He was born Wesley Stace, and for many moons - and quite a few albums as well - he was known to his many fans as John Wesley Harding. But in 2013 he set aside his longstanding pseudonym in favor of returning to the name originally bestowed upon him by his parents. Since then, he's released a few more albums, the most recent of which being 2021's Late Style, and just to keep people guessing, he even wrote the libretto for Errollyn Wallen's opera, Dido's Ghost. But despite having nothing in particular to promote, Stace has nonetheless decided that the time is right to return to his native land and embark upon his first tour since 2008.
Below you'll see the poster that Stace has put together to promote the tour in question, and it includes all of the tour dates. For further details about those shows, including how to obtain tickets, you can just click right here, but if you keep scrolling past the poster - and you really should, you know - then you'll find Q's exclusive chat with Stace about the upcoming tour as well as a bit of discussion about his ongoing series of Cabinet of Wonders shows.
I saw your facetious remark on Twitter about how long it's been since the last time you last toured the UK ("my first British tour since 145 BC"), but when did you actually last do a proper tour of England and Scotland?
Well, I think technically the last tour was... I mean, it seems insane, but I think it's 2008. That's the last tour. So that's 15 years. And for that one... Well, that one really only happened because I was asked to play the Shrewsbury Folk Festival, and Richard Thompson was on it, and I thought, "Oh, that'll be a nice thing to do!" And then I think I - because I don't think I had an agent - put together some dates around it. So that was counted as a tour...and I think that was the last time! Having said that, since then we've done at least Cabinet of Wonders in London. Which isn't a tour, but obviously I play a few songs, and it's my thing. But I think it's like 15 or 16 years since I've actually done a tour. On that tour, we actually went to places like Bristol and... Well, places like we're going to on this tour. This tour is an actual tour.
I don't have the documentation in front of me to confirm, but would this then be the first time that you've toured the UK as Wesley Stace?
[Considers the question.] Yes, it would.
So, really, it's your first UK tour, in a way.
Yeah, in a sense, that's true. It's my debut! But, look, you know, the story of the UK has never been a really easy one for me, just because I moved out of the UK before even the release of my first American album, Here Comes the Groom. I'd put out It Happened One Night, and I was touring all over. I have those diaries, and they're hilarious. It's, like, supporting the Hothouse Flowers here, Tom Robinson the next night, going to see Dylan play the next night, supporting Ted Hawkins the next night, going to see Elvis Costello the next night... I must've been moving at a very fast speed! [Laughs.]
And then the deal with Sire came, and I pretty much moved over here because I just started playing so much here. From the beginning of January 1990, I played constantly for four or five years. So every time I've gone back to the UK, it's kind of been as a guest, as it were, rather than a native. And I've never really had... [Hesitates.] God, let me think. I don't want to say anything too horrible!
Pick your phrasing carefully...
[Laughs.] Well, I've not had a supportive label in the UK since the first album. Which is not to say that my records didn't come out on whatever the English version of Sire was - Warner Brothers, probably - or that The Confessions [of St. Ace] didn't come out on...I think something called Edel, which was kind of where Hollywood Records' releases went in England. But apart from my first record, which was on Demon, I was never on what I'd call a quality British label like... Oh, I don't know, Cooking Vinyl? That's the kind of label that it would've been fantastic to be on. So I was never really asked to do folk festivals, apart from that Shrewsbury Folk Festival. I think that's the only one since I began! So I've never quite fit in over there.
Also, because when I went to Britain - not to put too fine a point on it - I was generally visiting family for Christmas or something rather than embarking on a 15-date tour. And so there are a number of reasons why this particular tour is happening...and as you know, a great way for something to happen is enthusiasm, and there's a guy called Darren Lumbroso, and when I was over in... I think it would've been 15 years ago, though it could've been more recent than that, but he put on a gig for me above a local pub in Reading. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and I really like him, and he's a really big fan. And he said, "Well, let me organize a tour for you! I'll take a week off work." And we had all the dates in place...and then COVID hit.
