Over the past two decades, Joe Henry has evolved from rootsy balladry (Short Man’s Room, 1992) to atmospheric pop (Trampoline, 1996) to the hypnotic blend of jazz, gospel, funk, and tango that marks his most recent LPs, Scar (2001) and Tiny Voices (2003). Along the way, he has quietly amassed a fan club that includes Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, Don Byron, Brian Blade, and Marc Ribot, all of whom have played on his records. His work as a producer helped Solomon Burke win a Grammy for the album Don’t Give Up on Me (2001). More recently, he’s manned the boards for Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, and the incomparable Bettye LaVette. He is also one of the only musicians on earth to land jazz legend Ornette Coleman as a session player. It happened like this:
Several years ago, Henry wrote a song called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” It was a languid blues, built around a saxophone solo he wrote with Coleman in mind. Henry didn’t know Coleman and had no idea if he’d be interested in collaborating. But Henry sent a letter of introduction anyway, along with his most recent album, a moody, soulful release called Fuse (1999).
Coleman’s lawyer called on a Friday and explained that Ornette was flattered, but he didn’t do session work.
On Monday, the lawyer called back. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” he said, “but Ornette listened to your record over the weekend. He says he knows exactly why you want him to play on this project and he’d love to do it.”
Such is the unsung mojo of Joe Henry.
Henry, who spent his first nine years in Charlotte and Atlanta before moving north, still has the soft twang and impeccable manners of a Southerner. I interviewed him in the DIY studio behind his Pasadena home, a tiny room crammed with an astonishing array of guitars, keyboards, amps, and mics. The decor included a gigantic photo of his hero Richard Pryor, a pair of ancient boxing gloves, and a placard presented to his wife, Melanie Ciccone, “For Outstanding Service as President of the Van Husen High School Student Council, 1976-77.”
Henry’s patience was particularly noteworthy, as he was in the midst of moving to a new home, an event that was provoking considerable unrest from his eight-year-old daughter, Lulu, as well as his minidachshund, Sadie, who, toward the end of the interview, peed on the rug.
I. “IF I DON’T FIND A NEW WAY TO WORK, I QUIT.”
THE BELIEVER: How do you compose songs? Do you come up with a riff, then think about other instruments?
JOE HENRY: In the old days, I’d sit there with a guitar or at the piano and wait for a song to fall out of it. But my process has become more instinctive over the years. With a record like Kindness of the World , it was a matter of getting everyone into the studio before the money ran out. The problem was that by the time the record was finished, I couldn’t stand it. I was very tired of the sound—what they now call alt-country, though at the time it didn’t have a name. It was just called unpopular. [Laughs]
I said to my friend Pat McCarthy—he’s a producer—we were playing racquetball one day and I said, “If I don’t find a new way to work, I quit.” Making records in a room felt like live theater. But I wanted to make movies, to create some sort of illusion. In the end, I’d rather be Orson Welles than the community players.
Pat encouraged me to set up a small home studio. He gave me one great old mic, so I could sing vocals at home, and I got infatuated with recording as I was writing. Someone gave me a drum machine with five hundred drum patterns, and I’d say, “Here’s a groovy type of hip-hop thing” and just start playing to it. Rather than having a lyric and having to find music to prop it up, I began creating sonic templates that had no lyric or melody at all.
BLVR: So you were working from the rhythm up?
JH: Absolutely. Trampoline, that whole record was made that way. The first song I recorded was “Trampoline.” It had this odd hanging bar at the end of each verse, and that was because I didn’t know how to program the machine. So I had to wait before I could sing the next line. That hanging bar became the hook of the song. I do a lot of things by accident, and I promote accident all the time. I write with instruments that I don’t play particularly well, because you do things you wouldn’t do if you knew them better.
As an artist, you should be disorienting yourself. John Cage used to do this. He wasn’t interested in working a way that was like “I’ll do this and hope it’s pretty.” He wanted to lose control. Burroughs, too. He cut up books and scrambled words and phrases to see what they suggested. By the time I was making Fuse, I was creating these very developed sonic beds. I’d drive around in the car listening to them and singing gibberish, until I found a phrasing or lyrical fragment that worked.
BLVR: I heard that you wrote and recorded most of that record while you were looking after your baby daughter.
