Catching up with prolific Harding

Harding recording in Ardmore. "I'm very fortunate that music critics get my music, which only proves that music criticism doesn't sell records, ultimately."
Harding recording in Ardmore. "I'm very fortunate that music critics get my music, which only proves that music criticism doesn't sell records, ultimately."
Posted: November 23, 2011

In a career of more than two decades, John Wesley Harding has built one of the most impressive resumés in pop culture.

Starting with It Happened One Night in 1988, the British songwriter, who now lives with his wife and two children in Chestnut Hill, has released a steady stream of sharp-witted albums, the most recent of which is the intelligent-as-ever and more-catchy-than-usual The Sound of His Own Voice.

Besides his recording career, the 46-year-old Cambridge-educated storyteller, who took his nom de rock from a Bob Dylan album, has a parallel career under his given name, Wesley Stace. He has written three entertaining and erudite novels, including Misfortune (2005), By George (2007), and the classical-music thriller Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murder (2010).

The Sound of His Own Voice is expertly produced by Harding and multi-instrumentalist Scott McCaughey, with backing by members of the Portland, Ore., indie band the Decemberists, plus guitarist Peter Buck, formerly of R.E.M.

This month Harding, McCaughey, and the four Decemberists - Chris Funk, John Moen, Jenny Conlee-Drizos, and Nate Query - came to Range Recording Studios in Ardmore to perform songs from the new album, including the single "There's a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be)" and a cover of Procol Harum's "Rambling On." Harding (who performs solo, opening for Marshall Crenshaw, at the New Hope Winery on Dec. 9) also sat for an interview at Range. Excerpts of that conversation follow.

Question: You've been touring with a great band, which is the same group who played on your new album, The Sound of His Own Voice. It's four members of the Decemberists, plus Scott McCaughey and Peter Buck of R.E.M. Is [Decemberists frontman] Colin Meloy jealous?

Answer: I don't want to speak out of turn, but I believe that Peter Buck is currently unemployed and the Decemberists are on hiatus. So they're stepping up to the big bucks to play with me.

Q: When you were on a tour stop in Portland this month, you tweeted that you were going into the studio to record 47 new songs. 47! That's a lot.

A: That's my output since last December. Because of the novel-writing I do, I came to a bit of an impasse with writing new songs. Because I would keep thinking of ideas, and then I would think, that's a good idea for a novel, but it's not a good idea for a song.

And then I started writing songs about my friends and my personal life and my family and people I had been in love with and people who died - and I had never attempted that before. Because I had always tried to make the songs, for want of a better word, literary. I wanted to write short stories in songs, or explore emotions or politics or culture.

And then I had this breakthrough, where a friend of mine died in a plane crash and then I went to his house and stayed in his bedroom, which is a very eerie experience. And I thought, I'll write a song about that. And that kind of opened the floodgates for me. So that's why there's so many.

Q: In your most recent novel, the narrator is a critic - a mean-spirited, small-minded critic.

A: Yes, Dan. I have been asked if that is my revenge on critics, but I have nothing to revenge them for. . . . I'm very fortunate that music critics get my music, which only proves that music criticism doesn't sell records, ultimately.

Q: You put out your last album, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, yourself.

A: Yes. Very tiring.

Q: This one came out on Yep Roc. Was it too much to balance the creative and the business sides?

A: Yes. It was just too much work for me. It was rather fulfilling, and it made money. But ultimately tiring . . . As you might imagine, when I'm not recording music and I'm not out on the road, I want to be sitting at home writing novels, and it was eating away at that.

Q: When I last talked to you, you had just seen Leonard Cohen at the Academy of Music, which you proclaimed to be "my favorite gig ever." There's a song on The Sound of His Own Voice called "The Examiners" . . . .

A: Absolutely. Here's the story: I think I always wanted to do a Leonard Cohen song where I intone with that sincerity and hilarity that he manages to get sometimes so you don't know whether you're laughing or crying.

But wordsmith though I'm looked upon as, thank you, I don't think I've ever written a lyric in which I've had the confidence to do that myself. And I read this poem by John Whitworth in the Times Literary Supplement . . . and it just leapt off the page for me. So I took a poet's poem that I knew I could declaim in that Leonard Cohen style.

Q: You moved to Philadelphia to raise your children, right?

A: I love Philly. I used to come here all the time because my wife's family's from here. . . . I feel myself to have a pretty profound link to Philly. I first went to see the Free Library and saw the Dickens-Poe raven featured in the novel Barnaby Rudge, and the inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven"], like 21 years ago. WXPN has always been wonderful and supportive. There's record stores I really like.

Q: Such as?

A: a.k.a. music [in Old City], Hideaway in Chestnut Hill, Main Street Music in Manayunk.

Q: Were you thinking about Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" when you wrote "Starbucks"?

A: Absolutely. I wanted it to be like "Big Yellow Taxi," but updated. "Big Yellow Taxi" says "They paved paradise and put up a parking lot." A very old-fashioned view, and one that still talks. Well, nowadays, they've paved paradise, and they're repaving paradise. Well, what happens then? There's a Starbucks where the Starbucks used to be.

Q: Are you going to do more dates with this band in 2012?

A: I'd like to play some festivals, and top of my list is the Philadelphia Folk Festival. Because I think this lineup - me backed up by the Decemberists and Peter and Scott on a big stage in Philadelphia - would be stellar.


Coming Friday: For video of Dan DeLuca's Q&A session with John Wesley Harding and an exclusive recording session with Harding and the King Charles Trio at Range Recording Studios in Ardmore, see The Inquirer's iPad and tablet app. See Harding perform a song at www.philly.com/inthemixlive.


Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628, deluca@phillynews.com, or @delucadan on Twitter. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at www.philly.com/inthemix.

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