Interview with Joe Henry

Singer, songwriter, producer, poet, and survivor Joe Henry talks to Folk and Tumble about his life and new album.

Joe Henry has produced 15 critically acclaimed albums of lyrical and musical beauty. Lauded as an equal by artists such as Jackson Browne, Billy Bragg, Lucinda Williams, Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, and many, many more.

He is also a much sought-after, Grammy award-winning producer. Three years ago, he was diagnosed with cancer. Now thankfully in remission, Joe has just released possibly the best album of his stellar career with ‘All the Eye can See’.

He took time to talk to Folk and Tumble about the album, his storied career, his unique approach to the art of song writing, his love of Ireland, and much more

FT:  Firstly can I ask you, how you are health-wise?

JH: I am doing well, thank you for asking.

FT:  The new album, ‘All the Eye can See’, is I think, the best of your career. You have said that it contains, some of the most personal songs of your career, and I’m wondering has that come as part of your own health concerns, and emerging from the pandemic, have those events led to a re-evaluation in your life?

JH:  Well I’m sure that those things come into play, but I will also say, it wasn’t anything I was conscious of when I was writing. I just recognised after the fact that I had allowed more of the fabric of my life to enter into the proceedings, and some people might not know that, as I didn’t tell them. As my wife has said to me over the years, in the sweetest way, “You know, given your poetic language, you could pretty much write whatever you want, and nobody would have a clue what you’re talking bout, so knock yourself out” (Laughs) I didn’t think about the fact that I was allowing the emotional tambour of my life to be vividly on display in the songs. But after I finished them, I realised that that was true. I could draw a straighter line between what I was writing, and what I was living. It’s probably true of my previous alum, ‘The Gospel According to Water’ as well, and I m it was my health crisis that was at an apex, that inclined me to be less filtered, my priorities shifted, and I was just trying to get as close to the bone as to what vibrated in my soul in that moment. I allowed more of my own fear and trembling to enter the proceedings than I had in the past.

FT:  Interesting what your wife said about people not fully understanding the meaning and the poetic nature of your lyrics, Has that lyricism, at times been a hindrance to being accepted by a wider audience?

JH:  Well I should say first and foremost, that people from Ireland are exempt from that because your culture is deeply and contemporarily steeped in poetry, that I feel it is an honour. The kind of songs that I traffic in, are more easily honoured in your part of the world than anywhere else because of the way that poetry has remained a vivid part of your lives there. Having said that, I do know that I have never intentionally meant to be difficult as a writer, in any sort of way. But I do know I’ve been influenced as much by poets, as any songwriters, that I have not been tempted to tamp that aspect of my language down, regardless of the fact that it’s been easily received or not. I’m not trying to be difficult, it’s just the way I hear things. When people ask me what does the song mean, I invariably hear myself say, and I am never trying to be evasive, ‘Well the song means, that it is’.  If there were a better way for me to say what I said in that song, I would have said it that way.  There are so many aspects of what I am writing about that live in shadow, that are concerned with the great mystery of living, You don’t dispel that mystery, you stand with it. You don’t investigate shadow, by throwing light on it, because the shadow disappears. So much of our lives are lived in the shadow of uncertainty and doubt and fear, that I feel you have to disappear into that same shadow, if you’re going to write about it.

FT:  So do you mind, if people extract their own meanings of your lyrics?

JH:  No I expect them too. Once a song leaves me, it going to have whatever life it’s going to have.

FT:  Can I ask about a song on your previous album, ‘Orson Wells’. There is a beautiful line in it which states:

You provide the terms of my surrender, I’ll supply the war

Jackson Browne has suggested that could be about your own health crisis, or perhaps the state of your country? Is that what you had in mind when writing the song?

JH:  I didn’t have anything in mind, the song had something in mind. I was just trying to be a good servant to it as it arrived. When I stand back from it, after the fact, I can’t really, and don’t really evaluate what is going on in a song, until I’m standing away from it. I found that I could agree with Jackson in his generous assessment, and it’s not one or the other. I know that my health crisis played into aspects of that song in particular. I can’t sing the last verse of that song and not hear where I was in my health journey at that particular moment. But I also know that is not all I was talking about in that song. I hear both issues in play, as well as other issues.

 But I know that the state of my country has been as troubling to me as my own health crisis.

FT:  A particular song on the new album had a real resonance with me, is ‘Kitchen Door’. You have written some amazing love songs, and this is, I think one of your finest, Not a conventional song either. To me, it was about a lover or partner, who had passed and is walking through the empty rooms of a house once shared. As I listened to it, I found myself thinking of my mother, who had passed during the pandemic, and I found it quite emotional listening to the words:

I’m everywhere, my love, that you can find then wonder is that me I hear or some imagining, or did your voice just always speak through mine?

