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John Wesley Harding: How Not to be a Dick
By Mike Tony from the WQHS Blog
Double lives don’t get much better than John Wesley Harding’s. Billed as John Wesley Harding, he is a folk-pop singer-songwriter boasting a resume of 18 albums and collaborations with members of the Decemberists, Peter Buck, and Rosanne Cash. Under his real name Wesley Stace, he is an award-winning novelist. When these dual creative personas merge, he is a variety show host, ringleading the Cabinet of Wonders, a reading, writing, rocking vaudeville vehicle for his musician and literary friends.
Few singer-songwriters have crossed over into the novelist sphere as successfully as Harding, a multitasker extraordinaire whose plate is always full. When at home, he gets up early with his two toddlers, and after his five-year-old daughter goes to school, he writes and rewrites both music and fiction in his den. Then he cooks for the family and relaxes with everyone until it’s time for bed.
On a refreshingly crisp Sunday morning in February, though, Harding is recovering after a Scud Mountain Boys concert at Johnny Brenda’s the night before. Sporting a black sports coat and matching black shirt, Harding exceeds six feet in height. He walks briskly and with purpose. Despite his mostly grayed hair, he otherwise has a youthful air about him, overflowing with charm and enthusiasm for whatever fellow artist or idea is consuming him at the moment.
It is this unwavering enthusiasm which makes Harding so well-suited as emcee and showrunner for the Cabinet, allowing him to make friends with his favorite authors and musicians and integrate them into the show. Harding knows how to make friends, and he is always “on,” even while taking care of his kids after a long night out.
“The smell of kids and bacon!” Harding observes as he walks through the back door and into the kitchen of his Mount Airy, Philadelphia home. Nearly every first-floor room has a multitude of Thomas the Tank Engine train toys lying across the floor. One room has an entire Thomas and Friends play-set which clearly is a source of frequent enjoyment for his three-year-old son Wyn. Meanwhile, Harding settles into the small but cozy room where he writes his novels and songs. It’s a mini-library with wooden bookshelves covering most of three walls. Harding’s favorite writers and subjects feature prominently on these shelves: the works of Nabokov, Hawthorne, Fitzgerald, and Dickens all sit off to his right while a small section of books about Bob Dylan sticks out above the doorway on his left. Harding settles comfortably in a swivel chair at his desk.
Since Harding is a father first and foremost these days, it’s no surprise when his daughter Tilda wanders in the room, followed by Wyn sneaking behind in a bright blue Thomas the Tank Engine shirt.
“What’s your name?” Harding playfully asks her daughter. Silence.
“Come on, what’s your name?”
“Tell our friend here what we did a presentation on the other day,” Harding coaxes her daughter, who along with Wyn attends nearby Germantown Friends, a private school in Philadelphia. “Come on, tell us!”
“Britain! We did a presentation on Britain!” Harding volunteers.
After much coaxing, Harding is finally able to dispatch his two children.
“This is my life,” he observes with a mix of exasperation and pride.
At 46, it’s a life that he’s only just beginning to examine in his songwriting.
Harding has made a career of being a wordsmith for nearly 25 years and 12 studio albums. Three black guitar cases lying opposite Harding and a children’s drawing of a yellow submarine taped in the corner of the room are enough to tip anyone off to the kind of music he makes. Indeed, Harding’s sound has always tended toward jangly folk-rock with smart arrangements and a slice of uniquely acerbic whimsy. Yet his lyrics, which have been compared favorably to those of Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello, have rarely addressed his personal life. Even on “Top of the Bottom,” a song on his 2009 album, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, he offers up a pointedly non-autobiographical account of a pop star’s rise and fall in the music industry. (He was never offered to tour in Jesus Christ Superstar or arrested for necrophilia, as his lyrics suggest.)
But the fiction has started to fade with The Sound of His Own Voice, Harding’s twelfth latest album released last October.
“I always give the albums a working title,” Harding says. “And for this one it was ‘Songs About Songs.’ ‘Sing Your Own Song’ is the crossover song on the album because it’s the most personal thing I’ve ever written. All the songs I’m writing now that will be on the next album are like that too. I do find it’s easier to write more personal material now that I can just indulge my fictional ideas in novels. When Scott [McCaughey, the album’s producer] was listening to the demoes, he said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you wrote about your daughter there.’”
