Photo c. Lizzie Himmel
A conversation with songwriter/novelist Wesley Stace who performs under the stage name, John Wesley Harding. [29:24]
Little Musgrave, up and under
"As it fell out upon a day
As many in the year
Musgrave to the church did go
To see fair ladies there
And some came down in red velvet
And some came down in Pall
And the last to come down was the Lady Barnard
The fairest of them all..."
Wesley Stace: I think music and writing complements each other well because you have that thing where music is a kind of sociable and it's done with people or in front of people generally, apart from a rehearsal, whereas writing is very solitary and so I think those two things suit me. And yeah, I definitely see the two as more linked than not, they complement each other quite nice, and like there's a lot of musicians who are also woodworkers on the side and stuff like that, and that seems insane to me, because you're just likely to lose your fingers or something and that'd be the end of both.
Jo Reed:That is Wesley Stace talking about his two careers -- as novelist (under his own name) and singer-songwriter -- who performs under the name, John Wesley Harding.
Welcome to Art works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works, I'm your host Josephine Reed.
As John Wesley Harding, he's released some 15 albums, but he turned to literature some years ago, he did so under his real name, Welsey Stace. Wesley Stace wrote the novels Misfortune and By George to the kind of reviews any writer would be overjoyed to receive. Wesley has recently struck gold again with his third novel: Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. In Charles Jessold, Stace weaves together his two artistic fields: music and writing. It's set in England in a turbulent moment in musical history, just before the First World War. The novel tells the story of a talented young composer, Charles Jessold, who murders his wife, her lover and then kills himself on the eve of his new opera's debut.The story is narrated by his friend and colleague, music critic Leslie Shepherd.
The result is riveting: it's a look at English music in the making, and a whoppingly good thriller. This isn't just a good novel to have been written by a musician; it's a good novel by anyone's standards. I caught up with Wesley Stace at a writer's conference in Washington DC. I began our conversation by noting that while other singers may write fiction, his are distinct from the pack; he's taken the unusual step of writing long and complicated historical novels.
Wesley Stace: Right, right, yes, you get, there are genre writers who are singers like Kinky Friedman and Jimmy Buffet, and there are people like Roseanne Cash and Steve Earle who've written very spare short stories and things like that, but I mean I'm aware that I'm in a bit of a party of one when it comes to...of course everyone we've just mentioned their music is on the kind of wordy, literary end, you know, you're not going to get, for example, Little Richard isn't going to probably going to write a novel tomorrow, you know, so you need a certain mindset, but also I mean in my particular case, my starting to write songs happened when I was doing my English literature degree at Cambridge and I never had any creative writing outlet apart from that, certainly I was never taught creative writing, I never went to a school for that kind of thing, but the books that I like and particularly that inspired my first book, Dickens, Trollope, Thackeray, these novels, I felt that with Misfortune I could, by adding gender, and psychology and sexuality into that mix I could kind of add something to that novel that at the time they couldn't have really talked about, and so in fact I felt I was repaying kind of my debt to those novels by, you know, gently pastiching them, but also, you know, adding something to them I hoped. Other than that, I think it would just be an index of my tastes and thoughts. You know, if you looked at my bookshelf you would find on it a lot of books rather like the ones that I write probably, whether they're from 1760, or from the year 2010.
Jo Reed: I appreciated it because I'm a fan of the big fat book, I love Victorian novels, I love Trollope. When I get to know characters I want to know them for awhile.
Wesley Stace: Right.
Jo Reed: I like the seven volume novels.I want to live with them.
Wesley Stace: Yeah, yeah, yeah, well Misfortune I really tried to do that, and in a Trolloppian sense I tried to make it so that there was nothing that could be said or added to the novel after it was finished, you know what I mean? The finish really was the end of the circle, there was no prequel or sequel that could be written to it. In the new one, Charles Jessold, I really wanted to write about music, but of course I'm already a musician so I was very clear in my mind that I didn't want to set it in my world of music because I felt that I would be hijacked by my need to be satirical about, you know, sticky dressing rooms and broken guitar strings and lost deposits and cell phones going down when you need to do the interview and all that kind of thing. I'm saving that for the next novel. So I wanted to kind of write about the creation of music in a slightly purer way then just a rome and a clef written by me. In particular in the new book I wanted to write about the relationship between critics and artists, which I found very fascinating.
