JOE HENRY’S NEW ALBUM AND LATEST PRODUCTION TAKE HIM TO NEW HEIGHTS. BY BRIAN WISE.
The fact that Joe Henry has a new album out and a forthcoming Australian tour are reasons enough to spend some time talking to him. The fact that he is currently in a Nashville studio producing Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell for their follow-up to the Grammy Award winning Old Yellow Moon is yet another impetus.
Then again we could spend another entire conversation talking about his production work on Look Again Into The Wind, the revisiting of Johnny Cash’s Bitter Tears album, with Emmylou, Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle and….six whole songs featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings!
Or we could go back and talk about some of his other productions with Solomon Burke, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint and others. We could talk about the hallmark of Henry’s production being the sheer quality of the people with whom he has worked. (Like T Bone Burnett, one of his early mentors, you know that if Henry’s name is on an album it will be a work of substance). The man is a repository of knowledge about music and recording.
Politeness and time, however, dictate that I should steer the conversation towards Henry’s own work but it is hard to resist an enquiry about his current production project.
“It has been great so far,” says Henry of the Harris and Crowell project. He has taken a brief time out from the studio to get on the phone and chat. “The chief difference in this project is that they have written most of the songs themselves in collaboration, whereas the previous record was mostly covers. We’re recording the whole record live in a room. It’s a very different vibe from what their previous record sounds like, I believe. People in a full band and them singing duets live in a room with no headphones. It’s pretty exciting way to work.”
“We had a remarkable day today,” he continues, expressing his excitement at some of the songs they have recorded and confessing that in another era they might have been mainstream chart hits. “Of course, we don’t live in that world anymore and this town is not what that town was then by any stretch of the imagination but, nonetheless, they were really wonderful moments to be a part of today I will tell you.”
Henry says that during rehearsals he got to stay at Crowell’s home south of Nashville with Little Feat’s keyboard maestro Bill Payne, who is one of the album’s guests. “It was really great to get up in the morning and sit out by the pool over coffee with Billy Payne. It doesn’t happen every day!”
As soon as that project is completed, Henry is packing his bags for his third visit to Australia, touring behind his own newly released solo album, Invisible Hour, which is a beautiful work. (It is his fourteenth album since 1986). Accompanying him will be his son Levon, who has played clarinet and saxophone on his recent albums and tours. Guitar and reeds promises to be an intriguing combination.
“It’s amazing,” says Henry of the shows he has played with Levon. “While he’s an incredibly gifted player and a very unique mind, he’s deeply schooled in jazz but he’s a great lover of old time folk music, too. He’s very song-oriented. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anybody just acoustic guitar with a saxophone player. I didn’t really know how it would work.
“I just knew that we’d find a way for it to work when I invited him along with me. It was a really unique way to expand some of the songs that I needed to get a little bit more wide screen and yet not in any way lose the intimacy.”
“It’s freer,” responds Henry when I ask how it compares to playing with his long-time bass player David Pilch, who was with him for his previous Australian visit. “I love playing with David, as you must well know. He’s one of my closest friends and one of my favourite musical collaborators. What we’re doing with guitar and saxophone is a lot more freedom than is required when you’re really trying to line yourself up with a bassist who is laying down sort of a template of chord changes. The way that Levon can paint around the songs is a lot more flexibility there and it’s really interesting. By the time we were finished with the tour in Europe it had really become something quite unique I think.”
“It’s hard for me to overestimate his contribution, in retrospect,” adds Henry. Invisible Hour is a multi-layered album that seems to have had a lot of input from the 22-year-old Levon who decorates some of the songs intricately. “He was the first person that heard the songs as demos. He was the person I talked to most frankly, at least in the beginning, about what I intended to do.
“I will tell you I did not bring him on board just because he’s my son and I love him. He’s just an extraordinary musician and he’s the voice I most wanted to hear and is a lover of folk music. He’s deep into really old time folk music. He’s completely immersed in the Harry Smith anthology and such. I can’t think of anybody more capable of balancing those ideas, of abstracting things with reads like a jazzer might do, and yet keenly aware and respectful of how the songs needs to speak as a narrative.”
I mention to Henry that Invisible Hour reminds me of how Van Morrison went into the studio to record Astral Weeks with an ensemble of jazz musicians.
“Well, you must know that that flatters me greatly,” he replies. “That’s a record that’s near and dear to my heart and not only that it’s a record that’s very dear to Levon. It’s not because I ever sat him down and said this is an album that should matter to you. I’ve played everything in the house when he was growing up but at a certain point he gravitated to it in particular completely on his own and I think probably for the reason that you described, in that the songs in their structure are very much rooted in folk song form, even a long song like ‘Madam George’ is three chords.
“Yet Van’s notion was of bringing in somebody like Richard Davis, the great bassist, for instance who didn’t need to mark out chords because the guitar was doing that perfectly well, then it frees up Richard Davis to explore the scenes of those songs and make them more elastic and more cinematic while they’re at their edges.
“I’m approaching this idea of writing a record that I recognised, even as I was working, was very much, at least adopting a folk vocabulary – not being trapped by that as a genre in any way, but observing the power of folk music that I’ve been listening to my entire adult life and earlier. Also, being free to, like I say, to abstract that and explore the cinematic possibilities within a very traditional structure in a way. Levon understands that deeply. It’s not anything I had to sort of explain to him.”
In writing about Invisible Hour in the album’s liner notes, Henry has said that the songs are about marriage – but marriage as a verb.
“Well, I don’t write songs that are specifically personal,” he says. “I didn’t think that I was when I was writing the album. When it occurred to me that the songs might have marriage as a thread that runs through them that’s something I observed only after the fact, not anything I thought of during the process. I knew that it was a dicey thing to say in the notes that they were songs perhaps about marriage.
“I don’t really mean to say that the album is specifically and only about marriage, but in the same way that I realized after I made the last record, Reverie, that it was concerned with time. I did recognise that the overriding emotional theme for me on this record was this idea of characters committing themselves. There’s certainly songs on the record where characters are without marriage and without that committed devotion and we see what that does too. You learn a lot about what something is when you experience the lack of it. Even though my marriage is the most significant single thing in my life I would say, I wasn’t trying to write about my own life.”
Joe Henry Australian Tour Dates:
Tuesday September 9 – The Basement, Sydney NSW
Tickets: thebasement.com.au ph: 1300 438 849
Wednesday September 10 – The Basement, Sydney NSW
Tickets: thebasement.com.au ph: 1300 438 849
Friday September 12 – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne VIC
Tickets: melbournerecital.com.au ph: 03 9699 3333
Saturday September 13 – Meeniyan Town Hall, Meeniyan VIC
Sunday September 14 – Brisbane Festival, Spiegeltent, Brisbane QLD