John Wesley Harding has been making really sweet tunes since 1988. His 12th release The Sound of Your Own Voice, which came out in October, features a star-studded group of musicians including members of the Decemberists, Peter Buck, Laura Viers and Roseanne Cash.
Harding goes by his given name of Wesley Stace when he releases novels, the first of which is Misfortune, which debuted in 2005, and the last of which is Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. The Rumpus chatted with him about the intersection between music and literature, what it was like to perform with so many rad musicians and about his New York City based variety show Cabinet of Wonders that blends all his loves together.
The Rumpus: You have extremely active roles as both musician and novelist. How do feel they are separate/the same/ compliment each other?
John Wesley Harding: In one sense they are the same, that is me putting words together and in other senses they’re very different because they’re very different skills and sometimes you fail regularly at both things and sometimes you feel like you’re succeeding. I’ve been a songwriter for a long time and I think that was a good training for writing novels even though I never went to writing school or took a creative fiction class. It taught me well how to trust in words and let them do what they want and music gives you a sort of instant gratification because people will applaud a new song that you may have written that day and play it that night whereas writing a novel is really slow and you very rarely get any reward for it. It’s a very lonely, dark and contemplative thing to do and I’m very lucky to do them both. A lot of musicians have day jobs of one kind and a lot of writers are teaching and doing reviews, that sort of thing, so I consider myself very fortunate that I’m able to write songs and play gigs, which is a kind of public thing to do, and write books, which is a more private thing to do and you really only get one out there every year or two. Luckily the kind of performance skills or just the fact that I’ve been on the stage a bunch means that promoting the book is fun for me because I get to make them dramatic or as fun as I want or as different as I want them to be. I can bring music in. And then I do a show called the Cabinet of Wonders and it all comes together there. I never read at them, I appear as an emcee and also musician. I’ve never read at one yet. That’s where it all comes together. I bring my writing friends and musician friends and comedy friends in. So that’s where it all comes together. I had a couple novels out when it was suggested to me by a friend well why don’t you do something where your love of variety and vaudeville comes together in a show so it’s not just you playing your songs but all sorts of people playing their songs. And I really adore doing that Cabinet of Wonders show. It’s really fun. The Cabinet rewards you as both a writer and a musician and writers get to read in a relaxed cabaret-like environment as opposed to an antiseptic bookstore or a university lecture room or a library or something like that and musicians have a nice situation where they get to let their hair down and play different stuff and there’s people listening.
Rumpus: You were active as a musician long before you became a novelist. How did you decide that you were also a novelist?
Harding: A writer’s life is all about making do with what you have. I always wanted to write novels but I didn’t know a lot about it and also didn’t pursue it because it was a big leap of faith because I was making money as a musician and that was how the rent was being paid. So when I got to a point where I just felt like I wasn’t using enough of my brain, that I could be doing something else with my spare time. And what was really lucky was that when I started playing music I took this name, John Wesley Harding, which isn’t my real name and so when I put the novels out I was able to use my real name. What I’ve subsequently discovered is that musicians who write novels, their novels are given a polite pat on the back by the literary folks and I think because mine was under my real name and I wasn’t shoving the fact that I was a somewhat you know—well you know obviously I’m not Bob Dylan or anything like that—by the same token then people just kind of found out that I was a musician because I was putting the novels out under my real name so that was kind of a stroke of good luck. Now if I think somebody had told me twenty-four years ago that I’d still be making music in twenty-four years and asked if I’d rather go by John Wesley Harding or Wesley Stace I probably would have chosen Wesley Stace but it looked very likely that my music career would last about thirty-five minutes so I took this name to avoid anybody but my friends knowing what I did in my spare time. It turned out terrific because then the novels could come out with my own name and at the very least they were received as not just something a musician did in his spare time and I have seen other musicians’ novels unfairly considered that way in my opinion.
Rumpus: Let’s talk about the new album. To me it’s all about collaboration. The list of collaborators is amazing including Peter Buck, members of the Decemberists, Roseanne Cash, Laura Viers. How did all these folks get to be involved and what was it like working with these incredible musicians?
