JOE HENRY DISCUSSES HIS ART – unedited interview by Kim Cheshire
I’ve long been an admirer of Jo Henry’s output ever since his 86’ debut Talk of Heaven but having only ever owned two of his thirteen albums I can hardly be classified a major fan. Having said that, there’s a lot to be championed regarding both Henry’s personal body of work as singer songwriter as well as his eclectic production career (Bonnie Raitt, Rodney Crowell, Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Don Cherry, Loudon Wainright, Bettye LeVette, Hugh Laurie, Aaron Neville and more) and judging by his current release Invisible Hour he’s still an inspired and eclectic songsmith working in the ever-expanding contemporary folk tradition.
In his role as producer, Henry is currently overseeing the follow up to Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s Grammy award winning Yellow Moon album while Henry the artist is about to embark on a world tour to promote his new album.
Invisible Hour follows the previous three as he moves away from the singer songwriter folk of his earlier recordings toward a landscape of his own design. His 2001 album Scar saw him bringing a 60’s style bohemian “beat” like influence into his poetic palette of possibilities by utilising jazz players Brian Blade, Brad Mehldau and legendary saxophonist Ornette Coleman. The last two releases incorporate blues influences into the mix and utilise the talents of his son Levon on soprano and tenor saxophone and clarinets.
For Invisible Hour, a deep contemplation on the vagaries of love and marriage, it’s a relatively minimal and predominantly acoustic based setting, where each instrument has its own space in a subtle organic mix of tones and atmosphere; where acoustic instruments combine with beguiling woodwind flourishes to colour the soundscapes with an overall sombre tone painting pictures of quiet contemplation.
Sitting musically somewhere between folk/country/blues and jazz though never resting too long anywhere, and lyrically more akin to musical literature as its impressionistic poetic musings conjure romantic ambiguity in some kind of high resolution dreamscape. Invisible Hour is so supremely elegant and mysterious in its construction, it’s hard to separate the elements, the lyrics seemingly emerge from the music in these timeless and beguiling compositions like animals emerging from undulating cloud formations on a warm summer day.
Henry generally puts out an album every couple of years or so before venturing out into the wider world to remind us that he’s foremost, a singer and songwriter. He’ll be arriving here with his son Levon to showcase Invisible Hour from 9th-14th Sept taking in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane.
I caught up with Henry, who has recently returned from Ireland to his home in LA having just completed work on an Irish folk album following the production of the new Emmylou Harris/Rodney Crowell album in Nashville.
“Yeah I’m producing a record of Irish Christmas music from the 1600’s, a group of songs known as “The Wexford Carols” with a traditional Irish singer called Caitríona O’Leary our guests were Roseanne Cash and Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Sir Tom Jones, they were all with us in Ireland.”
That sounds like an incredibly interesting project.
“ I think it was and shall be…….Catriona is a very gifted singer of very old traditional music (though not exclusively) she’s been very devoted to this body of songs and when I was brought on board to produce I was given a fairly open hand to invite a few guests to broaden the canvas some. It was great and I really was determined to only work with guest artists who were willing to actually come to Ireland and collaborate in real time as opposed to artists who might say send me a track and I’ll put a vocal on…people who were willing to discover the music together in real time.
Your new album Invisible Hour sounds like a great example of that process, I find it hard to separate the performance from the song and the lyric, the whole thing has the quality of being inseparable somehow.
“Well you couldn’t flatter me more, because that’s always the goal. For instance I’m a very lyric orientated songwriter, I don’t think the music is just there to be a scaffolding to a smart lyric, it’s only a song once both the lyric and melody upon which it rides sound inseparable…in fact inevitable and it’s very important when I make a record for myself or anybody else, that the songs just sound like they exist the only way they could exist, I don’t want anybody to be thinking about a production idea imposed upon a written song, I want people to hear a recording and think that that’s not only the way it could have happened but that it is happening in real time as they listen…y’know like weather happening.”
So that the end result is larger than the sum of its parts ?
“Well that’s what you hope.”
Well I think you captured that – I’ve been having as much difficulty describing it as you probably do capturing it
“I wouldn’t say that it’s difficult to capture the moment, what it really requires is to recognise that as a priority.”
