My visit with Joe Henry

I suppose there's a fine line between blogger and stalker, and I might not argue if you claim that I've crossed it.  However, I will claim in no uncertain terms that the original purpose of my trip to Los Angeles was to see the Drive-By Truckers at the Avalon in Hollywood.  I had originally scheduled a trip to Nashville last weekend to see them, but they postponed the show until June (as it turned out, Nashville suffered a terrible 1000-year flood last weekend, and I can only imagine how badly that trip might have turned out).  So I transferred my Southwest reward ticket to Nashville for a trip to LA this weekend instead.  (BTW, these little solo concert trips are a tradition that my loving wife tolerates a couple of times per year.)

At some point, the wild thought occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, I could somehow finagle an interview with Joe Henry, assuming he would be at home and not otherwise busy with projects.  I sent his manager a rather lengthy (rambling?) proposal for such an interview, with really no particular expectations.  I assure you it's not generally my habit to impose myself on creative professionals.  I'm neither a journalist nor a writer, and on the few occasions I've had to meet one of my heroes, you can probably rest assured I said something really dorky.  I once stood in the lobby after a hometown Tift Merritt show in North Carolina talking at length with her dad, but I couldn't muster the courage to say a word to her.

So imagine my excitement – with slight overtones of terror – when word came from Joe's manager that yes, he'd be happy to meet with me – at his house.  Let's be clear – my fanatical mind has pretty much turned Garfield House into a mythical location, the site of not only two of my favorite records of all time (Civilians and Blood From Stars) but a handful of albums that also land squarely in my Top 100.  Basically, think of it as interviewing Steve Cropper and Booker T. at Stax Studio in 1965, and you get some idea of what actually visiting Joe Henry's studio means to me.

Let me say that Joe Henry and his family have a lovely home.  If you've read the liner notes for Civilians, you know that they live in the former home of Lucretia Garfield (President Garfield's widow) in the not-so-terribly-rock-and-roll town of South Pasadena, just north of Los Angeles.  If Joe ever has the inclination to become an eccentric, Faulknerian character, he has a great front lawn for it (though I might recommend something like a working cannon to really complete the package).

The house is in great shape but was not so when they first bought it.  In Joe's words, he didn't think there were still houses like that still available, which is to say turn-of-the-century houses that hadn't been touched in over 50 years.  Needless to say, four months of renovations were required.  The studio that now resides in the basement (where a kitchen previously existed) was not at the time envisioned as the fully-functioning recording studio it is today.  However, through much vision, hard work and input from his wife and his engineer Ryan Freeland, nearly every inch of the basement – including several standalone rooms acting as isolation booths – is utilized during the recording process.  One room is large enough to house a Steinway, which was pulled in for the Mose Allison sessions last year.  Jay Bellerose has a comfortable corner, though he is sometimes pulled into one of the booths (Joe assured me in a follow-up message that they had "fenced him in like a pony" just last week).  If you've seen pictures or clips from the studio, you might imagine it would seem perhaps much smaller in person, but actually the opposite is true.  I don't have much to compare it to, but from my perspective it positively exudes warmth and comfort, and I can imagine it's a rather wonderful space in which to create records (there's even a bathroom).

We began our conversation at the kitchen table over a couple of espressos, prepared with substantial expertise by Joe (who assured me that it's a constant activity during recording sessions).  I brought a recorder; I typed several pages of questions (I even wrote several drafts).  At one point, Joe asked if I'd like to record it, but by that point we were simply talking, and I didn't even take notes.  I did manage to work in a number of my prepared questions, but we also drifted off on a number of non-musical tangents.  The gist is this: I gleaned some interesting information, I got some great stories, and I was honestly just thrilled to be having a conversation with one of my heroes.  About five minutes after I left, about a hundred questions sprang to mind that I wished I'd asked.  Joe did subsequently offer to have us do an email interview sometime, and that will hopefully be something to look for here in the future. 

So here are a few highlights of what we did discuss.  The recording and mixing for the new Aaron Neville album is complete.  That project, incidentally, was partially fueled by some sessions that Joe produced for the upcoming Mickey Rourke film Passion Play, which will feature tracks by Neville, Solomon Burke, Jimmy Scott and Allen Toussaint.  Speaking of Toussaint, it appears that the next Toussaint/Henry project is set.  I actually don't want to spoil it, but I'll refer you to Toussaint's recording of "Tipitina" on the Our New Orleans compilation for a hint.  This project will make a nice companion to last year's The Bright Mississippi, and according to Joe, Nonesuch is on board and excited about it.  He and Toussaint will begin preliminary work on it soon, and Joe is hoping to record it at Garfield House (The Bright Mississippi was recorded in a New York studio).  Toussaint's name obviously came up throughout our conversation (probably not coincidentally, I've been rather mesmerized by that album lately).

