Philadelphia Englishman Wesley Stace is bringing his ‘Late Style’ to the City Winery
The songwriter and novelist’s new album is a jazzy departure, made for the wee small hours of the morning.
Wesley Stace’s prolific recording career stretches back to 1990, when he made his debut as an angry young Englishman using the moniker John Wesley Harding, and it’s continued through the last decade while — as a Philadelphian — he’s been performing under his given name, Wesley Stace.
Longevity is one reason that the songwriter and novelist decided to call his new album Late Style.
“I like the idea of this being my mature period,” said Stace last week as he prepared for a mini-tour that will bring him and his band, including chief Late Style collaborator David Nagler, to the City Winery Philadelphia on Wednesday.
The album, which features a cover painting of the singer at the piano by film poster artist Tony Stella, is full of songs such as “Well Done Everyone” (about how human beings have ruined pretty much everything) and “Everything All the Time” (a droll commentary on unrelenting modern life) whose lyrics are marked by Stace’s trademark wit.
But musically, Late Style is a departure. It’s a new way of doing things for the musical-literary polymath who’s written four novels, collaborated with dancer Mark Morris on a memoir, and most recently written a libretto for the opera Dido’s Ghost with Belize-born British composer Errolyn Wallen that premiered at the Barbican in London in June.
Late Style is smoking-jacket music, a chilled-out collection that takes its cues not from usual Stace touchstones like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan — whose 1967 album title he borrowed for his John Wesley Harding stage name — but from swingin’ and seductive performers such as Mose Allison, Carla Bley, and cool jazz Schoolhouse Rock! composer Bob Dorough.
“It seems to me a beautiful name for the kind of late-night feel I wanted the album to have,” says Stace, speaking from his home in Northwest Philadelphia, where he lives with his wife, Abbey, daughter, Tilda, 15, and son, Wyn, 13.
“The feeling of a bar and cocktails, and perhaps it’s the end of the evening and I’m getting a little lazy with my phrasing, and no one’s quite left and I’m wearing my pink suit and it’s the greatest night in the world.” (A master of merch, Stace is selling Late Style lowball glasses on his wesleystace.com website, bundled with a double LP version of the album.)
For Stace — who’s at work on his fifth novel “about a man caught in a world of black-and-white films” and is also teaching a virtual class on Anthony Powell’s 12-novel cycle A Dance To the Music of Time via Philadelphia’s Rosenbach museum — inspiration for the stylistic shift came while cooking.
“I started with this set of lyrics,” with songs that ranged from the enchanting love song “All the Yous” to the sly protest “Come Back Yesterday,” says Stace, “and what I listen to in the kitchen is a lot broader than the music I have historically made. I listen to a bit of prog, and I love quite a lot of loungey stuff, and I listen to a lot of jazz.
“So I was listening to probably Sérgio Mendes or Gary McFarland, and suddenly I thought: I always try to make an album different, and how I have tended to do that is by going, ‘Oh, if I make an album with The Decemberists” — as with 2011′s The Sound of His Own Voice — “that will sound a bit different. Or, if I make one with The Jayhawks,’ ” as on Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding in 2017.
But this time, that didn’t seem like enough, “because all of those ended up sounding somewhere between folk-rock and power pop,” he says.
He gained confidence to break out of that box from his Dido’s Ghost experience with Wallen, whom Stace — who grew up in Hastings on the south coast of England — knew through his mother, Molly, a singer and director of the Hastings Music Festival, who died in 2019.
For the opera, Stace had simply written the libretto and handed it over to Wallen. That was a new experience for a songwriter who always had written both words and music himself.
Emboldened, he tried it again with the lyrics to his Late Style songs, entrusting them to Nagler, who wrote all the music, came up with breezy arrangements, and produced the album with Chris Von Sneidern.
“For 10 years now, I’ve been in a band with David,” says Stace, speaking of his touring outfit the English UK, who also back him on his Cabinet of Wonders variety shows in which he gathers together musicians, comedians, authors, and perhaps even a ventriloquist, like the one in his 2007 novel By George.
“He’s a genius,” Stace says of Nagler. “He knows what I like, and the experience with the opera gave me the confidence to give him a song and tell him it should be like [great Philadelphia jazz trumpeter] Lee Morgan with vocals, or like Mose Allison.” What Nagler came back with “was so great, and so exactly what I wanted.”
Casting Nagler as Burt Bacharach to his Hal David, Stace says, meant acknowledging “that my musical capabilities are not as great as my musical imaginings.”
Stace recorded the album at studios such as Pete Rydberg’s Studio 1935 in South Philly and patched the music together remotely with contributions from vocalists Kelly Hogan and Norah O’Connor in Chicago and drummer Prairie Prince in California.
The liner notes are written by novelist and David Lynch collaborator Barry Gifford, who writes that Stace “knows — intuitively or otherwise — how and why to stay with the words he’s laying down, letting the story find its own way out of the forest. ... Perfect for listening to on late night radio.”
To promote the album, Stace will play clusters of club shows rather than risking a full-scale tour while the pandemic drags on.
“Things have changed,” he says. “It can’t all be the same. People want it to be the same as before and the yearning is so sincere to have it all be as it was before, but it cannot. We have to be more realistic.”
During quarantine, his daughter made iPhone videos of him singing Warren Zevon’s “Splendid Isolation” and The Kinks’ “See My Friends.” And he also wrote what he calls “my lockdown jam,” a song called “Do Nothing If You Can” that’s on Late Style.
But he couldn’t bring himself to participate in “scruffy Zoom concerts and people playing in their PJs,” he says. “I just couldn’t bear the thought of sitting in front of a computer screen to no audience. Nothing about that appealed to me.”
Instead, “what I found was what I wanted was to have the thing I put out there be more beautiful and more elegant and more thought out than anything I’d ever done,” he says of Late Style. “Because I think that’s what the world needs now. Fully fleshed out statements and beautiful bits of art, not more endless, scrappy demos.”
Wesley Stace at the Loft at City Winery Philadelphia, 990 Filbert St., at 8 p.m. Wednesday. $20. 267-479-7373. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours is required for entry. citywinery.com/philadelphia