John Wesley Harding Keeps His Pen Name Songs Personal
The singer, songwriter and novelist says his books have allowed his songs to become more about him.

Wesley Stace photo courtesy of Opale Agency. Photo: Lizzie Kimmel

Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.

Wesley Stace is both an acclaimed novelist and a recording artist and performer — and he tends to each skill with matched consideration. As a folk musician Stace released his first album album, It Happened One Night/It Never Happened At All, under the John Wesley Harding moniker in 1988. Since then Stace has offered up 12 additional records, each showcasing his catchy, folk-driven singer-songwriter fare. The latest, The Sound Of His Own Voice, came out in early October, a buoyant pop-folk album that is resoundingly optimistic, both in instrumentation and lyrical content. Although some tracks are clearly autobiographical (see opener “Sing Your Own Song”) there is distinct narrative quality where characters are created and followed. And that makes sense: Between his album, Stace has written three novels: 2005’s Dickensian comedy Misfortune, 2007’s familial drama By George and this year’s 1920s tale of a composer titled Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer, which he released last February. Hive talked with Stace, who also teaches at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, about his dueling relationships with writing music and writing novels, and how literature has actually allowed his music to become more personal.

When you were growing up did you lean toward music or writing first?

Music, 100 percent. I did English Literature at university, which I realize is a long time ago. Somehow my music career fell together at that time and that was what I followed. But in the back of my mind I wanted to write novels.

When you first began writing songs did they feel literary at all?

They absolutely did. I was very much of the mindset then where I liked Bob Dylan and I liked John Prine and I liked Randy Newman and I wanted to make my songs as literary as possible. Twenty-something years later I find myself in the complete opposite position. For years I dedicated my artistic output to making music as literary as possible whereas what I probably should have done — I now find out — was making literature as musical as possible. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do with my books, I think. I’ve written three novels in ten years and doing that has very much freed me up, bizarrely enough, to make my songs more personal and less literary.

Is there an overlap?

I feel definitively that there is now an overlap … My [upcoming] fourth novel is about a rock band. I didn’t choose that, because you can’t really choose these topics, but that was the germ of an idea that came to me. And that’s the [idea] I’m seeing through. Life is all about seeing things, through rather than just having nice ideas about stuff. The book is set in the present time, in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, and it’s about a band. That’s very much my world, so there is an overlap. And I now have a selection of songs that, because of what the novel’s about, are headed in a certain direction.

When will you be finished?

The beginning of next year, but the novel business is much slower than the music business so it won’t come out for another year after that that.

Is there any sort of narrative thread on your new album?

No particular narrative theme. It’s not a concept album, and secondly I write what I feel about writing about. Novels you have to be very focused and make sure the characters make sense psychologically. With songs you can do that within the song, but on the other hand you might write a song where there are nine different points of view in nine different verses. It doesn’t particularly matter … On the new album when I decided what album I was going to make with the musicians who were going to make it with me, the guys in The Decemberists and Peter [Buck] and Scott [McCaughey], I looked through all the songs I had and picked the ones I thought they would be most likely to do a fantastic job on. That means actually that some of the songs are a little older than I might have picked for a new project.

Does the writing of other authors ever end up in your music?

Yes, absolutely. In terms of my lyrics, they’re at least as influenced by contemporary writers as they would be by contemporary lyricists. Off the bat I don’t know if I can think of specific examples on this particular record, although the songs “The Examiners” is by a poet by the name of John Whitworth. I just happened to set it to music because I liked it so much. Definitely the English writer Jonathan Coe has been a great influence on me. I find a perpetual influence from Bret Easton Ellis, who I think is an excellent writer. Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm was a terrific influence on me for a bit.

Are there benefits to releasing your music under a different name than your novels?

The advantage of that is that I think some musicians who put out fictional works, however great those fictional works are — and I think of Josh Ritter’s novel that came out this year or Steve Earle’s novel, both of which are superb — are slightly patronized and patted on the back. People say “Oh this is obviously a hobby thing you do and it’s not real literature writing.” I think that’s very unfair. And somehow, which is very nice, I managed to circumvent that by not throwing my musical name in people’s faces.

 

 

 

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