A few questions with… Joe Henry

To compensate for my mediocre interview skills (see previous post), JH generously and kindly offered to allow me a follow-up Q&A via email.  And, to be sure, there are a few juicy nuggets about future projects here, not the least of which is the upcoming collaboration between Joe Henry, Rosanne Cash and Billy Bragg, scheduled to be recorded in the fall.

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God Is In The Details:  Rosanne Cash recently broke the news that she would be collaborating with you and Billy Bragg on a new record this November.  What can folks expect from this project?

Joe Henry:  what we'll attempt to do is make an album that sounds authentic to each of us, but unlike anything we'd do apart. to that end, it will be an album of all original material, but things we are writing (for the most part) specifically for the occasion. as it stands, i have a new song for myself, 2 i have written for rose to sing, and one for billy. rose has written something for billy and i together, and another for billy's voice alone; and rose and i have a song we have written together. i expect things to get additionally scrambled as time goes on, and hope that such distinction as i've described above become blurry and irrelevant…that the pieces will become a steamless-if-messy whole.

You've written a song or two with Cash, and she even documented the process in a blog for the New York Times.  Do you anticipate some additional co-writing in advance of the sessions, either with her or Billy, or both?

as above…yes to all of it. that is, in fact, our working ethos: "yes to all of it."

Who will be producing the record?  Will you be recording it at Garfield House?

we will be recording in the basement of the garfield and i will be the producer of record, at the request of billy and rose. as i have been talking for years with both of them individually about my producing each, i think it feels natural that i assume the position. additionally, i expect they don't want to be bothered with menu and wine selection -which is a big part of the producer's job.

You've got Over The Rhine coming to your studio next week, and the next Allen Toussaint record seems to be on track.  Are there any other producing gigs solidified for 2010?

nothing i am as yet at liberty to discuss. i don't think i am superstitious; but i was raised to be polite, and am careful about at what point bragging rights are truly mine.

I'm actually going to see Mavis Staples in concert this week [@ Crighton Theatre in Conroe, TX].  I was wondering – especially since she's your labelmate – if you have any thoughts about working with her again, or if there's any chance we'll eventually get a Volume Two of 'I Believe To My Soul'. 

i think frequently about working with mavis again and, as she knows, i would in a heartbeat. the same goes for irma thomas, who has promised -even again recently- that we will one day make a full record together. they are both national treasures, and relationships that mean the world to me. that said, i doubt that there will ever be a volume 2 to "i believe to my soul." it was a project very specific to a moment and, alas, that moment has passed, i fear. i had been planning volume 2 to be a fully-realized solo project with billy preston at the time of his death; and then the partnership with rhino records and hear music dissolved, implying that the stand-alone IBTMS project may remain so.

[Ed. note: Jeff Tweedy of Wilco has been producing a new Mavis Staples album for release this year.]

You had mentioned to me a while back your interest in Sam Phillips’ current “Long Play” project, which she describes as an art installation on the web.  The subscriber-based digital model not only gives her fans more frequent doses of new music but, I imagine, also challenges her as an artist to adhere to a particular schedule of releases.  Have you given something like that more thought lately?

i think most all of us now are thinking frequently about all such possibilities. the record industry being in such a state of flux isn't only a problem, after all: it is also encouraging a much-needed rethinking of the process by the artists. we are responsible to our work and to the life and integrity it has once it leaves our hands. i am watching sam with great interest and tremendous admiration, and believe that the goals she has set for herself are fueling a wave of beautiful work that she wouldn't be producing otherwise. it's always been a mistake for artists to let their work, methods, and time table be set wholly by others; and sam is following an impulse that is motivating her in a very authentic way -authentic to her and the music.

