by Len Lear
Folk/pop singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding and novelist Wesley Stace may not be household names, but both have achieved a considerable degree of success both in the United States and England.
What’s even more impressive is that Harding and Stace are both the same person who lives with his family in a sprawling West Mt. Airy home.
(The first home on the property, which is surrounded by Wissahickon Park, was built approximately 240 years ago, supposedly by a member of the Gorgas family, which owned lumber, tobacco and sugar mills along Wissahickon Creek during the Colonial era. Gorgas Lane in Mt. Airy is named for the family.)
Stace, who just celebrated his 46th birthday last week, wrote his first novel, “Misfortune,” after recording more than a dozen albums under the name John Wesley Harding. He took the musical pen-name from a song written and recorded many years ago by Bob Dylan about a famous outlaw of the Old West named John Wesley Hardin. (Dylan apparently misspelled Hardin’s name by mistakenly adding a “g” to the end of it.)
Stace, who was born in Hastings, Sussex, England, has released 17 albums, ranging from traditional folk to full-on pop music. His newest album, “The Sound Of His Own Voice” (Yep Roc Records), released early this month, features 13 new songs, backed by an all-star band, The King Charles Trio, and members of The Decemberists, including Rosanne Cash.
During his musical career, Harding has been joined onstage by Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen (with whom he recorded a duet on his album, “Awake”) and Joan Baez,, among others. He has appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” “The Late Show with David Letterman” and “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. His songs have been featured in films (including “High Fidelity”) and covered by other artists.
His first novel, the international bestseller “Misfortune,” was published (under his real name) to great acclaim in 2004, and translations followed in Italy, France, Holland, Taiwan, Japan, Spain and Israel. It was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, listed as one of the books of the year in the Washington Post and the Boston Phoenix, and was one of Amazon’s “Top Ten Novels of the Year.”
His second novel, “By George,” was published in August 2007; it was one of the New York Public Library’s “Books To Remember of 2007,” and Booklist Editor’s Choice for books of the year. His third, “Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer,” was published in July, 2010, to excellent reviews.
Stace/Harding is currently artist-in-residence at Fairleigh Dickinson University, N.J., where he curates the Words & Music Festival. On May 6, 2010, the second Festival ended with “Jersey Rain: Robert Pinsky and Bruce Springsteen in conversation with John Wesley Harding,” at which the two Jersey writers talked about their work, and Harding and Springsteen performed a duet. Stace also writes book reviews for The New York Times.
Harding is going to perform songs from the new album at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, at Hideaway Music Store, 8612 Germantown Ave., right across the street from the former Borders Book Store. Last week this reporter asked Harding the following questions, after which are his responses:
Q: How did this event at Hideaway come about? Since you are used to performing before big audiences, how is it that you have agreed to do this in front of a few dozen people?
A: Hideaway is my local record store. and they asked about doing an in-store (appearance). Of course, I’m delighted to do it. In-stores are a great way to celebrate a record coming out.
Q: BTW, do you spend much time in Chestnut Hill? Any shops or other places you are fond of?
A: Absolutely. I love the library. And, of course, the Chestnut Hill Historical Society. As a family, we eat at Hokka Hokka once a week. I greatly miss the TLA video store. I love Community Audio and the Print Shop. There’s a lot of great stuff on that street!
Q: Where have you performed recently, and what gigs do you have coming up in the near future?
A: The next set of gigs, apart from my regular “Cabinet of Wonders” show at City Winery in New York City, are coming up this month. The Philly date is World Café Live on Nov. 15. We have nine performances coming up in November. Outside of the one at World Café Live on Nov. 15, they are in California, Oregon, Washington state, Virginia, New York and New Jersey.
Q: Are you also working on a novel you’d like to mention?
A: Yep. The fourth novel is well underway, and I hope to finish it in the new year, once this lot of touring is done.
Q: Do you miss England, and have you had a chance to go back and visit your family in recent months?
A: Yes, I do. And I was just on tour there a couple of weeks ago. I’ll also be there with my family at Christmas.
Q: What is your wife’s name? We were told she grew up in this area. What schools did she go to?
A: Her name is Abbey, and she is an illustrator and artist. She went to Germantown Friends and grew up right around here. Our kids — Tilda, 5, and Wyn, 3 — are also at Germantown Friends.
Q: When did you move to the home in West Mt. Airy?
A: In July of last year! We moved back to West Mt. Airy because it’s a great place to bring up kids!
Q: Did you write the songs yourself on the new album?
A: Yes, although three of them are co-writes.
Q: How do you get so much writing done (both novels and music) when you’re traveling so much?
A: I don’t actually travel that much, though I do currently have the new album to tour. Also, being a musician doesn’t really take that much time apart from when you’re playing gigs and recording. Writing novels takes a LOT of time, but the benefit is that it keeps me at home.
John Wesley Harding’s performance is the first in a series of Sunday afternoon shows planned for Hideaway Music. The following five shows are scheduled for the record shop:
November 6 – Suzie Brown
November 13 – The Lux
November 20 – Soldier On
December 4 – Chana Rothman
December 11 – Cabin Dogs