Joe Henry has been releasing critically acclaimed albums since 1986. His incisive lyrics and cinematic, yet subtle sound have made him one of the most consistently successful album-making solo artists in America. Yet, Henry has also had an astonishing career as a record producer. While Henry may not produce albums as commercially successful as Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois or others, and he doesn’t have an Oscar award to his credit like T-Bone Burnett, or run a major record label like Rick Rubin, he is simply one of the best record producers in music today. He has produced Teddy Thompson, Solomon Burke, Betty LaVette, Mary Gauthier, Loudon Wainwright III, and Aimee Mann, among others. Two albums though have really put him on the map: I Believe To My Soul, an r&b tribute album with a modern twist that featured Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Billy Preston and many others, and the stellar River In Reverse, a collaboration between Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. He also recently produced the latest album by Toussaint, The Bright Mississippi (see the latest issue of Pulse for a profile of Toussaint). It’s a testament to his production prowess that he produced Toussaint twice, given Toussaint’s place in the record producer pantheon.
Henry’s newest album, Blood From Stars (Anti), is on the surface a real departure. This is not so much an album of music as it is a collection of interconnected short stories or short films. It’s instructive that in the liner notes the musicians that play on the album are listed as the “cast.” It’s clear that Henry looks at making albums as more than just recording a bunch of songs. The album has a jazz-noir feel and is intricately produced. The jazz feeling is not unusual, though, in that Henry listens to a lot of jazz. It’s also his best album ever.
Henry is very articulate and intelligent. After speaking with him, it’s easy to see why he is such a successful songwriter. He is married to Madonna’s sister Melanie Ciccone, and I spoke with him while he and his family were visiting his famous sister-in-law in London. Henry has worked with Madonna as well. She recorded his song “Stop,” which was retitled “Don’t Tell Me” and which appeared on Madonna’s Music album. Henry and Madonna also recorded the duet “Guilty By Association,” which appeared on the Sweet Relief II charity album. They also collaborated on “Jump,” which appeared on Madonna’s Confessions on a Dance Floor and “Devil Wouldn’t Recognize You,” which appeared on her Hard Candy album.
Our interview was a long conversation that touched on various subjects. Henry is an unassuming raconteur, who is comfortable talking about anything and can easily draw parallels between music, film and other arts.
We began our conversation talking about songwriting. “I’m always writing songs and they always go in a pile and then at a certain point a certain group of the songs kind of set themselves apart,” he stated.
Henry also has a clear idea of how the recording process evolves. “When I make a record, either my own or anybody else’s, I almost never refer to other music. It’s too on the nose; too one-dimensional. I’m much more likely to reference a film. We might be recording a song and I’ll say, ‘This seems to be more Last Detail and less Chinatown – more Chinatown, less Godfather–more Once Upon A Time in America and less 8 ½ .’ I almost would always say 8 ½ . 8 ½ is always good (laughs).”
Henry is not completely comfortable with being called a singer-songwriter. “I bristle at the idea that to classify myself as a singer-songwriter is to take away the idea that you’re aware of what record-making is as a pursuit of its own,” he remarked. “People say, ‘Try to keep it real in the studio, be natural’–there’s nothing more unreal or unnatural than making a record.” As for producing in general, Henry said, “You hope your hand as a producer is invisible.” I asked Henry what draws him to a project. “I love great soulful voices–great soul singers–and I like great songs.” He then added, “You don’t get anything by standing on nostalgia.” In summing up his philosophy on making music in general, he said, “We all aspire to be timeless, even though sometimes we don’t always achieve that, but that’s always the goal.”