Swinging Modern Sounds #48: Trying Not to Stare at the Sun


Career-defining albums are sometimes hard to understand at the moment of release. History and culture and taste and the fickleness of the audience play into what seems memorable and what will last. However, if you’ve been listening to a songwriter for a good long while, it’s not that hard to understand when a sea change has taken place. And that seems to be the case with Wesley Stace, the songwriter who has often gone by the stage name John Wesley Harding, in the case of his new album Self-Titled, just released by Yep Roc.

There are a couple of obvious features to this game-changer of an album. First, it is credited to John Wesley Harding’s real name, as no other album by him has been. At the same time, it’s also the most accessible recording Stace (Harding) has ever contrived to release. These things are self-evident on Self-Titled. But I would contend that there are career-defining contours to the album of which these features are merely the leading edge. Where John Wesley Harding was always known for lightning wordplay and fictional narrators (narrators who are not the composer), Wesley Stace the songwriter on this album seems to be known for emotional directness and autobiography. Where John Wesley Harding seemed to be infamous for generic mastery and an encyclopedic knowledge of the Anglo-American pop song canon, Wesley Stace is more interested in whether the song will connect. Where Harding is frequently witty, Stace is more frequently honest, characterized by pathos, and, on occasion, melancholy.

While these moods—the melancholy and reflective moods—were liminal and not infrequently apparent on earlier albums, the thematic unity of this album is built around them. Like Tapestry or Astral Weeks or Late For the Sky or Blood On the Tracks or Girlfriend, this is an album of love songs that seem to have a very particular thing to say about love: that it is an adult and complicated entanglement and you do not always emerge unscathed. As such, it’s an admirable album, and one that grows deeper with repeated listening. Suddenly, Wesley Stace, whose novels (he has now published three) have absorbed all the fictional narrators, seems willing to sing of his life, present and past, and we are the luckier for it.

I interviewed the songwriter by e-mail all summer. We took our time and tried to peek into all the corners in such a way as to get to the bottom of this career-defining album. I hope that is obvious too.


The Rumpus: I want to talk about sound and craft first and theme later. This album has a particular sound. Can you talk a little about what your pretexts were, and how you went about pursuing the manifestations of this particular sound?

Wesley Stace: Sound, craft, theme—they all play into each other.

My thought after the last album: I am not, nor ever have been, a great or even very good “rock” singer over a full thundering band. My voice doesn’t have that cutting edge; it’s warm and singer-songwritery. So I was always intending to make a “softer” album this time, where the voice was out front.

Timing-wise, this fit in perfectly with the new songs which were much more autobiographical, and therefore intimate. I found myself delivering the demos quietly, much lower in my register, as if I was whispering secrets to the listener, and I didn’t want to lose this intimacy on the finished recordings. For the production, I wanted to make sure that nothing—playing, arrangement, or production—got in the way of the words and tunes. So the idea was to emulate some of my favorite seventies singer-songwriters, who, though they were never shy of a full band with bass and drums, lush arrangement, or orchestral accompaniment, never let those things distract. I was lucky to have a laid-back band, basically the English UK from the Cabinet of Wonders (but with Philadelphian Patrick Berkery on the drums because Adam Gold was in Australia getting married), who understood that it was going to be a question of playing less rather than more so there was a lot of space for me to sing in. This was the focus. One important way we made room for the voice was to deaden the drums and use very little hi-hat, so there wasn’t anything clicking throughout the tracks. It also meant that Patrick played a lot of the album on his leg, so he could keep time, as he would on a hi-hat, but not be heard.

I also got a producer, Chris von Sneidern (with whom I’ve made albums before, toured with), who understood what I was going for. We needed an extra ear on the other side of the glass to keep the big picture in mind while we just concentrated on getting the music right. He made myriad little changes, all great, to our rehearsed versions of the songs.

Because I had such a firm idea about the overall sound, I was much more single-minded in trying to get it “right” than ever before. For example, after we mastered the record, I realized that the second track, “When I Knew,” just didn’t fit between “Dealer’s Daughter” and “Goodbye Jane” because, though the mix in itself was great—all drums and bass and very groovy—the voice didn’t sit right between the other two songs; the listener had to fight for it. And yet the song had to be in that position on the record. So I had that (and one other) remixed even after we’d mastered so they’d fit in with the overall sound. Totally a first for me.

