Interview: Joe Henry
28 May 2014
Joe Henry has long been one of my very favourite singers and songwriters. "Trampoline" was the first album of his that I stumbled across. I picked it up mostly because of the bizarre cover shot, the lower half of a chap (?) standing on a bed, cut off half-way up his underpants. From there I went back, to "Talk of Heave", "Murder of Crows" and especially the T-Bone Burnett-produced "Shuffletown" with the deeply dark and gloriously uplifting "John Hanging" and the Don Cherry cameo.
Naturally, from then on I followed every one of his smokier and jazzier post-"Trampoline" steps, right up to "Reverie" in 2011. Still, somehow I hadn't watched his steps closely enough. On a fine Monday towards the end of last May, a record company e-mail informed me of the impending release of a new Joe Henry album, "Invisible Hour". I asked by return e-mail if Joe might be in London soon and do interviews. Minutes later came the response: he's in London now, he's doing a concert tomorrow night, and he might have a spare half hour tomorrow or the day after. I was kicking myself. How had I missed the announcement of this concert? I couldn't make it, I had a previous, un-postponable engagement!
Well - the story still has something of a happy ending. On the Wednesday Joe did have some spare time to sit down with me and the microphone.
Four days – you often record your albums in a very intense burst of work. I think Tiny Voices, for instance, was done in in five days, wasn't it? What do you like about this particular mode of working?
It insists that people be committed to ideas. And it insists on real-time focus. Not every musician likes that pace but everybody I work with does. As opposed to the idea of people recording over a long time – you don’t know what you’re after. Everybody playing in a room and maybe you find out later that the producer is just trying to get a drum track and then is going to rebuild everything. So nobody plays for keeps. But when you’re making a full record in 3 to 5 days which is pretty typical for me, certainly for my own work, but even most of the things I produce, the musicians I would invite into that scenario understand very well that every time we take a song up from a list that the time for the song to be realised and revealed is now. I think the music really benefits from that.
So you go into the studio with a clear idea of what the song would be like in terms of chords and words, but then everybody improvises on that?
Sure. I’ve stopped making any kind of demo other than one microphone in front of my voice and guitar, or my voice and piano, so that everyone’s coming in with the same level ground. “Here’s the story”, “here’s the shape of the sound”, and “here’s the basic tonality of its narrative”. Other than that I don’t want anyone thinking ahead what it’s supposed to sound like. I don’t even want to think about what it’s supposed to sound like. I less and less cast the room based on instrumentation. I think more about the characters I want in the room. For instance, I don’t call Jay Bellerose because I think “I need a drummer, who should I get?” I just know that I want Jay’s person in the room and that that will change the weather in the room. Even when he sits out on a song, his presence there is of consequence.
You’ve worked with him for 15 years or so?
We met in 2001 I think – no, 2000 when I was touring a record called “Scar”. He was initially hired to just fill in for another drummer on a two-week tour. And two days into the tour I called the other drummer and said: "I’m sorry, something’s happening here and I need to let it unfurl, I need to see what this is", and I’ve never not worked with him since. If there’s an album I produced that hasn’t got Jay on it, it’s because he wasn’t available, most likely.
He was right there from the new beginning, then, from the moment you started to go through a remarkable transformation, part of which was that you started producing other peoples’ albums much more and your own method of recording changed dramatically.
Sure. The first full record I made with Jay, because we’d just started touring together, was the Solomon Burke record which was a personal milestone for me in a lot of ways. Jay was there and was no small part of the shape and tone of that record. That sort of became a template for me in ways I think I understood at the time and certainly in many ways I did not understand. But he was really significant to my own development and my understanding of what my own voice might uniquely be. And not anybody else’s idea of what it should be.
With all that – “Invisible Hour” is completely different in terms of atmosphere from your last few albums. It’s less smoky, there is less piano…
No keyboard whatsoever! Which is maybe the first time I ever made arecord with no keyboards at all.
Did you get fed up with too much piano?
