Singer/songwriter Joe Henry has spent the last dozen years charting one of those careers that has quietly put him on the path towards legendary status. Aside from releasing 11 eclectic and adventurous records of his own (including last year’s Civilians), he has a knack for getting involved in a host of interesting collaborations, from Aimee Mann and Ani DiFranco to Solomon Burke and now Allen Toussaint.
Paste: Of the many, many things you have going on right now, one is a project with Allen Toussaint—why don’t you start off with that?
Henry: I’m just finishing that one, actually. I’m going to be in New York in a week and a half to mix it. I made a beautiful record, if you don’t mind me saying so, with Allen in New York over four days in March that has him featured as a piano interpreter—which has never happened before. I sourced it from jazz that either originated in New Orleans or is associated with New Orleans in the ’20s and the ’30s. Even though the source music is old, he’s approaching it in a very unique way, and with the assistance of some of the boldest jazz musicians out there currently.
Paste: You got your start in the rock world. But when you recently played the Lincoln Center, you had folks like Brad Mehldau and Don Byron playing with you. Are you feeling much more comfortable now playing jazz?
Henry: You know, I’ve never called myself a rock musician any more than I would ever call myself a jazz musician. I’m not being coy; I did come up listening to rock music and basing my songwriting from the guitar for the most part, as many people from my generation did, but I was always listening to everything. I was certainly informed by folk music at the same time, or maybe even before, I started listening to anything called rock music. Soul music as well, and I didn’t see a distinction between those things; I didn’t know that there was one necessarily. I listened to Johnny Cash; the first album I bought was Johnny Cash’s San Quentin. It still has one of the nastiest electric guitar sounds, courtesy of Luther Perkins, that you’ve ever heard on a record. That sounded like rock ’n’ roll to me, and so did Ray Charles for that matter.
Paste: You can probably make a better argument than most anybody for not really clinging to any of those distinctions, but how would you describe your approach to music?
Henry: Well, in a very real way, Josh, I don’t. First, I felt like I certainly have been treated as if that’s a stubborn stance to take. I don’t do it to be stubborn. I have to say that when I began I saw very little distinction in different genres of music and then I started to work myself and I was always told that I had to find a way to name what it is that I do in particular so they would know what section to put it in in the record store, and then the more that I worked I realized that no, I think I was right the first time. I don’t think it’s beneficial to me or anybody else at a certain point to get hung up on distinctions of music genre. I do understand—you know I walk into a record store, too, when there used to be record stores, and go to the jazz section, go to the vocal section or go to the folk section or go to the rock section. I do know what that means. But in terms of you and I talking about the conceit of creating music, for instance, I don’t think it’s helpful and I think it’s less and less valid to talk about things in those distinct categories. Because anybody, certainly my age, has been exposed to all kinds of music and it all becomes a part of your language. When I was really young and hearing Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rogers and Roger Miller and Louis Armstrong and Jim Nabors all at the same time, I didn’t understand that there was a difference between them. I really didn’t. I knew that I responded to some things more than other things. But there was nobody there; my parents weren’t people of leisure, and they didn’t sit around playing records. They weren’t there to tell me that Glenn Campbell was different than Ray Charles. So I really did just start ingesting things and making distinctions based on what was meaningful and what wasn’t, usually based on songs and somebody’s voice. So I think that somebody who has come up roughly in my same time frame, especially once the CD boom happened and all kind of music that had been unavailable for years got reissued, it was impossible not to be influenced by all of it. I listened to a radio station out of Detroit when I was in high school, and a woman named Judy Adams on the public station there used to have an afternoon program and she would play, in a row, Leadbelly and Coltrane and Edith Piaf and a whole side of The Basement Tapes before she would come on and announce what we had just heard. And I took it all in in equal measure. You asked me if I feel more comfortable in the jazz world than the rock world. I feel most comfortable with liberated musicians who approach a song like a song.
Paste: Well, that attitude has got to make it easier to jump from working with Rosanne Cash to working with Allen Toussaint.
Henry: Sure, in the same day, you know? I had a journalist ask me recently if I was the only person, if I imagined that I was the only person, who’d worked with both Ornette Coleman and Madonna, and I said, “Well, if you add Ramblin’ Jack Elliot to that and make a trifecta out of it, I certainly am the only person who’s worked with all three.” But it makes perfect sense to me that I would work with all three, and that I hope to continue to in some way or another.
