Joe Henry Interview Posted on August 29, 2023Sex 14s intervews Joe Henry on KALX, July 17, 2023 Sex 14s Joe Henry Interview.mp3 INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT SEX 14s [IN STUDIO: INTRODUCTION] My name is Sex 14s. This next hour is going to be consumed by a lovely talk I had with Joe Henry. When people ask me what my stock in trade is as a deejay, I tell them that I’m like Chad Everett’s character in the TV show “Medical Center,” Dr. Joe Gannon. I specialize in everything. Joe Henry is like that too. Musically, he’s omnivorous, bringing remarkable, disparate elements into his music. He’s won three Grammys as a producer for his varied and subtle production work. Joe, like his friend Daniel Lanois, is one of my favorite record producers, not least because of his uncanny ability to capture the whispers of angels and the heartbeats of ghosts. Joe has been through a lot these last few years. Several years ago he had a cancer diagnosis. He turned that struggle into a gorgeous album called The Gospel According to Water. His current album, “All the Eye Can See,” is his remarkable emergence from the pandemic. And just as he has done his whole career, he manages to make his personal experience inclusive of anyone listening with their hearts. [INTERVIEW] SEX 14s I’m assuming a lot of this new album was recorded during the pandemic. JOE HENRY All of it was. I had to find a new way to work. You know, I’ve always been a live-in-the-room kind of a record maker. But when the pandemic happened, and we all had to rethink what we were doing, I immediately threw myself into learning how to work in a different way, because I didn’t— I didn’t want to creatively stop. I wanted to keep my blade sharp. I wanted to keep my communications open with my deep community of collaborators. So I just followed that path. SEX 14s Well, the community is all scattered right, and presumably under lockdown. So how did you approach that? JOE HENRY Well, I was still living in Southern California at the time. My wife and I made a move to Maine that we’d been planning for years, but we ended up doing it during COVID. But at the beginning of this record project, when I was first writing these songs and recording them, I was still in the Pasadena area of Los Angeles County, and I began by immediately recording whatever I had written, rather than waiting like I had in the past, until I had an album’s worth of songs in the boat, before I started thinking about how they might be articulated. Because I was learning to record myself in a new way, as soon as I had a new song to sing, I immediately recorded my guitar and vocal together and, you know, tried to establish live performances that were as raw and immediate as I could leave them, and still feel fully realized. You know, wanting to evaluate them first– nobody else joins me– You know, “does this stand up?” And I thought I was making a very skeletal record because of that. But I started to send session files to my closest collaborators, first just across town in Los Angeles, and then across the country, and then to friends in Ireland, and France, and Canada. And, you know, I ended up making– as far as a cast of characters coming to my aid– the most expansive record I’ve ever made. So I was completely confounded and delighted by the way that this new process sort of ran away with me, because I’m always looking for my work to run away with me in whatever way it might, possibly. SEX 14s With the pandemic, we got accustomed to a kind of “bedroom album” for want of a better term; you know: lo fi albums that are really intimate and insular. But on this new album, you’ve managed to make it sound like a group of musicians playing in the same room together. Without getting *too* technical, how did you manage that? JOE HENRY Well, thank you, that was the goal. And one way I achieved that, I think, a lot of people are working alone on Pro-Tools, and when things come in piece-by-piece, and you’re integrating new elements that other musicians offer, there’s always the opportunity to put everything on the grid and line things up, and tune things– except that that doesn’t interest me in the least. So when I would get an idea from somebody, my dear friend Patrick Warren, for example (who was frequently the first person that would receive a new song from me). He’s a beautiful, inventive keyboard player and orchestrator living in Los Angeles; we’ve been working together for nearly a quarter of a century. He’d hear the song and he might send me two cellos and a pump organ and an upright piano, just as a sketch, you know, “Does this feel directionally appropriate?” And I would say, “Absolutely. Don’t send me– do not refine this, because I won’t use it. This lands like it’s supposed to. Like you’re just hearing the song and responding to it.” And of course, I didn’t do anything to line anybody up. How they played to me and responded to me is is what I used. And if people sent me options, I defaulted for the thing that felt most like they were responding to a song in real time. And I realized that as long as that was my ethos, once I assembled everything, it sounded like we had been all in the room together. But I think that is largely due to the fact that, with a very few exceptions, these are people I’ve been playing with for a really long time. We have a similar sensibility. We’re moved by the same things we’ve been making so many records together that it’s unbelievable to me how little we have to talk about it. We know what’s musical and what isn’t, between us, and we know when that’s happened, and when it hasn’t. And, you