No, not at all. In fact it was a bit painful. I found myself physically disconcerted for instance not inviting my friend Patrick Warren into it because tonally he would have been beautiful on it. But it was an idea, I really wanted the engine room of this album to be steel strings. That romantic collision of several guitars together, two guitars and a mandola, sort of sorted but no too mannered, a not really fully formed map for everybody. I find that particular collision to be deeply romantic and sort of evocative in an old-world sort of way. I was really afraid – and I talked to Patrick about it, and I talked with my son Levon and a lot with Jay about it, that the inclusion of even the most minimal piano tends to put a frame on everything. The simplest chord just wants to close the frame a bit. And I wanted the edges to be more frayed, I wanted to have more grain in the air, I wanted to feel that atmosphere not overtly constrained. So I thought only out of fear at this point would I add that tone. Cause I really wanted to hear what would happen if we didn’t have that safety-net of piano.
The vocal melodies as well, to my ears, they have a different shape, presumably as a direct result. The last time you wrote melodies like the first two, specially, reminded me almost of Trampoline, that kind of song.
Ah! I don’t know how to hear that exactly. I wrote the songs alone for the most part and I really was just following – I don’t think there’s anything on this new record that I play in a standard tuning. I play in open tunings almost always now. And it suggests a much more orchestral approach and leads me a certain way as far as the changes and the melodies I might write. Nothing I’m overly conscious of, nor would I choose to be in the moment of writing. If I find myself reflecting as I’m writing about what I am writing I stop for the day. It’s like when John Cage said: don’t confuse the creative mind with the analytical mind. If you find yourself analysing your work while you’re doing it you’re no longer in the creative mind. So I always try to observe that idea – if you’re really awake to the creative part in it you’resort of lost in it. Like being chin-deep in a lake, and somebody’s asking you: what shape is this lake? If you know, you’re not deep enough in it.
Did you ever have a phase when you worked under the influence of alcohol and things? You can lose yourself like that and get out of a rut.
No, that’s never worked for me, actually. I think alcohol is very dulling when I think of the kind of lost that I’m talking about. I might have in my youth mistaken that idea for being un-conscious. But I think it’s actually a hyper-consciousness. If you’re really lost I think you’re so completely focused on this thing that’s carrying you on that’s all you are. I don’t find alcohol really works for me that way. I can enjoy it, but I don’t know that it’s ever aided my writing at all.
I was just asking out of curiosity. I know the feeling of getting completely lost in your writing, and not thinking about it, and suddenly you’ve written two pages and you have no idea how.
That happens to me more when I just find myself hyper-focused. Obviously there’s many writers who advertise alcohol as central to that sort of, you know – I think they’re thinking about disconnecting from everything else, and I’m thinking more about completely connecting with the process. And I’m not sure it’s the same thing.
What happens to me – I get into a rut, I can’t think of how to get out of it, but I have this incredible pub round the corner from me. There, every Sunday night, we have about a dozen ageing studio musicians getting together and playing jazz and funk and soul just for the fun of it. And I go there and I start slowly writing while they play and I get slowly drunk and lose all writing inhibitions and I come home and have enough material to work on for the next week, basically.
Ah – I would try that if there was a jazz club like you describe near my house, I would try that! My version of that, if I get stuck, is to do something else. I find watching movies can be a really powerful tool that way, as opposed to listening to other music. If I turned to other music it would have no relation to what I was trying to do. But I find that going to a great movie I get creatively excited but the correlation is not overly direct. I can wander around a great museum and have the same sort of hallucinatory trick played on me, that I weave out of it and I find myself mysteriously re-aligned.
In one of the short biographies you wrote about yourself a while ago you wrote it was important for the recording process to do it with people you can have a good meal with. I assume that’s still true. Are you doing the cooking?
Ah – we recorded this record because it was my own and we were doing it at the house, my beloved wife actually did the cooking cause I was busy all day! But everybody involved in the session were people she loves dearly and she was very supportive of the project. It really was essentially three days of sessions and then a fourth day when the only over-dubs that happened, happened in that afternoon. But 90% of the album, 95% of the record happened over three days. And we tried to be finished for the day at dinner time so we could go and sit out in the yard and eat and drink wine and smoke cigars and things like that.
Sounds idyllic! That’s a pretty rosy life as a musician you’ve set yourself up with!
Well, not every day is like that. But it sounds idyllic – and it was!I was tremendously excited about recording this record, and I typically am when I find myself in that moment. But especially now. I don’t know why especially now. I’ve made enough records, I do enough work. I feel like I’m sort of beyond thinking “oh, it’s been two years, I’d better make another record, I better get something going”. I don’t make a record unless there’s one there insisting to be made. And when I have the songs written that are presenting themselves as a body of work, songs that want to exist together, as an album – I’m very excited to see it realised. There’s a moment of opportunity there that if you don’t seize it – if you come back to it six months later you’ll go: I know I love these songs, and I’ve felt the connection, but I’m fighting to get back to how I felt that and how I knew that. But in this moment I couldn’t wait to put my hands to it. And I had the opportunity where every person I wanted to be in that room was in that room. And it was a lot of work, but it was never a struggle.