But that’s exactly what he does on “Sing Your Own Song,” a Harding tune in which he takes some rare self-inventory:
“Now I’m married and I have two kids/And I sing songs all the time/My 4-year old just makes them up/sometimes with explanatory mind/And no one has told her that’s it difficult yet/That isn’t in her head/So we sing her songs every evening long/And write until it’s time for bed.”
“[“Sing Your Own Song”] is the one that made him realize when he wrote the line about his daughter and all that that he started thinking, ‘You know, I should write more about what actually happens in my real life and maybe spend less time inhabiting other characters and creating small fictions,” McCaughey says. “That was the song that started it and now he’s gone fully in that direction. He’s written a ton of songs for the next album and demoed them and I think it’s a huge departure for him in that way. The songs are a lot more personal and less fictional.”
The line between fact and fiction in songwriting isn’t a very fine one for Harding, though.
“Whether you write about your personal life or not, it gives you away and tells everybody about you, and it’s the story of you and how you get through the day,” Harding says. “And my life is about how good friendships with people, hanging out with my family, and cobbling together an artistic career always kind of feels like a struggle since I work hard.”
Multitasking doesn’t seem to be much of a struggle for Harding, who frequently writes in his checkbook or checks emails while talking without skipping a beat. But he is used to taking on much more arduous and solitary tasks at his desk.
“Writing is so lonely. That’s my new novel,” he says, pointing out a seemingly ordinary stack of papers in a small cardboard box next to his Flexdeck Life Fitness treadmill near the corner of the room. “I actually printed it out in manuscript because if I look at it on the screen, it was in a perfect state for the screen. But here, when I print it out and looked at it like a real book, you can see every page is a friggin’ mess. I needed a new perspective on it, but nobody else can do it for me. Music is a social activity made with people, often performed live, celebrated with your friends. You can’t really make music on your own unless you’re a solo musician. You need to bang some drums around sometimes and that means working with people. And that means you are rehearsing and collaborating and meeting at hotels and that is time spent with people, so that’s going to be a very happy thing to do.”
The new novel should be published next year. It will be Harding’s first book to be set completely in modern times and he hints that it is about a rock band.
“That’s very much my world, no research necessary,” he laughs.
This modern setting is in stark contrast to his other three novels, none of which were nearly so grounded in Harding’s own reality. His critically acclaimed 2005 debut novel Misfortune, for example, is a 19th-century tale of transgendered child-rearing. His second novel from 2007, By George, is written as the collected memoirsof a ventriloquist dummy.
With Misfortune and By George, Harding had already established for book critics a pattern of neo-Dickensian storytelling and a knack for creating oddball characters that are at once fanciful and utterly convincing.
That pattern continued early last year with the publication of his third novel, Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, to almost universally positive reviews, including rave endorsements from the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. In the book, fictional music critic Leslie Shepherd tells the story of Charles Jessold, his collaborator and a gifted young composer. On the eve of the premiere of his radical opera, which Shepherd cowrote with him, Jessold murders his wife and her lover before committing suicide.
Writing the novel entailed thorough research of English music of the early twentieth century and required that Harding make the musical descriptions sound idiomatic to the period, something that he worked on with Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker.
“It’s rare to find a book about music — classical and popular — that evinces real sympathy for, and understanding of, the creative process,” Ross wrote in an email. “That’s exactly what Wes achieved. Satire notwithstanding, “Charles Jessold” honors the complexity of musical history and of the musical mind. The parallel that he draws between the late-Renaissance experimentalist Gesualdo and the pioneering composers of early twentieth-century modernism is one that any serious musicologist would recognize.”
Jessold’s plot makes it the novel that best reflects Harding’s musical persona. Shepherd and Jessold celebrate the rediscovery of the English folk music so influential on Harding’s own work, and they clearly share Harding’s spirit of collaboration.
They also highlight the rocky relationship Harding has had with music critics over the course of his career.
“Jessold was the [Bob] Dylan of the book, and Shepherd was like a critic from the Little Sandy Review [an anti-rock ‘50s and ‘60s fanzine devoted to folk music],” Harding explains. “Dylan took protest music and stepped up from there to greater musical expression, and Jessold is kind of doing the same thing. Shepherd wants to confine him to Anglicana but Jessold wants to embrace music outside of that.”
