In The Studio with John Wesley Harding
John Wesley Harding has wrapped up production on his latest, as-yet-untitled long-player for Yep Roc Records. While the album won’t hit shelves until fall, Harding sat down with us inside Philadelphia’s Milkboy recording studio last month, and then again after the all tracks had been laid down, to discuss the process of making his most personal record to date.
The album, which could boast as many as 20 tracks, will feature his longtime musical cohorts The English U.K., a baroque four-piece string section, and the Silver Ages. The latter is a Philadelphia-based all-male vocal choir featuring members of Dr. Dog, the War on Drugs, and the Spinto Band, among other mainstays of Philly’s indie rock inner circle. Harding has taken a shining to these debonair young fellas in recent months, performing with the choir in and around town, and even having them up to the City Winery in NYC for the December installment of The Cabinet of Wonders, Harding’s acclaimed and now-on-NPR variety show, where they backed Ron Sexsmith on a stunning version of Harry Nilsson’s “Good Old Desk.”
John Wesley Harding on recording: I’m totally delighted with the luxurious studio experience. I can’t imagine being in a better place to [record] it. Those finished tracks sound like a bunch of guys playing together, which is what it’s supposed to sound like. Chris [von Sneidern] is a very good friend of mine, a fantastic songwriter, and has toured with me. We’ve done a lot of stuff together.
Because of the slightly different nature of the material on this album I really didn’t think that I could get away, which I might in other instances, without having someone on the other side of the glass, beyond the engineer who’s making purely aesthetic but mostly technical decisions — having stuff sound as good as possible. I needed somebody on the other side of the glass who I trusted and who knows exactly the kind of things that I like, so I could concentrate on making the music and the engineer could engineer, yet there was someone else there saying “that isn’t a take yet, that isn’t it.” We are quite good foils to each other, each with a good work ethic, but he is the perfectionist, while I am more apt to steam through stuff and move on.
John Wesley Harding on songwriting: I write a song with a melody and some chords, generally on guitar. I will then decide whether I want that song to have any instruments or just solo. If instruments, on this album, it might be guitar, voice, and string quartet, or bass, drums and electric guitar. Then I look for others to give me what they like about their playing. Songs in my head, when I take them to the band, I have a rough idea of what they sound like — but on the other hand, I am neither a drummer or a great bass player.
Occasionally, as on [new song] “Ride Your Camel,” I thought “David needs to come up with a keyboard hook for this” but it didn’t appear at any time, and I said “I had one in my head that I’ve had all along, try this, it’s a bit dumb,” but it ended up being totally perfect after he finessed it a little. And that is the finished lick on the track, the riff I thought of playing it on my acoustic guitar. But with drums I am much less confident with having things in my head. One motif of this album is that there isn’t a lot of high hat on it, because I wanted the drums to feel pretty sparse.
John Wesley Harding on making a singer-songwriter record: Funny because I’ve been nothing if not a singer-songwriter my whole life, but I would say yes, in terms of ’70s singer-songwritering, yes, this is the album I’ve most made that way. It rocks hard very rarely, one or two songs, and a lot of them are just acoustic guitar, me singing, and strings. So we are referring to various bits of music I’ve liked over the years, some of it on the softer side: Duncan Browne, Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, a bit of Alan Hull. All the singer-songwriters that I’ve liked.
I’ve always had a blueprint for doing stuff where I write the songs that I write, then I take a band into the studio. Often times it’s someone else’s band, a band I like; last time it was the Decemberists, because I like how they sound and I thought they’d sound great playing my songs, and that’s a very nice way for a singer-songwriter to do things. On this album I did it the other way around, because once I’d written the songs, and there were 50-some contenders because I’d written a lot of songs over the last couple of years, they had a very different feel to me and I thought I don’t want to do what I normally do and have the band lay in all over this. I wanted to really put these songs in the world and make what I consider a pretty serious singer-songwriter record.
Harding remarked in the studio to his bandmate and string composer David Nagler that “Stare at the Sun” is going to be the best song he’s ever recorded. The stirring piece is more singer-songwritery than most of Harding’s previous work, although it is aligned sonically and somewhat-thematically to the Gavin Bryars-orchestrated “Sussex Ghost Story” from Harding’s 2004 album Adam’s Apple. “Stare at the Sun” too will have only voice, acoustic guitar, and strings. Having heard this track performed live, and again during my time in the studio, I can attest to the stark nakedness of the emotion in Harding’s voice.
John Wesley Harding on the use of strings: Originally I had the idea of half the album being baroque strings (Nagler and Daniel Felsenfeld shared writing the string arrangements, of which there are six or seven apiece), and the other half being light singer-songwriter pop music that I like. But when I got into it I realized it was less good to think about it as two separate aspects of the same album and much better to think about them all being related so I won’t separate the album. It will be quite a hard album to sequence.
On this record, it felt like the absolute main thing should be intimate vocals and really nicely played acoustic guitars with everything else being subsidiary to that and I didn’t want to muddle that up with a band thrashing through stuff. The band parts were arranged very carefully. The band is the English U.K. but with Patrick Berkery, a Philadelphia guy with War on Drugs, Danielson, and Bigger Lovers on his resume, on drums in place of Adam who is in Australia getting married.
John Wesley Harding on touring the new songs: It’ll be tricky to take a string quartet around the country, but I’m sure at selected gigs we could make it work. The band is totally available. The interesting thing with this material is that so many of the songs are… not whispered, but sung quietly, I mean quite quietly and that will be an interesting experience for me because I know already from having played some of these songs live that it’s difficult to sing that quietly on stage.
I generally sing out quite a lot. I started playing guitar on the streets just for fun and that has given me a loud voice over the years. I’m looking to present these songs in a very different way, but if there’s a band playing on them that band will be playing out so we’ll have to restrain them and make sure there’s a crapload of my voice in the monitors so I can actually hear what I’m doing! The nature of [the songs] are pretty low in my register; I mean, I’ve never presented songs before of which the first line was “You saw me, I saw you.” [Sung for me very low, in a mix of early Neil Diamond and Leonard Cohen]
It’s all linked with me buying a new guitar, I’ve never owned a nice guitar before, and I liked making up all these guitar parts and I liked singing them so low, I thought my voice sounded really pleasant in that register. And so that’s how I wanted to record them and that’s how the idea all came about, because I was just sitting in my room going “You saw me, I saw you.” In the old days I would’ve shoved a capo on the guitar and chucked it five frets up and sung louder, but I haven’t done that this time and it makes the album and the songs a much more intimate experience. It’ll be about a 60/40 split [between full band and orchestral], but even some of the band songs are less aggressive than the orchestrations, which are, in a couple cases, quite lively and aggressive. One of the band songs is called “Lydia,” and it’s the slowest song I’ve ever recorded. It is so slow, like 55 beats per minute or something — you hear a snare drum once every eight seconds or so!
Should Harding’s studio band become his live band once again, that will continue a bit of a trend for the frontman who, until taking the Colin Meloy-less Decemberists + R.E.M’s Peter Buck out on the road in support of The Sound of His Own Voice, has never attempted to rekindle the same studio magic on the road.
John Wesley Harding’s new album is due out in the fall of 2013 on Yep Rec Records.