One of the elements that makes the album different to not just what you’ve done before, but, erm, everything, is the woodwind. At what stage did that idea come in? Levon has a very particular, peculiar woodwind style. It’s not classical, it’s not jazz either, and it’s not quite European circus music!
My son Levon is a very dedicated jazz student. Was from a prettyyoung age. He went to a performing arts school that was jazz specific. He went– he was on a scholarship for the New School of Jazz in New York, so he went to a very specific jazz program. And during that time he did an independent sit-in with Lee Konitz who is 84 or 85 whatever he is right now. He found himself playing at the collaborative performances of Meshell Ndegeocello with Jason Moran. He’s been in some pretty heady company. But he also has become really really obsessed with really old American folk music. He was at the jazz program at the New School, and he will tell you that the most significant class he had there was a lecture class by Greil Marcus who was teaching his old America book about the Basement Tapes, Bob Dylan and the whole mystery of country blues and early American folk music. His fascination with that music, coupled with his deep jazz background - I should say that he can abstract things, he’s a lover of things like Coltrane and Sonny Rollins, and Ornette, and Monk in particular, but he comes from a very melodic place. His first hero is a reed player, was Lester Young. So even as a soloist his very melody-conscious, very song-orientated. So when he found this great love for folk music, he’s bringing a very broad and wild tonality to the service of very strict song structure and story. Maybe that explains in some way, that he brings his expansive mind – but always to the service of a song’s narrative.
Was he sitting in when you were producing the Carolina Chocolate Drops?
He wasn’t around. He was living in New York at the time. He would have been fascinated by that. But I think that was before his folk epiphany, what we call his Mississippi John Hurt epiphany. He had the same moment with John Hurt and “Spike Driver’s Blues” that he’d had with Lester Young when he was in 7th grade.
You said earlier it was important wanting all those people in the same room. Having your son in there surely lays bare all sorts of oedipal subtexts?
Well, it was amazing cause all those people in the room, Jennifer Condos and Jay Bellerose chief among them, the two of them, for instance, are family members to him. He’d come of age with them as sort of like aunts and uncles in his life. They’re big influences musically and personally. He will tell you that Greg Leisz is his favourite living musician on any instrument, just as a musical mind. He admires Greg to a tremendous degree. And they love him as a person and are amazed at his musicality as a young man. So there’s so much good will that I’m the recipient of, to have them all together, and how much love there is in that communion, it can only help infuse the music.There’s no downside to that. But I always imagine, from the first time I was writing these songs, and there was enough of them in a group that I thought I understood the way forward, I was talking to Levon about how reeds would come into play. I said I wanted it to be a very folk-rooted record. Not trapped by folk music but informed by it. And I was a dedicated to that being true. At the same time I wanted it to be more wide-screen than that. Less predictable than that. So we always walked towards these sessions with the idea that Levon would on most of these songs play live with us on a take with whatever reed he chose.With the idea that he’d come back and orchestrate whatever he’d played. So alot of things he played live were very free. But he’d always be thinking, even in that moment of playing, where he would later come back and harmonise, stack other reeds. Those and a couple of backing vocals are the only over-dubs on the record. Everywhere you hear multiple reeds. A couple of times I asked him – you know he’d play clarinet on a live take, just to let it stand. But a couple of times when I loved what I heard as a single reed he would insist that I hear him out. He said “I would have never played that except I’d imagined how it would be harmonised as a section”. And of course, if he’s hearing it, I wanna hear it, too.
What a great way of growing up for him!
I hope so! He was in this jazz program in high school. A lot of hisfriends would tease him at school, “you went home last night, who was in your basement?” Oh, Bill Frisell was in your basement, Van Dyke Parks was in your basement! Of course they were! Marc Ribot was in your basement – who else?" All true!
With all these people around you, and all these people being your friends, how do you choose the people whose album you produce?