JH:  I mean that song in particular, I mean it was a rare moment when, I will say, I don’t usually know what I’m writing about when I’m writing. But when I was writing that song, I did know, and you are right, It was inspired by the death of my mother. She did not die from Covid, but it was during the time of Covid. I was living in California still, and my parents were very far away in North Carolina.  I wrote it 3 weeks after her passing when I was finally able to get there safely, as my dad was concerned that I was immune compromised, and that I should not get on a plane, even though it was so painful not to. It was the first night in my parent’s house after my mother had passed three weeks earlier, that I found myself, at that moment, laying in the dark, and asking of the ceiling, Where are you? I had expected to still my mother’s presence still vivid in the house, and I did not, and I knew that she was gone. I felt the absence of her. I saw the markings of her, her life lived in that space, but I knew without question, that she was gone. Where everyone flies, she had flown.

FT:  Thank you for the song Joe and I think many people will find a resonance and a comfort in such an exquisite expression of grief and loss.

JH: Thank you.

FT:  The songs on the album are quite complex, and they deal with big issues, we’ve talked about loss, and there are themes of the longevity of art, your own health crisis, and the value of family and mercy. But there’s a lot of hope and optimism there too.

JH: Well thank you for saying that, because I think so too. A lot of journalists have received the album, really, really well. A number of journalists have asked me about the darkness, and I had to be quick to remind them that I hear the album as more hopeful. I mean, characters are walking in darkness, but I don’t think they are bereft of hope, as they do so. I think that is an important distinction, and I appreciate you saying that as well.

FT:  Sometimes the listener might overlook that you are speaking in the third person, or as a character, and consider, well this is Joe Henry, speaking from the heart. And I think sometimes we as listeners, can confuse the two?

JH:  When I use the word ‘I’, as a singer-songwriter, I know it can really tempting to think that ‘I’ is me. I come much more from the school of Rimbaud, meaning ‘I’ as an other.

I just think that to speak in the first person, as whatever character, is the shortest distance between me and the listener. There’s more intimacy implied if you feel like the character is speaking directly to you than if there’s an invisible narrator hovering above us all. So it’s very natural for me to sing in the first person of a character, regardless of where the song is from.

FT:  Joe if I can ask about your work as a producer? You’ve produced albums for a huge variety of artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Joan Baez, Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, and many others. Why are so many artists drawn to you as a producer, and what do you bring to the table for them?

JH:  That’s an interesting question. I think the thing that I most bring, is that  I cast the room well, with individuals, who are supportive, egoless, generous, and excited about record making.

I make the best coffee! I open really good wine at 5.15 every day!

FT:  I would suggest there’s more to it than that Joe?

JH  (Laughs) What I would frequently say is, if you get the lighting right, everything else pretty much takes care of itself, you know.

FT:  Your own sound has evolved over the years Joe.  Your early albums, there was almost a rock feel to them, certainly a bit more percussive, there was a jazz sensibility to albums like ‘Scar’, and moving forward from ‘Reverie’ and ‘The Invisible Hour’, the sound has been much more sparse? This album too, despite the number and quality of musicians on the album, the sound has been pared right down. Is that fair to say?

JH:  Oh I think it’s fair to say. As I’ve continued to work, I’ve wanted to reduce the distance between the way the song speaks, and the way anybody might receive it. I’m always trying to balance, very orchestral concepts against a desire for real intimacy, and sometimes that is not always an easy balance to maintain.  A song like ‘O Beloved’ on the new album that has full orchestration. I like the way that it’s widescreen and expansive, and yet I didn’t want that song not to feel as any less intimate as anything else on the record, I just wanted it to be bigger, but I didn’t want the character speaking to be farther away from the listener, than anything else.

FT:  It’s a beautiful album, and I hope it flies. Any plans to tour with it?

JH:  I’ll start probably mid-April, as we’re scheming it right now, and probably hit Europe, in early summer. We’re looking at June right now.

FT: And hitting Ireland?

JH:  Oh certainly. I mind we have so many dear friends in Ireland and my wife and are very attached to Ireland. We spend a great deal of time there, and in fact, we were just there in November.

 I will just say that I can’t imagine in the rest of my life, a time, when I tour Europe, and don’t come to Ireland.

FT:  Joe, thank you so much for your time, It’s been an absolute pleasure talking with you, and hopefully, we’ll see you soon on stage.

JH:  Thank you, and take care