Published Aug 22, 2009When thinking about Joe Henry, the description "the straw that stirs the drink" readily comes to mind. Like his mentor, T-Bone Burnett, he has the uncanny ability to bring out the best in everyone he works with, having proven that by producing late-career masterpieces for the likes of Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, and most recently, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Yet, this reputation has not come at the expense of his own career as a singer-songwriter, which over the past two decades has seen him undergo a Tom Waits-ian transformation from country-rock troubadour to visionary audio-poet specializing in arcane Americana. Henry's 11th album, Blood From Stars, has a more pronounced jazz feel than arguably any of his previous work - aided in no small part by the saxophone playing of his son Levon - although overall it remains an expected feast for the ears from an artist who deserves to be regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary American music.
I'd like to say right off the bat how much I enjoyed Ramblin' Jack Elliott's A Stranger Here that came out earlier this year.
I'm glad to hear that. That was definitely one for the books. I've known Jack for a really long time, and owe him a debt as many of us do. It was a great coup for me to be able to do a project like that on his behalf.
I think I was mainly blown away by the group of musicians you put together for that session. It really brought clarity to everything he represents. What are your thoughts on that record now?
Well, as I said in the liner notes I was obsessed with Woody Guthrie, like most songwriters of my generation were - I'm 48 now - and it was Jack that I'd first heard singing Woody's songs. I couldn't find any Woody Guthrie records, so to finally hear those words as actual songs was incredibly meaningful to me, and I've always had a tremendous respect for Jack. Then when you start digging a little deeper, you realize how significant he was during that whole [folk] movement. I'd produced the one song for him for the I'm Not There soundtrack at my house, and after he was here for that afternoon I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to try to make a whole record with him, and what concept would we try to put into place that would give shape to the whole thing. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just ten songs on a pile; I wanted him to be leading a very tough and dark, atmospheric sort of a band. I felt like I could hear it in one instant, in the song "Death Don't Have No Mercy." I was obsessed to hear him sing that, and to me that was an excuse to make the whole record. So I just went with the idea of what kind of record could I create that would allow me to hear him sing this song. And as it turned out, that was the very last thing we recorded. We'd tried it earlier, but it didn't come out as transcendent as I'd hoped it would be. When we cut it again, it was when David Hidalgo was here and I was shaking up a batch of martinis for everybody for a Friday evening and I said, "You know what? Just to quiet my mind, let's run through that song one time with David and Van Dyke [Parks], and if it's not going anywhere, we'll stop." What we had worked, but I had a feeling from what we had just done with David that day that we would pull something new into the boat. When everyone started playing, it immediately turned into that strange, tango-like feel. So I told them all to get in front of a microphone, knowing that whatever this was, it was what we wanted. A lot of the record was like that, mostly because that band could automatically hear something that was authentic for Jack, and at the same time it was a sound that he clearly had never attempted before. That's always the goal when you're working with a great legacy artist who has a tremendous amount of history that you're playing upon. How do you do something that sounds like them, yet is still wholly unique unto itself?
Was Blood From Stars something that came out of that, or do you always separate your own music from your production work?
Well, I'm always writing. I don't make records based on a calendar. There's plenty of music in the world; I make records when I have one to make, and I think doing so much production for other people allows me the luxury of that attitude. I'm getting completely satiated through other projects that I'm not just kicking around the house in a bathrobe until I make another record. I'm always putting songs on a pile, and at a certain point a group of them will start to identify themselves as the body of something, either overtly or obtusely. I'd kind of noticed quickly with this record that I had a particular pile of songs that were going somewhere, and at that stage it's easy to finish. It's like writing a play and knowing that I need a scene that does this, and a scene that does this. So I wrote what needed to be filled in, and then I wanted to hit it as quickly as I could while I could see it and hear it. Everybody I work with is busy, thankfully, so back in the fall I had to identify a time in February or March when I could get all of them together for a week. Once I got that on the calendar, it became easy to finish, because I'm a very deliberate writer and editor, so by the time I get into the studio I'm not really messing around with the songs anymore. I think that's what makes me feel so liberated in the studio; even if we're struggling to get something on tape, I know that there's still a song there that I believe in.
All of your records have such pronounced moods, but this one seems particularly striking. Did you have this mood in mind before you started?
