Catching Up With Joe Henry

Music Features Joe Henry

In Joe Henry’s musical world, you often have to pause and lean in to be sure you’ve properly understood what you think you’ve heard. And even then, many of his lines are artfully double-hinged—saloon doors that swing open long enough to give you a glimpse of something before swooping shut and opening again on something else. Maybe those glimpses are slightly different; maybe they’re inverse. Maybe they’re both. If obfuscation can be used to induce an intoxicating flash of insight, here’s how.

As a producer, Henry walks that wire-thin line between capturing an honest performance and making his presence felt—although when he’s helming his own sessions, he tends to venture a tad further afield, leading the listener into smoky warrens (example: 2001’s stunning Scar, arguably the finest album of that decade) or flipping things around completely and using the studio as more of a window than an instrument, as he did with 2011’s Reverie, which he described as “a vérité sort of project.”

Henry’s 13th album, Invisible Hour, finds him hewing to a version of the same acoustic framework he used for Reverie, but ever the tinkerer, he’s fashioned something new and delightfully strange out of similar ingredients; rather than the immersive immediacy of Reverie’s background-noise-and-all approach, he’s put together something like an Americana album, suffused with sunny steel (guitar, mandolin, mandocello, mandola, Weissenborn) and peppered with gospel-tinged background vocals from Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, a.k.a. the Milk Carton Kids. There’s a rich, palpable warmth to these arrangements that hasn’t always been present in his earlier work.

But the most distinctive element of Invisible Hour’s sound is the unique brass work contributed by Henry’s son Levon, who darts in and out of the mix with splashes of clarinet and saxophone that add a fresh palette of sweetly off-kilter colors, changing what Henry refers to as “the messy romanticism evoked by a collision of steel strings” into something deeper. Moodier. Darker, even.

Which is thoroughly appropriate, because as Henry writes in Invisible Hour’s liner notes, “As much as anything, perhaps these are all songs about marriage—marriage as a verb, not a noun: not a thing to be possessed but a habit of one’s being, the machinery and the mystery both sparking at the same mercurial fumes.” Lust, devotion, bliss, yearning, regret—love as double-edged Damoclean sword, as capable of binding us at our broken places as cleaving them asunder.

Those themes ring and resonate throughout the album, from the restless twilight depicted in “Sparrow” to the lusty chaos described in “Grave Angels” (“Where a circus stands blazing / And steam engines brake and whine / In a razed hobo jungle, your lost found and wonder / Has risen and mixes with mine”) and beyond. Seduction is a noose; love is “futile, uncertain and dire,” a “union of fracture”—but it’s our heaven, our salvation, our shelter and our confine. The story that frames the story.

It’s a story Henry tells with a raconteur’s grace over the course of Invisible Hour’s 11 tracks, artfully weaving a skein of imagery that winds around Biblical bedrock on its way to winking double entendre and back again. He’s always had a gift for tying broad themes into specific scenes with cinematic clarity—this is the writer who gave us “Our Song,” a tune that starts with Willie Mays buying a garage door at Home Depot and somehow flowers into a heartbroken and hopeful 21st century American anthem—but here, his lyrics are particularly evocative, setting stages and building scenes only to spin them topsy-turvy.

But there’s nothing self-conscious about these songs. They’re just the sound of an evolving artist—one who’s learning to dial between the strongest and softest bandwidths of his creative frequencies with increasing dexterity. In some ways, Invisible Hour is one of Henry’s simplest, most pastoral-sounding albums, excellent company during quiet hours spent in the lengthening shadows of the doddering sun. But in others, it’s perhaps his richest: a collection of songs that require focus, reward thought and rise to greet the listener, step by patient step.

Paste: How did the sound of this particular album reveal itself to you?
Joe Henry: In a way, by degrees. I feel like there’s always a moment when I hear the whole thing in my mind, almost like a single note. That sounds a bit wispy, although I don’t mean for it to.

