Twitter Facebook Tumblr Pinterest Instagram

« older | Main Largehearted Boy Page | newer »

October 14, 2010

Wesley Stace Interviews John Wesley Harding

In the "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" series (thanks to Jami Attenberg for the title), authors interview musicians (and vice versa).

Wesley Stace is an author, his forthcoming novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer will be released in the US on February 1st.

John Wesley Harding is Wesley Stace's stage name when he performs as a singer-songwriter. His most recent album is John Wesley Harding Sings to a Small Guitar Vol II, a collection of 15 unheard originals from acoustic demos spanning 15 years of his career.

Wesley Stace interviews John Wesley Harding:

Largehearted Boy asked me, Wesley Stace, writer, to interview me, John Wesley Harding, musician, for his "Largehearted Boy Cross-Media Cultural Exchange Program" for which authors interview musicians. I liked the idea, without working out what I was going to ask myself.

In the end, I decided (rather than just to hit whatever publicity points I might want, or to make jokes, or to do an interview that anyone else could do) to try to ask myself some stickier questions – questions which I know are sticky, but which a journalist might not know enough about me to ask - and then answer them honestly. There is the distinct possibility that therefore this isn't the most flattering portrayal; but I thought that it was the best way to honour the original idea. (Plus, if there's going to be an unflattering portrayal, then I should write it.)

Imagine two of me sitting in a coffee shop (It's a horrible thought) separated only by a little digital tape recorder. The interview is quite long and it sticks solely to the music. I didn't let myself off the hook. Of course, I started gently.

WS: Before we get into it, tell me about the two volumes of "JWH Sings to a Small Guitar".

JWH: I'm essentially impatient when it comes to making demos (or being in recording studios generally, unless I'm actually making a record) so I try to get them out of the way as quickly as possible.

I record all my latest songs in one sitting - generally in democratic alphabetical order so I don't put the best ones at the top, spend more time rehearsing those, and then record lackluster versions of the ones I don't care about so much. I then give these demos to the producer, and a couple of close friends, to canvas opinions.

But there can only ever be 12 or so songs on a finished record, so I already have a surplus; and then, by the time we record, I've probably written a few more.

These Small Guitar CDs are the best of the songs that were recorded as solo acoustic demos but never recorded for albums (and mostly never played live.) It's too sad to let songs I like be forgotten just because too many showed up at the same time.

WS: The title and the cover art refer to Edward Lear's "The Owl and The Pussycat".

JWH: I've been reading a lot of "nonsense" recently, childishness for adults (and vice-versa), partly to my children at bedtime, and there's a lot of Lear and Carroll floating around. I now think of Bob Dylan's lyrics in a totally new light. My wife, Abbey, drew both the CD covers – collaborating with her is one of my favourite things. She also did the drawings in your book, Misfortune.

WS: She's talented and good-looking. We should have a threesome.

JWH: I'm not sure how she'd feel about that.

WS: So now we've got Small Guitar out of the way… or as Alan Partridge would say "you've got your plug in, that's nice"…

JWH: This is the only interview I'm doing for either album. They're completely DIY, sub-radar, and mostly sold through my website. They're intimate and I want them to be heard by the people who want to hear them, so it has to be that way. By the way, the first 500 copies come with a bonus CD – it's difficult to explain what's on it.

WS: So, here are a few questions that only I know to ask you.

JWH: This might turn out to be very like therapy. Hey, you could ask a lot of questions I want you to ask because there are certain matters on which I want to "set the record straight".

WS: OK. Is there anything you want to set the record straight about?

JWH: No. And if there were, I'd be way too self-conscious to use this interview to do it. It would seem very bitter and like I'd been stewing on it for years.

WS: Are you worried that people might find out something you don't want them to find out about?

JWH: No. I'm an open book; what I seem to be onstage is what I'm like. You know I don't really write songs about my private life, though. They're my thoughts and feelings but I don't really write real people I know into them.

WS: So, how come you never sit around at home playing the guitar?

JWH: It's true. I only play the guitar when I'm writing a song (and quite often, not even then: I do a lot of writing in my head and on the page) or rehearsing for a show, which I do as little as possible.