Jo Reed: Let's talk about the new book, first of all the name, Charles Jessold; Considered as a Murderer. It's an unlikely title.
Wesley Stace: Yes, it is, Charles Jessold is obviously the composer who is the main kind of character in the book, but most importantly he's not the narrator of the book, and I think there are a lot of pitfalls in criticism of music, one is the kind of biographical criticism problem, which is when you know too much about somebody's life and can therefore make sense of their work because of what you know about their lives. That's a very unfair way to judge a piece of art, and it happens a lot in rock music. For example Bob Dylan had a kind of heart attack thing, therefore his next album's all about death, which is silly because all his music's about death. Jimi Hendrix, and Janice Joplin, people see their entire career as only in light of the fact that they died of drug overdoses of the end of those careers, you know, it's like it's all leading up to that. So it's Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer because if you consider him in another light, all his works might appear differently and so that's what the book's about, the book is about- I've read a biography of Stravinsky which was very interesting about the way he manipulated, played up to, and led by the nose, critics in order to have his music be puffed by them in various ways, and for them to be scandalized by it. He pushed all the right buttons with critics and had what one might call a very codependent relationship. When I read that about Stravinsky, there I felt was a novel which is why it's a novel about a classical composer narrated most importantly by a critic.
Jo Reed: Who is Leslie Shepherd.
Wesley Stace: Who's Leslie Shepherd, who is an ideologue. He is more interested in the cause of English music, than he is in the music itself. He's more interested that he can please his newspaper editor who is violently anti-German as the war is just about to come...
Jo Reed: And that's the first World War, it's set in England right before the first World War, about 1910.
Wesley Stace: Exactly that's when it begins, and at that time England's favorite classical composers were Mendelssohn, Wagner, and Strauss.
Jo Reed: Not Beethoven?
Wesley Stace: Oh and perhaps Beethoven, and perhaps Handel, well they're all German, and so that's difficult when you're just about to go to a war with a country, and there was a famous German book of criticism called, I can't speak German, but it's about England called The Land Without Music. England had not had a successful run of music in a long while, particularly in terms of opera. There hadn't been a successful opera since Purcell's Dido and Aeneas inthe 17th Century, and Edward Elgar who was England's greatest living composer had to be accepted first in Germany before he was sent back to England and everyone said he was a genius. So a lot of other nations, because of various territorial disputes, had had nationalist music movements famously, you know, Bohemia, and Poland, and Finland, and we all know those famous piece, even America had little Aaron Copeland looking at his home folk melodies, and so the composers turned to the national music in order to find inspiration and make a more English kind of music. So my critic is all about shaping Charles Jessold into the composer who will solve England's musical problems.
Jo Reed: And the composer is, it should be said, is a younger man.
Wesley Stace: Much younger man, yes. You might think there was a gay thing happening in that, but in fact that doesn't play at all.
Jo Reed: No, but I was just looking at the differential in terms of age, which I think matters a great deal.
Wesley Stace: It does, although in fact there's a bit where he realizes that he's not actually that much older than him, he's from a previous generation, that's the most important thing, and in fact when- I just mentioned Bob Dylan, and he's kind of worth mentioning again, not only because of my musical station as John Wesley Harding, but because I think of Jessold as a kind of Bob Dylan character in the sense that Bob Dylan took folk music and protest music, used it as a stepping stone to wider musical expression, which is what changed the musical world. The folk music and the protest music, he would, if he'd just kept doing that he'd be Tom Paxton or Peter, Paul and Mary or something, but you know he chose to reject that and pick up electric guitars and everybody booed. Well Jessold's the same kind of character and Shepherd's the one who's booing, and he wants to keep him in this little box of Anglicana and Jessold wants to go out and explore the wider world of music. And that's where the conflict is.
Jo Reed: What made you choose this period, this conflict?
