Interview: John Wesley Harding opens up his Cabinet of Wonders (performing at the 215 Festival tonight)

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Wesley Stace has always had a witty way with words. That’s both in his career as a songwriter, which stretches back to the 1980s (you might know him better by his stage name, John Wesley Harding), and more recently as a novelist. A couple years back, he launched the Cabinet of Wonders, an occasionally traveling roadshow and regular monthly showcase in New York that brings together musicians, authors and comedians in a very irreverent, lively variety-show format. The Cabinet made a Philadelphia appearance this summer at the XPoNential Music Festival – you might recall Rhett Miller absolutely nailing David Bowie’s “Five Years” during their set, or Eugene Mirman’s madcap comedy – and returns tonight for a 215 Festival performance at Underground Arts. We caught up with the England-born Philadelphia transplant by phone yesterday to get some background on the showcase and see what’s in store for tonight.

The Key: How long have you been putting on the Cabinet of Wonders, and how did it start?

John Wesley Harding: We’ve been doing it a few years now. It came about because I had a new album out two albums ago, and I wanted to do an album release party. An my publicist said “Well, you write novels now. Why don’t you bring the two things together?” After the first one, we saw it was such a fun show, we kept doing it. We took the cabinet on tour, we moved around to different venues in New York, and then NPR picked us up.

TK: How often to you hold cabinet events? What’s the next one?

JWH: Apart form extraordinary cabinet meetings like the one at this weekend, or the one at XPN’s festival over the summer, we just have our once-a-month performance in New York.

TK: It was great to watch people’s reaction at the XPN festival who might not have been familiar with the Cabinet. It was a mix of surprise, delight and total confusion. Is that a reaction you encounter often, or do people attend Cabinet performances knowing what to expect?

JWH: I think people generally come in knowing. At a festival, crowds are most used to seeing music act followed by more music. And with the Cabinet at the XPN festival, I tried to make a miniature version of what I do every month – almost a festival within the festival. So we had a writer, three musician, and a comedian. But yes, most of the time, people come to the shows either because they really like the variety, or they really like one of the people who is performing that month.

TK: How did the lineup for the Underground Arts show come together?

JWH: Well because it was for the 215 Festival, I wanted to make sure there was a bit more literature, one more writer than usual. So of course you have Dean Wareham, who wrote a fantastic memoir, Black Postcards. He’s a double threat, he could be a writer or a musician.

And then because its Philly, I wanted to get Philadelphia people involved, and my first choice was The Spinto Band. They did a Cabinet of Wonders appearance for me in New York, and they were fantastic. Originally I thought I’d bring my house band from New York, but The Spinto Band offered to perform that service for me too, so they’ll be the house band for both me and Dean & Britta.

Once I got my Philadelphia people in place – The Spinto Band and Alec Ounsworth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – I wanted to get people down from New York who I know are great and dependable. People who have done show before, know what its like and know what they have to do. Paul Muldoon, he’s been involved with the Cabinet since almost the beginning. Elizabeth and the Catapult are a fantastic band, and so I’m happy to bring Elizabeth Ziman down. I wanted a special flavor for this show, and that’s Doogie Horner. And Carla Rhodes – she’s a rock and roll ventriloquist, what more can I tell you? To me, the cabinet needs that special variety, kind of like a vaudeville show.

TK: What’s next for you?

JWH: Well I just finished recording my latest album, which we’ll release on Yep Roc next year. I just finished a new novel, it’s my fourth. I’m teaching course in Princeton beginning in January. And hoping to see out the rest of the year very quietly, short of the two more cabinets scheduled in New York.

John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders performs tonight at Underground Arts, 1200 Callowhill St., for the 215 Festival. Tickets to the 21+ performance are $20 and available here.

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