It helps to know that Harding's real name is Wesley Stace. At least that explains the "St. Ace." But beyond that, Harding is just playing.
"This is miles apart from a concept album," Harding says from a cell phone while sharing a ride to Boston with his band. The reception is bad, and Harding says that road conditions are perilous due to "shitty fucking weather" -- a phrase his well-heeled English accent makes sound like meteorological erudition. "The only unifying theme here is that I first had the very bad notion of putting it out as a band album rather than an artist album."
Harding is aware of his rap as a songwriter too clever for the mainstream. It's a label of which the son of a vocal teacher mother and a classics scholar father is predictably proud. "The lyrics dictate where you want the song to go, what it should sound like," he says. "I like to work on the edge and use a lot of irony. If people can't handle it, it's not my fault. To me, Nabokov's Pale Fire is a great novel. Some people might call that pretentious, but I'd rather read that and be accused of pretension than read the kind of stuff other people might read. It's the same thing with people saying I'm pretentious or too clever."
Harding has learned to live with being pigeonholed; if nothing else, he can be grateful that at least the slot for his music now belongs to only him. In a memorable bit of criticism, the fourth edition of the Trouser Press Music Guide wrote that Harding's initial recordings -- which were made with two members of the Attractions -- went beyond following the Elvis Costello blueprint and "backed a truck up to (Costello's) house." But the obscure, lilting Trad. Arr. Jones and its balls-out follow-up, Awake, finally brought Harding's voice as a writer and singer fully into its own. St. Ace, then, feels like a culmination; it has hooks, crunch, cleverness, guest turns by Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Steve Earle, and a clutch of immediate songs that couldn't be further from the precious liner notes.
It also feels like a rebirth for Harding as a player. After his last label, Zero Hour, folded just as Awake needed legwork, Harding went to cut demos in Memphis. There, his producer routed him to Nashville for a marathon recording-session-as-audition that won him a contract with Mammoth.
"I was lucky in that the songs the label chose (during the demo session) I liked, and the two I picked, they liked," says Harding, who selected from 45 songs to make St. Ace. "I would have been very disappointed if they'd heard those two songs in particular and said no to the deal."
Secure in the knowledge that Mammoth appreciated his work, Harding was able to relax. "This is the first album I've done in a long time where I could record in relative comfort. I actually had a budget, and it was easier to get stuff done," he says. Such lighthearted numbers as "Goth Girls" show the easing of tensions, but no deal eliminates the problem of broadcasting the music to a big, paying audience of CD buyers.
"Ten years ago, you would have expected to get a video on MTV on 120 Minutes. But no one shows videos anymore," Harding says. "So most of my survival has to do with the fact that I have been able to tour and just play the guitar on my own or with one other person. I don't have to take a band on the road every time. Some people need a band, which gets expensive." This time, though, Harding is coping with the expense and giving his new songs room to move.
"We're even taking some of the Trad. Arr. Jones songs with us," Harding says. That album, a pared-down recording of the work of folk artist Nic Jones, is Harding's favorite, and it's the only one of his releases represented in his decidedly non-rocking father's record collection. "I feel a great album of cover versions can speak volumes. And I felt Trad. Arr. Jones spoke what I had to say then. One of the points of making the record was to point out that Jones' arrangements were his strength. These were traditional songs that he had made his own, and I was showing how he had done that by sticking to his arrangements. I really consider what he did with those songs to be writing."
Harding credited Jones' publishing with the songs. He trolls eBay to find old Jones recordings; most recently, he relied on a German friend to broker an eBay transaction with a vendor who would sell only to a German. "Finding his stuff is exciting.
"Trad. only cost a couple of grand to make, and it was a labor of love," Harding explains. Like most such endeavors, it was quickly buried in the market and lost altogether when Zero Hour hit the skids. It and Awake will be reissued in January by Appleseed, a folk label whose owner admired Trad. Arr. Jones. Both will have extra tracks, one of which -- on Awake -- is a duet with Bruce Springsteen.
"There are no small deals with Springsteen," Harding explains. "But we had recorded his 'Wreck on the Highway' together, and after seeing him in Tacoma, I asked if I could put that out." The Boss gave it his approval, and the ensuing legalities were relatively trouble-free.
In fact, it's probably easier to get a Springsteen performance issued than it is to elect a president in Harding's adopted home (he lived in San Francisco before moving to Seattle several years ago). "There's no question that people around the world are laughing at us," says Harding, a former Ph.D. candidate in social and political sciences at Cambridge University. "I'm an English guy, and I can say without being ungracious that I probably prefer England. But my work and fun are here, and when I talk about politics, I sound like I'm whining, and really, who gives a fuck?
"And it's the same thing in rock. There are critics who are about the 15-minute thrill, but the bottom line is that there are people who don't want to be patronized. They want something to sink their teeth into, which is why I don't print the lyrics. I want people to pay attention."
Comfortable with his place in pop, Harding surely is being playfully ironic when he writes, in his liner notes, of his alter ego, "And so St. Ace won the palm of martyrdom."