John Wesley Harding performs at Schuba's Nov. 26
The buzz about The Confessions of St. Ace (Mammoth), John Wesley Harding's new album, begins long before "Humble Bee," the opening track. Praised as Wes's best album, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better one. The Beatles and Elvis Costello references are still there, but now they sound original. They sound like Seattle-transplant Harding's own invention. Only Wes could get Jimmie Dale Gilmore to conjure the ghost of Roy Orbison, as you can hear on "Bad Dream Baby." "She's A Piece Of Work," "I'm Wrong About Everything," and "Goth Girl," deserve to be hit singles.
The album's last two tracks, the haunting "After The Fact" and the dark "Too Much Into Nothing," are so good that you might not be able to wait until you get to the end of the disc to listen to them.
If you think that his songs are sweet, funny and smart, you should try talking to him. I had the chance to do just that and here's what we talked about:
It's been 10 years since the release of your major-label, domestically released debut Here Comes The Groom what have you learned in that time?
John Wesley Harding: Lots of things. My god! Everything I know, pretty much, particularly about making music. I mean, when I started making music, which wasn't quite with the release of that album, but only a couple of years away. I really knew nothing about how to make albums or how to arrange a song. On my first albums, I think quality will out in the end, but on the first album I think it was a bunch of strong songs, a bunch of enthusiasm and a very good band. ... But over the last 10 years through major labels and through smaller labels, I pretty much learned how to make records exactly the way I want to make them (laughs).
So after three or four years of making cheaper, on my own budget kind of records, when I finally got the chance, not that I was particularly looking for the chance, weirdly enough, to make a label to make an album with a little bit more poke, I kind of know what I'm doing. I don't think the songs have gotten any better. I think I've learned that you get more self-conscious as you get older, not allowing yourself to do the same things over and over, which makes creating and making up new things increasingly difficult (laughs).
Has it ever been a struggle coming with something new to say in a song?
JWH: I've never had a writer's block or anything and I just like to write stuff. But I find myself increasingly dissatisfied if I ever do something that is vaguely the same as what I've done before. The problem is, you've done more and more stuff before.
Exactly, you've got more a back log there, it's like you're sometimes borrowing from yourself for each song.
JWH: People do that all the time and I think that it's very boring (laughs). Because basically there's a global feeling that the public really wants the same thing over and over again. I don't know if that's true on the major scheme of things, but certainly that is the way artists work. Also a lot of artists that are very famous write incredibly few songs, and believe me, I wouldn't mind doing it myself. I think they spend a lot of time going to premieres and being in (Rolling Stone Magazine's) "Random Notes" (laughs).
People are being noted doing things and wearing great clothes the whole time and it makes you wonder about when people are writing songs. Whereas somebody like me writes songs ... I just write songs because I write them all the time. I love doing it. It's like an iceberg, my songwriting career. I mean what's actually comes out on albums is probably an eighth of the songs I've written. For this new album ... St. Ace, I had 40 songs on the demo tape for it. I wanted to make the kind of pop record of the kind that I make, but I didn't know how I was going to get the resources ... in fact, I thought it was going be impossible to get the resources to make the record I wanted to make. As it happened, I was able to get them which was just a complete piece of good luck on my part. The deal was that of those 40 songs and those weren't even all of them, they were the good ones that I felt were ready to go right then, and of those 40 songs I had to pick 12.
How do you face such a daunting task?
JWH: You do that, not by just picking your favorites, but by seeing what album you want to make and picking what is most appropriate to that album.
You haven't discarded those other songs, have you? Will they ever end up on another album?
JWH: Well, I wish that were true. The sad truth is that this year I have a little mass of songs that I've written in my "New songs 2000" folder on my desk-top, because once I've written them in notebooks I transfer to them to the computer and that's when they're kind of written in stone a little more. "Oh, yeah, there's that one. That's a new song now. Not just a fragment lying around, but actually something that is finished and I can play that for someone around now." What happens is, you write new ones so by the time it gets to the next album, The Further Confessions of Saint Ace, or whatever that one's going to be, and if I still want to make a pop album next, then there'll be those 28 ones left over, but there'll also be quite a few from the album before which I've probably forgotten now and there'll also be, I presume, 25 new ones. So, in fact, you wish they did all come out, but the truth about those 28 songs is that one came out on some guy's album in Europe.