know, I didn’t get any brushback from anybody… As my friend Marc Ribot has said in my presence to another musician, “Be careful in making any mistakes around this guy, because he’ll *like* it!” And– and I invariably do. SEX 14s It really *is* a remarkable cast of characters on this album. Would you mind elucidating it a little bit for us? JOE HENRY Sure. To the best of my ability– because there’s a lot of them. Most significantly, at its core are musicians I’ve been working with for a really long time. Drummer Jay Bellerose; bassist David Pilch; keyboard player Patrick Warren; reed player Levon Henry [who is Joe’s son]; guitarist Marc Ribot; you know, singers Allison Russell, and J.T. Nyro; Madison Cunningham, who I’ve written with; my friend Rose Cousins, in Canada, who I’ve produced; Daniel Lanois, the great musician and producer. My wife had been his manager for a dozen years in the rearview, so I have a long relationship with Dan, but had not really worked with him before myself, except in a very limited way. But, you know, I admire his work terrifically. Umm, the milk Carton kids who I’ve worked with a lot over the years in different configurations. Keith Eschancia, who’s a keyboard player and an orchestrator and a, you know, brilliant composer who I’ve also worked with a lot. Oh! My dear friend Tony Trundle, who’s a beautiful fiddle player in the west coast of Ireland; my dear friend Lisa Hannigan, who I produced, you know, she lives in Ireland as well. I produced an album for her and she’s sung with me on a number of my own records. You know, I almost couldn’t make a record right now without her voice in there somewhere. Bill Frisell, on guitar. SEX 14s I’m a great admirer of lots of the people you just mentioned. Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Allison Russell, the Milk Carton Kids. In particular though, Daniel Lanois, whom I admire as a performer and perhaps even more as a producer. One of my touchstone albums is “Wrecking Ball” by Emmylou Harris. JOE HENRY –Which I will just note would have never happened without my wife, who has managing Dan at the time, and even Emmy will say to you, you know, that that record did not happen without Melanie’s intervention. I just wanted to acknowledge that since it’s rarely acknowledged, ’cause it’s a touchstone for a *lot* of people. SEX 14s It’s one of those records that just hit me at the right time of my life. JOE HENRY And the right time in Emmy’s life. You know, I don’t think she could have made that at any other point of her career, you know? SEX 14s With sound files coming from so many different sources, recorded in so many different ways, did you feel you had to say, “okay, now you’ve got to use this kind of microphone,” or a specific kind of guitar? JOE HENRY I did not. I gave almost no instruction to anybody other than, would you listen to the song, and do you have anything to say to it? I mean, really, I just threw the door open, and invited people to the table, knowing that the caliber of musicians I was dealing with– that they would all find some way to amplify what I was doing, to illuminate my intentions without just, you know, looking to make their own mark, without consideration to the story. You know, I believe that every creative endeavor– and I mean every single one of them– is storytelling of some kind or another. Even in instrumental music. We are taken on a journey, we are being told a story, and ultimately, is the story getting revealed, or is the story being obscured? That’s the only question. You know, when I’m producing other people, that’s *all* I’m thinking about. I don’t care how great a guitar solo is. If it’s not contributing to the elevation of the narrative, and how it penetrates, or might possibly penetrate a listener, I’ve got no interest in it, whatsoever. SEX 14s That’s beautifully stated. But does an attitude like that, uh, limit to your appeal to certain quarters of the music industry? JOE HENRY I just say I have no trouble walking the streets. I’m not bothered when I walk the streets. So yes, I have probably limited my appeal a great deal because I like– for lack of a better word– I like chaos. I like what it does to me. I like to stand in very dynamic weather, both literally, and –absolutely– musically. And I’m always looking for who can I invite into my process, who will bring with them a weather system. I just want my– you know– I just want my hat to get blown off– or I should say, the character in the song, whoever’s speaking, you know, their hat (if they’re wearing a hat), it needs…It’s like the old rule of theater (though I’m paraphrasing it and mutating it): If there’s a hat worn at some point in the song, it needs to be blown off. And I’m just looking for how might that happen. SEX 14s Can we look forward to a deluxe edition of “All the Eye Can See” with the original recordings of just you and an acoustic guitar? JOE HENRY Uh, probably not, because if that if that told the whole story, you know, I probably would have stopped there. Of course, I reached out to people in part because I just wanted to stay engaged with– with– with everyone. But, ultimately, had I felt the way that these songs spoke best was in solo mode, I would have stopped there. I would have been probably happy for that to have stood as… the document of, of this material. But I knew, I felt instinctively, it was asking for something else. SEX 14s Can you tell us about your state of mind, as you said, about writing the songs on this album? JOE HENRY Well, I have to confess that, you know, as a songwriter, my my days didn’t look that different. The pandemic