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From A Place Of Unknowing: Joe Henry On The String

Joe Henry
Jacob Blickenstaff/Jacob Blickenstaff
September 23, 2019 - Joe Henry Photographed in Pasadena, CA.

If I were to praise Joe Henry’s resume, you’d be justified in asking which one? On one hand he’s an acclaimed recording artist with more than 15 albums to his credit, including collaborations with folk icon Billy Bragg and jazz genius Ornette Coleman. At the same time, his life as a record producer has been at least as extraordinary, having steered albums by Bonnie Raitt, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the historic pairing of Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. It’s hard to think of any musician in American roots music who’s been as prolific on both sides of the studio glass as he has. He’s also a writer and thinker of great depth, as we find out in Episode 236 of The String.

The occasion for this talk was the release at the end of January of All The Eye Can See, a subdued but intricate collection of 12 richly lyrical songs plus two instrumental scene setters contributed by Henry’s longtime friend Daniel Lanois. As has often been the case in the past, Henry’s composing is layered and luxurious and somewhat hard to describe. I venture to Henry deep into our talk that his lyrics are not as situational as most roots songwriters, that they suggest ruminations rather than narratives with a lovely nebulous quality. And I was happy that he thought that was on point.

“I almost never know what I'm writing about when I'm writing. And I really don't want to know,” he says. “I'm trying to operate from a different place. I'm not trying to use the language of music to say what I mean. I'm trying to use the musicality of language to hear what it means.” The song “Mission” for example, one I love with a refrain that speaks of “the shadow passing over without ever having seen us,” emerged one early morning as a song without a clear subject. “I started just following the physical sounds of the words as they kind of were coming to me,” he says. “And only later that day, when I essentially had the lyric finished, did I understand that I was sort of writing on behalf of a dear friend in Ireland, who had just lost his young wife to a very rare cancer, and that I was writing for them. And I was addressing them. And it wasn't something I was conscious of, like I say, until after I had written it and stood back from it.”

Joe Henry

Henry’s signature soundscapes have an unpinned quality as well, something I intuitively related to from my first impression, which was a strong one, and I told him the story. In 1991, a friend from college who’d gotten a new job in the record business sent me a care package full of CDs from her label group. And one of them was Joe Henry’s recent release Shuffletown. I’d never heard his name, and the music didn't remind me of anything I’d heard, but its earthy textures, its particular vibe in the bass and drums and the use of a lofty trumpet voice as a soloist instrument really caught me. I’d discover some of that magic came from two players that Henry recruited from the world of modern jazz - bassist Cecil McBee and trumpeter Don Cherry. And the full story of that pivotal record, as told in this show, was even more surprising and fascinating than I expected.

Among other adventures, that album launched Henry’s close relationship with T Bone Burnett, who produced Shuffletown and then took Joe under his wing as a production assistant. They worked together on projects until Henry took off on his own, including the early triumph Don’t Give Up On Me by Solomon Burke in 2002. That netted Joe the first of his three Grammy Awards when it was named Best Contemporary Blues Album. He’d go on to help with Costello and Toussaint’s The River In Reverse (2006), Rodney Crowell’s Sex & Gasoline (2008), Bonnie Rait’s Slipstream (2012) and Dig In Deep (2016), The Birds of Chicago’s Real Midnight (2016), Rhiannon Giddens’s There Is No Other (2019), and dozens of others. His productions don’t sound alike, but they have a similar immediacy and authority that Henry attributes to his chief job, which is to be as present as possible.

“I always sit in the room where the singer can see me,” Henry says. “They don't come out of the booth and find that I've left the room, that I'm on email, (or) that I'm answering a phone call. They know that they are being heard. And when people understand that they're being heard, they'll give you everything they have. You can't stop them from doing it.” We also spoke about how he deplores the practice of pre-production, in which artists and bands work out arrangements and make all the decisions about a song before showing up to record. “When people have done it in a rehearsal room, by the time they come to the studio, they're already looking over their shoulder to what happened, when the song became understood, when it originally got conjured. And then people are trying to regain something that's already existing in posterity for them.”

So perhaps it’s a bit paradoxical, but Henry didn’t approach the new All The Eye Can See with that spontaneous ensemble performance mindset. Rather he taught himself to understand recording software for the first time (he’s always worked with engineers who focused on that part) and self-produced. He laid down his guitar and vocal parts when the songs were very fresh. Then he passed the files around among friends and colleagues and let them add parts, among them Bill Frisell, Allison Russell and JT Nero, Marc Ribot and the Milk Carton Kids. Also here is Joe’s son Levon Henry, an accomplished saxophone player and composer who bridges the canyon between roots music and atonal jazz. Joe says that Levon has become his chief sounding board for music making and a valued studio collaborator, suggesting that he’s leaving a truly diverse and outstanding legacy.

JOE HENRY 'Karen Dalton' - Official Performance Video - New Album 'All The Eye Can See' Out Now

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>