Not that I’m comparing myself to him, but there’s an exchange of letters between Mozart and his father in which his father asks him how he writes a symphony, and he responds that he hears it as a single note, like a bell being struck. I’m paraphrasing, but he described unraveling the music from that single impulse, that single impression, and I’ve noticed with my last two records in particular that there’s a moment when I know what it’ll sound like. I know the landscape, and I have to start walking toward it. That doesn’t mean I want to control it, or that I won’t settle for anything other than what I’ve imagined, but in a way, it calibrates my compass blade, and I follow it.

I always have been, but lately I find myself additionally enamored with what happens when three guitars play together. I love it in a very unorganized way—when people are playing the same song and observing the same sensibility, but it isn’t so planned out that you lose that collision of strings and tones, which I find endlessly romantic. I understood early in writing this batch of songs that it would be driven by three acoustic guitars, or in some cases, two acoustic guitars and a mandola, or mandocello. A lot of wound steel strings, not terribly planned out, but everybody after the same emotional position.

That was the driving force, but it wasn’t all I wanted. I started to understand that I wanted the texture of reeds to come into play. And I should back up here and point out that despite all of what I’ve just said, in a very real way, I don’t think nearly as much about instrumentation as I do about people—the personalities I want in a room. Greg Leisz is not here because of what he plays; I just think, “I want Greg in the room.” As a person, as a friend, as a musical mind. I want Jay Bellerose for the same reason. I’m reminded of that, because the idea of incorporating reeds to the extent that I have has a lot more to do with wanting my son Levon involved than it has to do with any particular instrumentation.

Of course, there are times when you say, “We want a violin here, who can we get?” But more and more, that’s backwards thinking for me. And I try and encourage everyone I work for to think beyond the grid that’s frequently imposed: here are the key things that matter, and if you observe these, it becomes musical; if you don’t, it isn’t. I reject that completely. But at the same time, when I’m working for myself—and probably because I serve so many people as a producer—it’s such an incredibly liberating place to arrive. I don’t have to think on anybody’s terms but my own.

Paste: Let’s talk about that, because I wonder if your production work for other artists makes producing your own work more complicated. Musicians who don’t self-produce can just say, “We want the album to sound like this, so let’s get that producer,” and let the process unfold—but you have to keep a clear eye about your own songs while producing them, and you also don’t carry the sonic baggage that a lot of producers have, in that you aren’t known for one sound.
Henry: John Cage talked about the difference between the creative and analytical minds, and the mistake we make when we confuse them. If you find yourself employing the analytical mind when you’re in creative mode, you’ve just cut off the act of creation at its root. If you’re already judging it as it’s happening—if I’m asking myself “Is somebody going to like this?” as I’m writing a song, I’m done for the day.

I really do like real production, and I don’t even mind when I hear that somebody’s deliberately doing it. I don’t describe myself as a purist in any way, even though 90 percent of what I do, for myself or anybody else, is people playing live in a room. I find live performance to be the core of what we’re doing. But that, in itself, is a completely stylized production idea. The idea that if a record is live performances, the producer didn’t do anything but order lunch—that’s faulty thinking. I’ve read that from people who I think don’t understand how records are made, but also people I’ve worked for. “Joe just invites people over and gets out of the way.” That’s not exactly what happens, but I think some people make an assumption that if it happens live, you’re just the lifeguard to make sure nobody drowns.

It’s very much a production decision to orchestrate things that way. When you’re asking people to work in the moment at the same time, you’re setting the table to engage the whole process, not just individual elements of it. I want people who love working that way. The small pool of musicians that I’m always pulling from and rearranging—they step in and when they hear playback, they’re really trying to hear the whole performance, completely divorced from moments before when they were creating.

