On any given day, Wesley Stace might be biking along Kelly Drive. Or he might be taking his family to the Franklin Institute. Or he might be inaugurating the reopening of the Boot and Saddle on South Broad with a short set opening for Ted Leo and Aimee Mann.
You might hear him on NPR, emceeing a crowded New York stage of musicians, comedians and writers. Or giving a reading of his latest novel somewhere. Or teaching a class at Princeton University. Or curating the Words and Music Festival (WAMFEST) at Fairleigh Dickinson, where he might arrange an appearance from some guy from Jersey named Bruce.
“Writing novels, making music, teaching and emceeing a show — they’re all very different skills done at different times in different ways,” he says. “But they’re all the same project. And they all reflect me. And they all come somehow quite naturally to me, otherwise I wouldn’t do them.”
Everyone calls him Wes. Since 1988, he has recorded under the name John Wesley Harding. On early albums like Here Comes the Groom (1989) and The Name Above the Title (1991), and singles like “The Devil in Me” and “The Person You Are,” he weathered almost constant comparisons to Elvis Costello. And then there was that pseudonym, taken from the 1967 Bob Dylan album and song. On one early song, he knowingly sang “Bob Dylan was my father/ Joan Baez was my mother/ And I’m their bastard son.”
Born in Hastings, East Sussex, England, he’s lived in America since 1991. In 2010, he moved to Mt. Airy, with his wife, Abbey, a Philadelphia native, and their two children, Tilda and Wyn.
After those early albums, he began exploring different ideas and sounds on his albums. Trad Arr Jones (1999) was a tribute to British folk musician Nic Jones. The Sound of His Own Voice (2011) was a bright, jangly affair, recorded in Portland with Peter Buck, Scott McCaughey, members of The Decemberists and others. And Stace co-wrote every song on Personal Record, the June solo album from Eleanor Friedberger of The Fiery Furnaces.
But his latest album, Self-Titled (Yep Roc), recorded in town at MilkBoy’s studio on North Seventh Street and released on Sept. 17, is a departure in more than one aspect. It’s a muted affair, filled with autumnal strings and occasional R&B rhythms. He sings in a soft, conversational tone. Nearly every song is autobiographical, something of a first for him. And, appropriately, Self-Titled is a debut of sorts; it’s the first album credited to Wesley Stace. John Wesley Harding — for now, anyway — is no more.
Chai tea in hand, Stace, 47, is sitting in Old City Coffee on a blazingly beautiful fall day. He explains how he wrote the album, and why he decided to release it under his real name. It all started on the book tour for his third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (2011). “I was kind of at a bit of a low ebb when I was on this book tour. I wasn’t feeling great. And I couldn’t go out and do what I normally do, stay up late and have a good time,” he says. “And so I just started writing songs to comfort myself and cheer myself up.”
The songs that came out were autobiographical in ways he’d never really attempted before. “And it just got to the point where in two of the songs I referred to myself as ‘Mr. Stace’,” he continues. “It just seemed ludicrous to put it out under John Wesley Harding.”
And anyway, it seems the whole John Wesley Harding thing was a little inadvertent. “I took a fake name in the first place probably as the element of disguise,” he says. “And suddenly I had a record deal with [British label] Demon, and [they said], ‘You’ve got 50 fans in London, why would you want to alienate them?’ And that’s always the decision. I remember one time I was vaguely considering it, and my agent at the time said ‘Wes, every time I book a date for you, I’m going to have to say “Yes, Wesley Stace. Yes, it’s John Wesley Harding. No, you can’t use the name. You can say he’s formerly known … ’ So for people that you know, you’re just making their life more difficult. Back in the day, it used to be, ‘Oh, you won’t have a rack in Tower [Records]. They’ll have to make a whole new rack.’
“What happened in the last 10 years is I started writing novels, and for that I used my real name. So now, it doesn’t feel weird using my real name.”
Musically, Stace says he drew inspiration for Self-Titled from some of his favorite singer-songwriters from the ’70s, particularly those with “soft voices”: Colin Blunstone, Duncan Browne, Cat Stevens. “Mostly blokes,” he admits, “but definitely Joni Mitchell” as well. Additionally, a strong soul influence emerges on songs like “A Canterbury Kiss” and “When I Knew” (one of two songs on Self-Titled that also appear on Eleanor Friedberger’s album). Stace cites favorites like Donny Hathaway and Curtis Mayfield.
