Tag Archives: JOE HENRY


JOE HENRY - BLOOD FROM STARS Branching out beyond reflective folk-based singer-songwriter to artful Jazz-affected rhapsodist, multi-talented acoustic guitarist-pianist Joe Henry’s a roving chameleon who has become entrusted producer for several veteran singers. Fact is, the unrivaled Los Angeles transplant refined and redefined his widening artistic profile over the course of a dozen evolving albums while commendably reintroducing respectful aged-in-the-wool vocalists who’d been unfairly neglected in recent years.
Finding solace wherever he roams (then calls home), Henry’s developed a deeply engrained Americana perspective reflected in his keenly broad lyrical observations and even-keeled temperament, slowly gaining access to a laundry list of reputable musicians from across the country. Esteemed crooning Civil Rights activist, Harry Belafonte, and venerable Delta folk-blues pianist, Mose Allison, Henry’s latest clients, benefit from the same minimalist studio technique previous high-profile customers like soul singer Bettye Lavette, ‘60s folkie Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and New Orleans funk legend Allen Toussaint, found integral regenerating their dissipated careers.


JOE HENRYFollowing three formative, conventional folk-leaning albums, the affable Henry attained a higher profile when alt-Country architects, the Jayhawks, offered backup for ’92 breakout, Short Man’s Room, and ’93s even better Kindness Of The World. Jazz titans Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, who’ve ‘blown’ on a few solo sessions, left quite an indelible mark on Henry, as subsequent sets (‘99s Fuse, ‘01s Scar, and ‘03s Tiny Voices) delve into the type of eloquent Jazz he’d soon fully explore.



By ‘07s Civilians, Henry became a raspier crooner whose intimate JOE HENRY - CIVILIANSinterpretive abilities, evocative character sketches, cautionary intimations, and shadowy candlelit sonatas sharpened his investigative poetic conviction. Seeking restitution along the trail to contentment, he acquired an unconfirmed taste for Leon Russell’s maudlin heart-on-the-sleeve drawl, sometimes adapting Bob Dylan’s crusty sonorous croak as a reliable tactical device utilized best on grievous battle-scarred requiems. Beat-thickened dirge-y lament, “Time Is A Lion,” handily articulates mortal’s hard luck survival. Dour rumination, “Our Song,” decries America’s Yellow Alert state through a Willie Mays encounter at Home Depot and may be Henry’s most powerful political tune.

Cut from the same cloth, ‘09s valiant Blood From Stars features what Henry called “oddly translated Country-Blues” reanimating long-gone traditionalists Willie Mc Tell, Robert Johnson, and the Carter Family. August studio ace, Marc Ribot, a studied flamenco guitarist, once again adds poignant textural nuances to Henry’s romantic orchestral meditations.

Introspective down-and-out cocktail lounge threnody, “The Man I Keep Hid,” sets the somber tone, creating a slumbering moodscape anchored by a slowly evolving New Orleans piano arrangement interweaving fat Louis Armstrong trumpet through sullen sax and sweet clarinet. Withered and weary broke-down Blues forecast, “Death To The Storm,” continues the funereal march as Ribot’s clipped 6-string lines hang in the dense post-midnight air. Even more harrowing (and elementarily similar in stylistic approach), grievous anecdotal portrayal, “Bellwether,” refuses to surrender even as the end draws near.

Drawing from many musical wells, Henry’s sad-eyed slow-grooved acoustical wanderings retain a liberating thoughtfulness aimed straight at the heartland. His rich legacy, not yet fulfilled, may include future film scoring.


Are many of your song ideas based on fictional characters?


JOE HENRY: There’s all kinds of life experiences happening around us. You don’t have to reference your own particular narrative. To a degree, like Woody Guthrie famously claimed, ‘All you could write is what you know or see.’ But I don’t think he meant you could only write about your own life experiences. Instead, you could only write about what you’ve invested yourself in to feel empathy or sympathy for. It doesn’t have to be your own story to give legitimacy to the point of view. As humans, no matter how diverse we are, we all grapple with the same problems and expectations. It doesn’t have to be a downer to address these things. But those are common threads snaking through everything we do. How do you live vibrantly when you know there’s gonna be an end upon death.

A melancholic Prohibition Era sententiousness inhabits Blood From Stars.



That’s because I can’t play fast. It’s true. I write a lot of the piano, but I don’t know enough to play briskly. In truth, the songs people go back to historically are the melancholy ones. “One For My Baby” will outlive “Good Day Sunshine.” It’s very human to spend very little time celebrating our successes and more worrying over the tiniest things gone astray. From an artistic standpoint, I’d be first to admit I’m not depressed. It’d be disingenuous to claim my life’s a struggle compared to anyone else. I’ve been surprisingly successful and have a wonderful family I’m deeply devoted to. But what struggle reveals in humanity is interesting as an artist.