The musicians that I would normally employ, when they step aside and listen for a moment, they’re really trying to approach it as listeners—step aside and hear the music as it is, and not as they are. I like to work with people who really love this part of the process, who aren’t frustrated by a live take or the quote-unquote “mistakes” that I might be asking them to live with. Often when a musician doesn’t play what they meant to play, they can only hear it as a mistake, yet it can really provide a perfect, beautiful moment—something that pulls me further into the song.

Things can get so mannered that they’re invisible. I liken it to a high-wire artist who just walks straight across—that’s meaningless as entertainment. But all someone has to do is pause in the middle and wobble for a moment, and you’re reminded that this is a human being with their ass out, actually trying to do something. Those moments that some might think of as mistakes in a performance or a recording, those are frequently the things that snap people back from complacency as listeners. You’re reminded that somebody is barely hanging on, and for good reason.

There’s something beautiful about someone being a little off balance. They can give up things they don’t know they’re giving up, and the first few times someone plays a song, they’re focusing on the song, rather than adorning it. I don’t want adornment. I don’t want anybody playing anything they don’t think of as essential. I find that asking people to work the way I’ve just described takes them out of their ego in a particular way, and for a brief moment, the performance is not about them, it’s about it.

Some people think of what I’ve just described to you as an antiquated process. And I won’t say I’m not a nostalgic person, but my love of the process isn’t about nostalgia; it’s about how to distract people from those things that are not to the point of emotionally connecting music. There’s a completely false idea of perfection. First of all, there’s no such thing, and second, there’s nothing musical about it. I don’t listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins and think, “Well, if his B string was in tune, this would be killing me right now.” It doesn’t take me remotely out of the picture. I’ve heard people absurdly say that if Buddy Holly were around today, he’d sound so much greater with today’s technology. Do you think he’d be better than what we’ve heard? I don’t think so. It isn’t about that.

Paste: The upshot of all this is that I never know where you’re going to take me as a listener the first time I listen to one of your records. The last album was thrilling, in a way—at a time when a lot of music sounds like the air’s been sucked out of it, to get a record like Reverie, when you can hear dogs barking in the background, makes for some unexpectedly pleasurable headphone listening.
Henry: Well, that’s a good example of what we were talking about in the beginning, in terms of hearing the sound of an album all at once. I was starting a tour in Barcelona, and we had arrived with a whole day ahead of us before soundcheck—we had to decide whether to go to sleep or stay awake. I went out into the city to visit the Picasso Museum, with no idea of what I might see; I just wanted to walk around and be in it.

I probably had a couple of the songs for that album written at that point, but for some reason, in that hallucinatory jetlagged state—which can be mind-bending but not necessarily unpleasant—walking around, looking at the works of Picasso, who’s probably more influential for me than most songwriters I could name…in a single moment, I remember standing and looking at some early thing he’d painted, and all at once, I knew how it would sound. I knew who would be in the room, and I know that not only would we leave the windows open, but we’d put microphones at them. All that grain in the air, the activity around the house, would have to be part of the fabric of the song. I just knew it.

Paste: There is an immense love of language reflected in your lyrics, and I’d like to talk about your approach to writing them, because many of your lines suggest that a lot of craft is being brought to bear. How deliberately do you write your lyrics?
Henry: I do work really hard on that aspect of what I do. For as free as I think I am with recording and performance…I’m not obsessive about writing, although I’m really never happier than when a song is close enough to being finished that I don’t worry about it disappearing. If it’s enough written that I know what it is, but it’s still manipulatable, then I’m just giddy. When the paint is still wet, and I can move things around.

What if I switch the third verse to the first, and we enter the story that way? I always think about things like that; I’m always thinking about story, even though I know a lot of what I write isn’t terribly linear. I still think it has to add up to a story, even if it’s an impressionistic one, or a bit abstract. At the end, you still have to feel as though you went in somewhere and came out somewhere, so I do spend a lot of time on lyrics. I’ll spend days flipping words back and forth, just to make sure that’s how they’re supposed to be—I’m endlessly fascinated by the nuance of that. Even just the sounds of words, which I think ultimately drive things more than what a phrase might mean. I’m frequently just enamored with the sounds of words as they present themselves.

