DAVE RAYBURN: The new album is titled WESLEY STACE’S JOHN WESLEY HARDING, and is your second record under your given name that you’ve reverted back to. I understand that, among several factors involved in choosing the title, there was a bit of a nod to Jeff Lynne in the mix. Can you elaborate?
WESLEY STACE: I can. My last album, SELF-TITLED, was the first released under my real name, Wesley Stace, but I felt the word didn’t quite get out, so I thought it was worth clarifying. Secondly, I happened to see the new version of ELO. For whatever legal reason, they are billed as “Jeff Lynne’s ELO”, presumably partly to differentiate it from any other rogue version of ELO. This reminded me that, though I had, in a sense, broken up John Wesley Harding, I didn’t want any interlopers touring under that name, playing my songs and pretending to be me, when I was elsewhere being me too, playing those same songs (better). With WESLEY STACE’S JOHN WESLEY HARDING, I am reminding you that this version of John Wesley Harding is the only version that counts. And finally, I wanted to differentiate myself, once and for all, from the Bob Dylan album of the same name. I have many times been mistaken for this album, due to a certain similarities between the name of this artifact, an LP from 1967 made of vinyl and cardboard, JOHN WESLEY HARDING, and my erstwhile performing name, John Wesley Harding. Obviously, it’s a ridiculous mistake, but still. So this isn’t Bob Dylan’s JOHN WESLEY HARDING; it’s Wesley Stace’s JOHN WESLEY HARDING.
DAVE: Will the name John Wesley Harding ever be resurrected again in your future discography, or have you gently laid him to rest with this second Wesley Stace album?
WESLEY: As a friend said: “The great thing about changing your name is that you can always change it back.” And sure: it could return. Put simply, there are many albums recorded under the name John Wesley Harding, and they’re still about and I’m happy to sign them as such. To me, it’s not a big deal. It’s far more important to metadata people and record labels – look at the way Bonnie Prince Billy uses the different names. In the end, I thought it was silly having one name for writing novels and another for music, so I wanted one name for both.
DAVE: How on Earth did you come to collaborate with The Jayhawks? And, is there a chance for a sequel?
WESLEY: You meet people over the years – I’d supported the Jayhawks a couple of times; Perlman and I have known each other ages; Gary Louris did a Cabinet of Wonders when we went to Minneapolis; and then I asked him to visit my students at Princeton and talk about songs with them, and he stayed at my house – and you become friends. And then you want to make music together, because you’re friends and what could be better than that? Particularly when they’re The Jayhawks. And this is precisely an instance of that. It all actually happened when we went to see them play at The Queen in Wilmington, and I’d been listening to the song “Don’t Turn Me Loose” by Greenfield and Cook. And as I watched, I imagined the Jayhawks playing it, and I thought I should tell them they’d sound great covering that song. And then I thought: they *should* play it; but I should sing it. And that’s how it first came up. I may have even mentioned it that night. And then the obvious thing to do was record it in their home town. There is certainly a chance of sequel, and I’d love to do that. Heraclitus warned “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” But that might be good news, because we’d do something completely different. I loved working with them; and also at Ed Ackerson’s studio, Flowers in Minneapolis. I would recommend him and his set-up to anyone.
DAVE: There are plenty of references on this album to the singer being a musician. Was that more intentional, or perhaps, autobiographical this time around?
WESLEY: Not at all. In fact, less. The last album – SELF-TITLED, the first under Wesley Stace – was the most autobiographical album I had ever made or will ever make, in terms of my personal life. I always write a lot of songs about singing and songs and being a singer; nothing changes there. This time I had a bunch of songs lying around and I picked 12 songs – 12 that I thought sat well together – that I thought the Jayhawks would sound best playing. In fact, I picked 10 and then I wrote 2 at the last moment, because I wanted another ballad (“What You Want Belongs To You”) and another uptempo song (“The Wilderness Years”), so they were in a sense bespoke. But these 12 songs are there because a) they’re a good mix and b) I thought they were suited to the Jayhawks, their playing, their facility for harmonies and so forth. I am serial user of other bands that are already fixed units, so I’m quite used to doing this. Next time: Parquet Courts.
