You may have seen John Wesley Harding during his last trip to Seattle, less than a month ago. He played solo at Borders Books downtown as part of his monthlong tour of Borders stores across the country. It's hard to picture Harding, the wry English folksinger who includes Bruce Springsteen among his fans, crouched near the "nothing over $9.98" table, weaving his complex tales, but Harding enjoyed the experience. "When [you] play solo, it's all about you and the audience," he says a few days before his May 1 return to Seattle. (This time he'll play a more conventional show at the Crocodile, sharing the bill with alternative pioneer/god Steve Wynn.)
John Wesley Harding
Crocodile, Friday, May 1
The Crocodile show comes in the middle of an extended tour that has taken Harding and Wynn through Europe and now the US. Harding is promoting his new record, Awake (Zero Hour), an album that the singer-songwriter thinks could be a bracer to his folk-loving fans. "It's a different-sounding record for me because I really let a lot of different influences run into it," he notes.
It's no surprise that Harding is willing to explore, to take from disparate influences. He is, after all, a former PhD candidate who calls Loudon Wainwright III and Metallica his greatest performing influences, and Seattle musician/producer Kurt Bloch "probably the best songwriter writing today."
But Awake isn't a complete departure from Harding's previous work. "I didn't want to suddenly start rapping or, alternatively, write much shorter lines," he says. Instead, he took songs he'd already written and made them "different," taking chances with rhythm, arrangement, and instrumentation. Yet, Harding says, he's always considered his brand of folk music "odd." He describes himself as "flying in the face of everything that singer-songwriterdom is all about at the moment, which is the complete prioritization of what happened to the singer and how much their life is similar to the thing they're singing about."
Instead of making personal statements, Harding puts himself into another person's shoes and then tells a story—generally not a very happy one. "[My music] is to folk music what gangsta rap is to rap music," he says with humor. "It's got more dead bodies in it."
In fact, "The Gangsta Folk" is the back-cover credit for the backing musicians on Awake (including Young Fresh Fellows Scott McCaughey and Bloch). So is Harding a big rap fan, or does he just like the way the word "gangsta" sounds? "If I was going to get someone to produce my album," he says seriously, "heaven knows I would want it to be Dr. Dre."
But longtime Harding fans shouldn't panic. Listening to Awake, they'll still find darkly comic observations, satisfying melodies, and an artist proud of his accessibility. When Harding takes the Crocodile stage, he won't appear dripping with gold chains and oversized clothing. He will be, as always, John Wesley Harding. "If you're a persona on stage, it's always going to be incredibly difficult for you to do anything other than what's unnatural for you," he says. "I'm exactly the same person on stage [as off]."