Joe Henry – New soul
It sometimes seems as if Joe Henry has spent most of his nearly two-decade career standing just out of the frame in other people’s glamour shots. He is, of course, the brother-in-law of someone or other named Madonna, and in his fifth-grade band he sat next to a young boy who would, not too many years later, become the world’s best-known serial-killing cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer.
Henry’s own work as a recording artist and an increasingly in-demand producer has been consistently overshadowed by others. Just this year, for example, Henry has quietly produced albums for artists including Ani DiFranco, Susan Tedeschi and Aimee Mann. Meanwhile, the praise many critics have typically heaped upon his nine solo albums, which have ranged from singer-songwriter folk to country-rock to modern groove-centric soundscapes heavy with poetry and atmosphere, has often been focused on better-known collaborators such as T Bone Burnett, the Jayhawks, Daniel Lanois, former Rolling Stone Mick Taylor, and Ornette Coleman. Even Henry’s song titles often drop names more famous than his own: “Curt Flood”, “Edgar Bergen”, “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation”, “Dewey Wins”.
But now Henry, 45, has stepped into the foreground as a key if somewhat unexpected facilitator in the current soul revival, a figure every bit as important to renewed interest in the gospel-bred genre as was Jamie Foxx’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Ray Charles or Al Green’s reunion with his glory-days producer Willie Mitchell. In 2002, Henry produced Solomon Burke’s Grammy-winning return to the spotlight, the appropriately titled Don’t Give Up On Me. This year, Henry helped out another soul great enjoying a revived career when by producing Bettye LaVette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell To Raise.
Now, best of all, comes the stunningly spare and heartfelt collection I Believe To My Soul, Vol. 1, featuring tracks by soul artists Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles, Allen Toussaint, and Billy Preston. (The album is a benefit for Hurricane Katrina victims, although it was recorded before the tragedy, which directly affected the lives of New Orleans residents Thomas and Toussaint.)
As with Burke and LaVette, the participants in I Believe To My Soul have never stopped recording and performing — these are not comeback records — but they are now, thanks in part to Henry, enjoying a renewed interest in their work. Next up, Henry will be behind the glass for a collaboration between Toussaint and Elvis Costello.
In October, on the phone from his home in Los Angeles, Henry looked back on the variety of incarnations his career has taken, on his current role as producer of the some of the finest voices America has ever produced, and on just how much he loves making records.
NO DEPRESSION: The sound of your own work has changed a great deal over the years. Some of your earliest recordings owed an obvious debt to Dylan, others had an almost jazz feel, and on your early ’90s albums Short Man’s Room and Kindness Of The World, you were firmly in what was only then beginning to be called “alternative country.” But then, with Trampoline in 1996, you changed direction again and stopped making country-ish records altogether. You betrayed the movement!
JOE HENRY: Oh, believe me, I’ve seen the mail. You know, what strikes me as funny about that whole thing is that, well, if I just look at my own work from that period of time, I never thought of that as the end of the road. It wasn’t like I join the Boy Scouts, I put on the uniform, and then I never get to take it off. That musical posture suited me for the moment for a variety of reasons, but it was by no means all I was interested in. And I felt no reason to think I needed to pick an allegiance to any specific musical vocabulary — and don’t dare change any colors on your palette because you might offend somebody who supported you in the past! I find that idea to be completely comical.
I don’t want to say it was only a sound of convenience, but it worked for me at the moment. And it was a very brief moment. By the time Kindness Of The World came out [in 1993], I couldn’t stand the sound of it. I was so frustrated. And I said at the time, if I don’t find a new way to work, I quit. Because I felt like I had a vision for a record being like a movie. And not just like live theater where the mistakes are just what you’re forced to live with. I wanted to be able to construct something that worked in a different way.
I can’t think of a song from before Trampoline that I’ve played live in the last, you know, eight years. Maybe there’s one or two I played because someone asked me to. Not that I don’t think there are some good songs in there; I like a lot of those songs. But I don’t think I knew how to make a record then. Because of my own naivete and budgetary restrictions, I was forced to work in a very particular sort of way. And those records to me — Kindness Of The World being one of them — strike me now like my junior high yearbook picture: I know it’s me! But I don’t know why I was dressed that way…
ND: I think the idea that recordmaking is its own art, different from live performance, is lost on many people.
JH: They are completely different pursuits. One certainly facilitates the other, but they’re not the same thing. I love playing shows; I love playing live music. I don’t love to tour, and I don’t love everything that comes along with touring. But I am absolutely electrified by the idea of making a record. I find that no matter how fried I am with the process, how spent I am, the next morning I’m at the studio an hour and a half early because I’m so engaged by the process.