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Making Pop Music as Literary As Possible: An Interview with John Wesley Harding

Dennis Shin
Photo: Allison Michael Orenstein

Keeping up with the variety of passions and activities of John Wesley Harding can be such a challenge that you're best off spending an evening with him, as he plays Master of Ceremonies at the Cabinet of Wonders, the mixed-media carnival that he hosts with comedian Eugene Mirman.

John Wesley Harding

The Sound of His Own Voice

Label: Yep Roc
US Release Date: 2011-10-11
UK Release Date: 2011-10-10

The breadth of people, interests, and passions in John's life shows how full a life he lives. He has released 16 albums over the span of 21 years. The graduate of Cambridge University is an accomplished author, writing three novels under his real name, Wesley Stace, which have been lauded by literary critics. He has sold the movie rights sold for his first novel, Misfortune, set in 19th century England, a Dickensian twist featuring an abandoned baby boy, found in a garbage heap, who is mistakenly raised as a girl. In an example of his versatility, John also composed a soundtrack to the book, enlisting the help of Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor. He has worked as a literary critic for the Times Literary Supplement, and also has written essays for a number of music publications. His sense of humor and winning personality are reflected in his company, aside from his many musician friends, who drop in on the Carnival of Wonders which seems to mix in doses of Ed Sullivan, Jools Holland, Conan O’Brien, and Tavis Smiley, are his comedian friends, namely Eugene Mirman, his co-collaborator on the Cabinet of Wonders series.

On his latest album, The Sound of His Own Voice, John enlisted help from members of the Decemberists, many of who are joining him on tour during the month of November in support of the new album. In speaking with PopMatters, John shed some light about a variety of topics, including his latest collaboration, his recording process, rock journalism, and his beloved Arsenal.

John has known Colin Meloy of the Decemberists for some time. “We have similar tastes. Colin and I both performed for the Live Wire radio variety show in Portland. Back in September 2009, he asked me to emcee the Decemberists lottery show that he was doing with Laura Veirs in New York. I was pushing my daughter on a swing at four in the afternoon, and agreed to emcee that night. My job was to pull balls out of a big bag, this big round tumbler that randomly choose their set. I wasn't doing anything that night, so I made a big deal out of it, put on some nice clothes, and created this big vaudeville act. That night I met the rest of the Decemberists. They are really nice people, they sent me a fantastic bottle of Pappy Von Winkle 25 year old Bourbon. I loved them because of that."

John's decision to work with the Decemberists, and with old friends from his days living in the Pacific Northwest was easy. “There are two records I've wanted to make: one was with Los Lobos, the other with the Decemberists. As a songwriter not attached to a band, I'm really in a position to ask anybody to play. I felt this album has a Decemberists vibe to it, so I kind of politely e-mailed 'Would you mind playing?' I got in touch with Scott McCaughey -- who's the producer -- and Peter Buck who all play in Portland. We got together and we recorded 15 basic tracks in three days, then spent two more days with vocals and backing, a few more days of overdubbing after I left."

John is proud of the work and especially the friends who came in to collaborate with him. “The album was really an opportunity to get together with really good friends. Rosanne Cash sang on it. It was really so fun to do. We had a really good four or five days on the West Coast making the album. When we go on the road in November, it will be the same band that played on the record. I would defy anyone to listen and compare this, which was more quickly made, and not say this was the best sounding album I ever made. The vibe was so exciting."

John's instincts of the album having a Decemberists vibe to it proved to be dead on. “We went to Jenny Conlee's basement, and they came up with arrangements sometimes exactly, and sometime better than I would have imagined. Working with such a team of accomplished, professional musicians had its advantages, and helped create the loose vibe that permeated the recording session, and which will likely be reflected when they play together on tour. While doing some degree of advance preparation with producer Scott McCaughey and the musicians, planning was kept at a minimum." I had 30 songs lying around, ones that I thought would make a good choice of material for the album. I sent Scott acoustic demos of the songs and he would ask 'Where do you want to go?' with the songs. I'd send over the guitar and vocal and say 'On one think Phil Spector. On another a Julian Cope new wave song.' However I would describe it, it would always be in about 10 syllables. You don't really have to say a lot when you're working with great musicians. Only two of the tracks were recorded away from Portland. One was my daughter's guest appearance. The other was Rosanne’s part.

"So many writers think recording is a technical thing. They play every instrument like they're Prince, cut out verses, keep overdubbing. But you don't pick up cues like a real live band on stage. If you take a live band in the studio that consists of drums, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, with Peter Buck playing the 12 string, after a good take, you don't need anything else. Maybe there's a guitar solo that you can't do live. We recorded this in a very old fashioned way, with everyone playing at the same time. The room was so big, we didn't even have to be in an isolation booth. Inside the CD, we have some really nice fish eye photos of what the recording sessions were like."

John has also adapted his work to the demands of a mixed media age. "I delivered 13 movies for Yep Rock, including two full proper rock videos for 'There's a Starbucks' and 'Sing Your Own Song', along 45-minute video, and I've also handed over 16 pieces of video for the last 10 albums. There are more places to show your work, more interest and more outlets. I like hearing my work in different ways.

