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May 08, 2009

Novelist, singer, songwriter, musician, performer—John Wesley Harding, aka Wesley Stace, has done it all. Just don’t try to make him pick a favorite.

By Michael Tedder

The artist best known as John Wesley Harding is a storyteller at heart.
And he’s not afraid to go out on a limb with his tales.
Under the moniker of Wesley Stace, he has written three novels in five years; 2005’s Misfortune (an epic tale of a British orphan boy raised as a girl by his wealthy, adopted father), 2007’s By George (a generation-spanning tale of ventriloquists) and an as-yet untitled book (due out in the next year or two) about “a classical composer who murders his wife and lover.”
Harding is no less imaginative when it comes to song lyrics. Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead, his first studio album in five years, includes “My Favorite Angel,” a song about God forgiving Lucifer, and “Top to the Bottom,” a Bret Easton Ellis-inspired parody of the story of his musical career.
Speaking in his New York publicist’s office, Harding is polite and self-effacing. But he insists that—although it’s been five years since his last official album, Adam’s Apple in 2004 (he also released a live album in 2005)—he has never put songwriting on the backburner.
While he wrote most of Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead while working on his novels, Harding had no intention of cutting a new record until a friend offered him the use of his studio in Portland, Ore.
“I looked at the songs I had around then, and I was like, ‘yeah, I should do that,’” he says. “And if I’m going to do it, I might as well think about making an album. And if I’m going to make an album, then I should get some great musicians for it.”
Harding ended up recruiting Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Scott McCaughey of The Minus Five, along with fellow troubadours Mike Viola and Kelly Hogan.
“Things pop up every now and then,” Harding notes. “Sometimes you wait for a reason to do it.”

Name Game

Stace was 20 years old and pursuing a Ph.D. in political science at Cambridge University when he decided to adopt an alias. Honing his chops by busking at the student union, he began performing as John Wesley Harding, a name he took from the Bob Dylan album about a legendary gunfighter.
“I took the name, because I assumed [my music career] would all go badly, quickly, and I’d have to go back to being Wesley Stace,” he explains.
And though Harding’s career didn’t go badly, it didn’t go smoothly either. Starting with his 1990 debut, Here Comes the Groom, he won critical raves and a cult following for his literary songwriting and biting update of the folk-singer paradigm.
But as is often the case with literary songwriters, commercial success didn’t follow, and he has been shuffled from one label to another throughout his career.
Though he had been working on his first novel for seven years, he says he could never get much writing done due to the demands of his burgeoning music career. It wasn’t until after he and his wife had their first child that he found the time to finish Misfortune.
“I’m quite a 9-to-5 kind of writer. I really need that whole day,” he says. “If I’m leaving on tour…it’s not going to work.”


After a few early attempts at what he calls “sub-Nick Hornby” stories about life in a band, he came upon the “Dickensian” idea for Misfortune. He further broke with the musical part of his life by deciding to write under his birth name.
“I didn’t want to sponge off my musical career for books,” he says. “A lot of other projects by musicians are dismissed out of hand, and that would have been very tragic if it had happened to something that took me seven years.”
Rather than being dismissed by the literary community, Harding says he quickly made friends with several authors whom he admired. His first two books were well received and made several best of the year lists, and Misfortune has been optioned for a movie.
Though happy to mix his music and writing talents, he politely bristles when people try to tie his work together too neatly.
“The first review of Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead that I was emailed—a lovely review, thank you—but it was just like, ‘not surprising after his two novels, but John Wesley Harding takes a very literary lyrical stance.’ It’s like, ‘come on, it’s not new at all. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done, for better or worse!’”

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fascinating, a true artist

mark wade
May 13, 2009