Besides Bob Dylan, have you tried emulating songwriters or novelists for source material?



At the beginning, you’re emulating whoever’s a mentor. The longer you do it, for better or worse, you develop your own vocabulary. I have a funny accent I’ve been told. I was born in the South, came of age in the Midwest, lived in New York and now Los Angeles. That’s corrupted my original speech pattern. I’m helpless to be conscious of it any longer. As a writer you get visited upon by any number of influences. You could initially keep track of how one has changed the color of another. At a certain point, it’s impossible to see that within a perspective. I find myself frequently inspired by art that has nothing to do with what I do for a living. I don’t reference other songs while I’m at the crossroads working on a piece in the studio. It doesn’t offer a new vantage point. But I may very well be revitalized and rejuvenated in a moment of artistic crisis by seeing a great movie or painting or read a great short story.

The plasma-gleaned galactic title, Blood From Stars, evokes many abstract meanings.



It came to me over the course of the work. I’m loath to attach meaning. I had an intrinsic response to it the same way I did to the photo cover or an image or line in a song. If I muse on it, it may refer to our desire to imagine some ethereal distant future and trying to embody it. People have short lives to make sense out of existence looking to the heavens. We try to make something real or concrete out of the imagined.

Is this album more thematic than past endeavors?



All my records are thematically connected within themselves. My desire’s to make a record that operates as a whole just like a movie instead of a collection of disparate, unrelated scenes. There’s definitely an overall environment that runs through. I’m past the point of touching every base on a record. I’m providing what the story needs, not a comprehensive evening’s worth of entertainment. If you need something upbeat or downtrodden, put something else on. I don’t worry about creating the right peaks and valleys. I want to form an arc.

Do you allow the experienced Jazz musicians to dictate the mood?



Most of the musicians I’ve worked with frequently. There’s an unspoken bit of communication. To a large extent, I’ve dictated a tremendous amount of policy to the overall sonic atmosphere by inviting those people to a room. Everyone involved with the exception of pianist Jason Moran knew exactly what I was after. They know what excites me about the process. I’d never show up at the studio with something, in my estimation, that wasn’t fully realized. But I take tremendous delight putting my songs in front of people to see where they could go. I have no interest in having a preconceived notion of what’s sonically possible. Nothing makes me happier than when a song – within a few takes – identifies itself as being whole other than I’d imagined it. It makes me think the song had enough character to dictate its own policy. Then, I’m quite enthralled. I’m always encouraged by improvisation and generous creativity within the song structure. That’s your greatest resource as a record maker. I could go back to the demos if I get stuck, but why would I limit Marc Ribot? I want to hear what his contribution might be. I wanna hear Jay Belrose illuminate a song.

What was the most difficult arrangement to flesh out due to its complexity?



It’s about finding a way in. I don’t make fleshed out demos that suggest what the ensemble should sound like. I make the most basic demo just so I’ll remember the song. I don’t write music. Musicians know the basic song shape, words, and how many verses there may be. I’d much rather discover, mutually, in real time, what we sound like and where the songs may go as an ensemble. I love bringing in creative musicians and getting a take as early into the discovery process as possible. There are many loose threads hanging and nobody’s doing anything by rote. Everyone’s listening intently to each other. The only song we might have changed for awhile was “Channel.” I’d just written it days before the session. I wrote it on the airplane coming back from New York. There’s a certain simplicity to it as a piece of writing. There’s a guitar figure that drones through it and a certain rock tonality to the chord changes that’s different from many of the other songs which might be more Tin Pan Alley in structure. The trick was to find a way to play that still sounded a little unhinged or floating off the ground. I’ve never been interested in playing a rock song like a rocker. I’ve never referred to myself as a rock musician. Even though I was referencing a rock tonality the same way I reference a Jazz tonality but would never pretend to hold myself up as a Jazz musician. There’s certain strengths in those musical vocabularies. I tried to make “Channel” as dream-like as the other material – true to itself but authentic to the whole piece. It got strange and unmannered – past the point of anything easily readable. It was very abstract, loud, and messy before landing in a way that maintained the simplicity of the writing but was appropriately unhinged and had enough weather in the room.

“The Man I Keep Hid” inadvertently blends Doctor John’s New Orleans voodoo funk, Leon Russell’s pop accessibility, and Tom Waits’ old timey rasp into a tightly wrapped shroud.



That’s a song we didn’t discuss at all. I played a demo of it on guitar with everyone standing around. It felt more like Reverend Gary Davis Country-Blues the way I knew how to articulate the guitar changes. I didn’t want it to be driven by guitar though. Everyone went to their places and that was a first take. No conversation except when I said when it gets to the break, whatever has happened before it, it should sound like Fellini’s “Satyricon.” Then we just played the song. The engineer was still moving microphones in the drum room and you could completely hear the door slam. There was no point to go beyond that. We played it once more for fun. But it was appropriately widescreen from the beginning.