For me it always comes down – at least initially – to songs. I work with any artist in any genre if they are committed to a point of view as artists, and also open to collaboration, you know, in the grand scheme of that, and if the songs move me. There’s artists who I admire who’ve approached to me and I’ve heard the music, and I thought: these songs don’t speak to me necessarily, you should be working with somebody to whom this songs are speaking very vividly. But it really comes down to songs.
Someone like Billy Bragg, though, you’d also go along and have a few political discussions with him, I’d imagine.
Oh, I’ll admit that I agreed to produce Billy’s record before I heard a single song, just because of my admiration for him as an artist and my love for him as a person. I’d say the same thing for someone like Bill Frisell. If Bill called me to do anything, I’d never say to Bill: “let me hear the songs first”. I mean – he already knows I’d be in. There are a certain artists with whom I have such a close relationship, personally, and for whom the respect for their body of work is so great – about Meshell I’d say the same thing. I’ll bewilling to help her with anything she’d ask me to help her on. I wouldn’t need to sound her out first. I’d just be fascinated to go where she was going.
One artist sticks out to me on the long list of people you’ve produced, that’s Natalie Duncan, because she’s a complete beginner, and somehow you ended up producing her. I really like what she does.
Me too. And I don’t know what the perception is here in England, but I don’t think her album was even released in America. It's heart-breaking to me that that record wasn’t heard more than it seems like it was. I was approached about working with her and I saw a couple of clips of her performing. I don’t think – at that point, when I first saw a clip of her I don’t think she even did one of her own songs, she might have been, I don’t know. But I was quite taken with her voice of course, and her presence, and the fact that as young as she was and is, I thought she’d tapped into something that even she wasn’t aware of. Certainly when I first spoke to her and heard her and started hearing her own songs, it felt as if she was informed by a lot of music I’m not sure she’d even heard. Certainly she schooled herself, she’d heard Nina Simone, no question, I don’t know if she heard Roberta Flack, but I was hearing that, and I don’t knowif she picked it up by osmosis, whether her mother played it around the house, I don’t know. But I was significantly intrigued by what I felt was possible. Partly cause it was her first record and she was so open to where it might go. And her influences seemed to be so deep and varied I was intrigued. I’m glad you brought it up. My wife would say that’s one of her favourite records I’ve ever had anything to do with. She plays it all the time.
It comes from a place that’s totally unreflected in terms of marketing strategies and things like that.
Apparently so. (sadly) Haha.
All these albums you’ve produced, which were the ones that were the biggest surprise the way they came out?
"Surprised" – that’s a good question, I’m not sure how to answer that. The biggest surprises, erm – my work with Salif Keita was surprising. The phone call alone was surprising. And I walked into that project – though most of it hasn’t been heard, though, again my wife and a few of my friends who’ve heard what we recorded together in Paris would say it’s probably the heaviest music I ever had anything to do with, even though only two songs were ever used on a released record. We recorded more than album’s worth of music which I think is hair-raisingly alive. And to me he sounds like some ghostly combination of Leadbelly and Edith Piaf together. I think he’s absolutely extraordinary. Itshocked me to stand in the studio and hear that happen.
Why didn’t the recordings come out?
He told me he loved what we did but he wasn’t happy with his songs. He felt his record label pushed him into a project before he was ready. He spends years and years working on his songs. And his label and his manager thought it was time to do something, and he felt like, you know – he didn’t go back, except for one song, I don’t think he re-recorded anything that we recorded. He used two of the songs we did together and then re-wrote an album. But I haven’t yet been able to quite let go of it. In fact, I communicate with him on a semi-regular basis still hoping that at some point he’ll let me go find a home for the record that we did make cause I think it’s incredibly human and wild and beautiful and heart-stopping.
If you ever fancy sending me an MP3, please…
Yeah, haha. Sure. I’d love people to hear. But yeah, it surprised me when it happened. But also it’s hard for me to come up with something that surprises me because I try so hard not to have any preconceived notions beyond a very vague idea of a cast of supporting players who I believe would put alight on an artist without thinking specifically about what they would sound like in service to this artist. That’s why I turn to people like Jay, and Greg Leisz and Dave Piltch and Patrick Warren, as examples. They don’t bring one sound and make one sort of record. They’re heroic at disappearing into the world of who they’re serving.
So essentially every album IS a surprise…
Exactly, because if it isn’t we’re not working hard enough. Exactly.
Funny, Salif Keita once pretended to fall asleep during an interviewwith me.
(oh dear - missing the irony) Pretended to fall asleep. We didn’t hit it off.
