If you read Jeff Rosenberg's fine profile on John Wesley Harding in this week's print edition, you already know that the singer-songwriter has a huge connection to the Portland music scene having recorded his most recent album The Sound of His Own Voice here with a bevy of local talent. And if you're familiar with Harding's career, you know that it stretches back a full two decades now after appearing in the college rock world with his still great second album Here Comes The Groom and its lead single "The Devil In Me". Since then he has released a series of consistently sharp and wry albums, while also cultivating a strong career as a prose writer (he has written three novels using his given name Wesley Stace). Amid that flurry of activity, Harding—who plays the Aladdin Theater tonight—still had the time to watch some videos and answer some questions via e-mail.
Promotional video for "If You Have Ghosts" (track taken from the 1990 Roky Erickson tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye)
JWH: The video was directed by Peter Byck (rather than Peter Buck). It is a weird video - I seem to remember that Sire got a two-for-one deal out of him and that he also directed another video for a song from that Roky Erickson tribute album. Those are the Paley Brothers - Andy and Jonathan - in the video, and it's nice to have a visual record of our collaboration. Don't know who the girl on keyboards is: my hunch is she isn't really playing that thing....though her swaying is persuasive. I think it's quite a cute video actually, and I love the faux-Svankmajer animation bit with the fruit.
Were you a Roky Erickson fan at the time you were asked to participate in this tribute?
I was a great Roky Erickson fan and still am. I picked this song at the suggestion of Howie Klein, my friend at Sire, who had released the relevant Roky & The Aliens album on his 415 label in San Francisco back in the day. It seemed like an instant classic to me - and, given that it wasn't one of my songs, and therefore didn't have lots of words, and strange chord changes, it showcased the Good Liars band, with whom I made my first two Sire records, at their very best. We cut it very quickly one sunday afternoon at Eden Studios in West London. I remember making the evening train home to Hastings very comfortably, where I sat with Kenny Craddock (RIP) sipping cans of beer.
Had you seen those testimonials about you before?
I never saw the testimonials before, but I did know about them because this was originally made for some Sire Records video sampler, which I have but never looked at. I also gave a testimonial or two for this or that artist. (It's very nice to have Joey Ramone saying such a kind thing: I might put this as a video message on my gravestone.) I don't know whether it's true that I wrote a song in Paul Westerberg's living room, but I did do an interview there, with Lori Kelly, his then-wife, who worked for a Minneapolis radio station. I can't remember an actual song. It might well have happened.
A cover of "The Truth" performed and filmed by Tommy G (original can be found on JWH's 1992 album Why We Fight)
JWH: This is flattering for sure. And it's a very creditable vocal performance. Who does he sound like? Gordon Lightfoot or someone? It's very sincere, and that suits the song, because it is a sincere song, despite having a few jokes in it. It's certainly a very depressing point of view. Certainly, I could teach him a couple of the chords (the chorus isn't quite right) but a) who's counting and b) anyway, this is his take and it sounds lovely. Certainly the many commenters seem to think so. (I wonder if they ever heard the original? If they heard it now, they might well think I was screwing it up.) Also, this sounds beautiful, the recording, I mean. Well done.
Live TV performance of "I'm Wrong" (track from his 2000 album The Confessions of St. Ace)
JWH: This was for some afternoon show on Oprah's Oxygen Channel. I would never have heard of the channel prior to this offer of TV space but these are just the kinds of things that come along when you put out a record and you're trying to promote it, and the label comes to you with as much good news as they can. And this would certainly have counted as good news. It was recorded down in the meatpacking district of NYC somewhere. Everyone looks quite young here and rather good. And this is an unusual performance, particularly for me on TV, because I'm not holding a guitar - there isn't one on the track and so there didn't seem any point in pretending to play something that wasn't there - and I am shaking a tambourine. I did this at the live concerts as well.
How does it feel doing these sorts of appearances?
Well, rather self-conscious-making for someone who isn't essentially a pop star. Quite fun, though. I mean, it's nice to feel like you're going to have a good-looking record of something you did.
It sounds like they were gearing up interview you at the end of this.
I do seem to be gearing up to do an interview at the end but I can't remember it at all. They probably asked me about my hair and I probably tried to tell them why my album was literate. And it probably achieved very little.
Live performance of "The Devil In Me" filmed by a fan at an April 2009 Cabinet Of Wonders tour stop in Chicago
This is probably the song you are best known for. Do you still enjoy performing it after all these years?
JWH: I love to play "The Devil In Me." I always have and I probably always will. During my very first tour of the USA in 1990, I discovered that if I started to play faster and faster at the end of it, it was a bit like having a band. I'd previously done this with a song called "You And Your Career" from my first album, but there was no reason to play that one, so one night I remembered to transpose the ending to this song. And it was fun. And 20 years later, it's still fun.
Is it humbling watching yourself getting bailed out after you broke your string?
This doesn't seem anything too out of the ordinary to me. And I think the audience likes these moments of disaster and mistake - they're memorable. A perfect show is like watching paint dry. Handy that Dag [Juhlin, member of the Chicago band The Slugs] was around (we do a lot of shows together and in those situations I think you're always looking after your friend to make sure his entertaining of the crowd goes as well as possible). Also handy that we have matching guitars. In fact, if anything, I'm cheating here, having someone around to help me. The real test of an entertainer is what he does when he breaks the string and he's all alone. I'm sure there's some YouTube footage of me in that situation too....
How do you feel about having fans filming you like this?
I don't mind it at all. I mean, apparently the most visual exposure I am likely to get is on YouTube, so I'd better get with the beat.
Live performance of a Prince medley, with Daniel Handler (known to young readers everywhere by his pen name Lemony Snicket) on accordion and vocals, filmed by a fan at a San Francisco date of his Cabinet of Wonders tour
How did this collaboration come about?
JWH: Well, I'm a big fan of the Handler, both his words and his sounds. He was certainly my first thought for a guest at the San Francisco version of the Cabinet of Wonders. In many ways he's the consummate guest for this kind of event. And I asked him to do whatever he liked. And so he wrote a play in which I acted with his wife and his friend Nathaniel, and performed this riveting Prince medley, which the band and I rehearsed with him in sound check. When you're dealing with someone really good, and you're of a like mind and enjoy the same things, then something like this cannot fail to work. And that is my theory of show business.
I like to collaborate very much with people I very much want to collaborate with. Lots of these things pop up during the Cabinet shows, of course, because that's kind of the nature of the shows. But I am also very happy to work with or without a lot of rehearsal. If the person knows what they're doing, and you like what it is that they do, then it's going to be fine. Such lovely alignments don't happen spontaneously of course - they take a good idea, some work (either alone or together) and then a busy rehearsal in a dressing room somewhere! I believe in the process. It generally peaks onstage.