WS: It's as if you don't like the guitar.

JWH: I love the guitar but I don't like to have them hanging round a room, looking strummable. There is now more domestic guitar however, since the children (Tilda, 4; Wyn, 2) like it and they should know how easy and fun it is to make music.

WS: What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done onstage?

JWH: Well, embarrassing to you might not seem embarrassing to me. For example, falling over (which I've done) and spilling drinks (many times) all over lyric sheets and pedals – not embarrassing at all. Falling flat on your face, both metaphorically and actually, is kinda the best thing you can do on a stage. The audience just needs to know you're in control and able to handle the situation.

WS: You don't rehearse very much, yet you also don't do set lists for your show.

JWH: I don't like to see a performer who appears to be doing things by rote or on autopilot, so I've tried to make my show, within its limited confines (one guy with a guitar and the occasional accompanist) as malleable as possible. People like it when you make mistakes. Once you realize that and don't allow yourself to be embarrassed by the possibility of failure, then I think you're home and dry. I do rehearse in dressing rooms.

WS: How come, in your record collection, and when your iPod is on shuffle, I almost never hear anything by a contemporary singer-songwriter.

JWH: I don't really listen to any music that sounds like me, except music that was made ages ago – so you'll still hear Neil Young, Leonard Cohen etc, the classic older stuff. Let's face it: my music doesn't sound much like theirs, either.

WS: How do you describe your own music?

JWH: Well, I like Power Pop, traditional folk music, and 70's singer-songwriters in equal measure – so it's a combination of all that, plus whatever things I'm into at the time a record is produced.

WS: So why is it that you listen to Caravan, Soft Machine, Yes, Purcell and The Flaming Lips and all these other bands that your music sounds absolutely nothing like?

JWH: Partly it's because I listened almost exclusively, and with amazing dedication, to that music – Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Loudon Wainwright &c – for years when I was first thinking about writing songs and I think I learned its lessons then. And so I've since gone on to explore other types of music. I find a lot of singer-songwriters nowadays boring, because it's not a genre with wide parameters – though what that means is that when you hear someone great, you know they're great. Nowadays, few people want to be singer-songwriters anyway. They singer-songwrite in a different genre. As a pure genre, with honourable exceptions, it's more or less gone.

For me, it's not very important to hear what other people like me are doing. In fact, I might rather not because I think it's good that my music is in its own little bubble. Also, they're probably all unattainably good and that would depress me. I like things that cross genres, either in attitude, form or sound, so it's hard for me to get behind things that take themselves very seriously. They don't need me for their circle to be complete.

Modernism happened in literature ages ago, but in music people still like the voice singing the song to be the "I" in the lyric. And they're probably right, because it's a very simple form, the pop song. I love the pop song – everything from Tommy James to ABBA - but it's not what I write. Or, rather, its melodies may be what I try (and fail) to write, but the lyrics aren't.

WS: Modernism did happen in pop music, musically-speaking.

JWH: Yes, but that's not the kind of music I make. I write words and put music to the words. It's very old-fashioned. My aim is to blow your mind with my crazy thoughts. And make you laugh. Stupid, right?

WS: Do you wish you were anything but a singer-songwriter?

JWH: Well, that would be going a bit far, but it's my own fault. There was a certain time when I just cut myself off to all other music. It's a wonderful heritage but I think it's basically a tedious little ghetto in the wide world of pop music, and one I'm always attempting (either by silly self-description – gangsta folk etc – or actual musical endeavour) to bust out of.

But the truth is that I play the acoustic guitar and write songs. It just happens to be what I do. I'd love to make grander music – I mean, I listen to Prog music and I think: what if? – but basically it seems like I write songs the one way, with the verses and the choruses. I love the grandeur of prog, particularly when (as in the Canterbury Scene, which has always been my favourite: Robert Wyatt, Hatfield & The North, Egg, Caravan) any possible pomposity is punctured by triviality of lyric. For me, that puncturing adds to, rather than subtracts from, the depth.

I envision a seismic shift in my own music that will never happens. It's more likely that I write words for someone else's classical music or something like that.