Harding feels that he has always been ignored by major music publications and appreciates the support over the years from music outlets such as National Public Radio and prominent Philadelphia public radio station WXPN. After Harding teamed up with members of Elvis Costello’s backing band the Attractions for his major-label debut Here Comes the Groom in 1990, comparisons to Costello abounded. Such comparisons were superficial, of course—Costello’s often vindictive “angry young man” lyrics never dovetailed with the warmer and more earnest quality of Harding’s work. But the perception of Harding being Costello’s “smart ass kid brother,” as music critic Chris Woodstra once observed, was enough to dampen his critical reception throughout the ‘90s.
“I just think that it’s a way for people to deal with the fact that they’re intelligent lyric-writers, and there aren’t that many of those out there,” McCaughey said. “I don’t think Wes’s fans ever thought he sounded like Elvis Costello. It’s just an easy way for reviewers to lump these intelligent songwriters together. I don’t think anything he’s done in the last 15 or 20 years reminds me anything of Elvis Costello.”
Harding is a music critic of his own now, though, reviewing albums on occasion for the Times Literary Supplement.
“I really don’t care what anybody thinks about my albums at all,” Harding says. “I’ve been lucky with reviews of my book. The one really bad review of Misfortune was in the Times Literary Supplement. My dad gave it to me saying, ‘Oh, you won’t want to read this,’ and it was really a pretty brutal review. But I liked the magazine so much that I subscribed to it, and now I’m the one giving bad reviews for them!”
His interest in writing for the Times Literary Supplement is just another example of his interest in working with anything or anyone that he is a fan of. This approach dictates not only how he assembles talent for the Cabinet but also how he has contributed to the Words and Music Festival (WAMFEST) at Fairleigh Dickinson University since 2009. As a curator of WAMFEST and Artist in Residence at Fairleigh Dickinson, Harding has been instrumental in getting many of his songwriter/novelist friends to talk and perform for students, including Josh Ritter, Rosanne Cash, and Kristin Hersh. WAMFEST is an annual event where poets and musicians meet to bridge the gap between ‘the people’s art’ and the ‘art of the academy.’
“I suppose I’m relaxed interviewing people and I have a good address book for inviting people,” Harding says. “I think someone who was nervous about moderating would do too much preparation and then kind of go in with their own agenda and make sure everything went right. But it’s not about that, it’s about playing it by ear and being a really good listener. In fact, when you look at somebody like David Letterman, you see that what he’s actually doing when people are talking to him, despite his off-the-cuff sense of humor, is listening to them. He’s very natural with people, as he was with me when I was on his show. That might not even be a nature that’s desirable, to be in front of a camera. It might be the fakest nature of all, but you’ve got to admire that.”
“He’s more than willing to share the limelight, and he likes a good time,” Harding’s novelist friend and Cabinet frequenter Rick Moody wrote in an email. “These things all make for a perfect emcee. In the early television era, he would have been a household name. Perhaps he will be. We don’t know yet.”
This spring, he taught his first ever course as a Visiting Professor at Farleigh Dickinson, talking for fourteen weeks about his favorite first chapters in his favorite fourteen novels. He hoped to inspire his creative writing students to write their own fantastic first chapters.
And on a Monday morning on the last day of April, Harding has only one remaining class to teach this semester. He is still his jovial self, sitting in the same swivel chair and wearing a brown buttoned sweater and black pinstripe pants which he had worn the previous Saturday night at the latest Cabinet of Wonders show at the City Winery in New York. The show featured musicians Carl Newman (New Pornographers) and Will Sheff (Okkervil River), novelists Moody and Colson Whitehead, and comedian and Cabinet fixture Eugene Mirman, all good friends of Harding’s.
The Cabinet was picked up by NPR in May as a six-episode series of hour-long radio shows, further proof that the show has created an audience for itself.
