Interview: Joe Henry

Tad Hendrickson

By Tad Hendrickson

on 11.16.11 in Interviews


Joe Henry

Joe Henry has recorded 11 albums since his Talk of Heaven debut in 1986. After somewhat derivative early singer-songwriter efforts, Henry hit his stride in the early ’90s with acclaimed country rock albums Short Man’s Room and Kindness of the World. He then turned another corner with 1996′s Trampoline. This urbane pop album became the template for Henry’s now well-established sound, a moody combination of literate songwriting, soulful vocals, slinky rhythms and understated jazz ambiance.

He also produced albums for the Jayhawks and Kristin Hersch in the ’90s, and in the ’00s he helmed acclaimed work from Allan Toussaint, Grammy-winning comeback albums from Solomon Burke and Rambin’ Jack Elliott, major-label debuts from string band upstarts Carolina Chocolate Drops, and actor Hugh Laurie’s latest. This while he continues to refine his own music — the latest examples appearing on Reverie.

eMusic’s Tad Hendrickson caught up with Henry at his South Pasadena home (complete with a recording studio in the basement) that was built in 1903-4 by the widow of assassinated President James A. Garfield.


It’s a beautiful fall day out here on the East Coast. How are things in L.A.?

It was dark and foggy this morning, which I was excited about, but it’s supposed to be sunny and in the mid 80s today so I’m a bit disappointed. Once this passes, the weather from November to April is sort of this long sustained fall, which is fantastic. But I came of age in Michigan and I’m sort of wired that when September comes, there is a shift that happens, and that’s how I understand things.

I recall a few references to October on the new album.

I reference fall all over the place. It’s a great time of change and reflection. Our son who is studying in New York is enjoying all of it for us right now.

You dedicate the new album to your parents. I’m glad that you did that while they were still alive, so it’s not a posthumous thing.

Me too. I know it’s not a terribly rock ‘n’ roll thing to do, but I’ve never considered myself a rock musician in any manner. My parents are inspiring people and, as I say in the liner notes, they have only been inspiring and encouraging. Even when they really didn’t understand what I was doing and how you become a professional musician, it never kept them from supporting my forward motion. As a parent myself, I understand how dicey that can be.

You recorded the album at your home studio again. How’s that working out?

It’s five years that I’ve been working here. It’s a uniquely soulful place. I wouldn’t do every project here, but people really enjoy working here — it’s professional in the way that it needs to be, and it’s really homey in a way that a home can be. I have many musicians who pass through here that play at all the big studios in town, and invariably they prefer this environment. When the budget allows, it can be fun to go back to the old room at Ocean Way, the old Sound Factory or Sunset Sound, but I know for a fact that things have happened here that couldn’t have or wouldn’t have happened anywhere else. The Rambin’ Jack Elliott project was incredibly meaningful for me, not just because we both won a Grammy for it, but it only happened because I had this studio and I could waive the fee. That way we could afford all the people I wanted; even though they were there as a favor, we still had to pay them something.

The song titles on Reverie‘s album art set a bold font amongst longer full-sentence descriptions. There are also subtitles and parentheticals. What gives?

That’s me playing with language. Because it seemed appropriate to do so. There are so many pieces of fabric dangling and rough edges left in the music sonically. Lyrically, I work really hard to make the words concise, but I wanted to leave the doors and windows open, as far as the song goes. I kept thinking about different titles and I realized that they were all germane. If there needed to be a clear title that people could refer to, I added the bold.

Reverie is a great title for an album. I’m surprised it’s not used more often.

It’s a good word. If you look it up in the dictionary, it says something about being lost in a dream. But for me, being in a state of reverie is more about being awake and being aware that you are awake and being conscious of living in real time, good and bad. It’s a significant thing to be aware of significant moments in real time, not just in retrospect.

There is a song about Vic Chesnutt on the album. Were you guys friends?

Yes, we were. I’m not surprised that he died, but it broke my heart like it did for many people. I wanted to write a song because that’s how I process things. I wasn’t trying to write a song about Vic, but I was trying to write a song with him in my heart and my mind while meditating on him and his life.

So how do you tell someone like Bettye LaVette that she needs to do another take?

[Laughs] It can be difficult, and I say that with love and respect, and the same was true with Solomon Burke. It can be a lot like getting into a cage with a lion. God help me when this lion realizes that all I have is a cap gun and a whip and a chair. Soon as they realize that, the illusion of my expertise and authority collapses, and I’m dinner for somebody. It’s so incredibly exciting to work with artists like that, who have such unique instruments and character. It’s not every day that you get to engage with someone at that level.