Folk / pop singer-songwriter and author Wesley Stace is bringing his Cabinet of Wonders (a series of variety shows) to London on Jan 31st – his debut UK show. Melz Durston caught up with Wesley to talk about his show recently – read on to find out how the conversation went.
Philadelphia-based, Hastings-born Wesley Stace (once AKA John Wesley Harding) has made a living from music since 1989 when he signed to Sire Records alongside Throwing Muses. Life has a habit of coming full circle, and this month, Stace comes home to his native UK with his show, Cabinet of Wonders. Featuring musicians, authors and comedians from this novelist and songwriter’s ever-growing address book, the variety show also brings back Kristin Hersh back after her September tour with Throwing Muses and her sister, Tanya Donelly, in support.
Since 2009, Wes has brought together artists, musicians and writers and an impressive roster from the accumulation of over sixty previous shows, including Rosanne Cash, Aaron Neville, Joan Osborne, Steve Earle, Nick Hornby, Peter Carey, Stephin Merritt and Andrew VanWyngarden of MGMT. The idea initially developed as a record release launch in NYC for his 2009 album Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, and has blossomed into what the New Yorker calls “one of the finest nights of entertainment this city has to offer.”
Stace has written four novels, with his most recent, Wonderkid, published in 2014 and is currently working on another novel, a new album and of course, a sprinkling of Cabinet shows to take place in NYC at City Winery beginning this March.
It wasn’t a record or band that first sparked the idea, but a film: “The Cabinet can possibly be traced back to things like the movie of the first Secret Policeman’s Ball, which blew my mind as a young teenager: Tom Robinson, Pete Townshend, and Monty Python. Amazing. I used to do a show called The Medicine Show at the Mean Fiddler years ago – late 80s – when I was still in the UK. That was probably the prototype. But I have a better address book now than I did then.”
Sailor’s ‘Glass of Champagne’ was the first record he bought — and little did he know that he would one day support Bruce Springsteen. But then he isn’t a shrinking violet: “No stage fright ever: I can’t imagine doing what I do and having the slightest worry about doing it. Self-consciousness would be awful. You just have to be ready to make mistakes and not worry about them. I suppose one is apt to be more nervous playing to two friends in a small room than a load of people on a well-organized stage.”
The shows, often unpredictable, attract talent from all over the artistic map, but it is the interpersonal connections that ultimately resonate with both artists and audiences: “The show is best, most relaxed, when it’s a lot of people I know. I draw a lot of inspiration from the work of friends, sometimes just in their attitudes. Tanya has always been an inspiration to me, as has Kristin Hersh.”
Kristin has appeared at several Cabinets over the years, including a 2009 New Orleans version alongside author Rick Moody, Tom Piazza and Laura Lippman. This time, she joins the Queen of British Folk Shirley Collins, comedian Harry Hill, poet Paul Muldoon, and author Jonathan Coe: “Kristin will be singing. Without giving away too much, The High Llamas, of whom I am a big fan, will be playing as themselves and also as the house band; they’ll accompany, I imagine, me, Kristin and Nick Lowe, at the very least. Paul Muldoon – a regular Cabinet member and a wonderful poet (of course) with whom I’ve also taught – will read, perhaps to musical accompaniment, and Jonathan Coe, my favourite British novelist (who has also done the show in NYC), may do something similar. In NYC, he played some proggy keyboards with my band, The English UK, and we might try to reprise that. Shirley Collins is probably my favourite singer of all time and I am so thrilled that she agreed to do the show: we’re just putting her segment together now. Quite a few people will sing together, and I’m just doing the order at the moment. Quite a lot goes into the planning, but the shows are very easy and fun: just like watching a snowball roll down a hill. I shouldn’t think London will be that different to NYC, and I can say that it’s generally quite a long show!”
Musicians and authors go hand in hand. Where a song might just tell the tip of the iceberg, it can be this intuitive feel for telling a story that suggests and sometimes disguises, the ugliness, complications and misunderstandings of life. To write a novel might seem a larger imaginative feat but as Wesley (contributor to The New York Times and the TLS among others) explains: “They’re completely different disciplines, but not unconnected, since it’s just you against an empty sheet of paper or a blank screen. The characters in novels have to have motivation; in songs, you can write in shorthand. But it’s hard to generalise, for obvious reasons. I write songs very quickly, generally in transit; and novels take me years and only happen at home. It’s not like I ever go: “too big for a song, let’s make this one a novel!””