didn’t change my day to day life as much as it might have some other people. Because, you know, if I’m not on the road, if I’m not in the studio producing someone else, if I’m at home trying to get something going as a songwriter, you know, I crave a bit of isolation. So finding myself alone in my work room, you know, with a piano and a lot of guitars… in my proverbial bathrobe, trying to rub a few sticks together, *that* wasn’t new. The fact that it was sustained, you know: that was new. The fact that I was largely uninterrupted, you know: that was new. But one way that I started to operate was I was getting up very, very early in the morning. And I mean, like 5:30 in the morning, found myself up. And would go for a walk in the dry riverbed of the L.A. River, known as the Arroyo Seco. And I would frequently write a song, as I was walking. I would just start hearing something and then I would just keep singing quietly to myself as I walked and, you know, if I had a small notebook with me, I would take notes. But routinely, I didn’t, and I just would keep singing these maybe three verses over and over again until I could get home and write them down, grab a guitar, figure out what what chordally supported what I had just been singing, and then I would immediately record it and send it off to somebody to get it, you know, off my table and out of the house, so that I could make room for the next one that might arrive. And it just kind of kept happening. A lot of it happened out on solitary walks, you know, where I was– I’d come home scrambling to document in the most rudimentary way, you know, what was very newly alive in, you know, in my hands, so to speak. So, you know, that’s just what I, I just kept doing. And I would send one out, and then start something new, and then, you know, maybe 24 hours later, 36 hours later, you know, in my email would be some response from Patrick Warren, or Jay Bellerose, or Davey Pilch, or my son Levon. And then I would integrate that into what I was doing, and then it would tell me where else I needed to go. You know, “Oh, if I hear this rhythm section contributing this” and “this particular song starts to walk with that kind of gait” and is dressed like I now see it dressed, what else do I need? And I’m very fortunate in that I– I don’t know how else to say it– I have really great friends. You know, the fact that I don’t take it for granted that I can just send a song to Bill Frisell and, and Bill will immediately respond to me and send something back. You know, I realized that that’s been decades of, of relationships being built. But I never leaned into them so hard and never found so much generosity coming back. And I’ll just add, you know, when you were talking about pandemic records, I know that’s a very particular way to hold so much music that must be coming at you from people who were housebound and finding some ways to keep working. I know that this record was greatly influenced by that circumstance. But, you know, I refuse to think of it as my so-called “pandemic record” for the same reason that the record that came before it that was written, you know, at the beginning of a very dire health crisis, I don’t– I resist, with all my being, you know, any suggestion that that’s my so-called “cancer record.” Like, I know that my cancer had a lot to do with the songs on the album, “The Gospel According to Water.” But I, I stress to anybody, that I can, that where a song comes from is not what a song is. The circumstance that allows it is not the running subtitle, you know, to the song. The song– if it’s going to endure and have any resonance at all for anybody else– it has to transcend the limitations and, and the preconceived ideas of just the shop out of which it was cobbled together. So I know the pandemic was a, you know, it was a factor of how I was writing, what I was writing, how I was articulating it. But it has to, for me, absolutely has to move outside of, of that, for it to be satisfying, and feel complete, and think that it might endure… as a, you know, as an energy of its own… as a spirit of its own. You know, however, we might talk about it. I don’t *mean* to sound so mystical; it just happens to be. SEX 14s You echo sentiments that are articulated by people like Van Morrison. As you might imagine, he has no problem being super grumpy. JOE HENRY No, he does not. SEX 14s Well, I actually love that about him. He’s not going to go to the edge of the stage and say, “Who wants to rock and roll?” He doesn’t pander. It’s always about chasing that elusive moment, which almost by definition is non-linear, non-literal. It’s not *about* something. When you go deeply enough into music, you realize that emotion itself is abstract. It’s *all* abstract. It’s all trying to serve as smoke with a pitchfork. JOE HENRY I couldn’t agree more. And I think that, you know, people have a natural desire to want to have things decoded. And I noticed that as a, as an artist that works with words, that there’s a determination that that listeners sometimes have to ask, “What’s this song about?” And my response to that is– and I don’t mean to sound flip– …I go, Well, it means that it is. I don’t know what else to tell you. I can’t explain it to you. If I, if there was a better way for me to say that, I would have said it. And people assume that if you’re working with words, that it’s an emotion or an experience that’s already been decoded. But if you’re using words to paint to create shadow and fog, you know, the way that a great photographer does, or a filmmaker– and by the way, I, I learn a lot and I take so much