So having that as your priority and having the right people in the room…..
“Well I wouldn’t want you to write that down because it makes me sound like I don’t really do anything.”
But that’s really deceptive isn’t it?
“It is supremely important, certainly as a producer working for other artists….one of the biggest parts of my job is to invite the right people into the room and give them the encouragement that they need, and of course different people need different types of encouragement but the real job is to get them into the room together an do whatever you have to do to allow them to feel fearless, if musicians, singers, writers feel fearless they’ll give you everything.”
It’s kind of like a lost art in a way, it seems like producers these days are more like engineers and mechanics that nail bits and pieces together to create some finished object rather than creating the setting and environment, I remember this being more of a sixties style of producing, rather than the cut and paste approach.
“I certainly don’t mean to diminish anybody who’s working today the way you described though it doesn’t intrigue me to think about doing things piece by piece because nobody playing the music ever feels completely committed to it, because the producer is not committed to it. You can do an overdub, but you do so knowing full well that two weeks from now somebody else might come in and try a different approach and so you don’t know if what you’re playing is going to be meaningful or lasting. You invite people into a room together and you’re telling them in no uncertain terms that right now in this moment this song gets revealed, anything you’ve got to offer, now’s the time…and we all know when it happens.”
I love that, it’s a beautiful approach…reminds me of art…like creating a painting
“I think there’s a lot of similarities, you’re asking other people and you’re asking yourself to commit to ideas and the crux of that is to acknowledge that it can always be different, there’s a lot of different ways a song can be successful, our job is to find one and be fully devoted to it and allow it to be a living thing that doesn’t need us to babysit it any longer….once that happens, that’s the game.”
I quickly wanted to ask you how did the Emmylou and Rodney album go?
“It went tremendously well, it was a wildly exciting week and again we had everybody out in a big circle on the floor at the Sound Emporium in Nashville that was built by Cowboy Jack Clement back in 69’, Emmy and Rodney both sitting in the room, without headphones singing duet vocals and live with the band, it was incredible.”
Sounds fantastic…I’m really looking forward to it and hearing them in a different setting
“It was one of those moments after the end of one particular day, everybody crowded into the control room listening to a particular playback and that’s a total excitement when everybody’s playing live and you think you’ve captured something and you crank it up and everybody hears it back as an idea of a finished thing. They wrote most of the material themselves together and there’s a couple of things we recorded that I told Rodney ‘Y’know if this was a different era and country radio existed now like it existed in 1970 I’d buy a new Cadillac on the way home from work tonight.’ If people were willing to hear music in a different kind of way than they are willing to at this particular juncture, this would be a contender for a classic hit song
Fantastic, let’s hope we all feel the same way when we hear it eh!
“I hope so!”
So what determines a new Joe Henry album….what brings it into being?
“Me having enough songs that exist and speak together that they insist on being realised. I’m writing songs all the time and at a certain point songs in a pile start to work together and suggest that they are part of a greater whole.”
“Sometimes it’s as obvious as that, sometimes I don’t know what connects them or I assume that there’s a thematic connection even if I can’t see it in the moment. There are times when I say: Well here’s this other song that I think is a very good song but I know it doesn’t really relate to these others, I know it’s not a part of this particular movie, but once I have a group of songs that seem to speak together and create a singular movie, even if it’s an abstract one, I know that there’s a story being told and once I have ten or so songs working that way I find that absolutely irresistible. There’s always a point I’m approaching where I, just in a single moment… this might sound wispy and I don’t mean it to be…. I hear the sound of the record, like somebody striking a bell and I know what the record sounds and feels like. Once I have that sensation, then I know who needs to be in the room and once I can hear it that clearly I can barely sleep until I can get after it.”
Kinda like you’ve kind of summoned the elements together
“Yeah it’s like having a séance, you’ve conjured a spirit into the room. I don’t want to come back six months later and try to remember “what was that thing I was feeling…where did it go? I think I knew what it was”…..you’re already looking over your shoulder, when that moment had already been there before, viscerally in the present.”
So marriage is the dominant theme of this album?
“Well that’s what I had the thought of after the fact.”