I’m sorry. I can imagine that. I got along great with him, but I do not imagine that he would be an easy person. I went into that project – I remember being on the plane and being fearful for a couple of reasons. 1) I didn’t know what world I was stepping into. Second, he’d sent me demos of all the songs just him and vocal, guitar. And I’d given them to – I met him in Paris with Jay Bellerose, Dave Piltch and my engineer Ryan Freeland. And on the plane I’d given all the demos to David Piltch who was sitting across the aisle from me and at one point he just took the headphones off and said: "this is so fucking beautiful, what are we supposed to do? I mean – what can we add to this to make this better?" Which was a secret thought I was having as well. And I felt a genuine fear set upon me that I wouldn’t really have much to offer to him. I don’t think that was true ultimately. I think it was an incredible marriage of sensibilities, ultimately. And to hear Jay and David play with Salif and a few musicians that he’d brought with him was pretty transformative. But I was fearful.
Why did you decide to release the new album independently by yourself?
I’ve always been creatively free. But it’s really about full ownership in every sense of that word. I believe an artist should own their masters. I just do. And as much as I love my relationship with –Anti, and I hope I’ll keep producing records for them, I told them that I needed t o own my masters, and they said that under their banner I could not. It was a brief conversation. Because I believe in it. I think the only reason I wouldn’t at this point is fear. And I don’t – if I can I don’t let myself make decisions out of fear.
I've had the five-minute warning – two questions I have to ask. One, the lyrics. I’m intrigued to read that you realised way later, as one does, that this album is "all about this life-long bond that is a marriage". Any particular reason that comes up now?
Well, I’ve been married for twenty-seven years. And I recognise more than ever the significance of that to my life. But it’s not something that I set out to write about. I realised as - I write that in the liner notes – it might be leading too many people to only hear the record that way. But I’m not sorry I said it because I think it’s a significant frame with which to understand the atmosphere of these songs. I think even – there’s times where it’s very overt. I think the song “Grave Angels” is very deliberately – it seemed consciously to be about marriage when I wrote that, I remember sort of being awake to that at some point. That’s where the compass blade was pointing. But there are a lot of the songs I think are steeped in that notion that I wasn’t conscious of when I was writing. Either understanding the significance of that support in one’s life or the detriment of the lack of it. I see that kind of clearly after the fact.
The song “Alice”, is that a conscious push for us to look at how Alice Munro deals with marriage and relationships?
I didn’t think so much about the way she dealt with marriage but I was very conscious when I was writing that song not to imitate her – I’m so fascinated by how beautifully conversational she is and yet I recognise her writing voice in a couple of sentences. And I go back to it and say: I don’tknow why I know that’s her! There’s nothing unusual, nothing heroic going on – nothing like Garcia Marquez where you see it and say, it has to be him because it’s so florid, it’s so hallucinatory it could be nobody else. But there’s a clean way that she uses language to write about the mysterious that I really wanted to try and understand. The simplest kind of pencil line – and yet implying everything else. And I really wanted to see if I can somehow work within that tone. How simple can this be and yet imply a very specific story. I just was trying to meet her somewhere on the astral plane.
You put me on to Alice Munro the last time we spoke (i.e. ten years earlier). I’ve read a lot of her stuff since. Thank you.
I’m glad. I think she’s almost without peer as far as a contemporary writer in English goes. I’m not sure anybody who has more significance to me. My new friend, the Irish novelist Collum McCann, has become important to me, personally, and his work as well. But I’ve been living with Alice for a long time and she’s consistently startled me and challenged me to move forward. And what more can you ask of an artist other than to inspire you forward?
Any other books of your own coming up, after the one on Richard Pryor?
Our publisher has suggested that he’d like us to do something else. My brother and I are talking about what we might be doing together. At this moment I wouldn’t know what that would be. I suppose that’ll be a surprise, too. But I hope we’ll do something else.
How did you do that – surely you didn’t sit together at the table and started writing?
Nono. It didn’t happen that way. We were only together face to face working on it a couple of times. Mostly we’d both write until we hit a wall and then we’d throw the chapter to the other one and say “do what you want to this, I think I just ruined this”. And then my brother Dave would take what I had written and align it or he’d give me something that was very aligned, hoping I’d make it more sprawling and messy. It seemed to work. Again, just like the record. Playing on a lifetime of a relationship.