SOMERVILLE — What’s in a name? Quite a bit, for a British musician who adopted a stage name on a lark and then got stuck with it for 25 years when he achieved unexpected success.
So Wesley Stace, known to the music world as the tuneful troubadour John Wesley Harding, is reclaiming his birthright and ditching his nom de tune. Management and marketing types have long advised Stace against the move, but he says it’s prompted, finally, by a sudden shift toward uncharacteristically personal songs.
John Wesley Harding had always been a deft crafter of characters and author of literary-minded lyrics; his wordy, witty songs sometimes seemed to be aware of their own cleverness. But an emotionally low period inspired an unexpected stream of pure autobiography.
“It’s a major sea change to me in my writing style, and it seemed silly to put them out under a fake name,” Stace says in his first interview about the change, on the phone from vacation in Rhode Island.
He’d already been juggling a sort of two-sided creative existence, releasing albums as Harding (a name borrowed from the title of the 1967 Bob Dylan album) but publishing a string of three well-received novels under his proper name.
Stace was feeling low on a book tour —“physically jaded, just run-down, I was not well” — missing appointments, and spending a lot of time in his hotel room. Scanning his mind for comforting memories, he wrote a simple remembrance of a long-ago romance called “We Will Always Have New York.” Then came an unflinching remembrance of visiting the bedroom of a friend who’d just died in a plane crash.
“I was using it initially as a form of therapy to cheer myself up,” he explains. “It came out of me so easily, because I wasn’t trying to make a point about anything or make a metaphor. I just wrote the lyrics and the melody pretty much straight-out, and it was done. I was very careful not to censor any of the material at all, because I suddenly realized the last thing I should do is stop myself by asking: Is this embarrassing?”
The new album, aptly called “Self-Titled,” comes out Tuesday; shows at The Parlor Room in Northampton on Saturday and Johnny D’s on Sunday will be the first full-band performances of the new material. Stace will be joined by the English UK (bassist Eddie Carlson, drummer Adam Gold, and David Nagler on guitar and keyboards), who back him on the record.
His work can be effortlessly droll and dense with wordplay—listen to 2011 song “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be),” complaining that “there’s a Walgreens where there were no walls, just greenery.” He’s a fan of classic songwriting artifice; “The Colloquy of Mole and Mr. Eye,” from the same album, smells like a charming folk tale but is simultaneously a view on social and economic stratification. Even new song “The Dealer’s Daughter” adopts a from-the-grave perspective redolent of old English balladry.
Bay-area musician Chris Von Sneidern, a longtime collaborator, produced the new record.
“I’ve seen his development over the past 20 years, and lately I appreciate the way that he simplified a few things after having gotten a bit involved,” Von Sneidern says. “He still writes songs with a lot of words, but it seems like he’s developed in his way of using fewer words to say more. And I think that just makes for better record making.”
That’s not to say Stace has set aside his artful touch. “I am just the sum of the records I have heard,” he sings in “Pieces of the Past,” an examination of personal and intellectual influence. In fact, the album is dotted with references to other musicians: Talking Heads, Television, Jimi Hendrix. (In “A Canterbury Kiss,” the protagonist steals a smooch by faking an unearned affinity for the latter.) It’s not just bittersweet romance, though that occupies a fair chunk. “This is my home, this is my life, those are my kids, that is my wife,” he sings darkly in another new song, “and I’m standing in the shadows when I see, the only thing missing is me.”
Stace has written in the first-person many times before as a storytelling device. This time, the “I” in the songs really is him.
“A lot of my songs set themselves up as sounding a bit autobiographical because I sing in the first person. But the massive difference is if you want to make a point about something, which is practically every song I’ve ever written up until this album,” he explains, “or if you’re writing purely for the pleasure of trying to explore personal situations that you have yourself experienced. The simple thing is, on this album, it’s all true.”
As for “John Wesley Harding,” Stace is happy to leave it behind. He only took up the name because he expected his music career to be a short and embarrassing footnote before becoming a teacher or something respectable.
“If somebody asked me in 1988 — in the unlikely event that I am still making music in the year 2013, would I like to be called the name of a Bob Dylan album or my own name,” he reflects, “that would have been a no-brainer answer.”Jeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.