Paste: Yes, I wanted to ask you about that—about how often your lyrics come together because they scan well. Because as you say, they tend to be open to a fair amount of interpretation.
Henry: Sure. I write all kinds of things where I have no idea what I’m going on about, and I’m not saying that to be evasive. People ask what a certain song is about, and I tell them I have no idea—not because I’m trying to be coy, but because that isn’t what interests me. I write instinctively and I polish really hard, but not so hard that the song loses its nature. If it needs to be messy and sprawling, that’s what it will be. I don’t know what that line means and I don’t know why it came there; I just know that it’s right. I know later what it means.

I’ve almost never written a song where I had any idea of the topic when I began—I don’t come across an idea and think, “That’s a really good thought. Let’s put that into three verses that rhyme.” The process of writing is the process of me finding out what I’m writing about—there’s a phrase with an edge, or a single word. It’s like walking along and finding something shiny sticking out of the ground. You can step over it, because it’s probably trash, or you can start digging, and maybe there’s a whole bicycle under there. But I don’t go around looking for buried bicycles, you know? I don’t mean to be evasive; I hope I don’t sound like I am.

I think as a lyricist, you deal in poetry on a level that I don’t think a lot of people do, and that’s why I’m asking these questions. I don’t think you’re being evasive, but I do think a lot of your lyrics can read like snatches of conversation—there’s a certain evasiveness built in, and that’s part of their appeal.

I think I agree, and you know, it’s a tricky thing to talk about—song versus poetry. For a lot of people, it’s been my experience that there’s a hierarchy. If you’re a really good songwriter, they call you a poet, because that’s the level of value, whereas I would maintain that a really good song has the same value as any poem. They do share things in common, but it isn’t like songwriting is the Cub Scout and poetry is the Eagle Scout, and you got graduated up to excellence.

I feel sometimes that when people call me a poet, what they’re saying is, “I really like what you do, but I don’t understand it.” I don’t mean to say that in a smug way—just that if most people reference my lyrics as poetry, they’re saying, “This is pretty and it confuses me.” Most people look at poetry as something they had to read in high school and it confused them. If they think it’s both good and confusing, it must be poetic. And my theory is that if you’re inclined to be impressionistic with words, it’s baffling to people, because you’re working in a medium that’s supposed to arrive already translated. If I were an impressionistic painter, someone would use words to describe what I was attempting to convey—but when you’re already using words, people think that since it’s being written down, it should already be decoded. The fact that you’re using words to create abstraction is either confusing or annoying—they think you’re being difficult on purpose.

That’s been my experience. I won’t say with plenty of people, because I don’t have that big of an audience, but people have approached my songs in good faith and then suggested politely that I’m being deliberately obscure. My response is that if I knew a better, more direct way of saying what I need to say, and one that would connect me to the impulse, believe me—I would do it. Some things just have to be abstract to be fully realized. Some stories happen in the shadows, and they have to be written in the shadows as well.

Paste: I prefer thinking of your lyrics as evocative, rather than abstract.
Henry: Me too. Because they’re not gibberish to me—if they were, I’d still be working on them. Whatever I say, I believe I’m saying in the best way I know how. Frequently, the fact that it isn’t nailed to the floor is what I think makes it work. It’s like if I painted a portrait, and someone came along and said it looked exactly like their mother: Not only would I not be able to explain to them that the resemblance wasn’t my intention, but I wouldn’t be able to persuade them that it doesn’t look like their mother. There’s something liberating in understanding that once you let go of a work like that, you have no control over whether it finds its target, or whether it’s interpreted in any particular way. You can’t possibly know.

