With the autobiographical nature of his 2013 album “Self-Titled,” Wesley Stace shed 25 years of identity as John Wesley Harding to reclaim his own name as a musician. Stace had published three novels under his given name by then, followed by 2014’s Wonderkid. New album title “Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding” illustrates the difficulty of managing his professional reboot with tongue in cheek.
“I happened to see the new version of ELO,” says Stace. “The only version that counts, the one with Jeff Lynne. For whatever legal reason, this was billed as ‘Jeff Lynne’s ELO,’ presumably to differentiate it from any other rogue version of ELO. With ‘Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding, I am reminding you that this version of John Wesley Harding is the only version that counts.”
He adds, “I just felt it was getting increasingly ridiculous to be writing novels under the name Wesley Stace and making music under John Wesley Harding.”
In recent years, Stace has collaborated with outside bands including the Minus 5 and Decemberists. This time, he turned to the Jayhawks. The Minneapolis roots-rock heroes also recorded freshly-knighted Kinks frontman Ray Davies’ new album “Americana.” “I’m the only one of the two singer-songwriters the Jayhawks have backed up this year who isn’t knighted,” says Stace. “That’s a bit annoying.”
New material like the bittersweet “You’re a Song” reveals Stace’s mastery as a tune-and-wordsmith. He describes the lyric as an equipoise. Either the song is the metaphor for a woman, or the woman is metaphor for the song. On a related level, it might be about missing the muse’s gift and watching it flourish elsewhere. Stace has seen a related phenomenon, as a concept travels among different artists.
“‘Sympathy for the Devil’ [by the Rolling Stones] turns into my song ‘The Devil in Me’ at some point. INXS had ‘The Devil Inside,’ and T Bone Burnett had ‘The Criminal Under My Own Hat,’” says Stace. “I just think everything goes around.”
“For Me and You” promotes peace when things don’t work between parties. “There’s a line in [‘The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman’] by Laurence Sterne, my favorite novel, where Uncle Toby has a fly land on his finger,” says Stace. “It’s annoying everybody, and they want to kill it. Uncle Toby takes it outside and says, ‘Isn’t this world big enough for thee and me?’ The song posits three situations where people feel they can’t live together. I think the world would be better if people were able to go, ‘You know what? It’s a very big world we have here. I’m sure we can agree to just not come into conflict with each other by taking advantage of the hugeness of the world.’”
At Thalia Hall, Stace will perform his captivating one-man set. He’ll also get help from his friends on the bill.
“The Jayhawks will join me for a song or two from my new album,” says Stace. “I’ll also join them. They like to have a second guitar on some things, and I know all their songs. I’ve loved the Jayhawks for years.”
* The Jayhawks, Wesley Stace, 8 p.m. Apr. 29, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport, $26; thaliahallchicago.com.
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.