Paste: And you’ve managed to carve out a nice little career, balancing your own music and producing others, kind of along the lines of a T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller and not many others. What’s the trick in balancing it all out?
Henry: Well I think the trick, going back to the beginning of our conversation, is that I see less and less distinction; I don’t see them as different jobs anymore. I think there was a time before I was producing anyone else that I would have to really shift gears and change my thinking to accept the idea that I might produce someone else’s record, that I might be working from the control room and not from the other side of the glass. But the more opportunity I started to have, I started to see very little distinction in the way I approached the work. Whether it was my voice or my song coming out of the speaker, the goal was the same. Is it meaningful? Does it make me want to put it on again? Am I putting a light on the song? Am I putting a light on the artist? Whoever that is, if it’s Mavis Staples or Aimee Mann or Elvis or Billy Preston or myself, in particular, I find it all sort of the same job. And no one’s more surprised than me to realize that. You know, I certainly have to acknowledge T-Bone as a literal mentor in that way because he was the first person that employed me in any kind of production capacity as kind of “his associate.” He had just produced a record of mine in 1990 and I moved to Los Angeles and he asked me to come to work for him as his production assistant or production associate. And because he was the first person that did, and I understood that he was an artist first and he was working as a producer from the point of view of being an artist, that it became very natural for me to adopt the same posture. I still find it really hard, and I almost would never introduce myself to anybody as a record producer, but I say that I’m an artist who produces records. And I think that’s more to the point of my philosophical approach, and I bet if you asked Buddy Miller the same thing, he might respond in a similar way.
Paste: You’ve been doing some co-writing with Rosanne Cash…
Henry: I have started writing some stuff with Rosanne, and it’s been really interesting. I’ve only dabbled as a co-writer; it’s sort of antithetical to the way I work. On the other hand, I’m finding it really easy to work with Rose, and I’ve done stuff recently with Loudon Wainwright. When we were scoring the film Knocked Up together, we co-wrote a number of songs, and that was the first time I’ve really tried to do it in a fairly disciplined and dedicated fashion. All the other times it was sort of accidental in a way. I sent a song to Madonna and she’d listen to it and send it back to me, and it was successful. But to actually engage somebody and be conscious of the process, it was new to me with Loudon and it’s just started to seem not strange to swap things back and forth with Rosanne through email, and maybe that’s why it works because I’m not sitting there across from somebody expecting or thinking that I have to account for everything that I might write, that’s just for me putting one foot in front of the other. I don’t know that I can justify what I’ve just written; it’s just to get me to the next thing possibly.
Paste: So what kind of tensions do you think can arise from the co-writing process as opposed to the producing process?
Henry: What kind of tension?
Paste: Yeah, it seems like in either situation you have the two artistic visions coming together.
Henry: That’s a pretty broad question; it’s like saying what kind of tensions can arise between two people who find themselves seated side by side on an airplane. There’s all kinds of things that can happen, but it all, just like the scenario I just described, it all comes down to ego. Are people approaching it because they’re trying to affirm something in themselves, or they’re trying to affirm something on behalf of the work, does that make sense? I think when people approach, I mean there’s no way that, I feel like working with Rosanne is an example, the way we have for the past couple of weeks or the past couple of months really, there’s no way she could offend me. And I told her that from the beginning, and I pretty much announce that literally to anybody I produce. I say, “For starters, please understand that I am un-offendable. I’ll work hard on your behalf, I’ll represent my point of view, but I surrender any notion that this is supposed to reflect something about me,” and it’s an incredibly liberating way to begin. And thus I start kind of announcing it to myself before I start my own record, too. I stopped thinking about the idea that the song or the record is supposed to somehow be about me, I’d rather think that I’m supposed to be about it and problems just disappear.
Paste: So at this point in your career when you’re doing collaborations whether that’s producing or co-writing or just getting people on a stage together, do you feel the luxury of seeking out people who have that attitude of keeping their egos in check and having it be about the work?
Henry: For the most part, certainly anybody I approach, and I have approached people when I thought I could or should, it’s usually with an instinct that the people are going to be open to collaboration the way I’ve just described it. I’ve certainly worked with people who, for one reason or another, have been less collaborative in that philosophical way and that has created tension. But I recognize it for what it is very quickly and hopefully save myself some heartache because I don’t choose to take that personally. I just think that there’s something different motivating that artist than is motivating me, and there you are again, there’s two people on the same plane trying to reach a destination, but neither one of you are driving that plane the way that you might be if you were really open-heartedly engaging the process of that collaboration.
