Born Wesley Harding Stace on October 22, 1965, in Hastings, England; son of Christopher (a schoolteacher) and Molly (a former opera singer, and schoolteacher; maiden name, Townsend) Stace. Education: Cambridge University, Cambridge, England, bachelor of arts degree in English; graduate study in political and social theory. Addresses: Record company--DRT Entertainment, 45 W. 21st St., 4th Fl., New York, NY 10010. Website--John Wesley Harding Official Website: http://www.johnwesleyharding.com.
With the release of his first major label album, Here Comes the Groom, in 1990, John Wesley Harding quickly became a favorite singer-songwriter among music critics. He also gained a substantial following with his solo acoustic performances and popular videos. Harding's second album, The Name Above the Title, released in 1991, demonstrated that his initial success was no accident and convinced many of his admirers that his evolution as a writer and vocalist would be even more impressive than they had imagined. He went on to a solid career that did not include chart-topping singles but brought him a faithful core of admirers, including Bruce Springsteen, on both sides of the Atlantic.
Harding was born Wesley Harding Stace in Hastings, England, on October 10, 1965, the son of two schoolteachers. His mother was a mezzo-soprano opera singer, but she gave up singing in order to teach; his father played jazz piano in addition to teaching. Harding himself would later go in the opposite direction. Though he grew up listening to and loving pop music, playing folk songs in local pubs by age 17, his career at first looked to be an academic one. He studied English literature at Cambridge University, earning a first--the highest undergraduate grade--and began work toward a Ph.D. in political and social theory. Soon, however, he put aside his graduate work to play music.
Still considering a possible return to academics, Harding didn't want to use his real name in his musical appearances. Taking his stage name from an album by the most famous of all folk-rock artists, Bob Dylan, Harding performed a set of original songs at a performance in London in the summer of 1988; fortunately for his career, several music industry people attended the show and took notice. Soon afterward he went on tour with the group Hothouse Flowers in the United Kingdom and with singer-songwriter John Hiatt in the United States. Later that year he released an album that was recorded live during one performance, aptly titled It Happened One Night. The title of the record, released by the British label Demon, came from the 1934 film by acclaimed director Frank Capra.
Harding then put together a band that included the bassist and drummer from British singer-songwriter Elvis Costello's group the Attractions, and recorded a demo that impressed Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records. Stein assigned producer Andy Paley, who had just produced an album with former Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson, to work with Harding. The songwriter's first release for Sire was God Made Me Do It: The Christmas EP, which included the title song from Harding's later album Here Comes the Groom, two other original songs, a solo acoustic rendition of Madonna's hit "Like a Prayer," and a lengthy interview with British comic Viv Stanshall called "A Cosy Promotional Chat."
Here Comes the Groom was recorded with The Good Liars, a band that included Pete Thomas and Bruce Thomas from the Attractions, guitarist Steve Donelly, and keyboardist Kenny Craddock. It appeared in 1990 and received exceptional reviews. Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times called it "the first great album of the 90's," comparing Harding's lyrics to those of Dylan and Costello. Rolling Stone referred to Groom as an "impressive major-label debut." Most critics noted in some way the similarities between Harding's singing and writing style and those of Costello, but Harding made no attempt to conceal his influences. On one of the tracks, "Bastard Son," he sings, "Bob Dylan is my father, Joan Baez is my mother," and lists a number of his other favorite songwriters in the lyrics. Folk singer John Prine, a Harding favorite and one of the many artists named in "Bastard Son," called Here Comes the Groom one of the best albums of the year. The LP also contained "Things Snowball," a duet sung and composed with Los Angeles songwriter Peter Case. The single from the album, "The Devil in Me," spawned a video that aired extensively on MTV.
Harding immediately went on the road for the 1990 Lafftour, along with rock bands The Ocean Blue and The Mighty Lemon Drops. Performing solo with an acoustic guitar, Harding captured the attention of fans across the United States with his witty songs and hilarious between-song patter. He toured a few months later with fellow singer-songwriter Michelle Shocked. Harding also appeared on two 1990 Sire/Reprise compilation albums, Just Say Da and Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye. In the latter, a tribute to psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson, Harding contributed a high-energy version of Erickson's "If You Have Ghosts." In 1991 he collaborated with singer-songwriter Steve Wynn on a song called "Warning: Parental Advisory" for yet another Sire anthology, Just Say Anything, released in response to controversy over warning stickers on albums.
Harding's second Sire LP, The Name Above the Title, garnered additional positive reviews. "I wanted the people who liked the first album to know that it wasn't a fluke," he told Erin Culley in Hits. People's Craig Tomashoff declared that the music "burrows right into your pleasure center." Jock Baird wrote in Musician that the record "unpacks an engaging rogue's gallery of characters and story lines, all placed in solid rock settings." Harding's preoccupation with the movies is especially clear on this album. Featuring a song called "The Movie of Your Life," the record is structured like a film, with a short instrumental theme at the beginning and a lively band introduction serving as closing "credits." The album was recorded in a month, and contains 14 original songs and one cover, a lush reworking of Tommy James and the Shondells' 1960s classic "Crystal Blue Persuasion." Other songs on the album include "The Person You Are," "Bridegroom Blues," a rocker with a hip-hop beat that Harding claimed was recorded in about an hour, and two soul-influenced ballads, "Driving in the Rain" and "Save a Little Room for Me."