JH: Yeah, my wife was managing Daniel Lanois at the time, and I would have Lulu all day, so I could only work when she was asleep. I had a baby monitor, and I would put her down for a nap and run out to the studio and work until I heard her crying. Then I’d have to stop.
BLVR: What’s fascinating is that the record has all these looped, disembodied voices that are intruding on the songs, and now hearing that you had a baby monitor in the room, it starts to make more sense.
JH: I hadn’t thought of it, but of course. I did feel intruded upon, and I did feel that things were by their nature very fragmented. But working that way, where I might have an hour or forty minutes, it occurred to me that I was not getting any less work done, which made me realize how much time I’d been wasting before. I also learned to engineer myself.
BLVR: I’m curious how that affected, for instance, your vocals.
JH: When I was in a studio with a backing band, I had to get my voice over those guys, and a lot of the time it got trampled. But when I started working at home I kind of had this revelation that I could just turn myself the fuck up. I had been listening to a lot of Sly Stone and I became really conscious of how unusually he treated all the elements in his songs, where the mix became as much a part of his artistry as the performance itself. His vocals are frighteningly up front, even when he’s just laying facedown on a sofa, because he’s so gone, like on “Family Affair.”
BLVR: Did fans of your early music feel betrayed that you stopped making roots music? Like did they expect you to be wearing a coat with leather fringe forever?
JH: Of course. I still get letters all the time. At any show I play, I meet people who still think of me that way. Fans have that image of you when they discovered you, and that’s who they expect you to be. But artists are supposed to evolve. That’s the whole point. To pledge allegiance to one musical posture is really shortsighted. I’m not trying to run down my early records. I like some of the songs, and I’m proud that I got them made. But when I hear them now, it’s like looking at my high school yearbook picture. I know it was me, but I don’t know why I was dressed that way.
II.”IT’S ALMOST AS IF GABRIEL GARCÍA MÁRQUEZ HAD DIRECTED A BOB HOPE MOVIE.”
BLVR: It sounds like you figured out how to use a great deal of technology as you were making these records.
JH: Yeah, it’s producing, but I learned it backwards. Like if you wanted to learn Spanish, you could go to class, or you could go to Spain and walk around, and one day you learn how to order coffee and the next day how to get to the emergency room. And if you do this long enough, you start to learn the grammar that’s at work. Ah, so that’s why I do that! There’s actually a rule that governs that!
BLVR: It makes more sense, because then you go in without any preconceptions. If a veteran producer came in, he might say, “You just don’t mic up the vocals like that because you’ll lose the band.” But if you don’t know any better, you’re free to make those decisions.
JH: If you have to make a record in five days and you have to wait two and a half years to trick someone else into letting you make another one, that’s very little opportunity to grow. Also, there’s this drama imposed that’s of no use to me—the idea that what you play on one particular day has to represent the pinnacle of what you are as an artist. It’s like my friend T-Bone Burnett says, “No artist is free who isn’t free to fail.”
BLVR: On your last two albums, you’ve gone back to working with a band. Why?
JH: I knew that, after Scar, I would be dropped by my label. So I had $150,000, and I put this dream band together—most of them jazz players, though I wasn’t going to ask them to play jazz. I didn’t want to be like Sting: “I’m gonna go make a jazz record and write phony jazz songs to step into that world.” My notion was to write whatever I write and then invite people with a kind of liberated sensibility into my world, like Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau, and see what they would do.
With Tiny Voices, I wanted the orchestration to be more improvisatory. People think this is a gag, but when I made the record, I wasn’t using loops or anything. I just did these very bare-bones demos, and two weeks before we recorded, I gave the band the demos, and I said, “Here are the songs. Now I want everyone to go watch Luis Buñuel’s film The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz.”
BLVR: You gave them homework?
JH: Yeah, I told them to listen to the songs and watch the movie and show up in the studio and we’d have at it. The movie is a bit strange. It’s almost as if Gabriel García Márquez had directed a Bob Hope movie.
BLVR: On the Road with a Very Old Man with Enormous Wings?
JH: I wanted to put them in a certain mood. I also thought it was just a funny thing to say.
BLVR: Did they do it?
JH: Yes, they did. My bass player, Jennifer—she’s not the kind of person who falls for such ruses—but she said she understood exactly what I was trying to do.
