The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Joe Henry, as Told by Joe Henry

Written by Music, Popdose Guides

[Jefito’s Note: One of the coolest things about this blog’s ascent to mild renown has been the occasional visit from artists I’ve covered here. Even cooler is the fact that none of them appear to have been offended by any of the stupid shit I’ve written about their life’s work; one artist even went so far as to appoint me his “official musobiographer.” But none of these exchanges have been as rewarding as the flurry of e-mails that recently passed back and forth between myself and Mr. Joe Henry, who took the time to assemble a response to my recent Idiot’s Guide to his albums. I loved reading it, I figured you would too, and so — with Joe’s permission — here it is. —J]

Talk of Heaven, for starters, was not really an album, but a collection of demos pressed to vinyl; thus to me (not that I’d ever put it on now for any reason) it remains under-realized — as songs, for the most part, and certainly as a recording. I had a co-producer named Keith Anderson who was immensely helpful to me, but I was feeling my way in the dark. You learn by doing, as I did for my first three or four (or five) records, and this was a trial by fire. I was told that a studio was an unnatural place, a necessary evil, and should basically be ignored, i.e., I should play and pretend that I was unaware of the documentation that was happening around me. Suffice it to say, that notion runs completely counter to what I now believe. (Note: I was equally naïve about the workings of a record label, a publisher, and the industry as a business, etc., and paid a price for that ignorance too.)

Murder of Crows — signed to A&M, I hoped this would be my first “real” record; it is, like it or not, and I don’t in the least. I had no interest in making a classic rock record, which the producer was intent on doing. I thought it should sound like “the basement tapes”: fucked up and half under water. Needless to say, it’s not a battle I won, and I was distressed to learn that the label had more invested in their relationship with my producer than with me. A big disappointment.

Shuffletown. As a direct result of the previous record, I sought to work in a way that would protect me from meddling, and from things getting too big for the songs, hence T-Bone (my career-long godfather), the acoustic instruments and the live-to-two-track recording. It’s really my first stab at making a record where my sensibility extended to the recording, not just the writing, and it sounds like a first go: a little careful and precious, but it does have the first songs that seem to reflect my sensibility — some pretty good ones, I think — and the idea of marrying folky melodies with jazz musicians (Don Cherry and Cecil McBee) was an instinctive move and something I’m, obviously, still fascinated with. The idea is not me trying to crawl into their world, but inviting them into mine to see how they might rearrange my furniture. I credit Astral Weeks and Veedon Fleece with that notion. Those records are significantly genre-defying. I wasn’t trying to sound like Van of that era, but I was trying to come unhinged like I felt he had. (Side note: I tried really hard to convince Charlie Rich to be the piano player on this. the idea of he and Don Cherry I thought — still do — amazing. So it goes.)

A&M fired the head of A&R — and dropped me — the day Shuffletown was released. Brutal. Thus, no promotion money, no tour support:nothing. The record developed quite a following in Europe, but I was powerless to do anything to nurture that. They should’ve given me the album as a parting gift. They didn’t. I’m not complaining about any of this, mind you; the beginning was hard for me like early careers are hard for many — not just musicians. My friend Tom Waits has stories that still make my hair stand up.

Because I had no label support, and was looking for ways to play shows outside of New York (where I was living) and move my game forward, a mutual aquaintance who worked at Twin/Tone in Minneapolis introduced me to the Jayhawks, who were in the same sort of boat. We got on tremendously, and loved a lot of the same music, so we decided to subsidize each other and tour together: they opened the show as themselves, then played backup for me during my set. We had a few fine shows, but the songs from Shuffletown were intricate and claustrophobic, and didn’t fall neatly into their bag as a band. I’d watch their set each night — which was loose, ragged and free — and it became harder and harder for me to climb up and follow them, even with their support. So at the end of the tour, I went home to Los Angeles, where my wife and I had relocated, and decided to write an album’s worth of songs that would fit the idea of the Jayhawks and I playing together:like writing a play with a particular group of actors in mind:and I did so pretty quickly. I then took three grand from my publisher and flew to Minneapolis one winter weekend, bought the ‘hawks a case of beer (that’s really what I paid them) and recorded Short Man’s Room during two late-night sessions in the empty offices of Ryko Records: the engineer worked there during the day, and was allowed to use their space to record on weekends. We put their drummer Kenny in a conference room, the bass in the lobby, and Gary Louris, Mark Olson and I sat in a row at three secretaries’ desks, looking at plastic flowers and pictures of their families. Mike Russell played violin and a few friends stopped by, adding guitar and banjo. (Dave Pirner played trumpet on the title song, but then made us erase his track.) It was a slash-and-burn demo session. Period.