“Real collaboration, sharing creativity with somebody, is an intimate thing,” Harding says. “And probably a lot of people don’t want to do that very much. To me, the Cabinet is much more like, bring your own thing, and then I will find ways to put that with the other things happening to make it seem like we’re all going towards one goal at the end of the show. The art is in putting everything in order. I have to put things in the right order. I make it so that Carl Newman does a song with Rick Moody, and then me, and then he does one with the band and then everybody gets up to do a song at the end with Carl and Rick. It works because we’ve built up to that. We earned that moment because I planned it right.”
“I don’t suppose these people are going just for the collaborative energy of the thing,” Moody observed.
“But Wes likes to play with other people. He makes it easy to play with other people, and he’s incredibly inclusive—in fact, he’s nothing if not inclusive—and so I think one has a better time if one is prepared to get down with the team effort of it all.”
Today, Harding’s mind is on the race for the English Premier League soccer title. Rival teams Manchester City and Manchester United will be squaring off later this afternoon. But his lifelong favorite soccer team, Arsenal Football Club, is out of the race. Since the Premier League has no rules in place to govern players’ salaries, teams are only as good as their owners’ purses are large. Harding observes resignedly that Arsenal isn’t a free spender.
“At least Arsenal wins morally every year,” he concludes before pointing out a hand-sized red and white Arsenal shield on the mantel.
“My father gave me that when I was four,” he grins. “You were born into your football team.”
Harding was born into a middle-class, showbiz veteran family in Hastings, Sussex, England in 1965. From his desk drawer he pulls out an old flyer featuring his grandfather and grandmother in respective traditional magician and magician’s assistant garb. They had a successful ‘40s and ‘50s magic act together. “The King Townsons, Magicians and Entertainers Extraordinaire,” it reads, and Harding attributes many of his ideas for By George to his late performing grandparents. Indeed, the novel’s featured ventriloquist, Joe King Fisher, is largely based on Harding’s grandfather, Clifford King Townson. It’s no wonder that Harding’s tastes and performances often owe much to vaudeville and music-hall.
“When I was writing By George, I asked my mom to send some of his old magic things with his writing in them because I thought it would be very inspirational,” he says tenderly.
Show business runs in Harding’s family. His mother is an opera singer and singing teacher, one of his sisters is also an opera singer, and his other sister Melanie Stace is well-known in the U.K. as a singer in West End musicals and game show personality. Even his father, a Greek and Latin classics scholar, is a jazz pianist.
“Everybody sang around the house all the time,” Harding remembers. “My mom’s house is still loony. She does her singing downstairs, so all the time there’s ‘La-la-la-la-la,’ somebody taking a music lesson. And my stepfather sits right above that and hums along to whatever their song is. My sisters don’t live there now, but if they were they’d be singing something. So music was a natural thing to do. That’s what “Sing Your Own Song” is about, because I’ve passed that on to my daughter Tilda. She has that same lack of self-consciousness about her.”
That lack of self-consciousness is what got Harding through boarding school. After going to the prestigious King’s School Canterbury from ages 13-17, Harding’s father got him a job as a Latin and English tutor for younger children at his old boarding school.
“What I do think that boarding school gives you, if I’m anything to go by, is confidence,” he reflects.
“Teaching there, I saw how it was good for the confident kids like me and how it could potentially destroy a kid who wasn’t socialized or at ease in his own skin. I was lucky. I was one of the people who because of my grandma, grandpa, probably because my dad is a very confident man, I had the right character for that school. I wasn’t afraid to shake things up or show off or talk too much. I got in trouble, but I didn’t care. I joined sports teams, all those dumb things it takes to get by. When I went back there, I became sympathetic to the kids that weren’t as socially active. One of the core ideas of By George is what it would have been like if someone going to that school hadn’t had the confidence I had.”
Through the Cabinet, Harding has encouraged others to be more comfortable live performers as well.
“I had a hard time singing in public at first (this predates the Cabinet—as I have been singing with my band occasionally for six or seven years),” Moody wrote. “Mainly because I was worried about my precious reputation as a literary figure. But because Wes is not uptight about these things, and was reasonably willing to let me be my uncomfortable self at first, I have improved a great deal. And he has a lot to do with that. I owe him a major debt on that front.”
Suddenly, Harding is back to rummaging through his desk drawer. This time he picks out a black and white picture of him in what is known as “full Canterbury dress” while he attended the King’s School Canterbury.