DAVE: The album is threaded with several songs spotlighting various scenes of change, both good and bad; including the Big Star-influenced “For Me and You”. Are these songs reflections of any changes in your life, or are you merely able to confidently write about subjects you may not be currently feeling or experiencing, with genuine results?
WESLEY: Well, that’s interesting. I’d have to go through them one by one. There aren’t many huge changes in my life at the moment. The songs reflect things I think about – various things. After hearing “For You & Me,” since you mention that one, a friend said “Sorry you were in that terrible relationship but I’m glad you got a song out of it” or that kind of thing. Which is nice. And that’s what they think the song is about – but to me that song is about differing points of view, and how sometimes this can be solved, not by argument, but just by avoiding each other, in as much as the world is large enough to hold conflicting points of view without complete anarchy taking over. In verse order: the scenario of someone giving someone else a bad review; an argument about religion; and a reflection on an age old relationship, where you haven’t seen the person in ages. So am I feeling or not feeling those things? Well, I’m a human; I have feelings; I hope to be able to empathize with other people, so I try to see two sides of various arguments and put it into a song. I’m quite happy to spend all the time I do on writing them, and then leave them to you. Explaining them doesn’t really help. Someone once asked me what the line “trash needs nostalgia to breath,” in a particular song, meant; and the answer can only be “precisely what it says: I thought long and hard about it, I did my best, and I boiled it down to that and there it is!”
DAVE: Who is the person singing “I Don’t Wanna Rock ‘N’ Roll”, and who exactly is it being sung to?
WESLEY: It’s sung by someone who is at an age when he feels that the excitement and magic of Rock’n’Roll, what he felt about it when s/he started going to shows, has disappeared; that it’s all wrung out and repetitive. And it’s sung to the person who embodied the magic/excitement for him, perhaps his gig-going partner from yesteryear, or a particular singer in whom he was strongly invested; that person has now gone too – could be dead, or in hiding, or just not going out anymore: doesn’t matter. And the singer is reflecting on what happened and what tomorrow might look like, now he’s made the decision not to rock’n’roll. The irony is that deep down he has the urge, whatever he says: hence the guitar solo at the end.
DAVE: Was your timely and politically-inspired “Mr. Tangerine Man” being considered for inclusion on this record at the time you went into the studio?
WESLEY: Not at all. That wasn’t actually written (by Mr. Roger Clark and me) until long after the album was finished, by email, while I was on holiday in August, on a borrowed guitar, and I more or less learned it to have something brand new and topical to sing at the Philly Folk Festival which was the same month. I wondered if “Tangerine Man” was still worth singing, but in the end it was pointed out to me that it’s transformed from a protest song into a heroic act of defiance. So it’s still in the set. I should release it.
DAVE: WESLEY STACE’S JOHN WESLEY HARDING is made up of one cover song and eleven unused originals from your recent songbook. Were there any leftovers from the sessions with The Jayhawks, and on that topic, do fans stand the chance of seeing more installments of your popular DYNABLOB and SINGS TO A SMALL GUITAR archival releases.
WESLEY: No out-takes at all. We had two days rehearsing; three days recording with the full band; and then I took ages on my own doing the vocals and the mixing with Ed. So we recorded 12 songs and that’s what you hear. However, there were many songs under consideration for the record, and those are the kinds of things that might end up on future DYNABLOBs and SMALL GUITARs – and thanks for noticing those!
DAVE: In your song “Bastard Son,” from your very first release, you proclaimed Bob Dylan and Joan Baez as your parents. What do Bob and Joan think of that notion?
WESLEY: I have no idea. I think Joan Baez and I may have laughed about it some time ago; and she was kind enough to take me on the road as a support act (and to appear at an upcoming Cabinet of Wonders in San Francisco) so apparently she didn’t mind; she has an excellent sense of humour anyway. I’m sure Bob Dylan knows and cares nothing about it.