“It never occurred to me when I was writing and I do know that to say such a thing in the liner notes is a very dicey thing to do because when you invite people to hear things in a specific way sometimes that’s the only way they are willing to hear it… or able to hear it. I certainly don’t mean that they are literally and only about marriage, the idea of commitment is what connects the whole thing for me.”
Your lyrics are impressionistic and poetic rather than linear narratives, I guess that leaves them wide open, so when you start to determining what it is for people you might be limiting their experience I guess.
“Yes that’s always the danger, when anybody asks what a song is about especially if you write… well people keep referring to me as a poetic songwriter. People say to me, well you’re not just a songwriter you’re a poet, I know what they are really saying is “that song is pretty and I have no idea what you’re going on about” (much laughter ensues) particularly when they say it’s poetic. Contemporary writing in any impressionistic way that might be elusive to people even if it’s emotionally clear, if it’s not literally clear and you offer anybody a way into it by way of explanation they’ll absolutely take it and that’s how they’ll hear it from now on, so I have to be really careful anytime I would suggest after the fact what I think may be going on… because I mean, my guess is not any better than anybody else’s… frequently.”
Yes even knowing the danger of that myself, it still influences me, however much I’d prefer it not to, it still does!
“Of course, really I thought a great deal about whether it was wise to write a liner note that said something that specifically-even though I meant it in that moment and I thought it offered an interesting way to kind of wade into the stream, I certainly don’t want to limit anybody’s experience to my own imagination.”
How do you identify yourself these days, do you see yourself as Joe the award winning, globe trotting record producer or Joe the humble singer songwriter
“I’m always a songwriter first and foremost,even when I’m producing for somebody else I’m still, my orientation is still as a songwriter. I ask the same questions in a production moment as I’m asking myself alone in a room as a songwriter-about, does this feel like a living thing, will it stand up and walk away from me on its’ own power, I’m always thinking like a songwriter first I think! It’s worth noting perhaps that I don’t really see a distinction in the different jobs anymore. When I was first asked to produce records for other people I made the assumption that I was destined to think about, well here’s what I do as an artist and here’s what I do over here as a producer, but as time goes on I see less and less distinction between the two things, I just think my job is to make something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers and whether it’s my voice and my song or somebody else’s it’s the same job and it interests me very much the same way.
Regarding the use of woodwinds on your music, which is unusual for the style that you make,it’s not a common thing to use clarinets, sax’s etc. The way woodwinds are used on your album is very evocative and I was wondering what inspired that inclusion…..well apart from it being your son playing the instruments?
“My son Levon was a big inspiration because we’re very close and we have a incredibly deep musical alliance and always have, but in particular he’s the first person I played any of these songs for and I talked to him quite a bit before we recorded about what I hoped might happen and how I thought it might work, without trying to decide in advance anything except our method. “What I think he offers and what I do to woodwinds in particular offer is how to orchestrate songs, how to allow them to become expansive in an orchestral way when the songs need to sort of flower up that way, yet never forsake the intimacy of the folk tradition that I think sits at the heart of the songs. He’s uniquely qualified I think to straddle that line of being expansive and abstract when it’s called for and yet never forgetting the power and the authority of the song first and foremost.”
So you play a big part in directing what he does?
“Well we had this idea going into it that we sort of developed in conversation; where I asked him to, on any song he’s on (and he’s on everything but maybe two I think) to cut whatever reed he was inclined to when we were recording the song live, except where he stacks reeds and a couple of backing vocals, it’s a completely live recording in the room.
“And I said “play anything you want” and play free with us as we’re recording live, always with this idea of going back and orchestrating anything you want. He was always playing with the idea of, I’m playing this line because I know I’m going to come back and harmonise it and orchestrate it. For me it was the best of both worlds, getting the raw spontaneity from the live take and then he’d come back and say, Dad, I only played that because I know that I’m going to put a bass clarinet on top of that. It was very immediate but he also put a lot of thought into it.
So you’re coming over to visit us for some dates in Sept, are you bringing a band or will you be coming on your own.
“Just myself with Levon actually, I’ll be playing guitar and piano and Levon will be playing Clarinet’s and tenor saxophone.”
Well I look forward to seeing you here, thanks for the chat