Folk-rocker and novelist John Wesley Harding brings his storytelling to Philadelphia

by Dan Deluca

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

27 May 2009

Folk-rocker and novelist John Wesley Harding, left, whose real name is Wesley Stace, sits with daughter Tilda Stace, 3, at their new Philadelphia, Pennsylvania home, May 14, 2009. (April Saul/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT) 

PHILADELPHIA — There’s an Englishman who’s moving to Philadelphia from Brooklyn sitting at a cafe here, explaining the ways in which his two artistic callings are extremely different from each other, yet still very much the same.

“Playing music can get you instant gratification,” says John Wesley Harding. “If I write a song, I can go play it at the (Philly venue) World Cafe Live next week, and people will — I hope — applaud.”

The folk-rock troubadour did just that last week when he cohosted the musical-comedy-literary variety show Wes & Eugene’s Cabinet of Wonders at the local venue. Joining him were be comedian Eugene Mirman, songwriters Jonatha Brooke and Chris Mills, plus a couple of Philadelphians you might not expect to see at a rock club — actor David Morse and author Ken Kalfus.

As Harding — a name he borrowed from a Bob Dylan album — he has been writing and singing songs more cleverly and with greater sophistication than most, from “It Happened One Night” in 1988 through the new “Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead” (Popover, 3 stars). But when he’s not writing and singing songs, Harding puts his words to a different use.

Under his real name, Wesley Stace, he has published two widely disparate novels in the last half-decade: “Misfortune” (2005), a faux-Dickensian 19th-century yarn about a boy who was raised as a girl, and “by George: A Novel” (2007), which also concerns identity and family dysfunction and is partly narrated by a ventriloquist’s dummy.

The novelist’s life, however, has “very different rewards,” says the charming and chatty wordsmith, who’s known to friends as Wes. He’s sipping iced tea on an afternoon after writing up a Leonard Cohen concert (“I think I may have just seen my favourite gig ever”) for Magnet, the Philadelphia music magazine for which he is serving as guest Web editor this week.

“The rewards of one are so immediate, and the rewards of the other are so intangible, and in the mists of the future. If I’m writing a novel, I’ve got no one paying attention to me at all, and it’s a very lonely life.”

And yet the two chosen media of Harding/Stace — who’s moving into an 18th-century house with his Philadelphia-native wife, Abbey Tyson, and their children, Tilda, 3, and Wyn, 7 months — just offer him different ways to pursue his natural talent for storytelling.

Ample evidence of that can be found on “Who Was Changed,” which takes its title from a 1955 Barbara Comyns novel, and was recorded with the psychedelic-tinged rock band Minus 5, featuring Scott McCaughey and R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck, in Portland, Oregon.

“Of course the lyrics are great,” says McCaughey. “He’s known as a wordsmith. But he writes great pop songs, too, great melodies. I thought the songs on this record were really, really cool. These songs had some really cool changes, and it was fun to work hard to make them as good as we could.”

“My Favourite Angel,” the opening song, explores the concept of Christian forgiveness with a twist. It’s about God acknowledging his love for his fallen angel, Lucifer, whom he calls “my little saboteur” — one of the alternative titles considered for the album, along with “Disagreeable Hymns,” “Late Style” and “Dilettante’s Inferno.”

Harding also shows off his stanza-slinging stuff in “Top of the Bottom,” a not-autobiographical tale — he never married an heiress named Erica, nor was he ever arrested for necrophilia — inspired by Bret Easton Ellis’ novel “Lunar Park.” The song makes light of the massive changes in the music industry since he moved to the States with his first big record deal in 1989.

Since then, Harding, who grew up in Hastings, in the south of England within sight of France (where “Misfortune” was a best-seller), has moved clockwise around the country, living in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Brooklyn, in pursuit of music and romance. With frequent visits and longtime radio support from WXPN-FM, he’s already had a long-term relationship with Philadelphia.

“It’s got the best Duchamp in the world,” he says, referring to works by French artist Marcel Duchamp in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, an institution that contains paintings by Van Gogh, Renoir, and Manet donated by his wife’s family in his new hometown.

“And it’s got one of the best record stores in the world: aka music.”

The Cabinet of Wonders shows have come together partly because he hasn’t had to tour incessantly thanks to his success with his novels. (A Washington Post review praised “Misfortune” for reading “like some inspired collaboration between Charles Dickens and Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.”)

So Harding decided to do something different.

“I know a lot of writers and I know a lot of musicians, and I like throwing them together,” he says. Typically, he and Mirman feature homegrown luminaries. So they enthusiastically invited “Indian Runner” actor Morse, who read his own poetry, and Kalfus, author of “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country” (2006) and several other books. “I think genre is a thing of the past,” Harding says. “My tastes are wide, and I think everyone’s like that now.”

Harding introduced the central character in “Misfortune” in a 1998 song called “Miss Fortune,” then spent seven years building a novel around him. “In a song you try to reduce it to very little, like Townes Van Zandt or something. People’s minds make leaps between images to fill it in. In a novel, I wanted to flesh all that out.”

But the process is essentially the same.

“It’s me against a . . . white piece of paper,” he says. “It’s basically making those things in your head into something that will really affect people. Which is all you try to do, isn’t it? You try to tell people a little bit about your life, and a little bit about their lives. You try to do that with those tiny details so that are universally applicable and meaningful. And if you can score one, that song will make sense to people . . . So, yes, they’re different art forms, and you’re looking to do very different things with them. But if you reduce it to basics, they’re both kind of the same.”

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