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At the heart of English folk
Wesley Stace

Wesley Stace

Wesley Stace’s Cabinet of Wonders is bringing its UK premier to Cecil Sharp House on Saturday 31 January. The variety show has consistently received rave reviews in the USA; its eclectic range of celebrated musicians, writers and comedians weaving a show that will make you laugh, think and sing along. We had a chat with the genius behind the show, Wesley Stace.

What is the premise of the Cabinet of Wonders?

Very simply, it’s a variety show made up of things that I love, the premise bring that people like a well-organised, but somewhat unpredictable, night of entertainment, consisting both of things they know they like, and also things that they may very well be discovering for the first time or don’t know so well. That’s the theory of variety, I guess. And because I came up with this not-massively-original idea, I get to ask whomever I like to be on it; and if it were your show, you could ask whomever you wanted. Everybody should have their own version of the Cabinet of Wonders. It’s how you get to see Aaron Neville, Stephin from the Magnetic Fields, Nina from the Cardigans and Nick Hornby in one night and on the same show (to pick a good one at random.) And you actually get to see them play/read for a little while: a mini-set.

What have you got planned for the show at Cecil Sharp House?

Well, the astonishing line up might tell you all you need to know: Jonathan Coe, Shirley Collins, Kristin Hersh, The High Llamas, Harry Hill, Nick Lowe, Paul Muldoon - I like it all to be very friendly and indeed there are a lot of friends, or friends of friends, on this bill, quite a few of whom have done the show in New York or beyond: a bunch of friends makes for a better show. I can tell you that there will be some unusual collaborations, and some nice surprises, and that I - as often happens - will try to watch as much as I can.

Despite the variety of the contents from show to show (it’s a wide umbrella under which almost anything can shelter), the Cabinet has developed a solid structure along the way. Thought goes into the planning - who’s on, in what order, and so forth - but the show itself is plain sailing like pushing a snowball down a hill. And this one looks great. The High Llamas are playing in their own right and also taking the role of house band.

Cabinet of Wonders

How did the initial idea for the Cabinet of Wonders come about?

It actually started when I was thinking of a fun way to do a record release party for one of my albums in New York a few years ago (2009), which became a chance to get my novel writing friends (who mostly wish they were musicians) and my musician friends (who mostly wish they were novelists) together. And once the idea for the show was there, it seemed like comedy was at the intersection of the two: so the line up became four musicians, two writers and a comedian - or thereabouts - and suddenly we had a show that we’ve been doing ever since, in New York, but all over America as well, and now - for the first time - intercontinentally. There’s a list of all the previous shows here and it’s pretty shocking how many amazing people have agreed to do the show for fun and fun alone (and a very little money.) One way we’re lucky: people who do it once tend to want to do it again. And I’ve been travelling around for 25 years now, doing this and that, so I have a good address book.

Why do you think it’s been so consistently successful?

Well, we’ve never let the Cabinet become part of the furniture, and we make sure that each new show delivers: you end up bumping into new people who might want to do the show, you ask them, they say yes and the show keeps rolling. It used to be, before audiences were familiar the idea, that the shows wouldn’t sell out until all the names were in place, but nowadays they sell a bunch of tickets before we name any names. The odd thing about that is that if, say, Bruce Springsteen was on a show, then the house wouldn’t necessarily be full of Springsteen fans - but often when we do announce a big name, the remaining tickets disappear quite quickly.

Also, I think it’s just a fun idea. It’s very nice to have, say, a fan of the Hold Steady, who bought the tickets to see Craig Finn play three songs, tell you that she really liked Dean Friedman singing “Ariel”: that’s my job done. Also, I’m not afraid to ask anyone: we’re in New York, it’s a great night, it’s always sold out, and you meet nice people - why wouldn’t you want to do it?

"Perpetually Entertaining!"
—The New Yorker

"Inspired silliness ... the audience roared in delight."
—Wall Street Journal

It’s just over a year since you dropped the name John Wesley Harding and released your latest album under your given name. How have you found the transition from John Wesley Harding to Wesley Stace?

Not hard really. Introductions are a lot shorter since they only have to get through one of me. I thought of going back to my real name a few times over the years, and the fact that I’d published a bunch of novels under my real name in the meanwhile, meant it was a lot easier to do it now than it would have been ten years ago. This also coincided with a fairly autobiographical set of songs that ended up being my last record: so the time felt right to call it all Wesley Stace again.

Over the course of your career you’ve recorded a number of English folk songs, most notably on Trad arr Jones, your tribute to Nic Jones. As a performer, how do you approach traditional material in comparison to your own compositions?

I always just try to strip it down to the most basic thing I can think of so I can tell the story well, because if I have a contribution to make to folk music, then storytelling is probably it. Nic Jones is the greatest folk guitar player, right up there with Carthy, and the arrangements are sensational: the singing is also great. It’s an unusually great all-in-one package. But I’ll just pick a folk song based on the story and try to tell it as persuasively as I can. And I’ll be singing a fauk-folk-song at the Cabinet, because Shirley Collins requested it, and I’d be a fool to deny her.

What have you been listening to recently?

A lot of good stuff! Newish-wise, Frisk Frugt, Goat, the last Parquet Courts, the most recent Euros Child piano record; but I don’t keep up like I should - I just wait until friends recommend things to me. I’m still listening to some stunning new releases from 1972.

What have you got planned for the next 12 months?

More Cabinets, a bit of teaching, finishing the next novel, my 10th wedding anniversary, maybe make a new record - I shall also turn 50. About time.


Find out more about the show


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National Youth Folk Ensemble


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