Also, there are five outtakes from the record, two of which are easily the most upbeat rock songs, and probably among the best, the ones with drums and choruses. But in the end they simply didn’t fit the mood and context of the record I wanted Self-Titled to be. So I left them off. They’ll show up elsewhere, but I’d never have considered doing such a thing in the past.

Rumpus: So what you’ve said above, about intimacy (which certainly does relate to the theme), and about Patrick (he’s such a physical drummer, so it’s fascinating to considering him laying off by playing on his leg) is illuminating, but I’m still interested in which avatars of the early seventies we’re talking about here. I hear certain things here that would be, to rock historians of the conventional, off-limits. But one aspect of your musical intelligence that I really admire is how catholic your taste is and how willing you are to find strengths in music that other people resist because of the “uncool” factor. Your enthusiasm always transforms your source material. So can you dig in on which early seventies you were thinking about as you approached the sound?

Stace: Well, thank you. It’s a nice compliment (and a trait others might not consider so generously, I guess). But I’m quite happy not to be bothered by those considerations. Who’d have thought that the new Dylan release would see fans salivating over out-takes from Self Portrait? How embarrassing was it once to admit you liked ABBA? All that stuff is just cultural conditioning, and you’re missing out if you can’t let things speak to you on their own terms. Not reading the rock press helps in this endeavor.

Because I was going for this certain sound, as discussed, I decided to apply some of the rules of the seventies singer-songwriters. The similarity here is a lot of these people here have pretty soft voices, and because I wanted to sing softly for the first time, I thought I should follow their approach, since, in my opinion, they got it right.WesleyStace3

Colin Blunstone made an astonishing pair of solo albums after the Zombies split—One Year and Ennismore, object lessons in how to augment songs with strings, and when not to augment a song at all. (There are only three songs with drums on that record.) The first two Duncan Browne records—one ornate, the other slightly proggy and folk rock—are huge influences. His is another high, fragile voice, though he often rattles out a lot of words. Jim Croce recordings are pretty amazing for their warmth of sound and acoustic nature, and yet there’s a band on pretty much everything. Also, Lightfoot: the middle segment of “Dealer’s Daughter” sounds just like Lightfoot to me, perhaps to nobody else. Al Stewart made some very beautiful records in the late sixties and early seventies: full of words and narrative, always comprehensible. But Lightfoot, Croce, and Al: uncool. Duncan Browne and Blunstone: cool? I’m not interested in that distinction.

Tim Hardin records have whacky arrangements but always in service of the song, and certainly those were a reference. Nick Lowe is currently teaching us all how to rock and roll gently with a dignity befitting his age. If I’d thought to ask him to sing the second vocal on “The Wrong Tree,” I would have. I love Gilbert O’Sullivan—not always the lyrics, but the way the music sounds like it’s played by people from the TV orchestra. On Self-Titled, I went for the most soulful sound I possibly could, but I like the unforceful nature of the music on those Gilbert records. “Out of The Question” is a big favorite, and the keyboard part on “Ride Your Camel” was an attempt to harness its sprightly lope. Nilsson, too, of course. I wasn’t afraid to dip my toe into kinds of music I’d never tried before—that very light white funk (Ned Doheny) or even a little soul: “I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know” by Donny Hathaway  was one of the inspirations for “Lydia.” Curtis Mayfield is another reference point, and another very soft voice, always dominant on the tracks even as the funk is chugging away. We had to sequence the record very carefully (which is why the double album and the CD have complete different running orders).

“Excalibur” is inspired by the Bee Gees. I’m an Odessa obsessive, and Robin’s voice is completely unique. I actually wrote that song for him, but suddenly he was dying. I finished it in order to keep him alive, so he’d have something to sing when he came out of his coma, but he didn’t. And so I finished it for myself. A friend once pointed out that all Bee Gees lyrics are terrible. I’d disagree with that, but I don’t feel that all the music in my collection has to be good at everything: sometimes merely serviceable or even grotesquely sentimental lyrics hit the right spot for the song.