Stace teaches songwriting at Princeton University, alongside poet, Paul Muldoon — who will be appearing at this month’s Cabinet show in London. A collaboration between the two writers resulted in an original song, Cover, for which The Decemberists and Peter Buck were Stace’s backing band. In Connecticut, there is a degree programme with a module entirely dedicated the works of both John Wesley Harding and Wesley Stace.
Stace lists emotion as the foundation to any song. If a song can make you feel something, or expresses something you can relate to, then that’s the honey. It is the basis of much of his own songwriting, including the lived experience that filtered into the song We Will Always Have New York: “It’s the story of all my memories of being in love in, and with, New York City. I visited for years, stayed there occasionally, then moved there – just before 9/11 – and then I moved away, and now live in Philadelphia. And it’s that entire relationship, and those various relationships, collapsed into one song.”
Reassuringly, although Stace has been known as John Wesley Harding, what you see on stage is the real thing: “No role-play with me! I’m almost precisely the same onstage and off (which is probably a little tiring). And yes, like everyone else, all the various things I do add up to me. I’m very lucky to do what I do.”
And this is exactly how the Cabinet shows are. Spontaneous and open to morphing in the moment, the artists involved are always there for the right reasons: “No one’s really doing it for the money; they’re doing it to make a good show, and see some other good people, maybe even make a friend. It’s a nice aspect of it. Sometimes just getting some of the artists on to a stage is a great thing in itself! It’s always a lot of fun. We’ve had very few prima donnas! Everyone comes wanting to do the best they can, and to have a good time doing it. As for rehearsals, there is no dry run, but the band comes in well-rehearsed and we then run the songs, as far as is possible, in the soundcheck with the performers. Of course, as with everything, too rigid a structure can fuck you up, so you have to be ready to let the show evolve.”
Tanya Donelly has taken part in previous Cabinet events and it was through these chance meetings with other talented artists that Tanya began a dialogue with people who personally inspired her: the catalyst for her recent work, Swan Song Series. Tanya was recently in the UK touring with Kristin Hersh and Throwing Muses, as well as her husband Dean Fisher (who, it has just been announced, is back aboard the Juliana Hatfield 3 boat, also a previous Cabinet guest alongside Evan Dando), showcasing some of these songs, which she developed alongside friends and artists met along the way:
“A few years ago I was asked by my friend Wes (Wesley Stace aka John Wesley Harding) to take part in The Cabinet of Wonders, a kind of travelling cabaret he created with Eugene Mirman that taps into the local talent pool of the cities it visits. At the time, I found myself slipping into retirement, not quite on purpose, and this sounded fun so I signed on. That night, and at subsequent Cabinets, I met some writers and musicians that I had admired for years, and the general collaborative vibe was exciting and inspiring to me. At the end of these shows, there were the usual polite post-party “we should do something together” farewells, and I started following up on these parting conversations; asking for either musical or lyrical contributions that might turn into songs. I ended up receiving everything from a few scattered words and chords, to fully fleshed out poems or song structures, and one short story.” (Cited from tanyadonelly.com)
And it seems that the shows, as well as paving the way for creative collaborations, are as much an inspiration for Stace as they are for the artists involved: “The shows all reflects my tastes, so that makes them an extreme pleasure for me: who wouldn’t like that job? And indeed you can have it, in as much as you can do your own show. Or sing your own song. I just think that if you’re a certain kind of person, you’re open to new collaborations, and, when the moment is right, good things can happen. If you do nothing, very little ever happens; if you do something, nothing may come of it, but something might, and in my experience, it generally does.”
All that remains to be said: get yourself a ticket to the Cabinet of Wonders at London’s Cecil Sharp House on Saturday 31st January. And stick around for the next instalment of Cabinets, too — you never know, you might just get to be in the company of these folks: Wesley’s Wish List for future Cabinets? “Sarah Waters, Matt Berry, Ali Smith, Euros Childs, David Bowie, Robert Wyatt, Richard Sinclair, Dave Cousins, Gavin Bryars, Carla Bley, Colin Blunstone, Jake Bugg – the list is endless.”
With a grandfather who was a ventriloquist, a sister touring in a circus, and an opera-singing mother, it was perhaps inevitable that Wesley Stace would create the vaudeville spectacle that is Cabinet of Wonders.
Let there be no barriers where music and passion collide.
Tickets can be purchased here: cecilsharphouse.org.
Wesley Stace can be found online here: wesleystace.com.
Cabinet of Wonders info can be found here: cabinetofwonders.com
All words by Melz Durston. More from Melz can be found at her Louder Than War Author Archive.