Overall, though, the muted sound of the album was not just the sum of these other artists. On the original demos, he sang in a much lower, quieter register than usual. He realized how much he liked the sound. “I couldn’t have a thundering band behind it, making them into Springsteen songs, or making them into power-pop,” he says. So he instructed the musicians — members of his frequent backing band the English UK, plus renowned local drummer Patrick Berkery — to play sparsely. Add some lovely string arrangements and “I could sing them low and intimately like I was whispering.” The result is a warmly alluring album. Despite the low volume, Stace still delivers plenty of memorable melodies and thought-provoking lyrics.
So how autobiographical is Self-Titled? “Nothing on the album isn’t true, but some of [the songs] refer to literary things more than others,” he allows. “‘The Woman’ is about being obsessed by a villain or your nemesis, like Sherlock Holmes was obsessed with Irene Adler. ‘Canterbury Kiss’ is a very romantic song. Is that exactly how that happened? Probably not. But, it’s how it happened in my memory. I’ve been thinking about that event for 31 years. Have I got it right now? Probably not.”
During the album’s early writing sessions, Stace wrote a song he was particularly happy with, one about a past relationship. He then sent the song to its subject. “She wrote, ‘Wes, that song is so beautiful. It’s true, just like it was. It made me cry. You can never fucking record that song, ever.’ ‘I don’t even mention you by name.’ ‘It’s irrelevant, people would know. You can’t sing it.’ From which I learned this lesson: Don’t send people the songs,” he laughs.
Back in 2009, when he lived in Brooklyn, Stace began putting on a show he called the Cabinet of Wonders. “The Cabinet was, I think now, my unconscious-subconscious effort to bring my writing and music together. It’s like me saying, ‘How can I get me as a writer and me as a musician in one room? And then maybe I’ll stick a comedian in there as well.’” Over the years, Stace has presented the likes of Eugene Mirman, Stephin Merritt, Nick Hornby, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Hodgman, John Darnielle, Janeane Garafalo, Sarah Vowell and many more, usually from the Cabinet’s home base of City Winery in New York City. Last year, NPR began broadcasting and podcasting edited highlights of Cabinet shows, heard locally on 88.5 WXPN. A new season of episodes is expected to be starting soon.
On the Cabinet of Wonders, you might hear Stace and Kelly Hogan recreate their stunning duet version of Conway Twitty’s “It’s Only Make Believe” (originally recorded for Bloodshot Records in the ’90s). Or you might hear Ted Leo leading a crowded stage in a raucous rendition of Paul McCartney’s “The Back Seat of My Car.”
“It’s created a community for me,” says Stace. For instance, “I knew Ted. But he’d never have asked me to support him and Aimee Mann the other day if he didn’t know I was a stand-up guy because of the Cabinet.
“I’ve always been quite a good person for getting people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise have done. Not things they didn’t want to do. But things that were maybe not their first choice. I have a certain enthusiasm — a friendly enthusiasm — that seems to make people go, ‘Oh, he asked me to, I think I’ll do it.’”
It’s going to be a busy next few months for Stace. He’ll be reading at the 215 Festival in a few weeks. His tour for Self-Titled also begins this month; half of the dates will be a traveling version of the Cabinet of Wonders. His fourth novel, Wonderkid, is due out in February. For the winter, he’s curated (“a posh word for ‘thrown together’”) Fairleigh Dickinson’s next WAMFEST, which will feature Rosanne Cash talking with poet C.D. Wright, Loudon Wainwright III discussing Appalachian ballads, a screening of the film Matewan and more. Beginning in February, he’ll teach another of his “How to Write a Song” courses at Princeton, along with Irish poet and Princeton professor Paul Muldoon.
And, of course, there’ll be time for some of Stace’s favorite Philly activities: taking the kids to Smith Memorial Playground and Playhouse in Fairmount Park; dining at Morimoto; maybe a stop at Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction for some ROOT or SNAP.
“As Eugene Mirman always says, we’re cobbling together a life in the arts,” he says. “I’m very lucky to be able to do what I do. I love writing books. Ironically, as my accountant once told me, ‘Wes, you’re a writer, not a musician.’ She was proving a point. It’s lovely to be more relaxed than ever about making music. And while knowing that [Self-Titled] will never be my debut album in the eyes of SPIN magazine or whoever, I feel that I’m happier than ever doing what I do.”
Wesley Stace plays Thu., Oct. 3, 8 p.m., $20-$22, with Pete Donnelly, World Café Live, 3025 Walnut St., 215-222-1400, worldcafelive.com.
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