When I originally interviewed you a few years back, you said you were hoping to work with rap vet Dr. Dre. Was that just a lark?



I have not been able to do so. He’s one of the people who said no to me. I don’t hold it against the good Doctor though for being unresponsive. He makes great sounding records.

As a producer yourself, you’ve worked with some heavyweight Blues and folk artists. How’d that come about?



Every scenario’s different whether finding myself in a studio with Solomon Burke or Bettye Lavette. I’ve done four full projects and a couple straggling things with Allen Toussaint. That’s a life-changing relationship that continues. Historically, he’s a producer’s producer. It’s humbling to continually work in his services as a producer. Even in the simplest conversations I come away with something even if it’s intangible. He’s unique and remarkable. I first met Ramblin’ Jack Elliott in ’87 and crossed paths on tour in Italy. I happened upon him unexpectedly when I was working on the soundtrack to Tom Hanks film I’m Not There while working with several other artists – John Doe, Richie Havens. I asked the director if I could do something with Jack Elliott. He has a longer history with Bob Dylan professionally than anybody. Bob began by emulating Jack’s interpretation of Woody Guthrie. So I brought Jack into my home studio to do a track. in the course of the day I compacted the idea of what it would be like to do a full record with Jack – what concept we’d need to lead us to the right songs that he hadn’t done before but would be authentic to him – not to rehash anything.

-John Fortunato









FOREWORD: I remember Joe Henry getting his new silk shirt burnt by the ashes from an incense stick at Southpaw in Brooklyn during my interview. He was not amused but at least thanked me for letting him know I saw it happening. Anyway, Henry’s been on the cusp of fame for years. He married Melanie Ciccone, Madonna’s sister, who thankfully convinced the enduring bard to give the pop superstar, “Don’t Tell Me,” for inclusion on her fabulous Music LP. I bet that song’s made Henry more money than his entire output. ‘07s excellent Civilians was followed up by ‘09s passionately mesmerizing Blood From Stars. This article originally appeared in Aquarian Weekly.

As singer-songwriter Joe Henry stands at the foot of Brooklyn’s Southpaw stage, guitar slung to the side before performing another fresh Tiny Voices track, he calmly quips, “I thought this song (the urbane “Flag”) was too political, but my wife said, ‘Your songs are so obtuse, no one will notice.’” The mostly seated audience politely chuckles, then afterwards give the seasoned rhapsodist resounding applause, beckoning him for a merited encore following a perfectly poignant stream of distended hymnal odes flaunting sundry emotional angles.

Though neither overtly political nor outlandishly askew, Henry’s expansive oeuvre does reveal an oblique Bob Dylan influence. At age eleven, his older brother traded a Steppenwolf album for Highway 61 Revisited. It was a galvanizing moment that spoke to him instantly. A fearlessly creative troubadour residing in Los Angeles since ’90, Henry found initial acceptance while living in New York City when his earliest demos were pressed to vinyl as Talk Of Heaven by Profile Records (a local label branching beyond rappers Run DMC).

“I’d always been infatuated with music. I grew up in the South listening to Dusty Springfield, Ray Charles, Johnny Cash, and Buck Owens. At seven, I obsessed over Glen Campbell doing Jimmy Webb songs. “Galveston” was the first 45 I purchased,” the eager maestro shares. “My parents had a great appreciation for authentic Country, but they never went out to find it. They were incredibly hard working – not people of leisure. The only three records they had were Dionne Warwick’s Greatest Hits, Delaney & Bonnie’s Motel Shots - a fantastic record, and an Andy Williams’ Christmas record.”

Signed to A & M Records, Henry’s next step was to record ‘89s promising Murder of Crows. Initially conceived as producer Anton Fier’s latest Golden Palomino project, featuring ex-Rolling Stones guitarist Mick Taylor and Allman Brothers keyboardist Chuck Leavell, the set hearkened to ‘70s classic rock radio. ‘90s ensued Shuffletown pared down Henry’s acoustic moodiness for finely wrought blue-eyed soul. Firmly in charge and acutely aware of the intricacies involved with compositional construction, his tuneful signature could be felt firsthand.

“When you’re young, you think of songs as potatoes coming out of the ground fully formed, thus the idea where someone is treating a song, producing it, and giving it a sonic perception becomes reality later,” declares Henry.

Hooking up with prestigious alternative Country band, the Jayhawks, the re-stimulated Henry’s melancholic hopefulness invigorated ‘92s widespread breakthrough Short Man’s Room and its battle-scarred follow-up, Kindness Of The World. Through a hazy ominous daze, his intimately reedy baritone rasp poured out wounded sentimentality, intuitively forecasting ‘all news will be good news from now on’ during the deeply felt pedal steel-mandolin-fortified “Fireman’s Wedding.”