BLVR: You’re clearly inspired by film. Are certain writers an inspiration as well?
JH: Absolutely. I mean, it’s really limiting to talk about songwriting in terms of other songwriters. I don’t know how many interviews I’ve done where people ask, “What songwriters did you grow up listening to?” And I could rattle them off. But I’ve been just as influenced, if not more so, by other forms. I’ve written some of my favorite songs coming out a movie theater. My juices are really revved up. It’s not like I listen to a song and want to write another song.
BLVR: Do you have an example in mind?
JH: I wrote much of the album Shuffletown  while reading Eudora Welty, though I wrote the song “John Hanging” immediately after watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. I don’t know the connection there. When I was stuck trying to write the song “Want Too Much” [from Fuse], I got myself unstuck by reading Ginsberg’s poem “America.” Thirteen verses followed. But it’s broader than that. I remember one particular day—I was maybe nineteen, twenty. I hadn’t made my first demos yet, and I read the first paragraph of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I thought, I have a clean slate. I have a completely different notion of what good writing is and how it can work. I used to be able to quote the opening sentence verbatim. It’s a guy waiting to be executed, and he remembers his grandfather taking him to see ice for the first time—and it’s the most startling image. It was like somebody took a big hood off my head. I felt daunted and ashamed and… liberated. I hadn’t known I was allowed to do that. García Márquez said the same thing when he first read “The Metamorphosis.” He was suddenly liberated. It’s like, as an artist, you look for someone to give you permission to be your true self.
III. “IF DEBBIE GIBSON WANTED TO RECORD ONE OF MY SONGS, THAT WOULD BE GREAT.”
BLVR: I’m struck by how many of your songs take the form of dramatic monologues. How do these voices come to you?
JH: The process of writing usually tells me who I’m writing about. I’m almost never consciously writing about myself. Really, there are very few artists I can stand who write from a literal autobiographical point of view. But then, anything you write is through the lens of your own experience. You couldn’t write something that doesn’t relate to you if you tried.
In my view, as a writer, you can look inward, which is a finite space. Or you can look outward, at the world, which is infinite. The people who insist on writing about themselves are the people who wind up writing songs about writing songs, and then it’s over.
BLVR: I’m sitting in this hotel room and baby I miss you and boy it’s hard to be famous…
JH: Right. It’s over.
BLVR: You’ve written a grand total of one hit single in your career—
JH: Yes, thank you for that reminder.
BLVR: Your sister-in-law, Madonna, recorded your song “Stop” under the title “Don’t Tell Me.” How did that happen?
JH: I was really just testing out the equipment in this new home studio. So I wrote the song. I did it in about thirty minutes and I was kind of embarrassed.
BLVR: You must have thought, “This song is so cheesy Madonna would cover it!”
JH: Not exactly. But it had these really obvious rhymes, like spoon and June, or moon and June, whatever. I was just trying to give myself something to record. Anyway, I very sheepishly said to my wife, “I’m working on something—come listen to how the room sounds.” So I played this thing, and she thought it was really good and that I should send it to Madonna. I’d never pitched anything to my sister-in-law, and I told my wife if I was going to, it wouldn’t be this. I mean, the song is a tango.
So Melanie said, “Make me a copy of it and I’ll do it.” Madonna called twenty-four hours later to ask what I was doing with the song. I told her it was just on the pile. Months went by. On Christmas night, I got an email from her. “Oh, by the way, I recorded that song. I’ve got to get the strings on it, and I’ll send it along. I think you’ll like it.” And I said, “I like it already!” I don’t think I ever had a cover until that point.
BLVR: Did you like her version?
JH: Absolutely. I’m unoffendable. I’m not the least bit precious about my work. If Debbie Gibson wanted to record one of my songs, that would be great. Look, I already know what it is. I want to know what else it is.
IV. “THE ONLY WAY TO KEEP THE UPPER HAND WAS TO THREATEN TO QUIT.”
BLVR: When you come to the task of producing, is it different each time, or is there a guiding philosophy?
JH: Every artist needs a different thing from a producer. Jerry Wexler used to say about Ray Charles, “Your job is just to make sure the tape is rolling when he turns his light on.” Judy Garland needed somebody who picked her songs and found an arranger, and she walked in and they handed her the sheets and she stood up there and was Judy Garland.