Paste: Let’s talk about how all this relates to the “story song” on Invisible Hour: “Sign.”
Henry: I’d say that song had an unusual evolution, but in some way, they all do, and then it isn’t unusual at all; they all just grow up the way they do. My dear friend, the Irish novelist Colum McCann, in collaboration with a group of people this last year started an initiative called Narrative 4—you can look it up. What they’re doing is fascinating. He launched it with a series in Esquire, with a larger online component, in which he asked a series of writers—and here I could laugh out loud, because I was the strangest, lowest person on that fuckin’ totem pole. But Colum and I are great pals and he likes what I do, and I think he was excited about broadening the canvas a bit, and not just asking the usual suspects.

There’s a whole benefit aspect to Narrative 4 that I encourage everyone to look up, but the idea for us as writers was to put together a short story in 500 words or less. When it came to me, he also needed it in like three days—but, you know, 500 words is not much. So I just started writing, and I wrote a 500-word prose piece that became a template for “Sign.” I liked it enough that after I sent it off, I couldn’t quite let go of it—I thought there was something interesting there, and something that might ultimately be singable. I wondered what might happen if I took the framework of the little narrative and stretched it out over verses, to see how it might live. There are certain words I’d use in a poem or an essay that just aren’t musical enough for a song, but in this case, I wanted to try and do it. And I’ll confess to you that I quite like that one.

Paste: I do too—it takes the listener on an emotional journey, and ends with such a perfect final line. You can kind of see where it’s heading once the last verse starts, but still…
Henry: Well, I couldn’t. I had no idea, until I did. I’m really big on Flannery O’Connor, and she said some things I’m forever quoting. She died at 39, but she said, “The more I write, the more mysterious the whole process is for me,” and I find that to be completely true. I’ve never felt freer as a writer, and I’ve never felt it was more mysterious than I do right now.

She wrote a story I really love called “Good Country People,” and if you don’t know it, there’s a very surly woman in her early 20s on a farm; she’s got a wooden leg, and she’s bitter about life. She won’t leave the house. A young man who’s a door-to-door Bible salesman gets her to go up into a hayloft with him, seduces her and convinces her to remove her wooden leg, which he then steals and leaves her in the loft. I bring this up because O’Connor said, “I had no idea until one sentence before that he was going to steal her leg. Of course, I was delighted that he did.”

That’s how I feel about the last line of “Sign.” I had no idea it was going to tie everything up so handily, but I was delighted that it did.

Paste: The bridge of that song features some particularly wonderful work from Levon—it just opens up the song and takes it to a new emotional level.
Henry: I knew I had to earn that moment—that I was obliged to tell a certain part of the story first. I was so hungry for it. I could just imagine where it would go, although I must admit that I was skittish about it. Jennifer Condos, my dear sister who was playing bass, said to me, “Give me some good warning before you call ‘Sign,’ because I don’t know how that’s gonna happen!” The length of it made us a little reluctant, although I was happy for it to be epic in that way. I believed if we did it right, the length wouldn’t be an issue—that it would add to the song by letting the story sprawl.

The idea was always that Levon would play with us, being as free as he imagined, and then be able to go back and further orchestrate what he’d played. That’s how he and I talked about it from the beginning: “Play whatever you want, but keep in mind this idea of orchestrating it.” Even when he was being free, I know him well enough to know that he was already thinking in a fairly developed way about the template and how he wanted to add to it.

Paste: He’s this record’s secret weapon, because the tones he adds to these songs are almost dissonant in places. They play off that romanticism you’re talking about, and they add a depth to these songs. The other instruments pull the listener toward an Americana vibe, but then Levon tugs them someplace darker and more complex.
Henry: I agree. Not that a folk record isn’t a perfectly fine thing, but yes, those sounds prevent people from making assumptions about the landscape. Levon and I both love a lot of chaos—although always in a beautiful way. I’ve never owned Metal Machine Music or anything like that, but I am devoted to John Cage, and I’ve noticed that a lot of the jazz I listen to, people find abstract or dissonant. I remember years ago, cooking dinner or something and putting on a particular Mingus record, and my wife Melanie was in a particular frame of mind where she said, “Could you put on something with less tension in it?” I said, “I don’t know if I can, because everything I love has tension in it.” That sensation that things are about to come off the rails, to me, is evidence of someone’s humanity. I find it endlessly beautiful.