from the fact that I have many friendships with artists who work in different disciplines than I do. I have great friends who are poets and novelists, and filmmakers, and sculptors, and on and on. And, you know, when people work as a painter or a photographer, and they have an image they create as abstract, people have no trouble, it seems, just allowing whatever emotion is conjured to move through them. But as soon as you’re using words, and if you’re someone like me who almost always writes in the first person– because that’s the most intimate delivery system to my ear, is to take up and embody a character, and speak directly from that character’s perspective–as soon as you do that, and you’re potentially an abstract sort of a writer or a poetic writer, if you will (though I have my own resistance to that phrase), people can be confounded. “You’re using words and it’s confusing me and it shouldn’t, because if you’re using words, you should already be explaining yourself in some way.” And so I don’t have any interest in explaining myself. I’m, you know, I’m not using words to relate an experience. I’m using words to *have* an experience. And I’m inviting you to have one with me– admittedly, after the fact, but in a very real way. You know, I expect this to be an experience. It’s like stepping out into the weather and saying, “What does this mean?” It means that you’re in it. *You* tell *me* what it means that you’re standing out there, you know, getting soaked and bowled over or pushed around by a beautiful autumn air rising. What does that *have* to mean, and why are we talking about it? SEX 14s At the risk of contravening what you just said, uh– well, there is one song in particular about which I would love to ask you. It’s on the album “Civilians,” and it’s “Our Song.” I don’t want to be pedantic, but did any of that really happen? Did you see Willie Mays at a Home Depot? JOE HENRY Of course not. And it’s so much better a song, you know that I didn’t, I believe. And I’ve been asked that question so many times, and I don’t mind being asked. I mean, when that record came out, almost every interview I did began with someone saying, “Did you?” No, I was, you know, as frequently happens, I was driving a car. We were about to take a trip as a family;the next day was a 4th of July; we were in the middle of the Iraq war, and I was wondering, how the hell am I supposed to celebrate, you know, the 4th of July as I’m being culturally mandated, you know, in a moment where I’m at complete odds with so much of what my country is doing? I wasn’t trying to write a song about it, in any way; I only recognized that that might be part of what’s going on after the fact. I was just driving a car. I think I was driving carpool for my son, and running errands, and I just heard that line speak itself to me: “I saw Willie Mays in the Scottsdale Home Depot,” and I just knew that that was spring loaded. I’m always listening for a phrase or a word that is spring loaded. And when I understand that it is, I know that if I show up, something will happen to me. In that case, I was trying really hard *not* to let it happen, because it only– the jack only springs out of the box one time. You know, you only get to catch it the cork out of the champagne bottle one time. And if you’re not prepared for it, you might miss it completely. So I had to just both keep it warm and ready, but I could not engage it until I was on an airplane the next day, flying to see my in-laws in northern Michigan, where I knew I had an expanse of hours, and a crowded plane, so I was not sitting with my own family, even. And I opened my notebook, and let it sort of, yeah, let the line out. I didn’t know what Willie Mays had to tell me. You know, he walked into the frame, and I followed him. I tracked him. What is his character? What does the specter of this iconic figure have to say to me right now? I had no idea. But I think about, you know, the great short story writer Flannery O’Connor, who’s been a really significant figure for me my whole writing life. She has a wonderful story called “Good Country. People,” were a traveling Bible salesman cons a sullen young farm girl with a wooden leg up into the hayloft, and entices her to undress and take off her wooden leg– and then he steals it. And leaves her without it up, in the loft. And somebody asked Flannery O’Connor, and she said, “Well, I had no idea until about two sentences before that he was going to steal her leg. But I was delighted.” And that’s kind of how I feel about songwriting in particular, and then that song specifically. I didn’t know what Willie Mays was going to tell me, but I was delighted by what he had to say. SEX 14s I got to say, the song really moves me, with the compassion it shows for the foibles of this country in which we find ourselves, in this frightful and this angry land. And since you wrote this song, never mind the pandemic, the other cataclysm we’ve lived through is Donald Trump. And it just seems that this country is more frightful and more angry. What’s your take on it as you tour this country? JOE HENRY Well, I sort of adopt the point of view of James Baldwin when he said about America, and I’m going to paraphrase him, he said to the effect, I love my country more than any other. And that not only gives me the right, but it in fact, obliges me to challenge her and to call out her misdeeds because I love her so much. I know I could leave the country. People like the former president, whose name will rarely cross my lips, you know, people of his ilk would like nothing better than– you know, those who