There are those people who you see once every few years, and it never seems as if much has changed in their lives. And then there are those people you touch base with pretty frequently, but are still always amazed at how much news they have to share. Singer/songwriter Joe Henry seems to be a member of the latter category. It doesn't seem like we last caught up with him all that long ago, but when he spoke to us recently, Henry had plenty to say about latest album (Blood From Stars, out Aug. 18 via Anti-), upcoming projects with musical legends and the bonds he shares with family and friends.
How did you decide to use W. Eugene Smith's photo for your album art?
Joe Henry: I have long been a fan of Smith's work. And I have a history of using existing art—some I stumble across through the course of writing and recording—that can serve as an extension of the music. An album needs a cover to work like a movie poster, needs to suggest an environment where the music takes place, and it needs to be more than just a picture of the artist—or certainly can be. Otherwise, I think it's a missed opportunity. With this photo, there's a lot of movement, a lot of visceral electricity on display; it's dark and foreboding, and I think it looks like the music sounds.
Paste: And the album title? It's such a beautiful image, but also a little disturbing.
Henry: Well, it worked! I much prefer when an album has a title of its own that represents the whole and not a single song's title, which puts so much emphasis on a single track and doesn't give a banner to the album. I liked the confluence of imagery and I liked that you're connecting images and sticking them together. You're insisting that people think about how images relate. What am I saying to take blood from stars? I like that it doesn't feel static. You're forced to reckon with it because it's not a casual or familiar phrase. And any time you reference blood, there's some kind of violence implied, emotional if not physical. It speaks to mortality, vivid life. I've always enjoyed all those ideas, and like to put them in a cocktail shaker and pour it out for everybody.
Paste: You certainly aren't a stranger to a slightly darker sound, but the songs "The Man I Keep Hid" and "This Is My Favorite Cage" evoke a rather specific, kind of hindered, self-reflective darkness. What was the inspiration for these tracks?
Henry: I always think of myself as writing in character, rarely writing about myself. You can't not write about yourself. I've tried. I don't think those songs are only dark, by the way. They're very romantic, too. It's not just the words that are moving; in some ways, sonically, when you create atmosphere and mood with music, you do so expecting them to carry at least half of the weight, in transmitting content. Even if I was singing in a language you didn't understand, there's something in the music, I'd like to believe, that is communicating the intent of the song. When I was producing Salif Keita, the great artist from Mali, I was weeping—and I mean that literally—throughout the sessions. And he never sings in English, but somehow he was—musically, vocally—communicating something concrete. It was a great lesson to someone as lyric-oriented as I am.
Paste: For someone as prolific as yourself, it seems as if writer's block would be almost out of the question. But do you experience it? And how do you overcome it if you do?
Henry: I don't think I'm terribly prolific, especially not compared to some other musicians I know. But I never think in terms of writer's block. There's a certain arrogance in that because you're putting so much importance on what you're doing. There are times when songs are available, times when songs are ready. It's like picking fruit; if they're not ready, you should leave them. If there's a song there to be written, I write it. If not, I do something else, because there's plenty of work to be done, whether it be producing something or the laundry, or cutting the grass. It's short-sighted of any artist to put that weight on themselves. Things need to fester for a bit, things needs to stew. There have been plenty times I have felt a song brewing, but then I've realized it needed to percolate, and I've kept it at bay, until I felt it was ready to spring, and I was ready to catch it.
Paste: Your son Levon played with you on Blood From Stars. How was that experience?
Henry: Fantastic. I had thought of it for Civilians, but he wasn't ready and I wouldn't do that to him or to me. I didn't just want it to be cute, to put my young son on an album. I wanted to invite him into the process when it wasn't just a sax player I was looking for, but was his voice I was hearing.
Paste: Have you and your son always been very close?
Henry: Oh, yes. Always. And we share a musical vocabulary. He's strictly a jazz player, even though I am not. I listen to a lot of jazz; that's almost exclusively what I've been listening to for entertainment and nourishment.
Paste: Do you ever find that it can be difficult to work with someone you are very close with and usually just have a personal relationship with? This isn't just limited to your son, but with other people you've worked with while producing or working on other projects.
Henry: Typically, no. The people I work most consistently with now are very close friends, not just regular work relationships. There have been some issues before, but very rarely. I've worked with people in the past who were friends and difficulties presented themselves once the work began, but they weren't insurmountable difficulties. Once or twice I've been surprised that a work relationship has changed a personal relationship. But that hasn't been an issue for the most part—and certainly wasn't with this record. This was my band of brothers, and our communication is almost telepathic at this point. We may talk about what wine we're going to open, but we don't have to talk much about a song's direction.
Paste: So is that all part of the greater musical community?
Henry: Completely. I've always been a solo artist rather than in a band because I'm not very democratic as far as my songwriting is concerned. I work hard at what I do, and I take my songs in. But in the process of recording, I love the collaborative aspect. Of course there's always the known factor that if I'm the artist, I'm the last word, and if I'm the producer I'm sometimes the last word; but I am not concerned with authority or hierarchy. There's a great quote from Eisenhower that says, "It's amazing what can be accomplished when you're not worried about who gets the credit." I tend to work with musicians who are very generous with their gifts.
Paste: What are you most looking forward to coming up?
Henry: I have a couple production projects on immediate horizon, and I'm tremendously excited about them. Two musicians in their eighties. A few years ago I worked with a lot of people in their sixties, and then this last year I worked with two in their seventies. Now I'm working with two people in their early eighties. One is Mose Allison, whom I've been listening to since I was a young teenager. The other is Harry Belafonte, who is an incredibly significant cultural as well as musical figure... Also, it's always great to have a new record out. There's something liberating about finishing a record and getting rid of it. A lot of artists I know don't like that closure, but I do; there's something liberating about it.