"As you get older, and talk about recording my 18th album, at a time when I might well have given up, I still have a drive to write, there's still stuff I want to say. I'm lucky that I play solo. If I were in a band, just making money and doing gigs, we'd probably have broken up a long time ago. There's always people younger than you, better looking than you, more desirable who are coming around. The irony is, they are new in the craft like I was. When I was young, what I had going was a devil may care attitude. You have to be a person who is in danger of falling on their face and not care, have thousands of torrents of words, loads of crazy ideas, and just go for it. I feel more connected now, I love doing it. It's an amazing feeling, I already feel the next one, and the next one after that."

Literary Life

The sense of ease with which John approaches songwriting is reflective of the fact that John never seems to be sitting still, not with his other passion -- his literary career, which has seen him win plaudits, quite independent from, and arguably on a whole another level, than his preceding acclaim as a musician. "I learned early on that if fame or wealth is your motive, and your time is up, make sure you enjoy that. It's important to enjoy what you're doing. Any ulterior motive, fame or wealth, or perhaps a good sex life, you will end up measuring yourself. I've always liked writing. I didn't have time to allow myself to get caught up in this. One of the best things about my career decision to go with a different name is that when my novels came out I could use my own name. This was a huge difference. People don't want musicians to write. There have been some excellent books by musicians, and they get patted on their back rather patronizingly in the papers. It was a lucky chance. By taking a fake name, I was able to sidestep to spend that."

John has an interesting insight on the relationship between his literary and music careers: "The fictional urge in my songwriting, which I've always had, reflect true feelings, and include the cynical things that come up. I think the novels take care of the fictional impulse for me. As a result, my songs have become more personal. You reach a point where you start to ask, 'Why didn't I write that'? At the age of 45, I will be able to look at my self and my past. You will see the first evidence on the new album in 'Sing Your Own Song'. My daughter appears in the last verse. We talk about family. From here on, with this album as the cross over point, the novels are going to take care of the fictional side of my writing."

John also sees the potential to his practical experience in music to inform his next literary project. "My next novel will be about a band, set in the present day. I won't have to research a thing. It will be a hugely different novel." He sees a powerful connection between his music and his literary work. "I have never gone as far as to make a soundtrack of my characters. But I have this massive urge to make novels as musical as possible, while at the same time making my lyric writing and pop music as literary as possible. I'm far more likely the rest of my life to concentrate on making the novels as musical as possible."

Thoughts In Passing on The Industry

When asked about the new dynamics of the industry, the power of social media, he agrees with some of the benefits. "I don't write about music and the industry, but occasionally comment on it, with the 'People's Drug' or 'When the Beatles Hit America'. Social networking is very lucky for people who have few fans. Social networking is thing that it takes a natural talent, the ability to speak one-on-one."

Despite his forays into music writing, he doesn't bother reading much rock journalism, or necessarily his own reviews. "There's a chance it will come to me. Some I read, some I don't. A lot of music critics miss the point. I don't want to slit my own throat, but I'm really interested more in novels." He has interesting insights on journalism, specifically rock criticism: "I grew up reading NME. People were not reviewing music, just trends. There's nothing wrong with that. They should just say we're a fashion magazine, we're about reviewing trends, not music. It was about style and fashion, not music. They would give a great review to idiotic bands, incredibly shite bands like Sigue Sigue Sputnik and We’ve Got a Fuzzbox and We’re Gonna Use It."

John presses on: "It would be real suspicious how you would see a good review, a higher scale for some music, and then notice massive advertising of that artist in the same publication. It blew my mind in 1990, when I first started. I hope you don't make the headline of this, John says all music critics are shite. I know some brilliant music critics. I know where to find those guys. I don't need to read this or that magazine, I know to find the music critics I really like on a blog. It makes me self conscious when I write."

On Community and the Cabinet of Wonders

As an English expatriate living in the US, he has embraced life, taking an avid part in the community. When he's not shuttling up to New York for the Cabinet of Wonders, he's spending time teaching classes at Fairleigh Dickinson university, where he sits in as an artist-in-resident. Cabinet of Wonders, which used to run at Le Poisson Rouge in the West village, and has not taken up residency at City Winery, the creation of Michael Dorf, founder of the Knitting Factory, whose wine bar, restaurant and performance space that has become a haven for New York's many resident musicians and seems to be the perfect home.

John's close attachment to his friends, which he is able to indulge through his Cabinet of Wonders shows, are a clear indication of how he remains connected to the music world. “We had a really great lineup at our last show. Tony Visconti, who produced two of the great albums of all time, Eleanor Friedberger who was one of my favorites from last summer, Andrew from MGMT, and Dan Zanes who was in the Del Fuegos and now makes family music. He wrote “Catch that Train" and is on the Disney Channel- kids know who he is! It was a mix of what I like, stuff that is great with no age barrier. I'm sure a lot of MGMT fans came to see Andrew VanWyngarden."

John remains connected with what's going on in music through his friends and doesn't feel a compulsion to remain plugged in through media." I don't read any magazines. I don't listen to the radio. I haven't bought a Rolling Stone or Spin in a long time. I don't even know what they look like. I don't like reading about pop culture. I just have friends, new friends and old friends. I have a friend that worked at Sony whose favorite tape was MGMT. Two or three years ago, he would get me to just listen to the quality of the song. I've been into progressive music. I really liked the Fiery Furnaces, they had a big weird sound. I'm still really into old proggy stuff from the 70s like the Faust, they wrote that song 'Miss Fortune', which they played a lot live but it didn't have an ending. With Miss Fortune, you wonder 'How would I finish that song'? Maybe I'll write a Dickens album, but it would have a twist, I would be all about sexual and gender psychology. When Dickens wrote, you couldn't touch those topics.

"Cabinet of Wonders is a meeting place, where I get to emcee, we get to do literary and music. Some artists like Rosanne Cash do both. With Josh Ritter some of the literary stories make for good songs". John and comedian Eugene Mirman are close and aside from their work on Cabinet of Wonders, are always coming up with ways to collaborate. "He's been on every Cabinet of Wonders except for the last one. He's going to London next week and wants me to come over and be on his show. We're thinking about doing a video remake of 'You Can Call Me Al', with Eugene in the Chevy Chase role and me as Paul Simon."

At Home In Philadelphia

He seems bemused by his opportunity as artist in residence at Fairleigh Dickinson. "Bizarrely as a teacher," he says excitedly, "I've put together four or five shows, sort of like an academic Cabinet of Wonders. We focus on the person, let them play and talk at length. The students are very pragmatic. Don't tell them about literary theory. You don't want to be like a Frank Capra character with your 'high-faluting ideas'. You don't want to sound like a character. Poetry is not some mystical thing. People do it and get better through practice. We worked with Bruce Springsteen and Robert Pinsky, two New Jersey writers in 2010 and I also did this beautiful collaboration with [Pulitzer Prize winner, Northern Ireland poet] Paul Muldoon. We've gotten together for about 12-15 songs, for future collaboration. I really love the opportunity. It has blossomed into where I get to teach there next year. I'm planning to write a creative writing course where we will focus on the first chapters of 14 great novels. If you read the 14 novels, you pick up 14 enormously great ways to start the novel. It's amazing, all different novels. The newest one is One Day by David Nichols, we'll also have novels by Henry Fielding, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and also authors I really like such as L.P. Hartley and Barbara Cummings."

Talk to John about any subject, and he immerses himself quickly. I bring up a related topic to the first chapters, a discussion I came across about albums with great first songs, which were so overwhelming that they raised the bar, perhaps too high, for the track that followed -- recalling the example of the massively underrated "She's the One", tasked with following "Born to Run". John runs with this idea, and comes across with his own selection: "'Barclay James Harvest', the B-side of their second album. There's this amazing song 'Mockingbird' which they take some time on. It's an awesome psychedelic rock slice. The rest of album is something entirely else. As for that second track ..."

John has really taken to living in Philadelphia, comfortable with his family, his residency at Fairleigh Dickinson, and his surroundings." Philly has some really awesome record stores. I do a lot of browsing for old vinyl. I have this beautiful 1956 Seeburg jukebox at home, which holds 100 records, so I'm always looking for 7-inch singles. There are a number of places in town with a Bleecker Street records-like basement. I'm old fashioned but also frugal, looking for a bargain. I like Long in the Tooth. I also liked Tequila Sunrise, which just closed. One of the best record stores is AKA on 2nd street."

John's mood turns briefly sour when queried about another passion. "Arsenal are having a very bad year. It's probably too late, but they should have sold their big players when they had a chance." His spirits perk up when I remind him of one of the classic lines from one of his classic songs, one that a friend used to rely on to distinguish himself from his twin brother: "tonight it's just me and my evil twin / the one who slips one more drink in / the one who slips away / when I start sinking."

"'The Person You Are' is a song I wrote about a guy who is trying to work out his problems, working to rectify them, who is out drinking but wishes he was home, while his girlfriend is sleeping with someone else, who ends up getting drunk and throwing up. I never liked the third verse of that song. After about 150, 16 years, I decided to change it. When I sing it live now, it's about a guy going into the casino. If you listen to any live tape of the song, you'll hear me sing a verse about a guy who is not winning, but keeps gambling more and more money. The idea of gambling fits in more with the theme of infidelity. I suppose at the end I'm trying to say it's just the devil in me. At the time, the line about 'It's getting much too hot to heal the sky was really a comment too about what we were doing environmentally. Now it's so obvious, but at the time, no one was saying that.

John is at ease, moving from one subject to the next, his good humor and good-natured banter as winning in conversation as it is when he serves as emcee at his variety show. It seems a shame that the interview will have to end at some point. Finally, a call comes in, and he begs off. "It's my mom. Today's her 66th birthday. I should probably take this call."

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