are radically opposed to that view of humanity, as I am radically opposed to it– like nothing better than for us to leave. I don’t really think we’re supposed to; I think those of us who feel differently about the possibility of what this country might someday become, the thing that we’ve always said that we are, that we have never been, you know, there’s a lot of that we have to acknowledge. Ultimately, if we are going to survive– and I believe this fundamentally– that for all our talk about truth and justice and how we hold ourselves up as the beacon of all hope in the world, we are a country built on the blood of a native people and built on the backs of slaves. And until we confront the real truth of our history, we will never slip out of the straitjacket of the moment that we find ourselves in. SEX 14s You’re absolutely right. There’s something insidious in the very fabric of our society. It seems like every new technology ends up being a scam, you know? Like, Facebook is supposed to bring us closer together, but it actually pushes us further apart. JOE HENRY Yeah. We’ve been seduced and and divided by a promise of, you know, convenience. America as a as a whole country puts a lot of stock in comfort and convenience, and we’re willing to kill for it. And that’s a problem. SEX 14s You care so deeply about so many social issues, and yet your songwriting, as you’ve discussed, is more about poetic considerations and political ideas, which seem to demand a specificity. Do you ever find yourself wanting to write a song like, I don’t know, a song about George Floyd, for instance? JOE HENRY I know what you’re asking. I feel like in my own way, I have written about George Floyd as an example. You know, I remember distinctly that moment in real time, and it was sort of the beginning of me writing this new record. It was no small part of what was happening to my heart and mind as I witnessed all of it, the event itself and the aftermath. And I do think that my response to that is somehow within this particular body of songs. But it’s not my habit. It’s not my creative voice to necessarily write, you know, The Ballad of George Floyd. You know, many people have written a Ballad of George Floyd. It hasn’t occurred to me to try to retell and in a different way, that story, you know, with my opinion about it attached. You know, I feel like I do that by trying to continue to write as a compassionate, inclusive, heartbroken American, hoping that the people who are living through the same events in the real time of my delivering these songs out into the world in whatever small way that I seem to know how, that for the people who speak my language, who care to try, that it’s all in there. A song has a greater hope of endurance if you don’t nail it to the floor of a specific event. Now, sometimes that’s inescapable. And thank God for Woody Guthrie, who who was willing and able to articulate a timeless, in a timeless way, a song about a particular incident. Just go listen to his song, 1913 Massacre. You know about the murder of striking union workers and their families in Upper Michigan in 1913. That’s not how I operate. That’s not how songs happened to me. It would be inauthentic for me to try to do that. I’ve hung my hat on the hope that what I have to say, if it’s going to hold together for me, and endure in any way… it just has to operate differently or else I can’t hear it as viable. SEX 14s What a beautiful answer. And I completely agree, your stock in trade is not literal, as much as it is ephemeral. Before we close, I’d like to ask a pedestrian question, if I may. JOE HENRY Oh, sure. SEX 14s Okay. Is there anybody that you would love to produce, I mean, in all of history, like Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong? And conversely, is there anyone that you would like to have produce one of your albums. JOE HENRY In the Expanse of Time as we know it, I would have *loved* to have made a record with Prince. He wouldn’t have needed me, but I would have loved to do it. I would have loved to have made a record with Charles Mingus. I’d have walked across the desert to make a record with Louis Armstrong in 1928 and Duke Ellington in the years that Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster were in his band and Billy Strayhorn was his regular collaborator. That’s just where I come from. And then the second part of that question was? Remind me. SEX 14s Who would you like to produce one of your albums? JOE HENRY Oh, well, in fact, I’ve not had a producer for myself other than myself since I made a record in 1990 with my really close friend and career mentor, T-Bone Burnett. And we’re talking right now about him producing another record for me, and I’m absolutely enthralled to find out what we would do together now, after having so many experiences together over decades. So I think that’s, you know, I hope that actually happens. But beyond T, you know… I made a real bid when I was making my record. “Fuse,” which followed “Trampoline.” I made a very earnest pitch to Dr. Dre to produce that record. I could not interest him, but I would have loved that engagement, in that moment. If he came to his senses, I’d still be interested. SEX 14s [IN STUDIO: WRAP UP] Mmm, that’s it for our talk with Joe Henry. And it’s my sincere pleasure to have spoken with him and to thank him for being so open and generous with his ideas. Uhm, yeah, he made it easy to interview him. All right, then. My name is Sex 14s. The station to which you are tuned is K-A-L-X, Berkeley, University of California and listener supported radio. Thank you so very much.