And then it got shelved for another four years, obviously, because it was probably meant to happen May 2020. And because it's not a hugely financially lucrative prospect and also because I live in America and I have stuff to be getting on with here, it's only for pleasure and fun. There is no other reason to do it. It's only because I like playing live...and I don't mind under what circumstances, really! [Laughs.] I mean, I'm very happy to play nice little theaters or, indeed, in a coffee house or, indeed, in a house concert. I just like to play live! So he kept asking, "Is now the time?" And I said finally, "Yes!" The other two parts being that my mum died right before COVID, so the UK isn't quite the same place for me as it was, but also because I've now purchased, as it were, a small base in the UK, because I suddenly found myself without any foothold there, which was a little weird for me. But now I do have somewhere, and I thought, "Well, if I'm going to be there a bit more, I should play a bit more." So those are the reasons it's happening. It looks very good on a poster and, in fact, it is very good! But it's being done in a very loving and D.I.Y. and - dare one use the word? - artisanal way.
I will say that the poster looks more than a little bit Exorcist-y.
Yeah, it might. [Laughs.] That's a great photo, actually, taken by a guy called Mike Hipple in Seattle that he did for a book called Lived Through That, of... I mean, I hate to use the word "star," but a lot of them are stars in the book. Pop stars or indie stars from the '90s. And his specialty - or his idea - was to take photos of them today. So when I was in Seattle a couple of years ago, he took a photo of me for that book, and that happened to be an outtake from that. It was a spooky looking shot, but I've always liked it, and finally I've found something I can use it for.
I know your last album, Late Style, came out in 2021. Based on what you just said, I don't get the impression that you have anything on the immediate horizon to promote during the tour.
No, no, no, no. In England, there's no label, there's no agent, there is no... [Hesitates.] Well, there is promotion. Because I've employed somebody to make sure that people know that the gigs are happening. That seemed like a good idea. I asked a couple of my friends who knew about stuff, I said, "What do you do nowadays? Do you buy an ad in Mojo? What on earth do you do to let people know that your dates are happening?" And my friend who is good at promoting - and, indeed, he promoted the Cabinet of Wonders at Cecil Sharp House twice, which were terrific shows - he said, "Oh, no, what you do now is, you hire a PR company who do bespoke PR per show for a certain amount of money." And I was, like, "What a great idea!"
So I've hopefully hired somebody who will get the word out in Portland, Dorset that I'm doing a show! But, you know, I'm under no illusions. People knew me little enough in the UK when I was called John Wesley Harding, and since then I've changed my name! [Laughs.] So it's not like I'm going over there expecting to do anything but to have a nice time playing for the people who remember me or, indeed, are discovering me because they just want to hear some music that night. Both are fine with me!
I know you've got the WOOD Festival on there for a couple of nights, but for the other dates, what sorts of venues are you playing?
Well, there's some really nice ones. Although I haven't been to many of the venues. I have played the Art Centre in Reading. It's a mix of beautiful rooms. Like the one in Bristol, which - unbelievably - is called John Wesley's Room, and it's to do with John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. I mean, that's just a complete coincidence, but that's going to be a beautiful old room in which they've put chairs and have acoustic guitar concerts every now and then. I'm very much looking forward to that. And then there's a couple of house concerts, and house concerts can vary from somebody who's got a big room and likes music to quite organized things where they've got a sound system and some seats.
The gig in Glasgow at the Doublet, that's a place that people play. Hastings is a fantastic coffeehouse called Bullet that happens to be owned by a friend of mine. You know, it's just a big mix of stuff. It might've been completely different things. I put a thing on Facebook and said, "Who wants me to play?" That's how this tour came about: Darren had certain places that he thought, "Oh, I can talk to the Green Note in London!" I have played there before, it's a terrific little acoustic venue. But he kind of put his thoughts, and I put my thoughts, and then we put it into a tour. And then I put up a thing on Facebook saying, "We've got some nights off. Is there anywhere that fits in the middle?" [Laughs.] And enough people got back that it really came together.
As far as the set list goes, are you going to use social media to ask for requests beforehand or anything like that?