You’d think my proggier influences, which I’ve never really dug into in my own recordings, had no play here in this more intimate environment, but in fact “Think of Me With Kindness,” by Gentle Giant, “Entangled,” by Genesis, or many of Pye Hastings’s songs for Caravan were all rolling around in my head. That’s the great thing about prog albums: there’s generally a great soft-pop single on there somewhere, even if it’s just an unlisted two minutes in the third part of a suite about something Tolkienian.

Another major influence was the reemergence of vinyl. Throughout its absence, I was amassing a bunch of folk records—it was the only way to get them because a lot weren’t ever reissued on CD—and, after years of mostly listening to CDs and MP3s, it was a real goal to go for something as warm and friendly as possible. Chris von Sneidern’s entire comment, on hearing the master of “Goodbye Jane”: “Something from another era, sonically.” That’s what we were going for. (Scott McCaughey, on tour in Spain, just emailed to say, on first hearing of the record: “Drums transported through time from the ’70s!” So everyone seems agreed on that.)

Rumpus: Okay, onto the themes a bit. The John Wesley Harding I have known for some time was always somewhat against confessional lyrics. My sense of these lyrics is that they are significantly confessional. Do you want to at least brush up against a possible cause for the major overhaul of songwriting impulses here?

Stace: I started writing these songs on my last book tour to fill time, because I wasn’t well and I couldn’t do a lot of the things I normally do on tour, and to cheer myself up because I was low physically and emotionally.

The first song I wrote, in a hotel room, was, I think, “We Will Always Have New York.” I was so surprised by the appearance of this song, which is about being in love in and with New York City, that I played it the next night, with the lyrics on a sheet of paper in front of me, at the reading. It felt comforting to surround myself, in the lyric, with familiar things, things that I knew and loved.

And the next was, I think, “The Bedroom You Grew Up In,” a song about one of my best friends who had died in a plane crash on his honeymoon with his wife. I’d introduced them. It really surprised me that I wrote that song, and it became the blueprint for everything afterwards: the truth, without ornament, and as simple a melody to communicate that as possible. Then I wrote “The Wrong Tree,” which was sort of an explanation to myself of what was happening to my songwriting right in front of me. And when I got to Portland, I played all the new songs I had—about five or six of them—to Scott McCaughey, a longtime collaborator, and I said, “I think things are changing.”

Wesley StaceI could go on endlessly about why I never wrote songs about myself before. And it’s not like I didn’t ever, because there are of course elements of autobiography in everything—for example, “Uncle Dad,” from the last record. But the fact is: that was always in service to a point I was making—in that case, the effect of divorce on children. Now, the autobiography is the main thing: I’d call it “the point,” but there’s no point in it at all. It’s just stories of my life.

When I started writing these songs, there was nothing I could really do about it anyway, and it was like I’d opened the door on a whole new world. They just started appearing, and I kept on writing them down and then putting tunes to them a few minutes later. I didn’t have any great control over their creation. There were hundreds of them, literally. And the more specific the story was to me, the more universal it felt. And the simpler it was, the deeper it felt.

Oh, and then an early one I wrote was a touching and lengthy narrative about a woman with whom I had had, in the distant past, a relatively secret on/off relationship for years. I decided to send her an iPhone demo of the song, in which no one was mentioned by name, and she said: “That’s very beautiful, but I’d rather you didn’t ever release this song.”

And I remember thinking, Wow, so this creates a whole new series of problems! I also decided never to let anyone preview any of the songs again.

Rumpus: The autobiography you’re speaking of does not seem the exclusive province of Loudon Wainwright (one could mention, e.g., Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, James Taylor, or even, let’s say, Pete Townshend, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Amy Winehouse, or Adele, as examples of writers who have often written autobiographically to some great effect). It’s something that is the province of many great albums past, and in which an uppermost feature is often love. One aspect of interest here is that the songs are not exclusively love songs, at all. They are memory songs, I would aver, and yet there are aspects of memory that are very close to the amorous here, and in certain instances, there are instances of the frankly amorous, as in the exceedingly lovely “Letting Go.” So was writing a great love song part of the journey of this album, or is the great love song (“A Canterbury Kiss” is ostensibly a song about tutelage in music by a wiser and more worldly music fan, but it’s also a love song) merely something that happens on the way to telling the truth?