About the prophetic merger, Henry recollects, “I had lost my A & M deal and the Jayhawks were between labels. It was a marriage of convenience. They lived in Minneapolis where there was a serious, disparate music community including the Replacements, Soul Asylum, and Twin Tone bands they felt part of. They approached music as a band, but I was touring for Shuffletown, which featured Jazz artists Don Cherry and Cecil Mc Bee. I found it hard for the Jayhawks to play those songs. They didn’t fall into their bag very easily. The songs were claustrophobic onstage while their thing was loose and open. So I tried to do something that was authentic to them and wrote Short Man’s Room as an idea of working within a bands’ mindset.”

Recruiting Page Hamilton of metallurgists Helmet for ‘96s broad abstraction Trampoline furnished Henry’s drifting lovelorn dirges with tremolo-ensconced dissonance and symphonic drones.

Henry admits, “We were both Miles Davis freaks. Helmet had opened for Henry Rollins at L.A.’s Olympic Theatre and he had great midtempo and slow grooves reminiscent of Miles’ electric period. I thought to invite him onboard would give me a whole new perception and he responded in a way that was authentic to him.”

By ‘99s loop and sample-aided Fuse, he convened with respected producer Daniel Lanois to appease a growing fan base heeding every whim.

“The songs wouldn’t arrive as they have if I was thinking in a fully Country lexicon. If those were the only colors in my palette I couldn’t write the way I do now because there’s no context for them,” he observes.

So despite retaining his contemplative maudlin tone on distant abstruse dreamscapes, Henry moved forward once again for ‘01s eloquent Scar, enlisting Jazz icon Ornette Coleman to blow free form sax above the wearily morose opening profile “Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation” and an unlisted bookend solo excursion. Aiming past the boundless confines of modern folk flirtation with help from ‘jazzbos’ Brad Mehldau and Marc Ribot, Scar gained critical plaudits but confused eager minions readied for acoustic retreat.

Henry ascertains, “It’s been many years since I’ve played anything pre-Trampoline onstage. Those songs don’t lend themselves to the interpretation I’m interested in now, which is why my writing style has shifted some. I’m looking to write songs that are more open with fewer chord changes, not constricting musicians. My records may not be connected in a linear way, but the thematic point of view should come through like a movie.”

Still enamored by the vast breadth of improvisational spontaneity, Henry signed to burgeoning indie Anti Records, securing esteemed clarinetist Don Byron and limber trumpeter Ron Miles for ‘03s deviously genteel Tiny Voices. His compellingly dreary lamentations desolately flutter in the wind with David Palmer’s languid piano ripples and overcast orchestral compensation richly adorning understated metaphoric ambiguity. An atmospheric lull befalls the transcending title cut, the crestfallen “Sold,” and the somber “Animal Skin.” A murky midnight gloom worthy of Tom Waits affects “This Afternoon,” a temperate soulful saunter that’d fit comfortably alongside lowdown alt-rock drones Lambchop, Tindersticks, and Nick Cave. Henry’s most dramatically elliptical utterances complement the relaxed groove.

Concerning his keen lyrical propensity, Henry insists, “Lyrics have never been a sidebar. I’ve always taken them very seriously and I’m a savage self-editor. I enjoy that stage of writing when a song has identified its character enough so you could step away. It’s not gonna evaporate, but it’s still viscous and pliable.”

As for the Jazz-informed meditations consuming Tiny Voices, he surmises, “I have a great love for Jazz, but I’m not trying to make Jazz music. I’m trying to incorporate certain Jazz tonalities because I appreciate those colors and that approach to freedom. When rock started, Little Richard made records when this was a maverick industry. It wasn’t so cut and dry. Look at The Clash, they improvised within the structure of a song until it gelled. That’s how Jazz players used to work, though they frequently don’t anymore.”

Besides his own work, Henry produced Soul legend Solomon Burke’s triumphant ‘02 comeback Don’t Give Up On Me and wrote his famous sister-in-law Madonna’s hit single “Don’t Tell Me.”

“I wanted Solomon to be a bandleader with his big voice,” he says of Burke. “Initially, he was spooked by how exposed his vocal was. He was used to chicken scratch R & B guitar, not acoustic guitar – which had a different function. I stuck to my guns and kept it immediate and raw.”

But his most lucrative payday came when pop diva Madonna struck gold with Henry’s “Don’t Tell Me.”

He concedes, “It was written quickly and dashed off in a half-hour. I listen to tons of Sinatra so I was working it in a Classic standard way. She responded to it instantly. I certainly didn’t think it would be a single. I thought it was trivial.”

As for future endeavors, Henry shockingly concludes, “I’d like to work with (hip-hop trailblazer) Dr. Dre. I think he’s bad ass. I’d be curious to see what he’d do with someone like me.”