In 1991, true to his literary leanings, Harding published a small book of his lyrics, Collected Stories: 1990-1991, as a publicity gesture. The lyrics appear in slightly altered form, frequently with parenthetical remarks in prose by Harding. The book seemed to answer a growing demand, as many admiring reviewers had wondered why Harding never included lyric sheets with his albums.
By mid-1991 fans and critics alike seemed to see past Harding's obvious influences to a new and original talent. Tomashoff wrote that "in the end, Harding may remind you of a lot of people, but the true testimonial to his abilities will come a few years from now. Some smart singer-songwriter will happen along, and the first thing you'll say is, 'Doesn't he sound a lot like John Wesley Harding?'"
Harding's songs were little stories and portraits from which he maintained a certain distance that allowed him to make sharp observations about the characters he created. Harding did not inhabit the top reaches of the pop charts, but serious folk fans and other songwriters eagerly awaited each new Harding release. His last recording for the Sire label was 1992's Why We Fight, and he moved to Rhino for the aptly titled JWH's New Deal (1995). While recording that album in Los Angeles, Harding was caught in the riots that followed the acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the beating of motorist Rodney King.
Harding had a more pleasant Los Angeles experience in 1994: rock superstar Bruce Springsteen joined him in a Santa Monica tavern for a duet performance, released on Harding's Awake album (on the Zero Hour label) in 1998. In 1995 Harding became Springsteen's first opening act in two decades.
Harding's 1999 album Trad Arr Jones was a collection of traditional songs arranged by 1970s British singer Nic Jones. He returned to original material with the 2000 album The Confessions of St. Ace on Mammoth, featuring guest appearances from Texan singers Steve Earle and Jimmie Dale Gilmore. One song from the album, "I'm Wrong About Everything," was included in the 2000 Hollywood film High Fidelity. Harding moved with his girlfriend, writer Shelley Jackson, to the United States in 2001, settling in Brooklyn, New York. He released The Man with No Shadow in 2002, with one song, "Sussex Ghost Story," featuring the British classical group the Gavin Bryars Ensemble. Harding's 2004 release Adam's Apple, on the DRT Entertainment label, was termed "the finest album of his career" by John D. Luerssen of All Music Guide.
The following year, after several earlier attempts at fiction writing, Harding's novel Misfortune was published by Little, Brown & Co. Misfortune began as a Harding song called "Miss Fortune" on the Awake album, and expanded from there; it dealt with an orphan boy raised as a girl in an aristocratic English family. In 2006 Harding was at work on a second novel about a family of English entertainers. He continued to tour and record, but he seemed interested in writing as a future career direction. "I love making music," he told Gilbert Cruz of Entertainment Weekly, but I'm not sure that in 20 years' time, a dignified thing [for me] to do will be playing a guitar on stage. You can probably grow old writing a little bit more gracefully than you can playing music."
by Simon Glickman and James M. Manheim
John Wesley Harding's Career
Worked as usher in an art cinema, played folk music in pubs while pursuing graduate studies; toured as opening act in the U.K and U.S., recorded "live" album It Happened One Night, all 1988; signed to Sire label, released Here Comes the Groom, 1989, and two more albums on Sire; toured as opening act for Bruce Springsteen, 1995; signed to Zero Hour label; released Awake, 1998, and Trad Arr Jones, 1999; released The Confessions of St. Ace on Mammoth label, 2000; released The Man with No Shadow, 2002; released Adam's Apple on DRT, 2004; as Wesley Stace, published novel Misfortune; released album Songs of Misfortune, 2005.
- Selected discography
- It Happened One Night Demon, 1988.
- God Made Me Do It: The Christmas EP Sire/Reprise, 1989.
- Here Comes the Groom Sire/Reprise, 1990.
- Just Say Da Sire/Reprise, 1990.
- Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye Sire/Reprise, 1990.
- Just Say Anything Sire, 1991.
- The Name Above the Title Sire/Reprise, 1990.
- Why We Fight Sire, 1992.
- JWH's New Deal Rhino, 1995.
- Awake Zero Hour, 1998.
- Trad Arr Jones Zero Hour, 1999.
- The Confessions of St. Ace Mammoth, 2000.
- The Man with No Shadow Mammoth, 2002.
- Adam's Apple DRT, 2004.
- Songs of Misfortune DRT, 2005.
- Selected writings
- Collected Stories: 1990-1991 (lyrics), Warner Bros., 1991.
- (As Wesley Stace) Misfortune Little, Brown, 2005.
- Harding, John Wesley, Collected Stories: 1990-1991, Warner Bros., 1991 (song lyrics).
- Stace, Wesley, Misfortune, Little, Brown, 2005.
- Bomb, Summer 1991.
- Entertainment Weekly, April 15, 2005, p. 84.
- Hits, March 25, 1991.
- Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1990.
- Musician, July 1991.
- People, March 18, 1991.
- Rolling Stone, March 22, 1990.
- "John Wesley Harding," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 10, 2006).
- "The Man with No Shadow," Mammoth Records, http://www.mammoth.go.com/johnwesleyharding (March 10, 2006).