"When I first started making music, I took a fake name to disguise the fact I was going to embark on what was bound to be a short, unsatisfactory musical career," John Wesley Harding says. That was 23 years ago.
Harding recently launched a side career as a novelist, for which he uses his given name: Wesley Stace. But he's continued to release music under his alias, a name he shares with a 1967 Bob Dylan record. Speaking with Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon, Harding says he's learned to spread the wealth between his two creative personas.
"I think that novel-writing is kind of taking care of a lot of the fictional impulses that I have. Now, when I think of an idea for a song, I often think, 'Oh, no — that's a terrible idea for a song. But it's a great idea to put into a novel,' " Harding says. "Suddenly, I find myself writing rather more personal material — which, of course, is what a lot of people do use music for. I'd just never really used it in that way."
Harding's latest album is called The Sound of His Own Voice. It features plenty of guests, including Rosanne Cash, Peter Buck of R.E.M., and most of the members of The Decemberists. Asked whether those collaborations affect the work, Harding says it's "a bit of a horse-and-cart, egg-and-hen situation."
"I really wanted to make an album with all the guys in The Decemberists, and so this record really is a long web of friendships going back many, many years," Harding says. "Rather than [say], 'Oh, I'll write a bunch of songs,' I'll look through the songs that I have and go, 'Which songs do I think will make a good album, and which will this particularly versatile group of musicians sound really great playing?' "
One of the more provocative songs on the album is "There's a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)." The video, shot in New York in less than five hours, comprises shots of Harding performing in front of 28 different Starbucks locations. The coffee chain's ubiquity is a well-worn punch line, but Harding says Starbucks isn't his real target.
"To me, it's a song about gentrification," Harding says. "It could be Starbucks, it could be The Gap, it could be Barnes and Noble. It could be anyone. It just happens that Starbucks — it's like saying 'God' or 'the Devil.' People know what you mean."
The song "Uncle Dad" is similarly loaded, pairing bittersweet lyrics about divorce with a lilting melody and a bouncy beat. Harding says the contrast is intentional — and comes from years of learning the hard way how content and music fit together.
"On some of my early records, there were some real missteps. There's a particular song on my third record that is so not how that song should have gone — it was a down and depressed and dour song, but somehow in the studio it became a rip-roaring, Springsteen kind of song," Harding says. "Ever since then, when I look back on those things, I try and really make it so that the song and the message fit together. But sometimes, those two things are in counterpoint."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Wesley Stace has been on this program before but as a best-selling novelist. So this time we thought we'd invite his alter ego to join us on the program - the acclaimed singer and songwriter, John Wesley Harding.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING YOUR OWN SONG")
JOHN WESLEY HARDING: (Singing) Long ago I had a dream a man came up to me. He gave me paper and a pen and a constant guarantee. He said write six words, make the next line rhyme, and learn four basic chords. When you've got the third line, well, in next to no time, well, you'll be wanting more.
SIMON: And that's the first track off of John Wesley Harding's new CD "The Sound of His Own Voice". It's called "Sing Your Own Song."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING YOUR OWN SONG")
HARDING: (Singing) You can write your own words. You can sing your own song. And it doesn't really matter if you're out of tune or if no one sings along.
SIMON: And John Wesley Harding joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.
HARDING: Thank you. We're both happy to be with you.
SIMON: Do you ever find it confusing, Wesley Stace/John Wesley Harding?
HARDING: When I first started making music I took a fake name, which is John Wesley Harding, to disguise the fact I was going to just embark on what was bound to a be short, unsatisfactory musical career. And, you know, if you'd said to me 23 years ago would you like to make music under Wesley Stace or John Wesley Harding, I'd probably have said Wesley Stace, but I went with the John Wesley Harding. And the one advantage to that in the long run was that when it came to the novels I was able to put them out under my own name which was very satisfying.
SIMON: Mm-hmm. How does one affect the other?
HARDING: Oh, that's an interesting question. I think that writing fiction with the three novels I've written has freed up my music in an unexpected way. I think that novel writing is kind of taking care of a lot of the fictional impulses that I have. And now, when I think of an idea for a song I often think, oh, no, that's a terrible idea for a song but it's a great idea to put into a novel.
And that left me at kind of an impasse with songwriting and suddenly I find myself writing rather more personal material, which, of course, is what a lot of people do use music for. I've just never really used it in that way.
SIMON: This album features members of The Decemberists and R.E.M., and did that figure much into your songwriting?
HARDING: Well, it's a bit of a horse and cart, and egg and hen situation. I could think of a lot of things, metaphors for that. But it's like I really wanted to make an album with all the guys in The Decemberists and so this record really is a long web of friendships going back many, many years. And there's so many - like Roseanne Cash is on the record.
HARDING: Is a more recent friend who I met via basically Twitter. And so what happens with the songs is once you've got the record in place it's more like rather than, oh, I'll write a bunch of songs. I look through the songs that I have and go, which songs do I think will, A, make a good album and, B, will this particular and particularly versatile group of musicians sound really great playing?
SIMON: We want to play the song you and Roseanne Cash do on the CD, "Good News (& Bad News)."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GOOD NEWS (& BAD NEWS)")
HARDING: (Singing together) And the bad news is that there is no news. You don't write. You don't call. And the good news is that there is no news. And the bad news is that there is no news.
HARDING: That was actually the last song I wrote for the album and I did very much write it with her singing the chorus with me in mind. And she's always a joy to work with, as everybody who's worked with her knows.