Wesley Stace: Partly that nationalist thing, the nationalist music thing, because that's when it happened in England, and because it happened then I knew that I wanted to write about a time of conflict, and I had this image of two men on bicycles going out to discover a folk song, which is more or less the first thing that happens in the book, and I like that image a lot and it stayed with me just two men kind of bicycling and I kept on wondering who they were. I think I try and fill books generally with the things I'm very comfortable with writing about, and one of the things is folk music, I mean, Little Musgrave that is the central song in the book is a song that I have myself recorded and so all roads led to that.
Little Musgrave, up:
She's cast a look on the Little Musgrave
As bright as the summer sun
And then bethought this Little Musgrave
This lady's love I've won
GOOD day, good day you handsome youth
God make you safe and free
What would you give this day Musgrave
To lie one night with me
I dare not for my lands, lady
I dare not for my life
For the ring on your white finger shows
You are Lord Barnard's wife
Lord Barnard's to the hunting gone
And I hope he'll never return
You shall slip into his bed
And keep his lady warm
Lord Barnard's to the hunting gone
And you shall slip into his bed
There's nothing for to fear Musgrave
You nothing have to fear
I'll set a page outside the gate
To watch til morning clear
And woe be to the little footpage
And an ill death may he die
For he's away to the green, green wood
As fast as he could fly
Wesley Stace:I'd seen this documentary by Werner Herzog called, I think, Death for Five Voices, about this Renaissance composer called Carlo Gesualdo, and that was also incredibly formative on the book because I kind of wanted to write a book about him but then I was like well I don't want to write a Renaissance- because he spectacularly murdered his wife, and got away with it because of course she was committing adultery and there was nothing wrong with that, with him killing her, he could kill her blamelessly, however the guilt of it wracked him for the rest of his life, and he went back to Gesualdo, where I myself traveled for inspiration for this book, and cut down the trees ten miles in every direction so he could see them coming from his castle when they came, and kind of went mad and wrote crazy atonal music that wasn't discovered until the beginning of the 20th Century. In the same way that Laurence Sterne wrote a rather crazy modernist book Tristram Shandy that wasn't really appreciated until James Joyce and Virginia Woolf got their hands on it, and so that was interesting to me as well. And I wanted to write about Gesualdo so I thought well how about if I had a modern composer whose crime seemed to mirror these, you know, what would that be? What kind of circumstances would it be?I mean this is how things happen for me, there's so many different things, and then finally it all pushes over the edge into a place where they all coalesce, that's what's happened with each of my novels so far.
Jo Reed: And clearly this novel has a lot of music.
Wesley Stace: Yeah, there is a lot of music in the book, and it's a lot of music that I love as well, and I mean there's some fictional composers in there, there's some Adrian Leverkuhn has a little bit part, Edward Elgar, who's actually real, has a bit part.
Jo Reed: Vaughn Williams.
Wesley Stace: Vaughn Williams is in there as a- I think he actually appears as a character, and even Alex Ross, the classical music critic of the New Yorker is in there, very anachronistically.
Jo Reed: How was it putting real people, most particularly Vaughn Williams in a book of fiction?
Wesley Stace: I would probably think twice about giving people too much dialogue, real people too much dialogue. In fact I'm rather against the current movement of just telling real stories in movies the whole time. I think it's gotten a little tired now, you know, it's like watching people do an impression of the Queen or Tony Blair or whatever, I mean it's all well and good but really in the end what's being said it seems to be just a fantasy that's really more of a way to sell something because everybody knows about it, therefore it's something that can be, you know, something that will drag people to a cinema.
Jo Reed: It's familiar.