Levon and I are very sympatico that way. I swear I didn’t beat him as a child—he just listens to the same music I do. My friend Jakob Dylan asked me once, “How did you do that with Levon? My oldest son listens to Slipknot, and I come to your house, and your son is upstairs listening to Lester Young. How did that happen?” I played everything in our house, and I never said to him, “This is the stuff that should matter to you.” But from the youngest age, he gravitated very instinctively on his own to some particular things that continue to be very heavy for him. A lot of that music we share in common—another lovely aspect of my relationship with him, I’m happy to say.

Paste: In the Invisible Hour liner notes, you say these songs are about marriage as a verb, which I take to mean desire-driven relationships as organisms—and complex ones that that can heal as well as destroy. That seems to be reflected in the music, where you’ve got those warm strings being played off the tension in those reeds.

I’m not sure I’m thinking so much about that disparity as much as I am about the idea that marriage is an action, rather than a thing you possess. It isn’t like “I got married. Here it is, and I’m going to put it in this box for safekeeping.” A marriage, if it’s real—like your life if it’s real—has to be ratified every day. It has to be engaged. It’s a process. Everything you said is absolutely true; it’s a double-edged sword, as any engagement is. But it isn’t just that there are two sides to the coin, it’s that the coin is being flipped. Constantly. It’s always in motion, and you glimpse different aspects of it all the time; it isn’t any one thing. As soon as you think “I know what it is, I’ve got this now,” that’s your surest sign that you do not.

Paste: While listening to this album, I kept being drawn back to the title track to Scar, because I’ve always found that to be such a brilliantly, heartbreakingly insightful summation of what love is and what it can do. This feels like an album-length exploration of that idea.
Henry: I’ve never thought of that, and I think just as instinctively as you say it, you’re completely right. I’m not an autobiographical songwriter, but that song is one of the very few examples—if not the only one I can think of—where I did know what I was writing about as I was writing it. I knew it did pertain to my actual life. Not when I began it—I just thought “Scar” was a good title for a song. That’s my memory. But once I started writing it, I just sort of knew I was addressing my wife. I tried really hard, once I was aware of that, to make it something else. I didn’t like the idea; I didn’t like the implication. I tried to steer the song somewhere else, and make it something else—less on the nose and more universal.

But I got to the point where it wouldn’t allow me to turn it somewhere else. I realized I could say “yes, thank you” or “no thank you” to it, but I wasn’t going to be able to change what it was, so I decided to see if I could write it and be at peace with it, even though I knew what it was doing. What’s funny to me is that I’ve learned to like my singing voice—I understand what it does and how it can be effective to me—but I do not like to hear my speaking voice when it’s recorded. And I’ve noticed when I’ve sung “Scar” in performance, I hear my speaking voice in my singing voice, and I don’t think that’s any coincidence.

Paste: Well, I’m glad you let that one out of the stable, because I think it’s one of the rare, true love songs in the deepest sense of the term. It is universal.
Henry: I’m proud of how it worked, and there are a number of people who might like what I do that say it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. My youngest brother, Andy, has said that to me a number of times. I’m happy that it stands up in that way.

When I was producing the portion of Bonnie Raitt’s Slipstream that I did, we recorded an album’s worth of material in a few days, and I knew she was going to do a lot of the record with her touring band—that this was sort of an experiment for her, and no matter what we did, it wasn’t going to be the full story for her record. She recorded “Scar,” and it sounds like a Marvin Gaye track—really sultry and slow, like the Delfonics or something. Of all the things we did and she set aside, that was the one where I had to bite down a little bit. I hope it comes out at some point.

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