SIMON: Let me ask you about "There's a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Use to Be)."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE'S A STARBUCKS (WHERE THE STARBUCKS USED TO BE)")
HARDING: (Singing) There's a freeway where we played football in a field, apartments on the pitch at Highbury. There's a shed called Deer Creek, of which my one critique is there's no creek now and it's all deer-free. There's a Walgreen's where there were no walls, just greenery. There's a theme park in a palace in Tennessee. That tree there is a pylon but some things you can rely on. There's a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be. There's a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be...
SIMON: And we'll explain that in the video you're shown performing in front of one Starbucks after another. How many did you hit?
HARDING: Twenty-eight. Twenty-eight. And I had 28 different shirts as well, because we did it all in about 4 or 5 hours around New York City and Brooklyn. And I wanted to make it look like it was all at different times. So basically, I had a car in which the back of it were 28 different shirts and I just â if you look it's the same pair of pants.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: I don't in any way want to distract from the message of the song and affecting lyrics and, you know, the Walgreen's where there used to be no walls.
SIMON: But taking the message of the song on, I mean, at the same time wouldn't you be pleased if Starbucks sold your CD?
HARDING: I mean, that's such a minor consideration to me. Is it an anti-Starbucks message in any way in the song? I don't think it is. It's a song, I mean, I'm not trying to get myself out of a difficult position. To me it's a song about gentrification and, you know, it could be Starbucks, it could the Gap, it could be Barnes and Noble. It could be anyone and it just happens that Starbucks - it's like saying God or the devil.
People know what you mean. And they're useful touchstones. God, devil, Starbucks. And Starbucks in the middle, of course, of those two poles.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLE DAD")
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mom, he's here.
SIMON: Tell us a little bit about "Uncle Dad."
HARDING: Well, I was talking to a friend of mine from - well, it doesn't matter where she's from. But I said, how's your husband with the kids now? You split up. And she went, oh, he's great. He's great. He's just like Uncle Dad. And she didn't mean it in a very, very positive way.
HARDING: And it was just a phrase that stuck with me because, you know, I have a 5-year-old and a 3-year-old. My parents split up when I was 7, and I remember those kind of hostage tradeoffs, you know, with the children and stuff.
HARDING: And I just wanted to write a song from a child's point of view about how the children realize that though Dad's the fun one and turns up every now and then with, you know, some chocolates and a new girlfriend and a fast car and stuff, or whatever, that Mum's doing all the work.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNCLE DAD")
HARDING: (Singing) He comes a-knocking on a Friday night with a box of Black Magic and a bottle of white. And if she's with him, she waits outside. Watch her do her lipstick in the passenger light. Mum gets quiet, Mum gets sad. She sits in the kitchen lost in the want ads. Mum, she makes the breakfast...
SIMON: Is the real pain of that song, and maybe I say that as a child of divorce myself, is the real pain of that song affected by the kind of lilting melody there?
HARDING: Yeah. I mean, I tried to get a lot of the music that I love into this album and that one would clearly reference the Kinks, one of my all-time favorite bands. And Ray Davies, and indeed, Dave Davies, they were never afraid to send a message that was bittersweet with a jaunty tune. And partly, it's a functional - on some of my early records there were some real missteps, where - there's a particular on officially my third record that is so not how that song should've gone. Do you know what I mean?
HARDING: It was a down and depressed and dour song but somehow in the studio it became a kind of rip-roaring Springsteen kind of song. And ever since then when I look back on those things, I try and really make it so that the song and the message fits together, but sometimes those two things are in counterpoint.
SIMON: I've read that you had a bout of illness earlier this year.
HARDING: I did.
SIMON: The payoff is, I read, that it made you determined to write even more songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HARDING: Well, yeah, it's true. I was on book tour and somewhere, the theory is, science tells me, that off some unwashed piece of fruit I picked up a really nasty parasite that basically meant that I lost about 20-plus pounds in about 2 or 3 months. And I literally found that my only solace was writing songs and it started me on a completely different songwriting path that I alluded to earlier when we were talking about, you know, what fiction writing, kind of writing novels and music has done. And it led me down a much different path, and I'm very excited that I will be recording the 50 songs that I've written since then.
SIMON: You were sick.
HARDING: It's been insane. Yeah, sickness is the word. Sickness is the word. It's been an insane period of creativity for songs and I will be recording them all with the same lovely bunch of people, except I'll just be playing them acoustically myself.
SIMON: So if F. Scott Fitzgerald had gotten a parasite, rather than have the range of emotional problems he had, he might've...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SIMON: Trying to figure out how this would've worked out.
HARDING: What a great idea. If we'd only given some of our less productive great artists the parasite I had, we'd have more works by them. It's a great idea.
SIMON: Mr. Harding, thanks so much.
HARDING: Thank you so much for having me on the program. It was really nice to talk to you.
SIMON: John Wesley Harding.
HARDING: We're all saying good-bye.
SIMON: The music-maker and the novelist speaking to us from New York. Their new CD, John Wesley Harding's new CD is called "The Sound of His Own Voice."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALLING OFF THE EXPERIMENT")
HARDING: (Singing) I'm calling off the experiment, I'm ditching all the research. I'm calling off the experiment...
SIMON: You can hear more tracks from John Wesley Harding's new CD at nprmusic.org. I'm going to be away for a couple of weeks. The estimable Linda Wertheimer will be sitting in for me. The question is: will she let me back?
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "CALLING OFF THE EXPERIMENT")
HARDING: (Signing) Talk about monkeys and typewriters, everybody go home. Good night, good night. And will the last one out please turn off the lights? I'm calling off the experiment. Forget the Nobel Prize.
SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.