Well, sure. Even if I can't articulate what it is, I end up articulating it by the people I have in the room. It's like, I don't know exactly what this is going to sound like, but I can feel what it is. I can feel the heat coming off of it, and I know it should be more electric than what [previous album] Civilians was. I wanted it to be rougher around the edges. With Civilians it was a situation where I wanted the production to be invisible. I wanted to create the illusion that the songs just sort of happened, and as a listener you were hearing the very heart of them, with no sonic concept between you and them. In this case I very much wanted the production to be a significant player on the stage, like any musician might be. I wanted the approach to be very deliberate and to insert itself in a none-too-subtle way. For me, it's more about the right characters in a room than the right instrumentation. I think about the individual people, I don't think so much about needing a guitar player, so who can I get? I knew that I wanted Marc Ribot to be here. The same with [drummer] Jay Bellerose; he's my brother. There's nobody alive who plays like he plays.
And [bassist] David Piltch as well...
Yeah. The three of us do a fair amount of touring as a trio, which is something I would only do with David and Jay. Otherwise, I don't think I'd feel like I was articulating what it is that I do. But in that particular configuration I can go out as a trio and feel like things can blow up and get cinematic in a way that normally I'd imagine I'd need a bigger band to do. So yeah, it's a unique relationship that I have with those two particular individuals. When I have them, there are many components I can shift around them, but I know that there's going to be a certain reverence to song and irreverence to genre that I can fully depend on.
I can notice that now, looking back on your body of work, that once you connected with this group of musicians you rely on now, it seems like you reached that place you had been searching for.
It's a Motown concept of having a core of musicians that you might take away from or augment in some sort of way. I've made quite a number of records with this same core band here at my home studio, and I don't think any of them sound the same. But they do share a very soulful, dark, terse sensibility. I mean, I've had this conversation with a lot of people about how with this small stable of musicians I could produce a record with Doc Watson or produce a record for Prince, and I think they would be equally authentic with each artist. I completely believe that.
The songs on this album are broken up into three distinct sections, so the obvious question is why?
Well, I always hear a record as a whole, even though I'm not so naïve as to think that everyone's going to listen to it that way. But I do think you should do the work so that anybody who wants to is rewarded for it. It's short sighted to decide that everyone's playing songs individually or on shuffle so that sequencing doesn't matter. Of course it does. Even when we were just listening to vinyl, I was jumping my needle all over the place, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't make a statement that's as fully realized as you can. I think of it overall as a sustained arc, like a movie. I like to break it up into episodes. I'm not suggesting that it's a hard, three-act play where I can describe each act, but I do look at the songs the way I broke them up graphically on the cover anyway as being sort of very contained passages. I think it's interesting to listen to it in that way, and it was fun to construct it in that way. I started hearing the record in a different way once I decided to do that.
This album also marks the first time you've recorded with your son Levon. Did you hear his saxophone on these songs from the start?
It wasn't that much of a dramatic moment. I'd actually considered using him on Civilians, but he wasn't really ready for that. I wouldn't have done that to him; I wouldn't have done that to me. I didn't want it to just be a cute thing that I had my son playing, but he's made so many incredible strides as a player and as a musical mind that it got to the point when I was thinking I'd like to have horns, I was hearing his involvement in the same was I was hearing Marc's. In whatever way that might mean, I wanted him involved. It's a very communal thing that goes on here among this particular group of musicians who are all friends and have all done a lot of sessions together. Jay and Ribot and [keyboardist] Keefus [Ciancia] have all been on a lot of T-Bone Burnett sessions together. David Piltch has started to do a lot more work with T, as has [keyboardist] Patrick Warren. It's a very close-knit group that has a friendship beyond a working relationship, and it was a natural thing to invite Levon into that because he's known all of them for a really long time. But I knew that I wanted to hear his point of view in the songs. The only problem for me was that he was still in high school. There were some tracks that I wanted to cut with him that we had to put off until later in the day until he got home from school.
Is he a serious jazz student?
He is. He just graduated from high school and at the end of [August] he's starting at the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York. He's learning jazz religiously and exclusively at this stage.
Has that rubbed off on you at all? It might be going out on a limb to say that this album is your most heavily jazz-influenced.
