Pseudonamed after the Bob Dylan album, John Wesley Harding (real name: Wesley Stace) is an author, a musician, a record label owner and quite possibly many more things the world hasn't been made privy to yet. Later this year his third book will hit the shelves, but first he's on tour supporting his latest album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead (recorded with the Minus Five). Tomorrow night he'll be at (le) Poisson Rouge, joined by the likes of Eugene Mirman and Rosanne Cash, and he'll return to that stage in April for another show with his Cabinet of Wonders (video). Recently he told us a little bit about his endeavours, a super deluxe package available of his latest cd, and bringing his favorite football team, Arsenal, over from England.
What inspired the new album? Well, the practical answer is easy: Jim Brunberg of Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR, who said: have a free week of studio time and make your record. And so I got my friends together and we recorded there. As for other inspirations, the kinds behind the songs or the theme of the record, I couldn't name a specific event or person - except the usual ones: old myths; bogus confessional songs. I allowed myself a little more latitude with the musical inspirations this time because the previous album, Adam's Apple, was quite focussed. So you might hear a little of The Lovin' Spoonful, Cat Stevens, Duncan Browne, Colin Blunstone, Soft Machine, Hatfield and The North, Rodriguez - things that have made me very happy recently. My wife, Abbey's, painting that is on the cover was also very inspirational: it made a perfect fit with the songs, and then the title - which is the name of a Barbara Comyns' novel that blew me away at just the right time.
Has anyone opted for the $5,000 deluxe package of your cd, which comes with a personal show? Yes. And you can all come. Although I'm delighted that it did, I have no great idea why this made the news. People have been doing this stuff for ages, and it didn't seem terribly revolutionary or even newsworthy, just a good way to raise a little capital so I could self-release my new album and not be at a financial disadvantage. But ever since Boing Boing posted it on their blog, I've read the most incredible amount of (and weirdest reactions to) this simple thing: ranging from sweet, grateful, concerned, humorless to indignant. It was actually quite an education in how the web works. But in answer to your question: in the past people booked musicians for private parties (weddings etc); that never really made the news. In more recent times, these house concerts have developed (I've done a few, not many, and mostly for my friend Drew out in New Jersey); and so I thought it would be a good idea to advertise that I would do one in case it piqued someone's interest, who might not otherwise have thought of it. And it has. But, I mean, big whoop, news-wise.
How did you go about picking who would accompany your (le) Poisson Rouge shows? People whose work I really like and people with whom I really like to work. You can go through the list like that. Mostly the reaction was very positive, as you can see from who's playing, For example, the one on Wednesday: Rosanne Cash - we weren't friends, but we are now. I'm a huge fan and have been for years. Errollyn Wallen - fantastic classical composer from the UK. She's setting some texts of mine to music and she's going to play one. She's coming over especially for the concert. Colson Whitehead - one of my favourite writers and a neighbour. I asked him to read a piece I saw him reading in Brooklyn recently. Colum McCann - a wonderful writer. We became friends at a literary conference in Paris, stayed up all one night singing folk songs, first in a restaurant with many people, and then in his hotel rooms. It was one of those nights that seemed never to end. I'm hoping Wednesday seems like that too, but in a good way. And of course Eugene Mirman will be there too - and we will then take the show, as "Wes and Eugene's Cabinet of Wonders" all around America - which means it will be him, me, all my friends, but all his friends too.
You've collaborated with many, who (dead or alive) would be in your ultimate super group? The Beatles or The Young Fresh Fellows, whoever was available.
Are there any current bands you are particularly enjoying? Espers. Yeasayer. The Decemberists. Destroyer. Clare and The Reasons. Is that enough? Generally, I wait to hear what my trusted friends tell me to listen to, and then I say: "Yes, I like that, Matt." Actually, I'd be quite happy if someone said: "Nothing after 1972 for you, Buddy." And I'd probably be OK if they added: "And nothing before either. Just 1972. That's your lot." Think of all the great things I could have.
Do you find writing novels or writing music comes easier to you? Writing music (that is songs as opposed to symphonies) must come easier to anyone than writing novels... I mean, unless that person had no propensity for writing songs at all. A song might take a few hours; a book definitely takes a few years. That seems infinitely harder, not to mention being an incredible feat of endurance. But the actual writing bit, that's exactly the same for both - you vs the blank page or the empty screen, hoping for the best, trying to make it feel like a nine-to-five job.
What prompted your move to New York? Did you consider leaving after 9/11 happened just months after moving here? My landlord in Seattle decided to remove me from his house in favour of his family. By then, I'd lived in Atlanta, Los Angeles, San Francisco, then Seattle, and so, skipping the Midwest entirely, moving to the Northeast seemed the logical move. It's a bit closer to England. I didn't consider moving after 9/11. Even once.
Please share your strangest "only in New York" story. Well, it's hardly strange: but Graham Parker early show at The Knitting Factory, Fairport Convention at The Bottom Line, Robyn Hitchcock I can't even remember where, and then Giant Sand late show at The Knitting Factory. That's not bad - and it wasn't even a convention or festival. Just four regular shows in NYC on a particular night. All within walking distance.
Which New Yorker do you most admire? Are there more than one? I read it every week.
Given the opportunity, how would you change New York? It would be exactly the same, but I'd have my football team, Arsenal, have their stadium here. And yet have them stay in England, because otherwise they wouldn't have any of their British rivals to play. It's really a very complicated idea and it doesn't need elucidation.
Under what circumstance have you thought about leaving New York? I love New York. It might be nicer for my kids to have a little bit more grass behind the house than they do. That's the circumstance, in fact, that will make me leave.
What's your current soundtrack? Alton Ellis. Patto. That recent NPR broadcast of Leonard Cohen live at The Beacon. Merle Haggard's Back To The Barrooms. The John Martyn (RIP) boxed set. Some strange songs by John Pantry. Barry Gibbs' demos for the Guilty album, sans Streisand. Honestly, these are great.
Best cheap eat in the city. I think the lunch at Hibino on Henry Street (off Atlantic) cannot be beaten. I can't imagine anything better, cheaper.
Best venue to see music. A great seat at Joe's Pub for someone you really want to see. Le Poisson Rouge, of course. They have such high quality shows there.... Bell House is also excellent.