Fiddler and they passed the microphone down into the audience, and I grabbed it and sang a little bit of the song.

So I had The Medicine Show at The Mean Fiddler but my address book was very small, so the biggest acts we got to do that was Ted Hawkins did it once, Tom Robinson probably did it once, Les McKeown of the Bay City Rollers did it once. Now, it’s been going twelve years or thirteen years and there have been 120 of them, bringing music and literature together with comedy at the fulcrum of that X. I think The Cabinet of Wonders just celebrates it all, and I just pick people I love and admire and who I either want to expose my audience to or I assume my audience like enough already to want to see a show with them doing two or three songs.

I mentioned the Cecil Sharp House and Shirley Collins singing with Ian Kearney at that show was just amazing, and that was just before the full arc of her return had started. I’d actually rang her up ten years previously, and I told her I had this song ‘Sussex Ghost Stories’ and that Barry Dransfield really liked it, and I asked her if she would like to sing one line in the voice of the wife, and she thanked me for asking her saying I was so kind, but she said she would never sing again, and I remember she said something like I’m just an old grandma now.  I also think that Mike Scott, Steve Earle and Loudon Wainwright on the same stage singing ‘You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere’, maybe, or Ted Leo, me and Mike Scott singing ‘Personality Crisis’, there are so many phenomenal memories. We just had a phenomenal show last Saturday, and the week before we had a wonderful show at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, they booked me to do a Cabinet down there at the local art museum, the Philbrook Museum of Art, a magnificent place with a sensational auditorium. We had Yo La Tengo, Grant Lee Phillips from Grant Lee Buffalo, John Doe from X, and Dean & Britta, also Paul Muldoon and it was just such a sensational night.

Those are very beautiful events to me because they are fuelled with friendship, and the will to do a great show, in that old Cliff Richard sense of let’s do the show right here. That’s what The Cabinet feels like, it takes me a long time to set them up and book people for it, but once that snowball is rolling down the hill during the show, after all that rehearsal and my band has learnt all the songs, and you don’t know what is going to go wrong or what is going to go right, that is a beautiful experience. I love doing that show, and it keeps running. I thought it might die a death when COVID hit, because it was bad enough doing a solo acoustic show, let alone getting seven people in a dressing room with various assistants and my band and all that stuff, but here we are again.

At AUK, we like to share music with our readers. What are three of your favourite tracks, albums or artists on your playlists?

I’ll tell you something funny I’ve been listening to and it is Donovan covers played by two people, one is a great arranger called Vic Lewis, and Donovan helped him make the album, and the other is Johnny Arthey playing the hits of Donovan, or something. They are just fantastic records, really beautiful records and I think of them often, and just the other day on Facebook somebody was asking if anyone could think of any jazzy arrangements of Donovan, and I mentioned these two albums. I then remembered there is this fantastic Cal Tjader album on which there is a great version of ‘Wear Your Love Like Heaven’  and I think being 58 I’m at that stage of my life where I know some of the originals so well, that it’s very nice for me just to hear someone else’s take on the pure musicality of the songs. I do find myself, with no guilty pleasure just pure pleasure, listening to brilliantly arranged songs of other people, and if anyone is interested in going down that path I would definitely recommend those ‘60s records of Donovan covers because they are quite simple songs, the Donovan songs, but if a really good arranger gets his hands on them they are fantastic.

I’ve been amassing a collection of producer Creed Taylor’s CTI Records and this is one of the most beautiful collections of music I’ve ever had. I’ve got every record on CTI in catalogue order, and I’ve been collecting those for a long, long time, and because I’m quite a rather frugal person as far as records go, insisting I won’t pay over the odds for them, and I won’t buy them for £50 on eBay. It is not the most original thing ever, but I’ve been very into the work of George Harrison during lockdown, he brought me a deep sense of calm. I had to review a novel for The New York Times and it wasn’t a great novel, but the best line in it was a description of somebody that said, and I thought it said a lot, “His favourite Beatle was George, not because he seemed the most intelligent or because he was the most brilliant songwriter, but because he seemed the kindest”. I bought a purply box set during lockdown just to get into it, and he just blows me away, and even his shitty albums like ‘Gone Troppo’ which we all remember how not great it was, even those albums have insanely beautiful little songs on them. If anyone is interested I did put a little  George Harrison playlist ‘Dark Horses: Greater Later George’ up on Spotify because my Facebook fans were asking what was I listening to during lockdown.

Finally, do you want to say anything to our UK readers?

I’d like to thank Mark Whitfield for his continued support of my music, and I would also like to say thank you very much to Darren Lombroso for setting this tour together. How music must work in this day and age where we aren’t even sure there are record labels for us all to be on etc, etc, is a hand-held firmly between people who love music and people who play music, is more valuable than ever nowadays.

Tour dates

10-May-24       Canon Frome Community Farm, Herefordshire
11-May-24       Bullet Coffee House, Hastings
12-May-24       Kitchen Garden Café, Birmingham
14-May-24       John Wesley’s New Room, Bristol
17-May-24       Morrell Room, Goring and Streatley, Oxfordshire SOLD OUT
18-May-24       To be confirmed
19-May-24       Wood Festival, Braziers Park, Oxfordshire
20-May-24       Royal Manor Theatre, Portland, Dorset
21-May-24       South Street, Reading
22-May-24       Green Note, Camden, London
23-May-24       House concert, Great Easton, Leicestershire
24-May-24       The Castle Hotel, Manchester
25-May-24       House concert, Liverpool
26-May-24       To be confirmed, Edinburgh
27-May-24       Doublet Glasgow

About Martin Johnson 401 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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Mark Whitfield

You’re welcome Wes and great interview Martin! My request is “God Lives Upstairs” which I have had swirling round my head every other day for about 30 years.