As his fans already know well, in addition to being a brilliant singer-songwriter as well as one of the most inspired producers around, Joe Henry has a way with words. A wonderful way. Asked to name the highlights of Rodney Crowell’s “Adventures In Song” camp, several attendees used the same two words: “Joe” and “Henry.” As many said, not only is he quite wise about songwriting and all it entails, he expresses it so beautifully. And in this era when even many prominent leaders rarely complete a full sentence, the kind of old-world eloquence Joe brings to everything he touches is stunning, and a welcome relief to those who love their language unbutchered.
A Grammy-winner times three, he was born in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1960 and raised in Michigan. In high school he starred in a play with Madonna, and eventually married her sister, Melanie Ciccone, who came to camp with Joe. This year marks their 30th anniversary.
He’s released 13 studio albums of his own multi-dimensional songs, including Talk of Heaven, his 1986 debut, as well as Murder of Crows, Trampoline, Fuse (produced by T Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois), Blood from Stars, Thrush, and Invisible Hour.
And try as one has, it’s impossible to compose a more inspired take on Henry’s unique Southern/Midwestern/Angeleno genius than this, written by Thom Yurek in the Allmusic Guide about Joe’s 2003 album Tiny Voices. That album, wrote Yurek, is ”an aural montage seemingly shot in cibachrome with no discernible center except the rumpled, disillusioned but unbowed singer who imparts skewed observations, bold-faced lies, and sacred truths with stale, liquored breath, too much makeup, and wearing impeccable clothes … Tiny Voices is the sound of Hemingway contemplating the Cuban Revolution with William Gaddis, the sound of Buddy DeFranco and Jimmy Giuffre trying to talk to Miles Davis about electric guitars in an abandoned yet fully furnished Tiki bar in Raymond Chandler‘s Los Angeles, as seen through the unflinching gaze of Robert Frank.”
After having absorbed much of the production wisdom and flair of pals T Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois, Henry worked as associate producer with T Bone on Bruce Cockburn’s 1991 Nothing But A Burning Light. After that he self-produced many albums of his own, and then commenced his ongoing journey of producing essential albums for other artists, including three by Rodney Crowell himself, as well as ones by Solomon Burke, John Doe, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Mose Allison, Me’Shell Ndegeocello, Bonnie Raitt and more, including the great The River Runs In Reverse by Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, and Joan Baez’s 2018 Whistle Down The Wind. In 2019, his production of the Milk Carton Kids’ new one will be released.
Here’s the full interview conducted with Henry about his role at his friend Rodney’s song-camp.
Rodney chose his favorite people — songwriters, producers, musicians — to teach at his camp. He said you were among the first he thought of. How did you feel when he asked you to be a part of this?
I accepted this invitation from Rodney with enthusiasm, as I love the man like blood. But also with genuine trepidation, because I had never done anything exactly like it. I feared that what I had to offer might prove overly abstract and inconsequential, especially to someone whose work is more fundamentally based on craft and less tempered by mystical engagement, which is the only way I know how to talk about what happens to me in process.
But I ultimately found it extremely rewarding. I was genuinely humbled and inspired by how courageously the attendees made themselves vulnerable to me, and to each other, toward a shared goal of pushing their game forward, and how generously they listened and offered perspective to their fellow students. Never was I the only teacher in the room.
What was your estimation of songwriters you heard? Any that stood out? Any surprises?
The attendees, to my witness, shared a lot in terms of style and approach, since I think their participation was so uniformly driven by the draw of Rodney and his own singular history, methods and sensibility. But I was surprised by the appearance of a few writers who were being led by an artistry, even if underdeveloped and confounding to them; who were hearing in their own evolving work something at play of which the source and precedent was unidentifiable. And at such moments, my primary job seemed to be to reassure them that such doubt and disorientation was useful and to the point, and not a sign of flailing or failing.
In terms of sharing information, what do you think are the most important lessons — or lesson — to learn to become a good, or even great, songwriter?
The single most important thing I believe that can be shared and encouraged is the real benefit of just finishing songs. Seeing them through to completion. And staying free of expectation regarding how that finished song may live and serve, or even satisfy.
It’s so easy to begin something with excitement, and then abandon it as soon as it disputes you along the journey. But the simple act of following through to completion holds within it the opportunity to visit and linger with every aspect of the process, and helps each of us to fully recognize and own what is uniquely ours to do, even when songs arrive in forms unwieldy, surprising and even homely.
Is it a delicate balance to critique songs?
This proved a bit difficult for me, as I strive to be honest, but have no interest in discouraging anyone’s progress, and it can be difficult at times — read that impossible — to be both encouraging and candid. But I made the choice to trust my own instincts in determining whether a writer presenting a song was truly a contender for a professional life as a writer, or whether the engagement was likely to remain personal and private. If dealing with the former, I looked to challenge them deeper. If the latter, I looked for ways to authentically encourage what was working in their songs, and how those elements could be amplified and extended. I wanted always to be truthful, and believed everyone who came deserved that from me. But I never wanted to be ultimately discouraging of anyone’s engagement with Song itself, simply because their voice might not be my cup of tea. And as such, I frequently reminded attendees that they were perfectly free to ignore my responses altogether.
Do you think anyone can become a good and serious songwriter — given enough wisdom and information — or does it also take a certain knack or gift?
No, I guess I don’t ultimately believe just anyone can be coaxed into significant songcraft, no matter how much so-called wisdom and experience is imparted. It’s a bit like being an acrobat, perhaps, in that –– yes — hard work and endless repetition are essential to progress and fluency; but you also have to arrive with a certain innate sense of balance and courage (both can be encouraged, but neither exactly “taught”) –– and as well a singular vision on behalf of your own artistry –– for that work and time to add up to something of true value.
That said, not everyone has to grow into celebrated significance as a writer for the work to have lasting value to the practitioner. And that is the one thing that none of us have the right to qualify for another: just where the process and relationship to song has value.