That's where publishing comes in right? If you have those songs available for other singers to come to you?
JWH: Yes, that is officially his job, that's true. I have an interesting publisher, because he publishes Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe and me. I would say that they are all great songwriters, but I would say that none of them are known for other's doing covers of their work.
Except for Elvis Costello...
JWH: Yes, but nobody ever has a hit with one (laughs). But even when you say, "Yes, Elvis Costello," we know a lot about music and we know that Dave Edmunds and Robert Wyatt and Aimee Man (each) covered one, but the bottom line is not many people do them.
It's funny, because on the new Bette Midler album, she actually does a cover of "God Give Me Strength," which [Costello] co-wrote with Burt Bacharach. ...
JWH: It's funny, because I've been trying to get Bette Midler to cover a song of mine called "The Movie Of Your Life," off The Name Above The Title, for ages. I think it would be a perfect song for her to do..
One other thing about that bunch of songs. I've now put out three of these albums called Dynablob, which are only sold at gigs and stuff, and I generally keep them out of stores. There are three of those now. The second volume is totally unreleased songs played live, and they're songs that never made it to albums and the first volume was unreleased songs that I did as demos which never made it on to albums.
Which is why I think for a lot of people, having a website is a place like Jonatha Brooke and Aimee Mann have put out records on their own which were originally available only on their websites. Even Cher has a new album only be available on her website.
JWH: It is a good thing. When I started doing the Dynablobs, people weren't putting out their own albums at that time. It strikes me as funny, in fact, that people putting out their own albums is now looked upon as revolutionary, because I'm sure that a lot of the albums that I used to buy were people putting out their own albums. I think it just happens that when things have reached such a pass, that artists that one thinks of as slightly bigger, not has to, but chooses to (put out an album on their own). Then people start to ask questions about exactly why that is. Obviously for Aimee Mann, being a "failure" was her best career move ever.
Speaking of success and failure, the consensus about The Confessions of St. Ace, your new album, seems to be that it is your best work to date. How do you feel about that?
JWH: Very pleased (laugh). Absolutely delighted. I'd probably agree. My "real" first album, It Happened One Night, people loved that album. I find it unlistenable. I mean, I can barely sing on it and I think I'm badly in need of an editor. But I'm really pleased.
Why do you think your fans and the critics are so fond of the album?
JWH: I think people relate to it on a slightly more personal level. I think people like me are often criticized for being "too clever," which I think is completely bogus. I think the point is to use your brain and stuff and wouldn't want to not do it and you don't want to just keep your fingers crossed and hope that the right people are going to hear the music. There's an audience for everyone out there, truth be known, and it just has to do with your record label or your distribution system or whatever tapping into those people.
What I think people relate to with this album is a kind of a certain element of stuff about me in the songs that really ultimately means that they're falling for the biggest show business trap in the world, which is to believe that Sinatra is the guy in the song that he's singing. But, because of this lineage of singer/songwriters-Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell-all singing about their own private lives, it has become .an acceptable or preferred mode of singer/songwriterdom. My mode is much more ironic than that. This record, certainly there's concern about relationships, sex, human beings and stuff like that. Now whether that has to do with me or not is irrelevant. Obviously I wrote it, but, I think have also responded to that.
Don't you think that there's a certain risk involved with putting the word "confessions" in the title of an album?
JWH: You know what? I hadn't thought that (laughs). To me The Confessions of St. Augustine is one of the great works in the canon of "modern" western thought. And so, that's what I was thinking of. And, St. Ace, is
my (real) last name (Stace). Yes, of course, all my songs are very honest in the sense that they're actual thoughts. I make a lot of stuff up, but there's no bullshit in my lyrics. I'm not going, "Oh baby, baby, I love you, yeah." That's just bullshit ... obviously there are ways of saying that I love you that are incredibly soulful and I would hope that I've managed to say it in a song on this album (laughs).
In addition to working with Steve Earle and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, was there anything about Nashville that might make you consider relocating there?
JWH: Absolutely not (laughs). No question, no question. I think it's a very ironic record. You know that magazine No Depression? You know those people who are into No Depression? Yes. The scene, is very big here in
Chicago. Bloodshot Records is here in town.