I've always tried to make my albums very different. But "very different" in my world generally sounds "very similar" outside. However wild I try to make a record, it doesn't end up being sonically revolutionary. I'd have to stop being the ringmaster and songwriter for that to happen. I don't really know my way around a studio, despite the fact that I should have learned by osmosis.

I love writing songs and arranging them, then playing them live: those are the best bits for me.

WS: How hard do you work on your lyrics?

JWH: Not that hard. They float around in my head for a long while. I scribble thoughts on scraps of paper and in notebooks.

There was a review of the last album which praised the lyrics of "Love or Nothing" above the other lyrics on the record. The lyrics of "Love or Nothing" mean, literally, nothing except as impressions of the way Love might discombobulate you. They're impressionistic burble. In a good way, I hope: but that's what they are. All the other lyrics on the album, on the other hand, try to say something, or tell a story, or make a point. That faint praise interested me. I don't think people really need people to try to say anything anymore. They're happy without that bit. But it's the bit I like.

Sometimes the songs are stories and sometimes not. If they aren't, then I'll probably be trying to make a point about something but I might not, by the end, have successfully made that point: it's just that I've batted the idea around enough and the general length seems to be about right. I don't always have a neat synopsis for every song.

WS: For example, what's "The End" about?

JWH: Well, case in point: it's about modern culture, and the way concepts of "endings" have changed, and how deluded people are about what an end is, and how difficult it is to end things, and how there's always an aftermath, a second act, like when the dead guy in the horror movie suddenly reanimates and attacks the heroine again. Apparently I can't tell you very clearly what it's about, but I can tell you why I wrote it, what sparked it, why it seemed worthwhile to write it, and how people respond to it when I sing it onstage.

WS: It sounds silly when you say it like that.

JWH: I realize that. But a lot of it is instinctual and fun. Words are very amusing.

WS: Why do you never print them on your record sleeves?

JWH: Because only people who don't write very good lyrics print their lyrics. Besides, you can understand mine as I sing them; they're not hidden behind a wall of noise. Plus, I don't want a listener to know the end of a song by reading the lyrics beforehand.

WS: So what are you trying to say and why are you bothering to try?

JWH: Well, I suppose in the end you just write to please yourself and hope it communicates. There isn't an overall message. In fact, I'm trying to say a precisely different thing in every song I write. And also I'm trying to say a precisely different thing to every song I've ever heard. That sounds absurd, but it's certainly one of the criteria for whether a lyric is worth writing or not.

I care that the lyrics, without being crassly shocking, are on some level, uneasy-making, or that they pivot on something that causes the listener to think twice. It has been said of me, not by the press but by people closer to me, that I do not have the common touch. It's true. I don't mind saying something that a large section of possible audience won't understand: say, a reference they won't get. I don't care about the people with whom I'm unlikely to be able to communicate. (Or rather, I do care about them, but not with regards to whether they get my songs or not. They don't need my songs in their life.) I don't want to write slogans that can be universally appreciated.

There's nothing I admire more than simple honest thoughts, simply and poetically put - good pop lyrics – but I've tried and I can't do it because it isn't me.

WS: You love The Bee Gees. Don't you find their lyrics feeble?

JWH: Well, I wouldn't be able to sing some of them myself with any kind of sincerity, but, quite the reverse, I think they perform the perfect function in the songs they're in, so in that way, they're ideal.

I had an argument with a friend recently about the lyrics to "First of May" by The Bee Gees. I find them moving whereas he, while enjoying the beautiful production and arrangement of the song, finds them distractingly crap. I have a very romantic streak and I don't mind a little sentimentality in a song.

WS: What is your worst record?

JWH: I had no idea how to make records for the first three. "It Happened One Night" was a terrible idea that people in Britain hated (I agreed with them, while wishing they mistakenly thought it was great) and that people in America liked (I am grateful to them). "Here Comes The Groom" was full of enthusiasm and a lucky mistake, because the musicians were great and though I hadn't learned to sing or write consistently good songs yet, I was in safe hands.

After "Here Comes The Groom", I should have made a very different record, but Sire didn't have a firm career path for me (which was my fault not theirs) and I didn't know much about making music, so we went in and made "Here Comes The Groom" again but with more horns. So in that sense, I think "The Name Above The Title" is the worst one in that it had the most potential. Most people seem to think it's the best one.