Ani DiFranco was a more difficult project than I would have imagined, because she’s a friend, first off, but also because she’s in charge of a very big machine, and I felt like when we started to tangle, I really took on the role of school principal. I was there for her to push against.
BLVR: Were you The Man?
JH: I was The Man. But after day one, I was pretty sure The Man didn’t have a job anymore. And I can still listen to that record and say, “Well, there’s a battle I won. There’s a battle I lost.”
BLVR: How did things go with Solomon Burke?
JH: Solomon likes to tell people the story of how we first met. We had breakfast, and you know, he’s a very big man. He was on a strict diet—to keep him from having a heart attack, I presume—and he sees this skinny white guy come in and order steak and eggs, and Solomon said, “Do you want biscuits with that?” And I said, “If they make biscuits.” And he said, “You’re hired. Anyone who eats steak and eggs for breakfast can produce me.” It’s a nice story, but the thing is I’d already been hired.
I had a lot of people say, “I can’t believe you made that record in four days,” and I tell them, “If we’d had six days, it would have been a disaster.” Because as time went on and Solomon got more comfortable with me, he tried harder and harder to steer the record away from the particular sensibility that I had in mind and to do what he always does. The only way to keep the upper hand was to threaten to quit—not that I did that directly, but I said, “Look, Solomon, this i s h o w I know how to make a record. What you’re now saying you want to do—I don’t know how to do that. So you and the A&R guy should decide what sort of record you want to make and go make that record.” Once he realized that I was willing to pull the plug, he stood down. He said, “All right, what do you want me to do?” And I said, “I want you to go in there and sing your ass off.”
But he never listened to a playback. He didn’t have one idea what kind of record we’d made until it came out. And his response was, I don’t think I can let this record come out. Because he thought he was so exposed. He didn’t have this big horn section. He felt naked.
BLVR: That’s what makes the album so amazing. A song like, for instance, “None of Us Are Free” with the Blind Boys of Alabama—
JH: That was a nice track, but it was a nightmare to record. It was the last song we did, and everyone’s patience was running thin. Solomon and I were both exhausted. So the Blind Boys come in—they won a Grammy the night before, they have like twenty-two people with them, including a musical arranger, but they don’t know the material. Solomon doesn’t know the song. Their arranger is trying to figure out a way to do it, so the song doesn’t even have an arrangement yet. And Solomon’s trying to fake his way through it and he’s reminiscing with the Boys, and none of them can stay focused. They’d almost get some sort of harmony thing worked out and one of them would say, “I gotta pee,” and somebody would lead him out of the room and he’d come back ten minutes later and they would have forgotten everything. And here’s the band—“We don’t know how we’re going to play this song.” You know, the demo of it sounded like something for Whitney Houston. It’s really evident they aren’t going to get to play it three or four times. As soon as these guys are ready to go, that’s it. And at a certain moment, when it seemed like Solomon sort of half knew it and the Blind Boys were the same way, I realized we were going to have to go for broke. So I looked at the band and started counting off the song, and we just kind of got through it. And the Blind Boys immediately said, “OK, that sounded good!” And they got up, and they and their whole entourage and Solomon—they all just split.
After they were gone, I thought about all the work it took to get those guys in the same room, and honestly, I thought we missed it. It was a half hour before I worked up the nerve to listen to the take. But you know, there’s something inherently musical to me about certain takes where, through the course of a performance, the song becomes itself. It happened with the song “Flesh and Blood.” We did that in one take, too. The band came out of the bridge and Solomon held this long, high note and the band stopped playing and everyone assumed the thing had fallen apart. But Solomon held this long, confident, beautiful moan of a note and then the drummer brought it back and the song just rose up from the ashes.
BLVR: Are there other artists you’d like to produce?
JH: The record I just produced, I Believe to My Soul, was some of that. I got to work with Ann Peebles. I still love Bill Withers, and I tried really hard to get him involved in that record. My label asked if I’d be interested in producing Harry Belafonte, which would be an honor. I’d love to make a Merle Haggard record. And I just sent a sample of my work to Chaka Khan. She probably isn’t going to want to have that kind of racket imposed on her, but my feeling with her is “Anytime, anywhere.