Yeah, I don't over-advertise that stuff. But it happens all the time, you can imagine. People just Facebook you or whatever and say, "Oh, my favorite song is 'Red Rose and the Briar,' could you play that in Portland?" And sometimes you remember and sometimes you don't. But my set list... I mean, I just did an incredibly enjoyable trip up the west coast, and that was the first, really, since COVID for me of, like, getting in the car and traveling 'round. I mean, obviously I do it up and down the east coast, and I've done little tours in the Midwest. David Nagler and I did one in the Midwest last year. But I really enjoyed this tour, and my set list - as you may or may not know - is the 60 songs I'm kind of prepared to play on the tour. That I've rehearsed, basically, and can sing without too much disaster. But even then, somebody requests something else, and one feels that if one can do it... You know, I want to do it! It's nice to please those people who are enthusiastic about things like that. But the set list is such a moveable feast that it could be any song at any point in the set. I generally have a song that I like to start with and a song I like to end with, but even that doesn't happen regularly! [Laughs.]
Before you embark on this tour, I know you have a couple of Cabinet of Wonders shows coming up.
I've only been to one, but the variety of guest performers made it a night to remember.
Was that at City Winery?
It was! It was the one where Mike Scott was there (billed as the Blue Fisherman).
Oh, yeah, that was a good one. [Hesitates.] Was that the one with the Decemberists as the backing band.
That's the one!
[Also in the mix: Nicole Atkins, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey, Howe Gelb, Myla Goldberg, Ted Leo, Eugene Mirman, Audrey Niffenegger. Yes, that's right, the author of The Time-Traveler's Wife was there. Cabinet of Wonders shows are nothing if not diverse.]
That was quite a show. Yeah, we've got one that we're all looking forward to at the Bob Dylan Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 10, and that's a fantastic line-up: Yo La Tengo, Dean and Britta, Grant Lee Phillips, John Doe, Eugene Mirman... I mean, it's just a fantastic lineup. And then there's one a week later in New York with Gary Louris from the Jayhawks and...it's just a constant pleasure to do the show. In fact, we've got five dates in New York for the rest of the year, of which March is only the first. So the show moves ever onward! And it's always fun to do. It's not always fun to book, but somehow it always falls into place. I do all the work.
Is there anyone you've tried to wrangle but have failed to do so yet?
Well, some people are too busy, or live on the other side of the world, or don’t get out of bed for under a cool million: all good reasons not to do the Cabinet of Wonders. And some just don't get it, you know? Or perhaps I should say, their managers (who are sometimes representing their artists not very well at all) don’t get it. Their agents don’t get it. I could name a name or two, but I won't. On the other hand - and this is a stone fact - you very rarely get an artist you want by making an approach through their manager or agent. And the reason for that is simple: because 10% of not very much is more or less nothing at all. Right?
That math does check out, yes.
[Laughs.] In fact, as my co-producer points out often, there's worse than nothing in it for them, because you might actually be making their life as an agent harder by having that act be visible in New York City when the agent would rather they weren't because he or she doesn't want it to conflict with their next gig, that kind of thing. Everybody’s got their own equations; everyone’s juggling different priorities.
I mainly get artists by knowing them personally already, by meeting them at a party or backstage somewhere, or through friends of friends. So when you say, "Who are the people I'd really like to have do it?" I do have a wish list that I think is an attainable wish list...and the people who are left on it - Richard Thompson, say, or Feist, I don’t feel they're a million miles away: if the date fell right and they were around and we were in touch. There’s a lot of happenstance.
On the other hand, then you have the category, "Who would I like to do it but it'll never happen?" And that's a whole different list. [Laughs.] You know, I'd love Ray Davies to do it. That would be terrific. He'd be great on the show. Bob Dylan would be terrific, but then no perhaps no one would be allowed to look past him: that wouldn’t really work! You have to be careful what you wish for. Like, it'd be great if Bruce Springsteen did the show - sure! - but it'd be better if Bruce Springsteen did the show and no one knew that Bruce Springsteen was doing the show. Otherwise, you might sell 300 tickets to people slightly disappointed by anything except Bruce Springsteen, and even more disappointed that he's only playing three songs. So even though I would like nothing more than Bruce Springsteen to do the show, I would actually like Bruce Springsteen to be listed as "and TBA." [Laughs.]
I could write a whole novel just about each single Cabinet. There's a lot to say about it all. But the fact is, I worried - or thought - that COVID might be the end of the Cabinet. But it wasn't. And, in fact, it keeps rolling. This is the first year City Winery came to us at the end of the previous year and said, "Here's five dates for next year. You want to do them?" And we were, like, "Yeah, sure!" And that's great. So on it goes. It’s the show that never ends.