I have just dissed almost everybody's three favourite records of mine, which is a terrible thing to do and for which I apologise. Personally, I think I have massively and inexporably improved, starting with "Why We Fight" and then moving onwards. Nothing pleases me more than when some review says "you'd think he'd be giving up, but he's just getting going."

The funny thing is: I'm very good at just going with things. I like the process and I'm extremely optimistic that things will work out fine. I very rarely stop and say - in fact I've never stopped and said - "this is awful, let's remake the album entirely." I'm just not that sort of person. So for a lot of my music, necessity has been the mother of invention. When I had more money to make records back in the ancient days, I didn't know what I was doing. Now I do, and everything is done on a shoestring. Youth, as they say, is wasted on the young.

WS: What's your favourite of your albums?

JWH: I'm not really proud of any of my records 100%, and I never listen to my own music (and I cringe when it comes up on iPod shuffle…)

WS: Then why is your music on your iPod to begin with?

JWH: In case I ever have to teach it to someone, a band member. I know it's right there. OK?

WS: Yes. Sorry.

JWH: I thought I wouldn't get the chance to record a "better made" album than "Adam's Apple". That album was a very lucky break for me (that I even got to make another record with a proper band in a lovely studio), but "Who Was Changed" topped it, because it reflected my tastes a little more widely.

I'm equally proud and equally embarrassed by all of them. It's possibly true that I wouldn't even listen to my own records, even though I put my heart and soul into them. Would you read your books?

WS: I absolutely would. I'm the ideal audience. I'd love my books.

JWH: Interesting! We discovered something.

WS: This is getting a bit, "Am I Paul Auster or am I a character called "Paul Auster"?" How would you describe your profile in the world of music?

JWH: That's a horrible question. My accomplices are quite used to me getting in a taxi and when the driver, knowing we're with some band he might have heard of, asks "what are you in town for?", answering that we're at the pharmaceutical conference or something, because I just can't bear to have the ensuing conversation. Presumably, if I were in AC/DC, I'd just say "I'm in AC/DC" and he'd say "wow!" and ask for my autograph whether he liked my music or not, but as it is, I'm John Wesley Harding and a) he either has heard of me but he's actually thinking of the Bob Dylan album or b) he hasn't heard of me at all. And neither of those conversational paths seems stimulating, so I take the "pharmaceutical conference" route.

Rolling Stone and I will shortly be able to celebrate the 21st anniversary of their never having once reviewed an album of mine. Pitchfork – which I am told is more important now than Rolling Stone was then – once reviewed one, "Trad Arr Jones" (an album of traditional folk songs) in 1999 (I just looked that up. I hadn't read the review before. It's long.)

WS: Is that actually true that you'd never read your sole Pitchfork review?

JWH: Yes. And I haven't bought a rock magazine since about 1992. Being in the business of music made me come to hate reading the reviews, the news, the ads, so I just gave up. The internet hasn't persuaded me back into it, though I'll read the odd interview with someone I'm interested in, if someone tweets about it or something. I'm very concerned that my work is reviewed, I just don't read them in detail, though I can quote you a few bits here and there that interest me. Since I apparently can't change what I do very much, reading how it is or isn't a good thing doesn't seem very beneficial.

How about you?

WS: I do. There's very little reward in writing a novel, reaction-wise, so I think the reception is an important part of understanding what you've done and how you might improve. Having said that, I only read the first paragraph and the last two, because the rest of the review generally recounts the plot and I know that already. If it's a more in depth consideration, I'll read the whole thing.

Anyway, you were saying about your profile.

JWH: Well, you know, so it isn't Rolling Stone and it isn't Pitchfork. It certainly isn't KROQ. So it's NPR and wonderful stations like XPN in Philadelphia.

I'm neither one thing nor the other, and one of many in the same boat. I'm best known among some very loyal fans who have been coming to my shows for about twenty years. Apart from the odd song that gets into a movie or a TV show or something like that (which are the kinds of wonderful little breaks that keep your name out and about), very little of my music has made it very far into the world, though I seem to be played in bookstores and supermarkets a lot. You can tell when a song gets out there though: it becomes blindingly obvious very quickly. And it's always nice when other songwriters like what you do.

