Not everyone is born with a cool name. John Denver, for example, was originally Henry John Deutschendorf Jr.; Pat Benatar was Patricia Mae Andrzejewski; Huey Lewis was Hugh Anthony Cregg III. Just a look at the massive Wikipedia page of stage names gives some insight into how much performers transform and simplify themselves for public consumption.
But for Henry Wolfe Gummer, becoming Henry Wolfe, the name under which he’s touring, was just a matter of subtraction. Wolfe, his guitar, and his girlfriend’s Prius are currently making their way across the country from L.A. to Philly, where Wolfe will hook up with his band at World Café Live on May 13th. The A.V. Club caught up with him as he was finally doing some laundry in Bozeman, Montana to talk about the dreaded singer-songwriter classification and what’s in a stage name.
The A.V. Club: How would you classify a singer-songwriter?
Henry Wolfe: I would classify a singer-songwriter as someone who sings and writes music and is known for those two attributes, as opposed to being a really great guitarist or pianist or something like that. Take Mark Knopfler—he is technically a singer-songwriter, but you don’t think of him as a singer-songwriter so much as you think of him as Mark Knopfler. I would say the same with Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood.
Nowadays, it also means someone who bills themselves as a name, like someone’s name on their driver’s license, as opposed to a band name. There are so many examples of bands that are not bands, but actually one person who is using a name to bill themselves to sound like a band. I think that gives the performer some leeway as to whether they are going to release an album and start touring with a band, or do an album that’s just them solo with an instrument. Having it not be their birth name gives them a bit of flexibility in how they are perceived.
AVC: Do you consider yourself a singer-songwriter?
HW: Yeah, I do, but it’s a funny term, because it comes with a lot of baggage. I think of myself as a songwriter and I think of myself as a singer, so I am a singer-songwriter. But I also like to perform material that I didn’t write, so I could just take out the songwriter part. But there are too many people who are thought of as just singers, like Janet Jackson or Britney Spears; it’s as close as you can get within the genre list on iTunes, anyway. I wish I could figure out a way to define myself outside how music is marketed and promoted in a world where people identify themselves by what genre of music they like. It’s not like people who liked Paul Simon in the ’70s didn’t listen to The Rolling Stones.
AVC: It seems like the term “singer-songwriter” has developed some negative connotations lately.
HW: For some people who are really into music, kind of, yeah.
AVC: When did that begin?
HW: I am not sure. At a certain point, it became synonymous with predictability within a genre. Maybe you could trace it to the beginning of Grey’s Anatomy, but I think it goes back further than that. I think in the ’90s, it became synonymous with “troubadour playing in a coffee shop.” In the past, artists who didn’t have bands could bill themselves, like, David Bowie—you wouldn’t assume that because his name is David Bowie that he’s playing by himself with a guitar. Now, it would take a while for people to associate him with the sound that he has, like something that, in his case, can fill up stadiums. That’s not what people think of when they hear an act billed as someone’s name.
AVC: What goes into choosing a stage name?
HW: In my case, I’m not trying to make people think my last name is Wolfe; it’s my middle name, not my last name, which is Gummer. When I was trying to figure out how to bill myself, a name seemed most appropriate. I was influenced a lot by singer-songwriters in the ’70s, when more people were billing themselves just by their name.
I thought about calling myself Henry Wolfe Gummer—I wanted to get the Wolfe in there because I always thought that it was cool that I had that as my middle name. But Henry Wolfe Gummer seemed like a mouthful. And Henry Gummer sounds good, but the music sounds like Henry Wolfe to me, and I thought I wouldn’t get mispronounced or written up as “Gunner” or something like that. Plus, there’s something nice about having it not being the name that is in your high school yearbook. It’s something I can’t really explain. I try to have it both ways.
AVC: Do you think some performers use stage names just so they can act onstage?
HW: Like Lady Gaga? Yeah, it is like a persona. David Bowie sort of built the template as Ziggy Stardust; he’s not David Bowie, he’s David Jones as David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. If I were more comfortable or more theatrical, maybe I would do that, but that kind of persona doesn’t come naturally to me, so it would seem like a lie.
AVC: Do you see a difference between artists with stage names and one-man bands like Iron And Wine or Bon Iver?
HW: Yeah—you can go see Iron And Wine and you don’t know if it’s just going to be Sam Beam or if it’s going to be the whole band; it’s kind of ambiguous what [Iron And Wine] represents. There’s something really attractive about that, because I like to have some leeway in the kind of music I put out. My record has the sound of a band, but right now, I’m touring solo because I can.