A Conversation with Joe Henry
Puremusic: You're one of our very favorite artists here at the webzine, and so we're tickled that you made time for us.
Joe Henry: Well, that's very kind of you, thank you.
PM: I'll start out by saying that I thought Tiny Voices was a great, great recording. It's a wonderful piece.
PM: I was a huge Scar fan. In fact, it's one of the records that I have trouble getting off the player. And this new album is really quite a bit different--even though it comes from a similar sonic world, I think the intention was really different.
JH: It was. And thanks for noticing, because--I mean, people don't. Other people just hear a horn and go, "Oh, more of that."
PM: I really get tired of people calling you the jazz inflected songwriter.
JH: Yeah. I think the only people who think in those terms are people who don't like jazz. They hear a horn and they say, "Oh, it's really jazzy."
PM: And as a jazzy songwriter myself, I'm really disappointed by the fear of jazz in the singer songwriter world.
JH: [laughs] Well, it's just another influence. I think that anybody who grows up in roughly the same time period that we have, we've had so much music around us. We've had access to so much. When the CD boom happened, so much stuff that'd been out of print became available again.
JH: I don't know why people think of Jazz as such a different kind of influence and even fear it as an idea. As opposed to if you listen to jazz and you're a singer songwriter that you're just going to turn into Sting. It's funny how there are certain kind of structures and colors that people can hear over and over again, but if you reference a particular thing, a flag goes up. For instance, people say, "Well, you're not going to have a bass clarinet on every song, are you?"
JH: No one ever said to me, "You're not going to put a guitar on all this stuff, are you?" To me, it's just all racket. Every musical instrument is a noisemaker, with varying degrees of texture and sustain. But a lot of people have a real funny response to Jazz as a whole, just the idea of it, of what that represents. They figure you've strayed to what they perceive as that territory and a warning bell goes off for them.
PM: And when you say that all those instruments, anything at all is just a racket, that it's just a noisemaker--to me, that applies whether someone is in front of a microphone playing or you pull it in from a sampler or you pull it in from anywhere else.
JH: I completely agree with you. I had some friends, some peers many years ago when sampling first became available as a tool. And there were people who decidedly thought of themselves as purists, and talked about, "Oh, I just recorded with real musicians live," as if that was some badge of courage.
JH: When Alan Lomax put a microphone in front of Leadbelly, he was sampling Leadbelly.
JH: That's not Leadbelly, that's an electronic representation that reminds you of Leadbelly.
JH: But people become so funny at the degree of separation between what you're putting a mic in front of.
PM: As if that sample didn't begin with somebody sitting in front of a microphone blowing or plucking something.
JH: Somewhere, yeah. That's absolutely true.
PM: So I caught on to your work kind of belatedly in the last two, three years and went back and bought everything I could get my hands on. I first heard about you in an interview with Steve Earle.
JH: Oh, interesting.
PM: He said, "Oh yeah, Frank, one of my favorite songwriters is Joe Henry." And I had to just plead ignorance. So I wondered, are you and Steve buddies? Have you bumped heads somewhere?
JH: I've never met him face-to-face. I've had one phone conversation with him. We've got some friends in common, but I -- we've kind of crossed paths and missed connecting a few times. Once when I played in New York, I talked to him on the phone. He said, "Yeah. You were in New York a couple months ago, and I couldn't get into the show. It was sold out." And I'm going, "Come on, Steve, you couldn't talk yourself into the door?"
PM: [laughs] A guy like him...
JH: "I don't believe you." So we had a really nice chat. I got in touch with him when I was doing the Solomon Burke record, casting a wide net looking for interesting songwriters that I thought might write something for that project.
PM: Did he take a swing at that?
JH: He didn't. He wanted to. He said he was going to give it a shot. But he's an incredibly busy fellow.
JH: At that moment he had a number of things going on. And he said, "I'll try to see if I could find something that I got going in my work."
PM: Who knew it was going to win a Grammy, right?
JH: Yeah, right. But Steve didn't get anything to me in time. But it was good for me to just kind of ring his bell, because I've certainly appreciated his work for a long time. I'm still waiting to actually meet him face-to-face at some point.
PM: Yeah, he's a terrific guy. And it's nice to have somebody as discriminating as him saying good about you out there.
JH: Well, of course it's very flattering. And he's somebody I have so much respect for, for a number of reasons. Just for starters, I have such high regard for anybody who's been where he has and come back from it and is continuing to do really great work. It's such a relief when somebody talented gets out there on the wire and actually brings themselves back. We all have too many stories about the people who didn't come back from that. And I'm so grateful that he has, because we need those stories.
PM: Yeah. And he's not one of those guys who had a casual brush with the devil, either.
JH: No. It wasn't a casual brush, I don't think, at all.
PM: No, he was seated at the table with him, to be sure.
So this might be just a tiny bit tricky, because I'm very interested in your evolution as a writer. I mean, very few have really taken that turn from the realm of so-called alternative country--a bad name, really--
PM: --to the jazzier tonality and mentality. Is there any way you could shed any light on how you made that turn over time, or what was going on that induced you?
JH: Well, I can try. For starters, you have to understand that when I was doing what they now call quote, unquote alt-country music, there was no such thing. I mean, that didn't exist as a category.
JH: I'm fond of saying they didn't call it anything except unpopular.
PM: [laughs] continue