Sam has used the opportunity to revisit several of her older songs, using arrangements more suited to her current performance style.  Have you ever had the urge to update any of your older material from, say, the pre-Trampoline days?

it has been suggested to me that i might record stripped down, mostly acoustic versions of some of my early songs, and i can't say there isn't something appealing about it. part of the impulse stems from a desire to own my own masters of recording of songs that i still find viable; and it isn't unattractive to imagine versions of some of the early material that i could actually stand to hear -and i say that since most of my issues with the early work are with the recordings themselves more than the songwriting. but of course…it isn't lost on me that in response here i have chosen, for instance, to say "it isn't unattractive…" instead of saying "it's attractive."

i clearly am wrestling a bit with the implications of all of this. true enough: i was very passionate in my encouragement of loudon wainwright when were scheming his album "recovery," which an album full of old songs he was revisiting and reclaiming. i argued that, like any good play being restaged, strong songs are open to new contexts and reinterpretation; so it's not the theory i have a question about: it's the application. it's (go ahead, say it) how it looks on me personally. the fact remains i am most excited about new songs. always. and part of me does feel like re-recording early songs is a little like touching up my jr high school yearbook picture.

It might be a bit early to start discussing your next solo record, but do you have some notion as to how you’d like it to sound or when you might start scheming to record it?*

i am always writing, always putting songs on a pile, waiting for them to start choosing partners and having offspring. as of this moment, i am starting to feel a vague and indescribable tonality making itself known, little by little. it's like a low-grade tooth ache. i can feel it but can't yet exactly put my finger to it.

You recently wrote a new song, evocatively titled “Henry Fonda and the Bank Of America” (which may end up on the Cash/Bragg/JH album).  Having not heard the song, I can only guess based on the title that it might share certain thematic elements with “Our Song” from Civilians.  Do you find that you’re particularly drawn to towering American cultural figures – Richard Pryor, Willie Mays, Charlie Parker, Henry Fonda – in order to convey a sense of American mythology, real or imagined?

i would be foolish to argue to the contrary now that you've spelled that all out. (and you could've also included FDR, ben turpin and edgar bergen in there.) i don't like the idea that that might be becoming something of a recognizable writing ploy; but then…it does sort of work, whether i own it or not. in fact, i recently said to my wife, who'd accidentally had heard a demo of the henry fonda song i'd left in the car (i don't make her listen to everything) and quite liked it: "my only problem with it is that the title sounds too much like a joe henry song." not that i typically refer to myself in the 3rd person. that's a bad sign (see: lou reed.) but though it does it's job as a title in this case, i am aware that it is one more step into something that might be flagged a writer's trait; and i love avoiding most of those when i can.

You often recommend films to your musicians as guidance prior to recording your albums.  For Civilians, it was Howard Hawks’ To Have And Have Not; for Blood From Stars, it was the French classic Children Of Paradise.  Any inkling as to what the required viewing will be for the next Joe Henry album (or what you'd like it to be)?

no, but now that it has proved such a good tool, i may well pick the movie first this next time out, and then write the album that would allow it.

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*BTW, I'm reasonably certain that I stole the phrase "scheming to record" directly from JH in a previous correspondence.  I rather like the way he puts it.

5 comments

  1. Great interview – looking forward to the Cash/Bragg/Henry project. Curious about the album cover for ‘Blood From Stars’ – I love the image – where did it come from and what is your process for picking out the artwork associated with a record?

  2. Actually, a couple of the links in “Tangents” section of the right-hand column reference just that.
    The cover from Blood From Stars is taken from W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project, which is a particularly interesting project:
    http://www.ralphmag.org/DY/smith-photographer.html
    http://www.amazon.com/Dream-Street-Eugene-Pittsburgh-Project/dp/0393325121/ref=tmm_pap_title_0
    The cover from Civilians was taken by John Cohen and can be found in his collection of photos called There Is No Eye:
    http://www.johncohenworks.com/home.html
    http://www.amazon.com/There-No-Eye-Greil-Marcus/dp/1576871711/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1273752889&sr=1-1
    As to why JH picked those photographs, I guess I’ll have to remember that question for a future interview!

  3. Great post. I’ve been a big fan of Mr. Henry’s since the early ’90s (“Short Man’s Room” led me back to the record store to pick up “Shuffletown,” then I waited eagerly for “Kindness” and subsequent releases–each new disc a gift). Had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Henry perform at the Old Town School in Chicago not long ago–a truly memorable evening for me, my wife and our friends. Thanks for hosting this site!

  4. Delightful! Nice job and great perspective! And thanks to Joe Henry Inc. for indulging your request. I also saw him in March and could not have been more pleased. I hold him in esteem so I’m reluctant to say “pleasantly surprised” but indeed, I was blown away.
    Thanks!

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