“Winged collar, check it out!” he says excitedly. “I was a scholar at that school, so I had to wear a black pinstripe suit and jacket, white winged collar, collared stud, black tie, and gown. From the age of 13 to 17, that’s what I would wear!”
Just as ubiquitous as collared studs at the King’s School Canterbury were the reminders that Canterbury is a historic English cathedral city. Every night at 7:30, gates around the cloister of the Canterbury Cathedral would close and lock those in the King’s School Canterbury houses inside the cloister of the cathedral.
“The religious paraphernalia is around you all the time, and that definitely left a mark on me in terms of viewing religion as a touchstone, a symbol that everybody understands—God is good, the devil is bad,” Harding recalls about the King’s School Canterbury. “One had to be in bed at a certain time, get up at a certain time, go to assembly and cathedral, be in the corps, be in the army, all things I didn’t want to do. It fostered in me a very polite rebellion where I wanted to do the things I wanted to do, read the books I wanted to read. It just made me want to read different books from the ones they were telling me to read and listen to different music from what everyone else was listening to. I became a bit of an individualist there.”
After his time at King’s School Canterbury expired, Harding studied English Literature at Cambridge. More importantly, Cambridge was where he laid the foundation for his musical career.
“Cambridge was a very nice place to be,” Harding remembers. “It was a hotbed for doing whatever you felt like and fancied. I learned to play guitar there more or less. I was in a bunch of plays, and I did very little work but I knew when to do the work, and I had a really, really good time there.”
Although he enjoyed studying English at Cambridge and even earned a First in the subject, he only initially stayed on to obtain a Ph.D. in Social and Political Science because he didn’t know what else to do. Fortunately, Harding’s natural charm and quick wit allowed him to take advantage of the toxic political atmosphere of England in the ‘80s by becoming a stand-in protest singer for his Cambridge cohorts. After all, this is the guy who sang, “Bob Dylan is my father, Joan Baez is my mother” on the song “Bastard Son” on his major-label debut album Here Comes the Groom.
“I noticed that when everybody went on these political protests, there was never quite a focal point for them,” Harding says. “I tended to know all these American labor and protest songs, and I used to update them. So when there were a couple of speeches, I’d sing a Phil Ochs song but I’d change the lyrics. He changed the song ‘Here’s to the State of Mississippi’ to ‘Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,’ which I then changed to ‘Here’s to the State of Margaret Thatcher.’ A real dumb move, but a real populist move. Now I’d be ashamed to do such a thing, but having said that, it turned me into the bloke that played the guitar. I could be depended on to help people have a good time and make noise.”
By the end of his time at Cambridge, Harding had been in a handful of groups and realized that being in a band was not for him. Wanting to do things his own way, he found the occasional supporting gig, starting out opening for Irish rock band Hothouse Flowers. When the group had surprising success in the U.K. Singles Chart just two weeks after adding Harding as its opening act, Harding suddenly found himself playing to hundreds of people. He soon landed a record deal with Sire Records in America.
“I did have an interview for the BBC, because that’s what people did,” Harding says. “I didn’t get accepted or offered a job there, and if I had, my life would probably have been very different, and that would be a shame. I’m glad that didn’t happen. I’m also glad that I didn’t do a Ph.D. at Berkeley that I was going to do for a bit, because then I would have been writing about writing novels instead of just writing them. After I didn’t do the Ph.D., I realized that what I wanted to do was not write about writing novels but actually get down to writing one. So there’s a lots of things in life that could have gone a different way. Who would regret giving up a Ph.D. to go out and do gigs? The gigs are going well and you’re getting paid, playing with a big band, so it’s fantastic. It’s a dream.”
After inking his record deal, Harding paid most of his Cambridge student grant back to the university and recorded Here Comes the Groom, from which the video for the single “The Devil in Me” got him significant airplay on MTV. The Los Angeles Times described the record as “the first great rock album of the ‘90s,” and Harding was established as a versatile singer/songwriter with a biting sense of humor.
“I wasn’t daunted, I enjoyed it, and I took it in stride,” Harding says of his early moderate success. “I didn’t think it was my due but I didn’t run away from it. I have no issues with having or not having success.”