Stace: “Memory songs” is right. And they are, for the most part, about love. My mind naturally fell towards love, for obvious reasons: love leaves its mark. And the physical side is part of that too. But I had no great control over my subject matter. I wrote lots of songs very quickly, and I was careful not to interrogate myself about subject matter. I was enjoying writing things that genuinely moved me. As I let the memories speak and the various feelings communicate themselves, the songs, when I played them live, seemed to speak more clearly than anything I’d sung before.

In “A Canterbury Kiss”, that’s exactly as I remember it happening, though the event was thirty or so years ago, so it might be romanticized. A lot of the songs are tied up with love of music, as the particular moment and relationship depicted in that song was, hence the mentions of various bands and songs throughout the record. There’s an alternative soundtrack to the album—Yes, Penetration, David Bowie, the Byrds, Flaming Lips, Soft Machine, Talking Heads, Tim Buckley, Television, Jimi Hendrix and “Come On, Eileen.” That isn’t anything like what Self-Titled actually sounds like, but all of those bands or songs are mentioned on the record as documentary evidence of that particular moment.

In a few of the songs, I flipped the perspective so it’s written from the point of view of the other person—how they might have imagined me, or how they might have viewed the situation. It was another way of getting into the same intimate space. That’s not the only “artifice” employed in these songs.

Rumpus: Does that make memory the perfect vehicle for talking about love in song? Or love the perfect vehicle for talking about memory? Or are the two so linked as to be impossible to tease apart? One record I keep thinking about with respect to your album—and forgive the Bob Dylan comparison here—is Blood On the Tracks. It is similar in that it conjoins love and memory (look at “Tangled Up In Blue”), and it is similar in that it seems to want to map the specific trajectory of love and the love affair. And, at least for me, in this way (as with your album), it ends up being sort of an encyclopedia of song. A snapshot of what song can really do in 1973. Does that ring any bells with you for this project?

Stace: Kinda, though that makes it all sound a bit “ambitious.” It felt anything but to me—more like the only, and least ambitious, thing I could do, since, for the first time in my life probably, the songs came out of what felt like necessity rather than an aesthetic decision. (And though I have no evidence, and he might have consciously been attempting to write the best ever album about a breakup, if indeed that’s what the album is even about, I’m pretty sure Dylan would have been just doing what he was doing too. It just seems epic to the rest of us.)

With regard to the first two questions, there’s not really any “talking about love,” though I know what you mean, or “talking about memory”—there’s being in love and remembering being in love, but my goal isn’t really to elucidate any of those things in these songs, but rather just to inhabit those feelings.

One thing I was really careful about was not to work out whether something was “good” or “bad” or whether I came out of it well or not. I just figured, if I’m too embarrassed to sing this in public, then it’s either not very good or there are other reasons I shouldn’t sing it. The coda of “Goodbye Jane” is a good example of that, as are a couple of other lines in that song.

Rumpus: One song on this album also happens to be the single on Eleanor Friedberger’s new album, Personal Record, or at least it is the song off that record that I keep hearing. How does it feel to you to have a composition refracted in that way? Have you been covered before on such an album of impact and reputation?

Stace: I’ve had songs covered, and by some wonderful people, but never collaborated on a whole album like that.

The whole thing came about in a very natural way. A couple of years ago, I asked Eleanor and her brother Matt (as the Fiery Furnaces) to write a few songs for the fictional band in my next novel. She wrote a couple of fantastic tunes for lyrics that were already in the text of the book: exactly what I wanted and couldn’t have written. So we started passing MP3s of this and that inspiring music back and forth, and just kept writing. It was during the period described above when I just couldn’t stop writing anyway. Also, Eleanor was going out touring her last record and needed more new material to play with her band live, so the timing was right. And the collaboration eventually turned into a whole album of material.