JWH: Of course. And Wilco. When first news of my album seeped out, that I made it in Nashville, and that Steve Earle and Jimmie Dale Gilmore are on it, it looked like I'd sold my soul to alternative country and got the No Depression pension plan. ... There is no country on the record. It's a record that was made in Nashville that sounds incredibly unlike a Nashville record. The coincidence is that Steve Earle is an old acquaintance of mine, friend, I suppose. I happened to see him in Philly and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm making my album in Nashville," and he said "I'm going to be there then," and I said, "Well, come and sing," and he was like "Cool." ... Also, Jimmie Dale Gilmore happened to be in town making an album with Buddy Miller.
What is it about Seattle that is so appealing to you?
JWH: I've always had a lot of good musical friends here, and always have had since I first started coming out here. Chicago and Philly and Boston and LA are all very good towns for me. Seattle was never the greatest town in the world for me, in terms of coming up here and playing for 500 people. That just never really happened. But I made a lot of good musical friends here, for I suppose the same reason that grunge happened here so many years ago. There's a bunch of really great people making music.
The wonderfully written chapbook, Notes Towards A Clarification of The Confessions Of St. Ace, is a wonderful promotional tool.
JWH: I didn't write it as a promotional tool. I wrote it purely for pleasure. I really don't like printing the lyrics on the booklet very much. So my original idea was, "Well, people always seem to want the lyrics, so how can I do it? Oh, well it would be interesting to write notes on them, like Pale Fire by Nabokov." And it just happened that my father, who's a classical scholar had just written a book that came out in Penguin Classics. He wrote one on the lives of the saints from this book called The Golden Legend, that was like Flaubert's favorite book or something. I read it last year and I asked him if he could add some really good saintly stuff.
He did better than that. I mean I went through a whole lot of it and made some more rock n' roll jokes in it, about Peter Murphy and the missing lyrics and the political stuff. Then he went through and added a whole lot of textually accurate saint stuff which is really his thing. And then my girlfriend Shelley Jackson, she's a writer, and she wrote the long piece at the beginning about The Gnostic Ace, about the sheep and the breakfast cereal. That was how it all came about. And I e-mailed it to a couple of close friends, one of whom was Rob (Seidenberg), who produced the album and signed the album to Mammoth. He immediately wrote back and said, "we've got to do something with this, this is fantastic." He said, "We're gonna put it in this book. ... We think that you are the best person to come up with the stuff to sell this record and this is great!" What I like about it is that it's kind of hilarious and serious all at the same time, and so are my lyrics. You look at "Humble Bee," and it's a song ostensibly about bees, but I would really want that to be a moving song. I'm not just writing silly gibberish lyrics. I was really pleased that I'm on a record label that would think that that was a good thing to do.
I'm really glad that you mentioned "Humble Bee." It opens with the lines "Once upon a time I could have had it all/A princess with a price on her head/Or the prince who'd climb her wall," which addresses the subject of sexuality in your songs.
JWH: You wouldn't have to really look through my lyrics very hard, I think. There's a song on the first album called "When the Sun Comes Out," which is obviously, and to me rather painfully now (in linguistic terms), a pun on the "s-o-n" coming "out" of the closet. It was an amusing, yet deep and quite moving thought to me at the time. So you really wouldn't have to look hard in my lyrics to think, "Oh, he's gay" or "He's bi" or something like that. It certainly wouldn't be too much of a stretch. Certainly, when I first came America, I'd been told by a number of people I had that first album cover where I was kinda naked...
You were shirtless.
JWH: I've been told since, not that I did it for that reason I did it for a number of reasonsa lot of people assumed that I was gay for the first album, when I first came over. A couple of people that I've met since said, "We just thought you were gay."
How do you respond to that?
JWH: I suppose good. Or bad or whatever. People can think whatever they think. If you're asking me, as a writer for the gay press, "Am I gay?" I certainly never identified myself as gay, although I've certainly identified myself as bi even though I'm living very comfortably with a woman of the female kind at the time.
Sort of the Tom Robinson school of sexual identity?
JWH: Remember that Tom Robinson produced my first stuff. He was the first person, who ever said to me "You know what, you are really good." Him and Chris Difford of Squeeze. Both writers that I totally love.