Wesley Stace: The Player Retires

Wesley Stace has loved and lost both women and his stage name

It’s difficult to imagine anyone left on the face of the planet (already familiar with the man’s work, that is) who isn’t aware that singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding and critically acclaimed novelist Wesley Stace are one and the same. Henceforth, he has announced that he will record under the name Wesley Stace, and hopefully never again be asked why he assumed the name of a 1967 Bob Dylan album, misspelling and all. “It’s like what happens at the end of a Spider-Man or a Batman movie,” says Stace. “When the superhero reveals his true identity to his girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend” may be the operative word on Stace’s new album, Self-Titled (Yep Roc), in which a 47-year-old man, now comfortably married and living in Philadelphia, reflects back over the loves of his younger life. The first LP to appear under his birth name is a quiet, reflective session, produced by old San Francisco pal Chris Von Sneidern, cut mostly with a string quartet, piano, guitar, bass and drums.

“Although some of my songs had autobiographical moments, I’ve never really done anything like this before,” says Stace. “I wanted the feeling of intimacy, with me whispering secrets, something like those old Colin Blunstone records I’ve always loved. I wanted to sing without having to strain, and these songs are very easy to sing, very few chords.”

Stace has been asked, at various gatherings, to play some of his new material. “I’ve never been very comfortable doing that, just grabbing my guitar and digging in,” he says. “I really don’t think my songs go down in that kind of atmosphere.” He might change his mind if anyone ever requests a rendition of “We Will Always Have New York,” a rousing tale of a different girl in a different time. “We were both falling in love with each other and with New York at the same time,” says Stace. Add a familiar skim-coat of piano and Hammond organ, and it’s something Gary Brooker might have turned into a smash with Procol Harum.

“A Canterbury Kiss” reveals a tender moment with Stace and a young girl sitting in a park in England’s majestic cathedral city. “All I wanted to do was give her a kiss, and all she wanted to do was talk about Jimi Hendrix,” he laughs. A pair of songs from a recent collaboration with Fiery Furnaces’ Eleanor Friedberger (”When I Knew” and “Stare At The Sun”) are distilled by Stace into real break-up downers. “Eleanor’s versions of those two, from her new album, are much more upbeat,” he says.

More dramatic than any of the encounters detailed on the new LP was one that Stace remembers as “a complete disaster,” something that was not memorialized in song. He was standing in the queue outside a Hastings cinema, he recalls, when a girl in a striking, aquamarine mohawk asked him for a cigarette. “I leaned over to give her a light,” he says. “And her entire mohawk caught on fire, and it spread like wildfire. Fortunately, she just laughed it off.”

—Jud Cost