There was so much email back and forth that in the end it was hard to say who wrote what and how much it had changed, so it just seemed easier to call the whole thing “Friedberger/Stace.” A lot of the lyrics I contributed were tailor-made for her to sing—once you have her voice in your head (amazing delivery, great phrasing), that’s easy—and then she’d tailor-make them further. If anything I’d say my contribution was giving the material a little classicism which perhaps suited her incarnation as more of a singer-songwriter.personalrecord

I wouldn’t dream of recording most of the songs, which I feel she owns (in that casual way in which you “own” a song by singing it well, but also that they just seem likes “hers” to me), but I felt so attached to a couple—“Stare At The Sun” and “When I Knew”—that I had to. What’s fascinating is how different our versions are, almost like they’re not the same songs at all. Her “Stare At The Sun” is aggressive and uptempo, whereas mine is incredibly slow, full of longing, and in a different time signature: longer, in fact, yet with one less chorus. (I’m not sure I can even think of two such different versions of a song by its co-authors.) When she sings “When I Knew,” again very uptempo, it’s about “falling in love with her girlfriends,” and when I sing it, it’s very summery and groovy, and about something completely different. Just the fact of her singing them totally changes the meaning of the songs to the listener. And probably—I’m no fool—makes them a lot more interesting to the world at large, because she’s her and I’m me.

Watching the album getting such excellent reviews is a real pleasure, but it totally doesn’t surprise me, because I always thought they were good songs and she then made a great record, which is quite another thing and which I had nothing whatsoever to do with. She vastly improved everything I sent her, and the whole thing was very inspiring.

Rumpus: I just want to ask one more question about this, and then I promise we’ll get back to your album, where there are a couple more things I want to deal with. I do think that Self-Titled and Personal Record have certain thematic similarities, even though they have very few, if any, musical similarities, despite the fact that the lyricist is often the same on both recordings. They are each a marked turn in a direction of the “personal” to use Eleanor’s word, and the “confessional” in your case, by writers who were often oblique and more panoramic in the past. These approaches are perhaps somewhat different when you bear down on them (i.e., what sounds “confessional” on Eleanor’s record may be, when you are the lyricist, not confessional at all, whereas what is “confessional” on your record is sometimes not “personal” in the sort of singer-songwriter way at all), but am I right that there is a way that the records are, just a bit, talking to one another in terms of their thematic interests?

Stace: I’m not sure what “personal” means to Eleanor; you’d have to ask her. Her last album, Last Summer, was equally intimate, if a little more oblique. But I assume it to have been entirely autobiographical. And though I wrote some of the lyrics on the new one, don’t necessarily assume that what she’s singing is not confessional: some of the things I wrote are her memories (as told to me in conversation or by email) which I then turned into lyrics, and she’d then change again. So just because I wrote something, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not personal to her: in that instance, I’m kind of a ghostwriter. That’s why it’s actually good not to know, because it doesn’t matter.

To be precise, here’s how one of the songs came about, from an interview Eleanor gave with Bust magazine:

It was also the process of us getting to know each other and becoming friends. For instance, there are lines from three movies in the song “I’ll Never Be Happy Again.” It’s funny because I can tell you exactly the way that came about. I was in Chicago and I saw someone I went to high school with. His name was Michael Powell and that’s also the name of Wes’ favorite film director. This is all just friendly chit-chat and then we started talking about this and that different movie. Then I ended up saying something about not having a middle name and it turns out Wes doesn’t either. That reminded him of this line from North By Northwest. It’s the line, “‘R.O.T’, What does the ‘O’ stand for / He said ‘Nothing.'” So that’s kind of how it came about. It’s about just how you get to know somebody. And we happened to have a very good e-mail correspondence, which is unusual, I’d say.

And that’s exactly how that happened! That’s how songs come to be.

In terms of Self-Titled and Personal Record, there are, unsurprisingly, certainly thematic similarities. Both records are about men and women, women and men, men and men, women and women, but then most songs are. The most interesting theme is, I think, music itself: not in the way the albums sound (very different, as you point out), but in the way that music is seen as central to life, as a reference point, as a soundtrack to key moments, as a currency, as an object of desire, as an indicator of taste, as a way to make friends, or simply as the thing you can’t get out of your head. It’s not a revolutionary concept, but both records name-check or reference a lot of other artists– see above. We’re all musicians in that sense. It just happens to be what she and I do for a living.

