Via Conqueroo

Wesley Stace’s Musical Eloquence Returns to Stages

Multi-hyphenate artist Wesley Stace has more under his UK-born belt than most realize – a beloved teaching career, a successful run of novels, tens of albums, and an appreciation for the classics. In this case, the classics are live, in-person, and on stage concerts.

Singer-songwriter Wesley Stace has always gone his own way throughout his decades-long career, and this has held true even during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when many musicians have turned to livestreaming, “I didn’t do one Zoom concert the whole way through lockdown. I wasn’t into it,” he says. “When it came to Zoom concerts, I saw a couple and thought, ‘Man, everybody looks so miserable in their bedrooms.’ I didn’t want to do that.”

This means it’s been more than a year-and-a-half since Stace’s last shows in front of a live audience, making his upcoming gig at The Loft at City Winery-New York on September 23 (and another he’s doing in Boston the night before) extra special. With his five-piece band, he’ll play songs from his new album, Late Style, which he just released on September 17 via Omnivore Records.

Though Stace is best known for playing folk-rock songs (under his own name and, prior to 2013, under the stage name John Wesley Harding), Late Style incorporates elements of jazz, pop, and soul. “I’ve always been looking for different ways to make my music,” he says. “This time, I decided to make it quite different. I thought, ‘The world doesn’t need more scruffy art at the moment. The world needs elegant, finished, beautiful, stylish music to cheer it up.’”

He points to the track “Where the Bands Are” as a prime example of his newest musical style: “It sounds swinging. It sounds a bit like [jazz/blues singer and pianist] Mose Allison. And it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever made before. There’s not acoustic guitar all over it, and the melody is beautiful.”

The album’s beauty is a deliberate counterpoint to some of the more serious lyrics. “I felt that there were certain things being said about society and politics on this album that I thought would be made more palatable by some beautiful, lush sounds, so that they might stand a greater chance of getting heard,” he says. “I think my lyrics can be quite funny, but they are never insincere. There’s nothing snarky. I’m not that kind of person. I find as I get older – and I think a lot of songwriters find of this as they get older – I really want things just to be clearer. I want to say things so that people totally understand what I’m talking about and get it.”

Stace’s lyrical eloquence has been a hallmark of his career since he first began releasing albums in the late eighties, though he says he never intentionally set about writing in this way. Originally from England (though he’s lived in the U.S. for three decades now, calling today from his Philadelphia home), he studied English literature at the highly prestigious Cambridge University, “but I certainly never did a creative writing class in my life – except for the ones I’ve taught,” he says, adding that he’s taught writing courses at Princeton University, Swarthmore College, and Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Originally, Stace thought he’d end up doing this kind of academic work full-time, only falling into a singer-songwriter career somewhat by chance. “It kind of chooses you in a funny way,” he says of music. “I started playing the guitar at university. I had a guitar before that, but I didn’t really get going until about 17 or 18 [years old].” He was driven to dos this by “not wanting to be a poet, but having words to say.” He cites Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen among his early songwriting inspirations.

He’s gone on to release more than two dozen critically acclaimed albums – and he’s still expanding his musical expertise, writing the libretto for Errollyn Wallen’s opera Dido’s Ghost, which had its world premiere at London’s Barbican in July. This musical career hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for literature, though: he’s also published four novels, Misfortune (2005), By George (2007), Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer (2011), and Wonderkid (2014).

With his own career well-established, Stace has also turned his attention toward helping other artists gain recognition. Since 2009, he’s curated Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, a variety show that has regularly performed in New York and elsewhere, featuring a wide range of musicians, comedians, writers, and other artists at all levels, from buzzed-about upstarts to masters in their field. Past guests have included Rosanne Cash, Moby, Salman Rushdie, Josh Ritter, Graham Parker, Kristin Hersh, Eugene Mirman, and many dozens more.

Stace says he can be so prolific because he’s disciplined about doing a variety of work, so he’s never suffered from writer’s block. “There’s no question of getting blocked because I’m not muse-driven, I just set myself tasks and I do them – I’m good on a deadline, let’s put it that way,” he explains. “It’s not very romantic. It’s very pragmatic. I can imagine that if I only did one thing or another, I might get into trouble trying to recreate that specific thing or feeling. But in fact, it’s never like that for me because I’m just always working in very different ways.”

Given Stace’s productivity and talent, it should be interesting to see where he takes his career in the future. Even he can’t predict what might happen next, though he promises there will certainly be more music. “I always have hundreds of songs sitting around – and then, some opportunity comes up,” he says. “You just have to keep changing it up. You can’t keep doing the same thing, so I just try to mix it up.”