Having said that, I've always thought it was lucky I was not to have been a one-hit wonder. If I had been, and if I were a band, I'd have broken up years ago, so my conclusion is that it's better to have very little success consistently than quite a lot for a short amount of time. Also it puts you in a good position for getting an audience, however large, and keeping them, without having to strive embarrassingly for success in its gaze. You can always be doing your best for them and with any luck they'll follow you down the twists and turns, secure in the knowledge that there's no compromise involved. I like that.

WS: People have often compared you to Elvis Costello. That must be very annoying.

JWH: Yes, even Elvis Costello has compared me to Elvis Costello. And he also once called Bret Easton Ellis "the John Wesley Harding of Literature", which is quite funny but very wrong. Bret Easton Ellis may in fact be the "Elvis Costello of Literature" – I say that as a fan.

I used The Attractions when Costello wasn't, and it did get me a good deal of publicity during what, on reflection, was probably one of the troughs of his career, so I can understand his annoyance. But I never listened to half as much Elvis Costello as people imagined. I got off around "Mighty Like A Rose". At the time I was desperately trying to sound like The Kinks and The Lovin' Spoonful, and probably getting it wrong. Nick Lowe is certainly as much of an influence as Costello; Ray Davies much more so than both, not that it's mentioned. In my mind, however, aside from Dylan, Bowie is the biggest influence of all, and that apparently doesn't show itself at all since no one's ever referenced Bowie. So I suppose it is a little annoying, but it doesn't actually annoy me. It's much more annoying when people ask me if I'm annoyed by it.

One funny thing was that just after you got your first book deal for Misfortune, there was a couple of articles saying that Costello had just signed a two-book-deal for a book of memoirs and a book of short stories. I remember thinking at the time that the timing was possibly not to our advantage. But, six years later, no sign of the books. Perhaps you'll be asked to review one.

WS: As a writer, I'd do it.

JWH: Good, because as a musician I wouldn't touch it with a bargepole.

WS: Did you ever consider giving up music?

JWH: No. Besides: what does "giving up music" really mean?

When the first book was published, it was tedious when people asked me if I'd "give up the music". It's not like music takes up very much time, nor that one makes music 24 hours a day. I write songs when I feel like it, do some gigs every now and then: it looks like a career with a narrative. But while music writers make narratives, musicians are just getting on with their lives - and with making music.

Meanwhile, writing novels did a wonderful thing for my music – because it freed me up financially a little, allowing me to concentrate on musical projects that, while I was sure they wouldn't be massively successful, were things that I really wanted to do, like The Love Hall Tryst project that I did with Kelly Hogan, Nora O'Connor and Brian Lohmann. And that led to other fun things. And you're always at your best when you're relaxed, not worrying and having fun. Or I am. Other people are at their best when they're uptight and agitated.

I'm sociable, friendly and I've realized, in my old age, that I also like putting things together, and getting people to agree to do things, and then making a show of it: hence, the Cabinet of Wonders.

WS: What projects are you most excited about at the moment?

JWH: A) planning the various Cabinets that I do with Eugene Mirman – we're just getting together a Christmas one, and then one in Aspen at the end of January.

B) Thinking about our idea to update the political lyrics of Phil Ochs, so they're contemporary again.

C) Making an album with the poet Paul Muldoon, on which we are actively collaborating and

D) Making my next record in Portland in November, to be produced by Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck. Very exciting and… E) Most fun of all, filling a jukebox with great 45s. Abbey has got me a jukebox for my upcoming 45th birthday and so I'm buying lots of singles here there and everywhere. It takes 100, I think (I haven't seen it, nor do I know if she's got it yet, though it would be hard to hide around the house) so that's what I'm planning on. Recent purchases include: Simon Smith by The Alan Price Set (first single I was ever bought, interestingly a Randy Newman song, as though my fate was sealed when I was four), Who's That Lady (Pts 1 & 2!) by The Isley Brothers and I'm Into Somethin' Good by Earl-Jean, possibly my favourite single ever. Just think of your ultimate jukebox and fill it up (and make sure all the singles have large holes.) Surely that's got to be one of the most fun projects imaginable.