Wesley Stace:I mean this has been done so beautifully in literature, I of course think of The Master by Colm Toibin which is that stupendous book about Henry James, but my interest was not really in bringing any real characters to life, more that I think that if one talks about a fake composer, it's not like the real ones can't exist, therefore reference has to be made to his position in the great spectrum of composers, and that one does, by actually mentioning the real ones and using them as yard sticks, is that right? Yeah, yeah, so that was more my interest to me. Interesting, I think a couple of American publishers said to me they thought it'd be difficult for American people to understand the folk music element of this, but to me that seems ludicrous because the folk music element is almost entirely American anyway, all those songs were discovered in the Appalachians, the purest versions of those folk songs like Little Musgrave, England had already gone industrial and all the folk songs were dying, I mean this was looked up on as an act of resuscitation and an act of salvation by the people who went out and found the folk songs because they were dying, there was an urgent need to find them before they went forever because gramophones were around, people were going to the music hall, people were singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs, but of course the purer versions of these songs, the purest versions were then subsequently found in the Appalachians where there were pre-rural communities who were actually singing more original versions of the songs then the people in the fields were singing in England or in the pubs.
Jo Reed: Isn't that ironic?
Wesley Stace: It's just fantastic, and I mean and I make play on that in the book too, so I think a lot of the folk music stuff to me, from people I've spoken to so far, far from having a problem with that. I think people might actually understand it better over here than they do in England.
Jo Reed: And as you point out, Copeland certainly went back to folk music, most obviously, but then Beethoven did too.
Wesley Stace: Absolutely I think composers always have, it's just very often in country's musical histories it's happened at a time when a national identity needed to be created, because a lot of those countries who had these kind of wonderful nationalist movements were countries whose borders were being eroded, who weren't sure what language they spoke. But you know America's America, but Europe is just like changing boundaries, they're changing today, you know, they could be changing in Africa right, right now.
Jo Reed: Or the Middle East.
Wesley Stace: No, exactly, you know, and it's at times like these I think when the melodies that are in the national DNA assert themselves and people want to make these kind of musical statements.
Jo Reed: Can we talk about Leslie Shepherd your narrator? How was it having him narrate the book?
Wesley Stace: Quite difficult, because he's not like me, he's a rather fussy and fastidious man and rather button-upped and repressed, and an ideologue, and I'm none of those things. Having said that, it meant that I was able to write in the kind of slightly Mandarin style that he might well have chosen for his own writing, and that did suit my narrative purposes quite a lot. So once I'd found the voice, and I won't pretend I went through too many agonies to find it, but once I had found it, it made writing the novel a lot easier.
Jo Reed: When I was reading it, the voice I heard in my head was John Gielgud.
Wesley Stace: That would be perfect.
Jo Reed: I don't know how to talk about this, except to suggest he's a tad unreliable as the narrator.
Wesley Stace: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
Jo Reed: And was that fun? Did it get to be playful for you to do that?
Wesley Stace: Well he's, it's nice when you get compared to Nabokov, that's a very nice person to be compared to given he's my favorite writer. This book isn't clever in that way, but his relationship to Charles Jessold is very much the same as the narrator of Pale Fire's relationship to John Shade. I mean he is there to explain it all away, and to explain how really he's the center of the story; that's his job, he's the narrator.Now unreliable narration is a bit of a wooly concept, I mean either a narrator is completely, I'm stealing this off Martin Amis a little bit, but unreliable narrators are either mad, in which case they really aren't unreliable they're just mad, or they're in fact incredibly reliable, they're just not telling you the truth. So it's a bit of a wooly concept, I mean either someone's mad and they're- just you can't trust them, anything, it's nothing to do with reliability, or they're lying. I'm not going to say where Shepherd falls into that category but he wants Jessold to be a certain thing, and he wants his music to read a certain way, and you do that with a biographical evidence that supports it, and this is longtime, long, long time before the death of the author. This is when, you know, the author in his private life and the man behind the- and there were all those big biographies of people that were just panegyrics, you know, they weren't- there was nothing negative in these things at all. Well Jessold, you know, the novel is structured that there's a murder report and then it's what he tells the police, and then it's what actually happened. It's a very, very normal structure for a novel to have the same event viewed through different lenses it's just that in this case it's the same person telling it each time.
Jo Reed: And as the writer is it fun to do that?
Wesley Stace: Absolutely, I think it's always good to look at different perspectives on the same incident. I mean, you know, everything that we ever do in life if there's more than one person doing it there's conflict and bizarreness because everybody's looking at things a different way, and so I mean I think possibly it's the only real way to describe reality. I mean that was what modernism discovered. That's why the Golden Notebooks are great, and why, you know, T.S. Eliot's great, it's because they, that's what modernism gave us.