I don't know about that. On Scar, I had Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau and Brian Blade. I mean, I've never set out to make a jazz record, but for a long time I've been very interested in jazz musicians and how they think and construct. I don't try to do what they do, but I like to invite them into my room and see how they rearrange the furniture. Ditto with Tiny Voices where I had Don Byron and Ron Miles. Pretty much at this point in my life I only listen to jazz for entertainment. I don't want to listen to anything too closely that relates to what it is that I do. When I want to go back to music as a listener, I invariably listen to things that are just completely beyond me - Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker - and Levon has been steeped in that, which is something that he took to on his own. So we have a shared love; he studies it deeply, and I listen to it because it sails over my head like pure oxygen.
I suppose concurrent with the influence that jazz has on your sound, there's also the classic American pop song that is also the foundation of much of Van Dyke's and Randy Newman's music. Do you feel like you've become another link to that tradition?
Yes and no. I began in that tradition, which isn't the music that people typically think about in reference to the singer-songwriter genre. I think people, whether they mean to or not, think of a certain period of the '70s when people were writing about themselves in a very personal way, and I've never been interested in that. In my estimation, artists who are more true to the singer-songwriter tradition are people like Bob Dylan and Randy Newman and Tom Waits and Loudon Wainwright. But most significantly I'd say Bob and Randy, because even as a child when I would listen to Bob Dylan I never believed that he was writing about himself. I would never put him in the same category as Jackson Browne or Leonard Cohen, as great as they are. I'd put him more in a category with Orson Welles, Muhammad Ali, Picasso, and Miles Davis, as just particular maverick voices who share an ethos of infusing story with humanity. I was informed by that even before I knew I was being informed by it, which is the most subversive kind of learning. You don't have any filter against it; you're not judging it as you're hearing it. You're just completely absorbing and accepting it. So in that regard I do feel very much a product of that, and hopefully a member of that tradition because I don't ever consciously use my own life as subject matter. I certainly know that anything I've experienced tempers the way I imagine anything, but I think it's on a different scale than I assume most people would use as the chief subject for their writing. That approach just doesn't interest me too much.
I guess that begs the question, did you have some strong characters in mind when you were writing this album?
You know, I don't imagine either a character or a story and then try to write about them. Honestly, I just start writing. A line or an image will just start the wheel turning. The process of writing is always finding out what I'm writing about. I never set out with a preconceived notion of character or story. So it's not about self-expression in that regard, it's about discovery and being open to where it might go. I do think now that on, say, the last couple of records, there's an implication that there's a single character walking through the scenes of this particular movie. But when I think about Blood From Stars after the fact, I don't think it's the same character necessarily appearing in all the songs. I don't think the character that sings in "The Man I Keep Hid," for instance, is the same character that sings in "Channel." I think they are different points of view, even though I'm speaking in the first person, which I prefer because it's the most intimate way to tell a story. That's what trips people up into thinking you're writing about yourself. You sing "I" and they think you mean I without quotes around it.
The album title, Blood From Stars, can be interpreted in a lot of ways too, especially now that you're ensconced in L.A.
It was just a phrase that I instinctively responded to and I instinctively believed was a connecting piece. But I don't think it's a stretch to think that characters in these songs are stuck somewhere and they're trying to imagine a future that they can embody. So, the idea of looking to the stars, looking to the heavens and trying to imagine part of your life that hasn't happened yet; thinking that if I can imagine it then I can live it, and trying to render something mortal from something ethereal, is a very human impulse.
You mentioned Loudon Wainwright earlier. Are you working with him on anything new?
I'll always be happy to. He's a great hero of mine. Right now we're talking about doing some touring together in January in Ireland, which is a place I've never been to before and he's been to many times. I think he and I and Rodney Crowell might do a joint venture to Ireland in January, which would be great. I think Loudon's on tour with Richard Thompson right now, who he has a long history with. I would really like to see that show. Just last week here at my house I produced Mose Allison, who's 82, and I've just begun a sprawling, episodic project with Harry Belafonte, who's also 82. It's an interesting trend to be working simultaneously with two people of such significance who are that age. I'd just done a single session with Harry in New York days before I started here with Mose, so it's been an intense, but incredibly vital time.