But it had a good feel, and I wasn’t really interested in re-doing it. It was, to quote George Jones, “ragged but right.” But again:it grew up from necessity, not any kind of a notion of what was soon to become the “alt country” movement. Thus, when people identified me as part of all that — and were dismayed when I moved on from it — my response was that it was never meant to be a permanent stance, sonically speaking; it was a project-specific pose — not inauthentic, but not either a pledge to a sensibility.

And following that was Kindness of the World, which to me is the sound of me growing weary of the constraints. KotW had many of the same players (recorded this time in Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio), and started off as a more conscious realization of what had worked instinctively with SMR, but I was sick of it by the time we had finished recording. I had ambitions I didn’t know how to articulate as a producer of my own records at the time, and though there are good songs in there (many people who like my work count this among their favorites:my old friend Farnum, for instance, who weighed in at your blog), I just hear it as where I was falling short and feeling trapped by a sonic dress code.

Trampoline. I decided if I didn’t find a new way to work I was going to quit. Enter my friend and racquetball partner Pat McCarthy:a young engineer from Ireland who’d originally come to America with U2, and who I met through T-Bone. I told him I wanted to work like Dr. Dre worked, but didnt know how. Pat helped me set up the most primitive of studios in my garage so I could do vocals at home, but instead, I started writing to drum machines and loops — since I was alone — and making recording part of the writing process. There I was, playing guitar, bass and Mellotron to loops, and writing lyrics at the end, which I’d never done. I was listening to Sly Stone a lot, and trying to emmulate his intimate vocals pushed up loud in the mix — his unique proximity of treated instruments to the singer — and I rethought everything, and wrote accordingly. “Bob and Ray” might sound like stream-of-consciousness to you, but it really wasn’t: it was just me finding a new way to identify a character and tell a story. Ultimately I brought musicians in here and there to replace things I didn’t play well, but that was sort of beside the point. I had started over and was quite enjoying myself.

Fuse, then, a better record from every angle, was me still in the garage working the same way, but less fumbling in the dark. I was understanding how this new animal worked, and was really into the fragmented feel of loops and samples, because it fit the subject of the songs. Then I wrote new songs to fit the sounds that were happening. I thought i’d never go back to recording with a live band in a room. Never say “never:” (Note: I made most of this whole record when my infant daughter was napping:always with a baby monitor turned on. sometimes i’d get two hours at a stretch, sometimes only 45 minutes, but it seemed to add to the ideas of fragmentation I was already engaging. Life is funny and wonderful that way.) (And oh:I really made a serious effort to get Dr. Dre to produce this. I knew someone who worked in his camp and sent a package with an earnest pitch letter. He never responded. I still think it’s a good idea.)

After touring Fuse, I believed i’d go further in that direction:said I wanted to make a Black Eyed Peas record and believed it. The songs said different, and when they started coming I knew I had to follow them. I was listening obsessively to Frank Sinatra and Jobim’s collaborative album from ’67 and was intrigued by the idea of such intimate orchestration. That was the real driving wheel behind Scar, and because Disney-owned Mammoth owed me a pretty decent budget (and I knew this would be the end of the line with them) I decided to assemble a dream band of thoughtful jazz musicians (many of them friends) and arranger Stephen Barber and co-producer/friend Craig Street to help manage the whole thing, because I’d never tried anything quite so ambitious. Add to that that I was able to bring Ornette Coleman into the equation, and that’s how Scar happened. the opening track about Richard Pryor — with Ornette and strings, and as a writing stance — felt like a personal manifesto. Still does. It was the most fun I’d ever had working up to that time.

Tiny Voices followed and was based on the idea of extending Scar beyond such a mannered sensibility. I wanted the grainy, super-8 version:fueled by chaos, romance and post-9/11 disgust of American fear and arrogance, as the songs were. I didn’t want the orchestral elements to be politely overdubbed this time, like a velvet curtain dropped beautifully behind the tracks as on Scar; I wanted them to be part of the improvisational aspect of the recordings. I hired a large and wild band of friends accordingly, who could help the whole thing feel like a Bunuel film shown on the side of a building during a rainstorm. I think we sort of achieved that.

And I have now finished Civilians, which feels different, but like the next logical step: all the vibe intact, but with more clarity. The record sounds like a culmination of everything I’ve done, in some ways; it has elements of a jazz sensibility, but is rootsier than Scar or Tiny Voices. It’s emotionally as available as anything I’ve done (but then I never hear myself as obtuse, and never on purpose. Some stories are just smokey by their nature and need to be presented that way). And I’ve never made a record with less regard for what anyone else would think of it.