Jo Reed: Do you find you read differently since you began writing?
Wesley Stace: I think I do. I think I could relate that to music. It's much harder for me to listen to music with pleasure, than it is just in the background, without thinking about it, as a musician, because I'm forever kind of producing it and rearranging it, and criticizing it in my head, which is why, one of the reasons perhaps why this book is about classical music, because it's a world of music that's still kind of somewhat unknown to me compared to the world of music that I make as a singer/songwriter. And I think without being too specific about it, I think that that's a direct analogy for my feeling about writing books, you know, I mean that doesn't mean that I now read a Dickens and just keep deconstructing it into its little parts and go, "This bit works, that bit doesn't." I mean I'm still totally capable to being lost in a book, but I now admire much more the really well-written sentence, because I know how hard they are to achieve, you know, when I'm reading Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution, I mean I just couldn't believe every single sentence in that book was spectacular. I mean I just couldn't- I mean it was so revelatory to be just reading and thinking, "Wow." Because I mean, in everybody there's a few just little clichÃ©s here and there but there just wasn't one in there, and that made me think, "There's something to achieve, you know, there's always some way to get better and that's a way to get better." I think I like to write very clean sentences, and again as I said, this book's in a slightly Mandarin style but I definitely wanted to- I definitely read that book and was like, that is something to look up to, you know, so in that way that's all, it can still be very inspiring even though you can still end up criticizing things about it, not that particular book, but you know you can read another book and go, "I can't read this.â
Jo Reed: Because...
Wesley Stace: It just wasn't well written.
Jo Reed: Yeah.
Wesley Stace: It's just not a well written book; it's not a pleasure to read.
Jo Reed: Obviously at first, some of the people who picked up your books did so because they knew who you were as a performer? But do you find now that people are discovering you as a performer by having read your books?
Wesley Stace: Yep, there was a little debate with the people who published Misfortune about, you know, their sales department said maybe you should really consider putting it out under John Wesley Harding, and I said, "No, " and I had my agent heartily support me on this. It's like, "No, it's a fresh thing." I mean if somebody had asked me 21 years ago, 22, 23 years ago, do you want to be- you'll still be making music in 23 years, do you want to be John Wesley Harding or Wesley Stace, I'd have said, "Wesley Stace." But I thought I'd be talking about 23 days because it would be such a disaster, so I used a fake name. Which is, there's a fine lineage of that in rock music, it's not an unusual thing. In fact it's hard to think of people, when you get down to it, who haven't got fake names, and I said to them, no I'm going to under Wesley Stace, it just doesn't look right to have the fictional name of a Bob Dylan album on this historical novel that took me seven years to write. You know, it's just Wesley Stace is a much better name just to have on the spine of a novel. John Wesley Harding just doesn't make any sense. He's like a fictional character created by Bob Dylan, named after a real cowboy, you know, it just doesn't, stupid ... so I was very definitive that it be Wesley Stace. My hope then was that in fact rather than being the other way around, rather than being that way rather, that it would bring people to my music because they would like my books, and I mean, you know, not to put too fine a point in it, there was a moment when I said to my accountant, "How's the finances this year?" And she said, "Well let's put it this way, you're a writer now." You know, and so I mean, you know, and I think that's definitely the way it's happened.I don't think people are buying- I don't think many people are buying Wesley Stace books because they're fans of John Wesley Harding. I mean some of them might well be but I mean in France nobody's heard my music nor ever have, I've played one gig there supporting John Hiatt in 1990, and Misfortune was a bestseller, so there's certainly nobody there buying any books because they think I'm a musician. It might be a titillating side issue that I've done a duo with Bruce Springsteen, you know, that might be a good little paragraph in the piece or the review, but that doesn't sell you books, it's just good for a magazine article.
Jo Reed: But people are coming to your music.