DAVE: Do you recall the first Bob Dylan record you ever owned, and if you had to narrow it down, which album or song of his was the most influential on your own body of work?
WESLEY: The first record I ever owned was AT BUDOKAN which was actually a great introduction because it had many of the great songs – albeit in odd arrangements – and all the lyrics in a quite magnificent booklet (not to mention, a dire poster.) I first heard him walking round a Steam Engine museum in Brighton; “Baby Stop Crying” came on the radio. I might have heard “Times They Are A-Changin’” before that, or, unknowingly, “Blowin’ in the Wind” or something like that. But AT BUDOKAN was definitely the first LP. I bought SAVED the day it came out, so I was up to speed by then, though it was a strange time to be getting up to speed; and was then followed by years of years of near global (media) indifference to his work, so you felt slightly special. I then started listening to all the old albums, buying them as and when I could afford them. HIGHWAY 61 was always the top for me, among the ones I heard first. But STREET LEGAL has always been a huge favourite. As for a particular song, I don’t know: maybe “Subterranean Homesick Blues” – everything about it.
DAVE: In June of 1994 you were joined on stage by Bruce Springsteen at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California to perform his song “Wreck On The Highway.” You later released a recording of this as a bonus track on your AWAKE reissue. It must have been amazing to be up there on that intimate stage with him, but more amazingly… how did you manage to talk him into backing you on one of his treasured and seldom-played ballads from THE RIVER?
WESLEY: Yes, and we’ve played that a time or two, at least once, since. It’s hard to remember what precisely even happened – though I do remember *how* it happened – because I don’t think we rehearsed up in that backstage room at McCabe’s, and he was using my guitar; I think we just started singing and I gravitated towards the melody and he very kindly took the harmony. And then he played a wonderful guitar solo; and even more amazingly, it was all taped and then he allowed me to use it. (Truth is: I also have a video of it *and*, because a performance video was being shot that night, by coincidence, there is also Super 8 footage, so we could edit all together at some point. I’ll do a Kickstarter. Joking.) And after that I supported him a little on the GHOST OF TOM JOAD tour. It’s always such a pleasure to run into him, as recently happened after one of the sensational RIVER shows, in Philadelphia, where he always seems to put on a very epic show. And his book is very moving. But in answer to your question, I see it as a duet in which he’s taking the high harmony; and Robert Lloyd is playing accordion – so a trio, really. As to why we played that song, it’s certainly because I suggested it, because I *love* “Wreck on the Highway,” and it’s true that he didn’t play it very often, though I’m not sure whether I’d have expertly known that.
DAVE: It’s been a while since your last revision of “When The Beatles Hit America.” Brilliant every time. With all the Beatles reissues on vinyl, the recent Ron Howard documentary, and with Paul and Ringo still out touring… do you think there may be some new verses to come?
WESLEY: That’s an idea, but probably not. Too much to change! Someone wanted me to do an update on the Live Aid song for Live 8 – but I could only have done it about what I did that day, which was ignore Live 8 entirely. These songs can’t be played forever, because their humour only makes sense in the context of their time. After that, they’re nostalgia; and I’d rather try to write something new – like say “Mr Tangerine Man” – that feels present. I also have a long song about Jason Bourne I sing at the moment: “Pretty Boy Bourne.” It’s not the same, but it fills the same part of the set, as it were. Perhaps I’ll have a very strong response to the Ron Howard film!
DAVE: On the subject of touring… will you be out on the road in support of this record, and if so, what are the odds of a live appearance with your backing band from that studio in Minneapolis?
WESLEY: Yes I will. And the chances of some dates with The Jayhawks are good. We are talking about it right now. But either way, I’ll be out there. And my own band, The English UK, does have to learn these songs at some point.
Thanks to Wesley Stace
Special thanks to Steve Dixon