Rumpus: This last thought leads naturally to a discussion of the title and the name of the artist on this album. It’s your first album as Wesley Stace. And the title reinforces the Stace-ness of the project. A straightforward interpretation of this gesture would be: it’s by Wesley Stace because the project is more confessional. But there seem to be many more layers to the decision than this. As I recall it, there was a period when it was important to you that the novelist Wesley Stace had a different name (a more “personal” name) from the recording artist. And is it not also true that John Wesley Harding came about so as to leave your academic ambitions uncontaminated by your musical ambitions once upon a time? In this light “Wesley Stace” the recording artist seems to be tying up some loose ends, but the identity you end up with is the identity of the guy who makes stuff up. That is, as Wesley Stace, you are heretofore an artist of imagination (and here’s where I remind everyone to read Misfortune, which is a genuine masterpiece, and by George and Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer), so while you are alleging to be more “confessional” on the album and creating an environment in which you are, like John Mellencamp casting off the Cougar, assuming the name in which you have been well known as a writer of fictions, and hence not more confessional at all. So how did this decision come about, and what does it mean to you?

wesleystace4Stace: There are so many bits to this answer that I’m going to number them. In order:

1. I took the stage name (in 1988) because I was feeling shy about what would probably be a short and unsuccessful career in music. I was, it’s true, doing a PhD at the time.

2. The irony is that, since I have no “act” or “stage persona,” I’m the last person who should have ever had a fake name. If someone had asked me twenty-five years ago, “In the unlikely event that you’re still to be making music in 2013, would you rather be known as John Wesley Harding or Wesley Stace?” I’d have known the answer.

3. Over the years, I infrequently considered reverting to my real name, but there was never any pressing reason to do it and I was talked out of it (by agents, managers, record labels, etc.).

4. I wanted to bring the novels out under my own name because I didn’t want Misfortune—on which I worked for years—or my writing in general to seem like a hobby I was dabbling in, a kind of Tarantula-esque thing I threw out because I suddenly found myself with a publishing advance. Also, I wanted the novel to stand or fall on its own two feet. It turned out that actually worked to my advantage.

5. It got very tiring, after this, (not in a humblebraggy way, just in a “this introduction is taking too much time” way) being referred to as “John Wesley Harding, also known as the novelist Wesley Stace” and vice-versa. There was too much verbiage.

6. It was therefore time to bring it all under one roof (the “tidying up loose ends” you refer to), that roof being Wesley Stace.

7. The confessional nature of this material gave me the perfect chance to do that, and for the first time, agents, managers, and record labels alike —whom I thank—liked the idea. Perhaps it’s easier now because “Wesley Stace” (this is all a bit weird, this referring to myself in the third person with two different names) is a more established entity.

You’re right that it’s ironic that Wesley Stace, as a novelist, has up to this point made up stories, whereas the point of reverting to my real name is because the songs are more confessional. But because but it’s my real name, it feels more like me and therefore right for this material. If you want to analyze it that way, everything is now part of the Wesley Stace project, and he gets to make up fictional stories or confessional songs. Also, I’d say this: My books are very “from the heart,” as you may be able to confirm, just as these new songs are. They are not ironic or postmodern. My mother once said, “Rose (in Misfortune) is such a good character” or something nice. And I said, “Yes, Heaven knows where she came from.” And she said, “Well, it’s you, isn’t it?”

The album is called Self-Titled for more than obvious reasons. I was originally going to call it just Wesley Stace, because with John Wesley Harding I’d never had the chance to make a self-titled album (because there already was an album called John Wesley Harding), but then I decided to use a proper album title, and I came back to Self-Titled as a title rather than a description of the record’s titlelessness.

Rumpus: Now I would like to, if possible, talk about the string arrangements. By my reckoning, there is only one other song by you with a significant string arrangement, and that is “Sussex Ghost Story,” from Adam’s Apple, which has that gorgeous arrangement by Gavin Bryars, I believe. That’s an interesting song, because in some ways it operates as a template for several songs on Self-Titled: it’s solemn, emotionally devastating, very acoustic, and very simple, so as to leave room for the strings and the voice to work together. The only difference is: it’s a wholly fictionalized, though possibly allegorical, ghost story, like the title says. Can you talk about how that song came about and its relationship to the strings on this album?

