Joe Henry – New soul
I mean, I never wanted to be Ernest Tubb. I wanted to be Orson Welles. The idea that you’re creating something that you can then stand away from [is the appeal to me]. There’s no Red Badge of Courage or whatever that comes with a disclaimer like, “It was all done live in the studio.” Or, “He came out for an encore and just brought his acoustic guitar.” To me it’s just insanity to talk as if that sort of thing had any more meaning or integrity than anything else. First of all, it’s all horseshit; it’s all complete theater. And anything you can do to make music come out of the speaker that people find moving is completely legitimate. Whether you’re sampling, or looping, or stealing wholesale, if you make something moving come out of the speaker, then that’s a good day.
ND: But isn’t this way of talking about musicmaking precisely what some people find to be so terribly inauthentic?
JH: Art is, by its nature, a constructed and self-conscious act. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real. Nobody can decide if anybody else is authentic or not. I’ve never believed in the idea, for an artist, of somebody else deciding that you’ve sold out. Because nobody but you knows what you’re in it for —
ND: Unless they can read minds —
JH: Right. You can’t decide for someone else that, “Oh, you just sold out your ideals.” Well, you don’t know what my ideals were. You don’t know that I didn’t want to be in this arena selling Pepsi the whole time. I mean, come on! Those people need to get out of the house more! That’s my message! [Laughs]
There’s all kind of ways that music can be gratifying and be totally authentic. I mean, I don’t think Lead Belly is any more authentic than Marvin Gaye. Hank Williams is not more authentic to me than Tony Bennett. They’re holding up different ends of the table, but I don’t think that one is above the other.
ND: You’ve most recently been producing records for soul acts both legendary and little-known, but your music has actually been moving in that direction, especially in terms of its emphasis on the rhythm section, for at least a decade now. Even so, I would have thought you were an unlikely candidate to be the one who would, say, return Solomon Burke to the spotlight.
What I mean is, soul singers like Burke, and Bettye LaVette and Ann Peebles and so on, tend to sing songs that are straightforwardly narrative-based, whereas your songs tend to be much more imagistic and nonlinear. Soul singers tend to be emotionally declarative, while your solo work tends much more to the evocative. A classic soul record is usually dynamic, too, but a Joe Henry record tends to be more static, doesn’t have as much rise and fall in the music. Does all of that seem fair?
JH: I wouldn’t disagree with any of that.
ND: So what drew you to become so deeply involved with a music that in some respects is quite different from your own?
JH: Maybe because it’s something I can’t do myself. But it’s something that I’m wildly driven by. It was the first music I ever responded to. Hearing Ray Charles sing a version of “Yesterday” in 1966 on the radio was my first musical memory, and, for reasons I didn’t understand then, it resonated with me and has never stopped resonating. If I could do that, if that was my gift, that’s what I would do. If I was that kind of a singer, and in fact if I was that kind of a writer — if I could write a song like [Ann Peebles’ 1973 hit] “I Can’t Stand The Rain”, I would. There is a clarity to that work that I respond to, just like everyone else.
I mean, I don’t write the way that I do to be stubborn. I’ve seen responses to my work where people think that I write the way that I do to be difficult. But I don’t. That’s just the way it works for me; it’s the way the songs come to me, and they’re pretty singular I guess….Now, I’ve written a thing here and there, where I think that’s perfectly coverable, someone else could do that. But I’m aware that to most ears what I write is not necessarily complicated, or even obtuse, but it’s not universal.
ND: Even when your sister-in-law did one of your songs, “Stop”, she reworked it considerably, even renamed it “Don’t Tell Me”.
JH: Oh that’s just because she wanted part of the publishing. [Laughs] No, but I was fairly stunned when I heard that she had left all the words entirely intact. There were lyrics in that song where I thought, “Oh, well, that’ll be the first thing that goes.” So when that song came out, I thought it would vindicate me in a way. It’s as quirky as anything I’ve written….But when [Madonna] sang it in concert, when she was touring that record [2000’s Music], the band would stop and it was just her singing, clapping her hands, and an entire arena of people was singing along to this very quirky lyric. I thought, “Well, OK. Thank you, people. This is not that odd. I’m not that far gone.” [Laughs]