Wesley Stace: They definitively are coming to my music yes, and I get emails about it and in fact with my books I would often say that I would not force one of my books onto somebody who liked my music. There is no reason because they like a three and a half minute song by me, they should like a six, seven hundred word novel. They might read, I don't know what they're reading matter is, I would hope it's stuff that I like and that they're good reading people and all that kind of thing, but the bottom line is most people might or might not like this book, but whether they like my music has no reflection on it. What's more interesting to me is people who come to the book and they go, "Hey I also picked up one of your albums and I really liked it." And I mean I do think there's a reason they should because I think my music is easily digestible, paintings can be looked at very quickly, books take a lot of time. That's why we love them because we can sink into them and live with them, but that's also why you don't want to impose them on somebody just because they like a song by me. It doesn't make any sense that I would think they would like my novel as well.
Jo Reed: How do you create a life that actually supports writing, or songwriting, how do you create a life that allows you to do that?
Wesley Stace: That's such a difficult question. To start with, you have to believe in it and do what you want to do, and believe that you want to do it, because nobody else will believe in it if you don't. If you're doing it half-heartedly, nobody can- will be able to persuade you that it's the right thing to do, so you might as well give up. You know, people, perhaps in writing programs, want the secret to it, and people with self-help books want the secrets to things, but there are no secrets. What there is is hard work, grind, keeping at it, not being afraid of failure, you know, there's all those things, these aren't lessons you can teach people and I've never taught creative writing, but I do very much get the feeling that, you know, you can make a bad thing good and you can probably make a good thing slightly better, but then there's the icing on the top, I mean that, who can teach that- who could possibly teach that? I, you know, just don't think there's a way it could be communicated. I mean it's either going to be there on the page the moment you read something by somebody or it isn't, it seems to me, or in the song, and it's so wonderful when it is. After that, you then have the reality of making it work in terms of how you make money doing it, and that's a whole separate issue altogether because, you know, the thing that you are doing, in my case being a songwriter, was directly in opposition to the ability to stay at home to write a novel. So like anybody else I had a day job, it's just that mine happened at night, but you know you teach or you work in a shop to just give yourself the hours to write, but writing takes a long time, so that's very difficult too, so there's so many layers to this bit of the question. Then you get into issues of how do you persuade a publisher, or how do you get an agent? You know, all these things are incredibly complicated too, so it's like there's so not one possible answer to it, but what there are is a million little obstacles, and the first one is just knowing that it's what you want to do, and the second is approaching how you could possibly translate that to the world at large because there's then various fences you have to jump over to get it out into the marketplace and even when you're there there's a whole other set of stuff, so I mean it's- so it's such a magnificently perplexing question that it's tough to think of a simple answer for it. But I would say that the first bit is, you have to know you want to do it. A friend of mine got an advance to write a book, and he didn't finish the book, and he had to pay the advance back, and I said, "Did you learn anything from the experience?" And he said, I mean this happened over many conversations, but he said, "Yes, never take money from somebody unless you know you really, really want to do the thing that you've agreed to do, and obviously I just didn't, I just didn't realize that I was so excited to get this deal to write this book, " and I mean what a piece of advice that is.
Little Musgrave up....
For it never will be said in my country
I slew an unarmed man
I have two swords in one scabbard
Full dear they cost my purse
And you shall have the best of them
I shall have the worst
So slowly, so slowly he rose up
And slowly he put on
And slowly down the stairs he goes
Thinking to be slain
And the first stroke Little Musgrave took
It was both deep and sore
And down he fell at Barnard's feet
And word he never spoke more
And how do you like his cheeks, lady
And how do you like his chin
And how do you like his fair body
Now there's no life within
It's well I like his cheeks she said
And well I like his chin
And better I like his fair body
Than all your kith and kin
And he's taken up his long long sword
To strike a mortal blow
And through and through the Lady's heart
The cold steel it did go
You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampe is the musical supervisor.
Excerpt from "Little Musgrave, " performed by John Wesley Harding, from the album TRAD ARR JONES, used courtesy of Jim Musselman and Appleseed Recordings.
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Next week, Hawaiian slide guitar legend and a 2011 National Heritage fellow, Led Kaapana
To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTSon Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
As it fell out upon a day