For his next album, The Name Above the Title (1991), Harding made what he now dismisses as “Here Comes the Groom again—only with horns.” Yet it still garnered a positive critical reception despite reinforcing misguided Elvis Costello comparisons.
“I was writing songs that I liked writing, though I wish I’d written better ones now, but I wasn’t to know that then,” Harding reflects. “If I had some of the songs back then that I have now, I’d be in a very secure place musically. But it was a terrific joyride.”
By Harding’s own account, though, his next album Why We Fight (1992) was where he truly found his footing as a songwriter, more overtly displaying his folk roots and pivotally ditching the “band” conceit of his first two albums. In addition to being the first album Harding recorded while living in America, Why We Fight also got the attention of Bruce Springsteen, who handpicked him to be his first opening act since 1978 on the Boss’s 1995 Ghost of Tom Joad solo tour.
But Why We Fight also stalled commercially and he parted way with Sire before releasing the self-financed John Wesley Harding’s New Deal in 1996. The complexity of Harding’s wordplay is perhaps to blame for Harding’s failure to connect with mainstream audiences throughout his career. But he doesn’t care.
“People actually don’t want literary music, it’s a very tiny ghetto,” Harding admits. “But people do like literature made more musical. And so it’s a little neat equation, but I feel like there’s one way to make music literary, and I tried to do it. You have to create things for yourself. Second guessing what other people want will get you nowhere. Occasionally I’ve picked a word and gone, huh, maybe if I picked a slightly simpler one there, but it’s not because people wouldn’t understand it. I mean, I’ve just written a song in which the chorus is in Latin. Don’t ask me why. Stupid thing to do, but it’s about Ovid, and it’s a beautiful love song about a man in exile wishing he was in Rome rather than the exile he’s in. But I really wanted to use one particular phrase that happened to be in Latin and I thought, ‘Nobody will understand that, it’s a ludicrous thing to do,’ but it’s the best way that I can do the song. So I think you owe it to yourself to create for yourself.”
Harding’s parents have always been supportive of his musical efforts throughout his career, even after he cut short his path toward a Ph.D. at Cambridge. But Harding’s father has never known how to approach his son’s tunes.
“I sent my dad a copy of John Wesley Harding’s New Deal and he sent me back a little note saying, ‘Demonstrates a heterodox theology,’” Harding chuckles. “And I just went, ‘Maybe that’s what it is, but to me it’s a bunch of tunes.’ He wasn’t able to engage with the music very much. It wasn’t stuff he knew about.” Not surprisingly, Harding’s dad has always understood his novels a little better.
The transition to writing novels came naturally for Harding.
“I just think it’s something I wanted to do and I felt I had the time to do it,” he says. “I was not perhaps using the entirety of my brain making music. Songwriting’s all about compactness and leaving things out. It’s a spare craft and not really useful for novels at all. Writing novels and writing songs are as different as two writing disciplines can possibly be. The practice that I had songwriting was very good for my writing career though, because it let me trust in words and I think as a writer one of my good tendencies is to just let it roll out of me.”
The idea of having dual creative personas did not appeal to Harding’s publisher Little, Brown and Company. Little, Brown suggested that using his stage name rather than his real name would boost book sales. “John Wesley Harding,” though, simply doesn’t work as the name of a novelist. Sans the letter ‘g’ at the end of Harding, it’s the name of a late 19th-century outlaw immortalized as a hero figure in the title track from Bob Dylan’s album John Wesley Harding (1967).
Harding’s stage name was “too rock and roll” to go on the front of a gender-studying novel set in the 19th-century.
“I put my foot down for once in my life and told my agent, I’m not going to put it out as John Wesley Harding. That would be the short-minded view. I don’t think I’m famous enough in music for the name to ensure me 20,000 sales, and I think we can get the word out to anybody that we need to. I think journalists will enjoy discovering my dual creative personas themselves and it will work to our advantage rather than be something held against us, so all those decisions culminated in me saying…”
Harding leans forward and his voice turns to a whisper.
“I just spent seven years writing a novel. I’m going to put it out under my own fucking name.”
Thus Harding has little time for publishers or writers who pigeonhole his fellow songwriter/novelists.