Harding: Well as a singer-songwriter you kind of have a right to hijack bands. I’ve never really had my own band for too long. I actually have one now in New York who play all the Cabinet of Wonders shows with me but I’ve never really had my own band like some songwriters. Some songwriters are really only singer-songwriters but they hide themselves in a band name, you know what I mean? People have been doing that for years but I just kind of went with my solo/guarded name, so over the years I’ve worked with a lot of bands I really liked how they sounded, like on the last album the Minus 5, the attractions were the band on the first album … when I hear a band I like, well I knew Colin Meloy who I met on a radio show in Portland. We played a song together the night we met. I love his band and I was asked by him one Saturday afternoon, they were playing this big show at Terminal 5 in New York, called the Lottery Show and they needed someone to make a theatrical big deal out of pulling these balls from a spinning basket to decide what their set list would be. It was a spectacular show and so I kind of dressed up nice on two hours notice and went in there and did this and next they were playing “Sixteen Military Wives” and that is when I met the band. I hadn’t met all the other members before then. When it came time to make the album they were my only thought. I had it in my mind to make an album with Los Lobos at some point and also the Decemberists, they were my two top thoughts. Because the moment you think are you those people, you know I always have a lot of songs floating around, so you choose the songs that you think those people would sound great playing and it’s a band I like and I feel like I know what they can do and I’ve seen them live many times and it was an absolutely joyful time in the studio. We rehearsed for two days and recorded for three. We did sixteen backing tracks in three days and then overdubbed vocals in two more and then John Moen the drummer for the Decemberists and Scott McCaughy did the backing vocals when I wasn’t there, so that’s how that happened and then everyone else on the album are just my friends. Roseanne I met by chance one lunchtime at a club in New York City. We became friends. I asked her to do residency shows and asked her to the Cabinet of Wonders shows so we just became friends. And she’s very active on the social networking device Twitter so we kept on communicating through that and she’s a very wonderful person and I thought I could hear her voice on that song. John Roderick a friend of mine from Seattle is in the Long Winters and I needed a man to man duet, which is kind of a weird thing, so I needed a male voice that was very different from mine and to play the role of Mole as opposed to my Mister I, my Mister I is a bit more upper class and Mr. Mole is a bit more crusty and subterranean. Laura Viers is the wife of, well she’s also a very well known singer in her own right, but she’s also the wife of Tucker Martine who mixed the record and is My Morning Jacket’s producer and I left a gap on the recording and said I just need Laura to sing right here, could she sing it? And so she did because I wanted it to sound like the ghost of the ex-girlfriend in that particular song. And then there was help from Steve Berlin from Los Lobos who produced my 1992 album Why We Fight many, many, many years ago, he lives in Portland now. Peter Buck one of the very first people to take me into their house in America in 1990, he’s a very old friend, it was back when he lived in Athens, he now lives in Seattle and hangs around Portland a lot, so you know a lot of music that I make is made with people with whom I’ve had really long relationships. Rock ’n’ roll is incredible in that you can get to know people very, very well but without knowing them very, very well. You can see them over twenty years in dressing rooms and if you’re still in those dressing rooms you become kind of family, just brothers and sisters in a very nice way… it’s just a really nice continuum. This album really represents, it was made with such a sense of fun and it was such a pleasure to make and I really, you know I’m a bit of an old hippy and I think the evidence of that is very much in the grooves of the record to the advantage of the music. It was great to make it and it’s going to be fantastic to play with the same band that made the record when we go on tour in November.
Rumpus: The song “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)” sticks in my head every time I listen to this record. Talk to us about gentrification and how you feel it’s affecting artists’ communities.
Harding: Well I mean I you know I’ve put my thoughts about it into that song. I came up with the title some time ago but there was a specific incident recently in my life, I lived in Brooklyn, and this guy Ratner is building this stadium. I was in Fort Greene and I’ve since moved to Philadelphia, not because of that or anything, but we were definitely being affected by what was happening and a lot of lines in the song particularly the one that goes “there’s a stadium where we used to drink at Freddy’s” which is a bar down there. You know Ratner said this was all space that no one wants or needs and they were going to revitalize it, and now it’s just a million parking spaces, but it will very unlikely be what they originally promised or what they said they would do and I just placed that me being there and witnessing all that in the local papers as it came together and fell apart and kept going … you know there’s been many jokes about Starbucks made over the years, the song is not specifically about Starbucks, well I mean it is specifically about about Starbucks, but the song could easily have been written about the Gap or even Barnes and Noble, a shop I actually like, because everywhere you go because everywhere you go, and actually it’s not fair to pick on Barnes and Noble because they’re not like it, but you know everywhere gets the same in the end and that’s what the song is about. Like who cares if there’s a new Starbucks because you wouldn’t even know. Every one around America is just the same. It’s is slightly wrong to pick on them because I’m actually a consumer of their products. I do not mind finding a Starbucks in a New Jersey Turnpike service station but on the other had it’s just sad when you’re my age and you remember what was there before and what’s happened in the meantime, like there’s a Walgreens where there were no walls and was just greenery. There’s that place Deer Creek Pavillion, well that’s named after what used to be there but there’s no fucking deer or creek around nowadays. There’s just a big slab of concrete. The joke’s on us now, this is mentioned in the lyrics, because it’s not even called the Deer Creek Pavillion anymore, it’s called the Verizon Wireless Center or something, so some things move on and everything gets more the same, but your readers don’t need to be told that by me because they all know it perfectly well from the start.