Over The Rhine will arrive in South Pasadena next week to begin their new record, and he's got high hopes for that one.  Joe produced a recent track for The Swell Season and definitely hinted that he'd like to do a full album with them.  He mentioned that he'd like to lure Lucinda Williams to his studio, thinking she'd really enjoy making a record there (she showed up to his recent LA gig at Largo).  It's quite obvious that Garfield House is Joe's favorite place to record and that he loves enticing artists into his studio.  He describes it simply as hanging out in his basement with his friends.

Speaking of whom, we discussed drummer Jay Bellerose for probably 20 minutes.  Joe is just as in awe of his talent as anyone who's heard him play.  I pore over Jay's playing on Joe Henry records with nearly the same fever as I pick apart Joe's lyrics.  He plays drums on Sam Phillips' A Boot and A Shoe, which is likely my favorite album of all time and one that I would describe as the sound of a guitar falling in love with the drums.  The first album I ever heard him play on was Joe Henry's Tiny Voices, and I found myself fumbling for the liner notes wanting immediately to know who was playing.  Joe says he hesitates to even call him a "drummer."  But he doesn't hesitate to call Jay Bellerose his best friend.

It's clear he has great affection and admiration fo
r all of his core musicians, including also bassist David Piltch, keyboardist Patrick Warren and also quite often stringmaster Greg Leisz.

I was rather stunned when I realized we had been chatting for nearly an hour-and-a-half.  We spent another half hour in the studio, and during the entire time I barely even asked him about his own records.  I subsequently sent him an email apologizing, as I hoped he didn't feel I was slighting his work as an artist.  Upon further reflection, and even in reviewing my planned questions, I can only speculate that I was subconsciously a bit daunted by the notion of really digging into Joe Henry's songs and records.  Where does one begin, after all?  I mentioned a quote from Steve Almond's new book in which he says, as an aspiring writer, he used to study Eudora Welty's "Why I Live At The P.O." like it was the Koran.  I can relate, not as an aspiring artist, but as a believer that there is so much truth to be discovered in the songs of Joe Henry.  I return to his songs and lyrics constantly, sometimes equally puzzled as I am inspired.  So much mystery and beauty nestles up closely against the undeniable wisdom of his words.  I've probably never mentioned it on this blog, and I didn't mention it to Joe when I met him yesterday.  I'm endlessly fascinated by the process of making records, but at the end of the day, it's those words of his I can't shake.

I guess that's my story of how I met Joe Henry.  Many, many thanks to Joe's manager, David Whitehead, for arranging it and, of course, to Joe for agreeing to it.  It probably comes as no surprise to any fan that he is a gracious host as well as a wonderfully interesting person.

3 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your meeting with Joe and thanks for keeping us inform about Joe’s last news. I must admit that i’m sharing the same interest about Joe’s works, as much as a musician himself than as a producer. As it could be a long and neverending talk, let’s just say again that I really appreciate your work on this blog and can’t wait to hear about the Aaron Neville’s next album !

  2. Wow! What a fantastic opportunity. I am insanely envious.
    I can relate to the stalker reference. I went to Ann Arbor for the Civilians show. Six hours and an international border crossing later, I found myself outside The Ark at 4 PM wondering what to do until showtime as I’d never been to Ann Arbor before. Just then, a car pulls up, and Joe, David and Jay hop out. My knees go weak as Joe nods in my direction and says ‘Hi.’. We spoke briefly about the show before my tongue dried up and he answered a cell phone call (whether it actually rang is open to debate…). Although it was entirely circumstantial, I’m sure the ‘stalker’ alarm went off rather loudly in Joe’s head.
    Spending an afternoon chatting with him (at Garfield House no less!) would be an ultimate prize. You are one lucky blogger. I look forward to reading more about your conversations with him. Keep up the great work!

  3. I’m just jealous! I only had a small conversation with the incredible Ray Bellarose after a show in Utrecht in the Netherlands. I asked him about performing in such a small concert place (400 man). He said that they liked the intimate atmosphere, it was playing in a living room.
    Thank you for your blogs, you’re one of my favorite!
    BTW Do you know JH comes to the Netherlands?

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