As an honest artist, Wesley Stace doesn’t mind a clear assessment of his 25-year career in music. As an optimist, he doesn’t struggle to find the bright side.
“I’ve never been a household name, it’s true,” he agrees. “But that means I’ve never had a big song that I have to sing over and over. And I have enough fans who want to hear me play songs they love.”
Even more than that, the 48-year-old singer/songwriter says, never being known extremely well for one thing has allowed him to try lots of different things – writing novels, for instance, or hosting a monthly variety show at City Winery, as he does Saturday night, May 17 – and to have each of those things be accepted as a part of what he does.
“I’ve had the chance to do all sorts of things without them being considered embarrassing side projects,” he says by phone from his home near Philadelphia. “The first novel took seven years to write, and I put my heart and soul into it, so it was very satisfying to have it come out and be accepted for what it was. I think that very good writers like Steve Earle and Rosanne Cash have had a harder time because they are more famous than I am, so people don’t give them a chance in other areas.”
Stace – who until his 17th album, 2013’s Self-Titled, released albums as John Wesley Harding – has taken full advantage of this flexibility. Since his 2005 debut novel, Misfortune, Stace has published three more, winning all manner of recognition and encouragement, including Misfortune being short-listed for the Commonwealth Writers Prize (Stace is a native of Britain) and name one of the Washington Post’s Books of the Year. His most recent book is this year’s Wonderkid.
“No one likes a Jack-of-All-Trades,” he says. “They want people to stay in their boxes.” But Stace has beaten those odds, and positively revels in his current role, one that ties nearly all his trades together in one entertaining package: Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders, a monthly variety show he hosts at New York’s City Winery.
In the show, Stace gets to play songs, read from his books, recite a monthly poem about the show’s guest stars and exercise another muscle: Show host, raconteur and impresario.
“You kind of learn as you grow older what you’re good at,” he says. “And I find I’m good at getting people to do things I want them to do. They trust me, and everyone who comes to do the Cabinet wants to do it again. That’s about being a good host, being a good MC, and picking the right people.”
Stace’s guests since the Cabinet of Wonders launched in 2009 have been a varied and talented lot, reflecting Stace’s own talents: Musicians, writers of a literary bent, comedians and even visual artists. Among them have been Cash, Graham Parker, Sondra Lerche, Rick Moody, Josh Ritter, Tanya Donelly, Sarah Vowell, Janeanne Garafalo and Andrew Bird.
Saturday’s show will feature a large, typically eclectic mix: New York folk veteran David Bromberg, former Faces keyboardist and singer Ian McLagan, Steven Page of Bare Naked Ladies, Craig Northey of The Odds, and James Fearnley of the Pogues, with whom Stace “will be playing the role of Shane McGowan.” Comedian Eugene Mirman, a regular, will be among the several other performers.
“There’s a lot of knowledge that goes into putting the show together,” says Stace. “I don’t mind making a fool of myself, so I like to plan only so much – not very much. But I keep a form, and it feels a very natural thing. It’s the most natural thing I do, actually.”
Stace has another appealing quality: He doesn’t take himself too seriously.
“I’m not a perfectionist, which is a leading motive in the lot of the things I do,” he says. “I love to move on and do the next things.”
But for all that, this Jack-of-all-trades is still able to write a song as nearly-perfect as the elegiac song he played at last month’s Cabinet, from Self-Titled. “We Will Always Have New York,” a highly-detailed yet instantly memorable song that combines Stace’s way with words and a newfound emotional depth that has come with his years of experience as not the next-big-thing.
“‘We Will Always Have New York’ is a song I could not have written 20 years ago,” he says. “It’s a song of experience, it reflects 20 years of living and loving in New York, of life.
“For years I tried to make music live up to my idea of how literary it could be,” he adds. “Now I think I’m doing much better by making literature a bit more musical, and freeing the songs to be more natural, and make you feel the way a great song makes you feel.”
Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders plays City Winery Saturday night.