I concede that I am the only one who will find this particular selection of 45s remotely awesome, though my hope would be that there is something for everyone on there: there's certainly my favourite song from when I was four, and my four-year-old daughter's favourite song (Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick by Ian Dury).

WS: You're always banging on about Duncan Browne, Caravan, The Bee Gees etc. What is your favourite music of today?

JWH: Because I don't read the magazines etc, and I don't listen to the radio very much, I don't really keep up with stuff, so I depend on friends with good taste.

I love The Flaming Lips, if they are still considered contemporary. I was late on them, by about ten years. I love being really late on things, because you can forget all the critical blather and just hear the music. So at the time I just say "yes, they're great", don't listen, and move the conversation along. (I may shortly to discover Radiohead.) My favourite band right now is The Decemberists: the sense of humour, the depth of the music, the lack of fear about throwing genre around – it's a heady brew.

I like The Dirty Projectors, Destroyer, The New Pornographers and The Long Winters. I love anything that Scott McCaughey makes. I like the new Blitzen Trapper album. That's not a bad list. The Cabinet of Wonders has kept me up as well, because I have to make sure the music will fit with the show, so I need to listen hard, in a curatorial way. ("Curate" is a big buzz word these days. I have to think up something else: "throw together" is better perhaps.)

On my iPhone right now, which is a very good and completely honest index of what I'm listening to since it's the one thing I always have on me, is: Abba, ABC, Al Stewart, Alan Hull, Amon Duul 2, Anne Briggs, Ariel Pink, Blitzen Trapper, Bryan Ferry, Caravan, Dando Shaft, David Bowie, The Decemberists, The Fall, Flaming Lips, Freedie Phillips, Genesis, George Harrison, Harry Nilsson, Jethro Tull, John Kirkpatrick, John Martyn, John Pantry, Judee Sill, Kevin Ayers, King Crimson, The Kinks, Leonard Cohen, The Long Winters, Maddy Prior, Meat Puppets, National Health, Neil Young, New Pornographers, Pentangle, Purcell, Queen, Richard Thompson, Serge Gainsbourg, The Smiths, Stackridge, Strawbs, T.Rex, Traffic.

WS: The average year seems to be about 1972.

JWH: I'd say 1975. Purcell does the average year no favours.

WS: How do you wish your career would progress?

JWH: I like it the way it is – there's very little pressure and I always do what I like - but I'd love to be able to play very small comfortable-seated theatres (where alcohol is served) (by which I mean, to the audience) and sit in a spacious dressing room, pretending I'm Leonard Cohen as I pour a glass of wine. And I'd like to be driven everywhere. I never want to drive anywhere on my own ever again. After a gig, particularly. That really depresses me.

WS: What criticisms will be made of you in your obituary?

JWH: Perhaps that I was too comfortable within the parochial confines of my genre (that's, like, my nightmare criticism, so that's why it comes first); that my voice and style were derivative of other performers (I think that would be harsh but I'm not blind to opinion); definitely that I talked too much; perhaps that I was a Jack of all Trades – that's the kind of thing people say negatively. I was going to call the last record "Dilettante's Inferno", so I see that in myself. But I find it inspirational to do a lot of things, sometimes all at once.

A friend recently said I should call my next album "The Heartfelt Cynicism of John Wesley Harding". I would never but I thought it was a great description.

By the way, what's your next thing?

WS: Oh, thanks for asking. A novel Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, published by Picador in Feb '11.

JWH: How do you find the time? Don't people ask you that all the time?

WS: It's all I do. What will it say on your gravestone?

JWH: The same as yours: Loving husband and father. At home at home and on a stage. Writer of the 2011 million-seller hit "There's A Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)".

Wesley Stace links:

Wesley Stace's website

Independent review of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
New Statesman review of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

John Wesley Harding links:

John Wesley Harding's website
John Wesley Harding's MySpace page
John Wesley Harding's Wikipedia entry

also at Largehearted Boy:

other musician/author interviews

Antiheroines (Jami Attenberg interviews comics artists)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
guest book reviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Soundtracked (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtracks)