Renamed, renewed — singer John Wesley Harding sheds his longtime moniker
By Dave Hoekstra Chicago Sun-Times October 2, 2013 6:02PM
John Wesley Stace | PHOTO BY BILL WADMAN
Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, 8 p.m. Oct. 10, City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph. $22-$30. (312) 733-9463; citywinery.com.
The singer-songwriter known as John Wesley Harding decided Stace is the place.
His new album “Self-Titled” (Yep Records) is released under his birth name of Wesley Stace. He will play new songs as part of his vaudeville review, Cabinet of Wonders, Oct. 10 at the City Winery. Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders consists of fellow music makers and funny people Robbie Fulks, Jon Langford, Sam and Archer (of the Sea and Cake) and John Roderick (Long Winters) as well as writer Joe Meno, 2nd Story’s Megan Stielstra and comedian Todd Barry. Stace uses the U.K. group that played on “Self-Titled” as his touring band.
Stace co-wrote two “Self-Titled” tracks with the Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (her real name). Alternative versions pop up on her album “Personal Record.” The Stace record features 16 songs on CD and double vinyl LP, edited down from a 50-song demo.
After 25 years as John Wesley Harding (taken from Bob Dylan’s 1967 album), Stace’s publicist suggested downsizing to one name to accommodate music and literature.
“I put a show together in New York for that purpose and it was great,” Stace said in a conversation from New York. “It seemed that writers had a less uptight atmosphere to read in than a bookstore or a library. All writers want to be rock stars, really. Also there’s a lot of musicians who take their lyrics seriously. So what is the thing that goes in the middle of that? It is comedy. Because in comedy, people know when to listen and know when to respond.
“We’ve got one [Cabinet of Wonders] now in at City Winery in New York with Janeane Garofalo, [Nashville songwriter] Jim Lauderdale, [Brooklyn soul man] Garland Jefferies, Black Prairie. I go through my address book and ask who I think would be great to be on the show. They’re 21/2 hours long. We tape them, edited them down to an hour and run it on the air as a podcast on NPR. When I’m feeling ambitious I take it on the road.”
Stace is appearing Oct. 12 at the Iowa City Book Festival. He decided to book satellite Cabinet of Wonders shows in Chicago, Minneapolis, Iowa City — “and in Grinnell [Iowa], where coincidentally they have an exhibition of the real Cabinets of Wonders.”
Stace has writtten three books since 2005’s acclaimed “Misfortune.” His fourth novel, “Wonderkid,” is due in February from Overlook Press. It is about an adult rock ’n’ roll band for kids. “The temptations of the mothers are too much for them,” he said.
Did the name change liberate Stace’s music?
“We’ll see,” he answered. “I do know this is a very different album for me in subject matter, tone and musical sound. It wasn’t that I wanted to get rid of John Wesley Harding as much as I wanted to have one name again. The first novel took me seven years to write. I never was going to publish that under the name of a Bob Dylan album. It’s perfectly fine in rock ’n’ roll to have a stupid stage name. Elton John and I decided having John as a stage name was a good thing to do.”
“Self-Titled” is a largely autobiographical record with rich detail, especially in terms of landscape. “Writing a novel is lonely and thankless and takes forever. Writing a song is a social and public event. You can write a song in 10 minutes. It just seemed ridiculous to put the album out as John Wesley Harding. I’ll play two [old] songs, but there’s no massive rejection of the John Wesley Harding catalog.”