Stace: That’s a good call. Certainly, “Sussex Ghost Story” would have been a blueprint, because it’s one of the times that I previously hit that vibe I wanted for much of Self-Titled: voice, acoustic guitar, and string arrangement. (And the challenge was: even on the songs with bass and drums, I still wanted that to be the vibe.) I am a huge fan of Gavin Bryars, and when I got the chance to work with him on Adam’s Apple, I wanted it to be something on which his part would be notable, rather than something with a lot of other clutter.

On Self-Titled, strings were always going to be a crucial element. The idea was that the strings would provide the warmth around the sparse instrumentation and give me the space in which to sing softly. I was lucky to work with two arrangers who knew what I wanted: David Nagler (the guitar and keyboard player on the rest of the record) and composer Daniel Felsenfeld (in whose father-in-law’s studio, now called Milkboy, we recorded).

A lot of thought went into the parts. David, say, after some initial discussion, would send me something, and then I’d send him back what he sent me as an iPhone recording, but with me humming over the top (because I can’t write this stuff down)—an extra melody, or a different part here and there—and he’d incorporate those. It was a real pleasure to do it that way, because it always felt like we were developing the parts into precisely what I wanted. In a couple of songs, we edited out a few things after we’d recorded them, so the songs weren’t too full. David’s strings on “Stare at the Sun” are the most Bryars-eque, a moody bed floating under the melody. Danny’s arrangement on “Pieces of the Past” is modal in a Vaughn Williams way, which suited the song.

We recorded strings for two days and there were some very late additions to the players’ workload—for example, the parts of “When I Knew,” which had never been suggested as a song for string arrangement until we heard how the recording was going (basically, a lot more soulful than we had imagined) and it seemed a shame not to provide it with those little flourishes we were hearing. So David sat in the corner while we continued recording and worked out the parts as we went. Only one song didn’t quite work out, and we’ll probably use that as a bonus track. There’s also another called “Audience of One,” which was meant to open the record, but in the end I decided that I cut the song slightly fast on the guitar/vocal master and though David’s string arrangement was great, I felt the song was better recorded again from scratch, perhaps for the next record.cabinetofwonders

Rumpus: Let’s talk about The Cabinet of Wonders (Stace’s NPR-broadcast music/comedy/literature variety show) here briefly, while we might. Is the array of talent you are regularly exposed to in that setting an influence on what you’re doing here in any way? Is it an experience whose adjacency to your songwriting is relevant? Certainly the dam burst of songs for Self-Titled did also happen roughly coterminously with the beginning of the Cabinet shows. Is that totally coincidental? And what’s up next for Cabinet, meanwhile?

Stace: Actually, Cabinet of Wonders is older than even I think. The first one ever, at Le Poisson Rouge was originally conceived as an album-release party for my album Who Was Changed, which means that there was another whole album, The Sound of His Own Voice, between the start of the Cabinets and Self-Titled. So I can’t make a link between the Cabinets and the new songs in that way. Good things have certainly happened because of the Cabinet however, and through it, I’ve met some really fantastic people who have improved my life—and that’s probably all part of where I am now.

As for the show itself, the Cabinet goes on! We’re touring it in October and November, we’re about to present the next series to NPR, and we have our next NYC run for September/October/November of this year. I love doing the show, watching the snowball roll down the hill. I love putting someone on, someone I like who the crowd aren’t necessarily there to see, and then they’re great and everyone knows it. I also love the unexpected—when Jonathan Coe, a writer, comes and plays the keyboards, or when Eugene and John Oliver sing with Fountains of Wayne. Those are magical moments.

Rumpus: The new album involves so many new approaches to what you do that it amounts to a sea change. How do you follow such a thing? Any ideas what you might do to follow it?

Stace: Bearing in mind that there were over fifty songs for this record, that I recorded twenty-one and only used sixteen, there’s an album or two left over, and that’s even if I never write another song again. I didn’t necessarily even use the best songs for Self-Titled; I used the ones that created a mood. So there’s a lot of songs left over, some of which would make a rather more uptempo version of the same kind of record. But it certainly is a sea change, and we’ll see where the current goes.

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, a memoir, and a volume of essays, On Celestial Music. His most recent publication is Hotels of North America, a novel. With Kid Millions of Oneida, he recently released the album The Unspeakable Practices (Joyful Noise recordings). More from this author →