The Artist: Joe Henry
The Song: “Sign,” from the new album Invisible Hour, which features guests like The Milk Carton Kids and Lisa Hannigan.
Fun Fact: Henry has produced songs for Bonnie Raitt, Hugh Laurie, Aaron Neville, and Elvis Costello among others; and has written for Madonna and Roseanne Cash.
Songwriter Says: “The song ‘Sign’ began its life a full year ago as a 500-word piece of short fiction, which was commissioned by my friend, the heroic Irish novelist Colum McCann, as part of a school out-reach literary initiative called Narrative4 (read all about it in the New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story just a few weeks back). Colum placed me in some heady company, inviting me –the only songwriter of the group– to join the likes of Salman Rushdie, actor Gabriel Byrne, and a dozen or so other teachers, activists, and authors. The only guiding stipulations were that the piece be brief, purely fictional, and could live under the collective title ‘How To Be A Man’ when all the stories premiered in Esquire magazine.
I had only two days in which to deliver the thing; and in a haze of either excitement or panic (sometimes the sensations are indistinguishable), I wrote a character sketch of an aging and world-weary adventurer, whose mother had died in child birth; who feigned being deaf, ran away from the mines of his native Montreal, and circled the globe in a desperate attempt to state his early feelings of abandonment and loss that he feared might ultimately consume and define him.
It had something for everybody, I believed: laughter and tears; girls, ponies, war, and whisky. It was so sad, in fact, that I laughed out loud when I read it to my wife, signalling (to my embarrassment) my own giddy sense of accomplishment.
I turned it in, but I couldn’t let it go. The story I that began in the heat of a deadline had its hooks in me, and I was desirous to see if I might go further and turn its linear thought into a more sprawling, hallucinatory and epic song, riding the wave of an old-world-sounding melody in waltz time.
The results you can now hear for yourself; but I will say that I feel quite satisfied with the short movie-in-the-mind that this long song has become. It breaks my heart a little, if you want to know the truth. But again: very little, alas, makes me happier.”