Paste: So you have this album with Allen Toussaint and recording with Rosanne, what else is…
Henry: I haven’t recorded that album with Rosanne, it’s just a demo, but it is a conversation that we seem to be having frequently, and I hope, I’d like to believe that the work we’re doing together now is setting the table for us doing something in the studio together. I’m curating a festival in Germany in the fall that she’s attending, and that gives us the chance. There’s three programs that I’m curating, and for each program, there are two artists, and I put a small band together that can support both of those artists and each artist plays a set, you know, we rehearse there for three days and then each artist plays a set and then something together over two evenings. And so I’m hoping that the work we’re starting to do songwriting and in the process of this show in the fall in Germany might be setting the table for us to do something in the studio together in a fully realized way. But you know, she is also frequently produced by her husband, John Leventhal, and I have tremendous respect for that relationship and how it operates as well, so I’m going to let it unfold as it needs to, but I’m well on record to say I’d love to make a record, or part of one, with Rose in the near future.
Paste: Do you know the other artists that are going to be in Germany?
Henry: The first program, which is in August, will be Bettye LaVette and Mose Allison. The second program will be Allen Toussaint with Meshell Ndegeocello. The third will be Rose with Billy Bragg.
Paste: That’s fantastic. What city is that?
Henry: I think it will be great. I attended this festival myself as an artist a couple of summers ago with David Byrne. Bill Frisell was the curator of the festival for a few years, and then the bassist and producer Greg Cohen, who invited me to come as an artist. I inherited the position this year. The concert happens in Essen, Germany, which is near Dusseldorf, and it’s called the Century of Song, and it’s a state-sponsored festival that’s been going on, this is the seventh year maybe.
Paste: Any other projects in the works right now?
Henry: The thing that will come out shortly is a great record that I made with Loudon Wainwright that will come out August 19 called Recovery, which is a conceptual idea that happened, that kind of came up when we were working on the Knocked Up score together, where we recorded an album of him revisiting songs from the earliest part of his career, an album’s worth of songs that seemed to, all for some reason, to reinterpret themselves. We didn’t record anything just to do it, but things that either offered him something new given the longevity of the song or him offering the song something because of his life experience some 40 years later, in most cases. I’ve also produced a record for Rodney Crowell that comes out in September, something very different for him and different for me as well, for us to work together; that was a great thing to do. Allen’s record, I believe it will come out in January, we haven’t mixed it yet, as I said before, it’s a quote unquote jazz record in that it’s mostly instrumental and mostly sessions were populated by great and forward-thinking musicians who are frequently referred to as having a jazz persuasion, being Don Byron, Brad Mehldau, Josh Redman, Nicholas Payton, Marc Ribot, Jay Belarose and David Pilch. And the heart of the record, stop me from giving too much information, Josh, I just had a second coffee and my house is empty, but to go on, there are some big ensemble pieces, but kind of the heart and soul of the record are these duet pieces, like piano and trumpet, piano and clarinet, piano and tenor sax, and he and Brad playing a duet on two pianos, of an old Joel Martin tune, it’s astoundingly beautiful, it was a really exciting few days I have to tell you. And then I went straight from there, from New York where we made that record I went straight the next day, after we finished that recording to Paris where I’ve been producing for two weeks Salif Keita, a great singer from Mali.
Paste: It sounds like, as usual, you’re keeping busy.
Henry: Josh, I do what I can. I like to work, and I find that the more I work, the more I work. And I should mention that in July I’m going to be making a record here at my place with Ramblin’ Jack Elliot which I’m really excited about, him playing an album’s worth of depression era country blues music, which he’s never done, but I’ve heard him sing some of that music, and his approach to it is really beautiful, which is what gave me the idea that he should make a record as such.
Paste: I look forward to that. What about the follow up to Civilians?
Henry: Civilians? I’m writing towards it, I’m always writing. At first, I have thought about maybe, rather than waiting four years to pass like the lapse between the last two records, I may look at recording something new in November or December once I come back from this trio of festival dates in Germany that I’m curating, just see if I have enough songs at that point that speak well enough together that I am ready to jump in with it. But I’m certainly working towards the idea of making something sooner rather than later.