Interviews

Joe Henry interview on WHYY

WHYY's (Philadelphia) Marty Moss-Coane recently interviewed JH, covering a host of topics including Reverie, his solo work and his producing career.  It's a fantastic interview – one of the best I've heard – and you'll get to hear "Room At Arles" and "Tomorrow Is October" from the new album.

Visit WHYY's website or download the podcast interview from iTunes.

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.

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.

JH on Sam Phillips’ Phonebooth

Well, you have to be a subscriber to Sam Phillips' The LP (and why aren't you?), but JH recently joined Sam Phillips in the studio to work on her upcoming EP.  "Silent Night" was the title mentioned so I assume we can anticipate some holiday-themed tracks pretty soon.

In addition, they discuss a number of topics in her latest Phonebooth feature, and Joe performs an acapella version of Leadbelly's "You Must Have That True Religion".