“Stephen King wrote an astonishingly mean review of Josh Ritter’s first novel [Bright’s Passage], which was a terrific novel, Harding says, gradually speaking louder and agitatedly crossing his legs Indian-style in his chair. “He actually bothered to go to the length of saying this book wouldn’t have been published if it wasn’t Josh Ritter!”
Reviews such as King’s reinforce Harding’s notion that songwriters’ novels are not taken as seriously as they should be.
“I do think people kind of look askance at artists who do two or three things,” Harding sighs. “They want musicians to make music and shut up. They want writers to be writers and shut up. People like Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash, Josh Ritter have written novels under their own name and why should they do it under any other? But I do think those people did not benefit from doing a different thing in the eyes of the world.”
The working title for Harding’s 2009 album Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead was Dilettante’s Inferno, signaling his awareness of the potential to get spread too thin with his many creative projects. McCaughey knows from his past participation in the Cabinet that helming the show is not an easy task.
“As I’m sure is typical of those shows, everybody’s learning songs at the last minute, and you soundcheck for three or four hours rehearsing,” McCaughey explains. “And since we were on tour and learning a lot of songs as we went along on tour as well, it was pretty hectic that day leading up to the Cabinet. Wes is amazing at having incredibly high energy and dealing with whatever gets thrown his way, but he was even frazzled! I could see he was ready to fall over at the end of it.”
“It’s quite a drive out to Fairleigh Dickinson,” Harding says. “Two and a half hours teaching, two hours driving, two hours office hours, two hours driving back. My wife said she’s never seen me so empty as when I walk back in the door after driving back from FDU. I just go straight to the fridge.”
Harding likely won’t teach at Fairleigh Dickinson again, both because of the distance and the fear of feeling obligated to teach every year at the expense of his other careers. Otherwise, he has no plans to scale back any of his various creative commitments.
“If I were to have a fear or insecurity about my life, it would be that I do a lot of things but do none of them particularly well,” Harding says slowly, his brow furrowed deep in thought. “Is that how I feel about the things I do? Not really, but on the other hand, that would be my darkest fear. Should I rein it in and do less things but do them well? I think not because in the end, my character does not have that urge for perfection. Dilettante means the same thing as Renaissance man. If they’re in a good mood, they’ll call you a Renaissance man. If they’re in a bad mood, they’ll call you a dilettante. I prefer to call it productive and unselfconscious. That’s an easier way to make art for someone of my character.”
And that’s what Harding is—an entertainer by blood and a creative workhorse by will.
“It’s funny because he has enough leisure time to read a book and listen to music and watch Arsenal games on TV, but somehow he structures his life so that he can massive amounts of work done,” McCaughey says.
“So when I talk to him and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, I’m halfway through my next novel or whatever, it never surprises me. Or when he tells me, ‘Yeah, I’ve written 40 new songs since we talked last month.’ He’s about the only guy I know who can be that prolific and that structured.”
Far from deserving the “jack of all trades and master of none” label, Harding in fact has only one trade: likability. A voracious reader and music connoisseur, he is always admiring at least a handful of writers at any given moment and wants to see how many of them he can get to know. He’s looking for other creative minds that enjoy nights of acoustic guitar and a bottle of bourbon just as much as he does. They’re easy to find, and for the outgoing Harding, they’re easy to call on.
So believe in either name above the title, because Wesley Stace and John Wesley Harding are both well-versed enough in the art of conversation to always hold your attention in their respective media.
“My father was good in front of people, my mother was naturally able to do those kinds of entertaining things, my grandfather too, my sisters are,” Harding points out. “People say, ‘How do you get the Decemberists to play for you, how do you get people for the Cabinet?’ Not being a dick! Don’t be a dick!
“I’m sure there are many annoying things about me. I can talk a mile a minute, sometimes I don’t shut up for hours, but I like the hang. I like the buzz. I like those things. It’s worth staying up till all hours sometimes, like I did at the Cabinet on Saturday night. I met some terrific people doing that, and they said afterward, ‘I think I’d like to do the Cabinet.’ That’s what it’s all about! You meet new people, they’re great!”
- Mike Tony; Popscene with Mike Tony (Sundays from 10am - noon @ WQHS.org)
An Evening with John Wesley Harding / Wesley Stace
Thursday, 28 February
Alumni Hall, Student Center
Central Connecticut State University