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Production Notes: Joe Henry

Artist Puts Own Music Aside to Produce, Learn From His Heroes

January 10, 2006  |  12:00am
Production Notes: Joe Henry

Before producing Solomon Burke’s modern-day soul landmark, Don’t Give Up On Me, in 2002, Joe Henry was a modest-selling “critic’s darling” with a reputation for pushing the envelope, like writing a song about Richard Pryor and then persuading legendary jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman to solo on it. Since then, apart from cutting his ninth album, 2003’s Tiny Voices, Henry has focused exclusively on producing other artists. Neither his bank account nor his ego has suffered from this mid-career course adjustment.

“With Solomon’s record,” Henry explains, “I put the band together and I was a big part of picking the material, and there I was—being able to realize something musical that was really live with one of the great singers alive. I promise you I didn’t find that any less exciting than making my own records, and not really that different, either. I discovered that anything I do that results in music I find meaningful is equally rewarding.”

As for Henry’s burgeoning career in the producer’s chair, “It’s not like the floodgates opened—Gwen Stefani didn’t call me… although she’s welcome to,” he says in characteristic deadpan. “I’m a wild-card idea for a lot of people. But because people had liked the records that I made for myself and also liked the Solomon record, it gave me credibility with other artists and A&R people that maybe I could pull something off.”

Henry’s double-barreled cred resulted in being chosen by Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann and Susan Tedeschi to produce their latest albums; he also oversaw a well-received LP by unjustly obscure soul singer Bettye LaVette t. Even more significantly, it enabled him to pull off his most ambitious concept—a summit meeting of soul-music veterans Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles and Billy Preston called I Believe to My Soul.

“This is music that I care about,” he says, “and I think a lot of people care about it, but a lot of great soul artists are falling through the cracks because the industry at this moment doesn’t really offer them anywhere to go. The Solomon record was a great model because it worked—when people heard the music, they were interested in it. So I started drafting a concept for a series of records, the first of which is a collaborative one. You could look at the Buena Vista Social Club series as a very handy model for that idea.”

LIVE AND IMMEDIATE

After finding a pair of willing partners in reissue label Rhino and the Starbucks-owned Hear Music, Henry booked Studio B on the first floor of the Capitol Records tower in Hollywood (“not the Sinatra room,” he points out, “the Nat King Cole room”) for six days in June. He knew from experience it’d be enough time to complete the recording, given the skills of the participants and the open-ended method he’s developed, which involves not simply cutting tracks live in the studio but giving his handpicked players—including legendary New Orleans writer/arranger/musician Allen Toussaint on piano—the freedom to shape the tracks on the fly in conjunction with the vocalist.

Like the Burke album, I Believe to My Soul “references classic soul music, but it doesn’t sound like a re-creation of any of the records these artists made in the past,” Henry says. “It’s totally raw and gritty and live on the floor in the way that I think is appropriate. Sometimes you can ruin a project having too much time—the paint never dries. There’s something about the immediacy of playing live that puts everybody on point, and it’s just one more color on my pallete. When we only have these artists for a day each, people show up for work in a particular frame of mind that I find really conducive to recording. It’s not for everybody. But I never considered making this record any other way.”

Henry points out he’s able to open things up in this way because “I’ve got a great-listening, intuitive group of musicians who are delightful to be around. That’s kind of what I demand these days, because I’ve found that when you’re enjoying yourself, you’re a hundred times more creative. And I don’t have any interest in anybody who’s not with the program.”

PRODUCER AS CASTING DIRECTOR

From his mentor, producer/artist T Bone Burnett, Henry learned “that a big part of the gig is being a smart casting director. And if you’re a very smart casting director, you can sort of get out of the way. You’re a problem-solver when problems come up, but what you don’t do is create problems by trying to push things some other way than they wanna go. If I have this group of musicians in the room with Mavis Staples, one of the great voices in American music, singing Leadbelly’s ‘You Must Have That True Religion,’ a song that is already wildly evocative, there’s not too many ways I can go wrong.”

Henry describes the experience of working with Toussaint “life-changing—and I say that in a very real way. That’s the closest I’ll ever come in my lifetime to working with someone like Duke Ellington; he’s got that kind of musical mind and he’s that kind of gentleman. To be producing Allen Toussaint, who’s the producers’ producer, is incredibly gratifying, educational and inspiring. There’s not one reason that I would set that aside just to climb back into my own hole. I know this experience is gonna come to bear on my own work, and I don’t have to know exactly how right now.”

To read about Joe Henry's work with Aimee Mann, click here .

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