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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Interview: Joe Henry Unravels "Reverie"

Hi Joe. Thanks very much for taking the time to participate in this interview feature. As I was composing this interview, my goal was to strike a balance between introducing you to newcomers, as well as offer some fresh insights into your work for loyal fans and longtime followers of your work. 

Joe Henry: My pleasure, Chris. Thanks for your thoughtful diligence.

Before we dig into your new record, I'd like to briefly ask you to briefly describe some of your previous experiences. Let's start with your production work. You have collaborated and worked with artists such as Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, Mose Allison, Aimee Mann, Ani DiFranco, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

Can you briefly describe your experience as a producer? 

JH: I began producing my own records out of necessity; but it was T Bone Burnett, whom I consider my professional godfather, who pushed me toward expanding my work beyond service to only my own songs. After he'd produced my third album in 1990, Shuffletown, and I'd moved to Los Angeles, T Bone enlisted my help as his "production associate"(sort of his junior partner), and I remained in his orbit for a number of projects, until touring pulled me away from being consistently available. But I learned a tremendous amount from him, most of it philosophical as opposed to technical. We still collaborate when an opportunity presents itself, and i make a point of visiting his sessions whenever I can. When I do, I always leave with some new insight.

That's how it began, but please understand: I don't ever recall making a decision to be a record producer, per se. I just started being asked, here and there. I enjoyed the work and needed it, and I found I was quite invigorated by the record making process...I could see it differently when working on behalf of other artists, and then I could bring that new perspective to bear upon my own work, when the time next came. And then I got asked to produce Solomon Burke, and that project caused things to slowly, but decidedly, shift for me, in terms of the kinds of opportunity I am offered.

I am still quite shocked to review my discography as a producer, as I have had remarkable opportunities to work with some very deep artists. Honestly: I don't know how this happened.

What has been most rewarding, inspiring, and/ or challenging for you as a collaborator and producer?

JH: I suppose the most rewarding aspects of my work as a producer have been in service to "legacy artists"...Artists that are already on the mountain, so to speak, who we all revere, yet who are still open to moving forward and doing something they haven't already accomplished. The challenge, then, is always: "How do you do something new, yet is still informed by the artist's own history, and is this still authentic to their own language and its vocabulary?

Take my relationship with the great Allen Toussaint for example: when we made his album The Bright Mississippi, the concept was to feature him, as he had never been before, as an interpretive pianist...not a jazz musician, per se, as he doesn't identify that way, but rather as the singular musician he is, offering his unique perspective to music that though is historic and deeply in the grain of his native New Orleans, was nonetheless completely new to him.

As I was invited to create the project on his behalf, I was thus inviting him to do something far afield from his comfort zone, yet I was determined that he sit in the center of the picture, and that the music meet him at least half way. It needed to offer him a new landscape, yet allow him to appear completely as himself upon it. I didn't want it to appear that I had put a costume on Allen, or was asking him to be someone he isn't, but I did purely believe that the music I was asking him to take on (Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, Jelly Roll Morton, Dule Ellington, etc.) would offer him the chance to speak in a new way, but in a way wholly authentic to him as an artist.

It was a challenge for us both, but wildly rewarding. It is a record I am immensely proud of.

As a multi-instrumentalist, producer, collaborator, and songwriter, how would you describe the influence of each of your passions onto each other?

JH: I have stopped seeing them as separate and distinct elements, and regard them instead as extensions of a singular impulse. I have been asked a lot recently how I balance my work as an artist (i.e., as a songwriter and recording artist) with my work as a producer, for example, and my answer is always that I don't. They are both different aspect of the same job: making something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers. As soon as I stopped thinking of them as differing pursuits, both vying for my attentions, then I stopped feeling the pull between them.

What seems like the most natural and intuitive musical connections for you?

JH: I'd say my connections with jazz musicians in particular. I don't identify as one, yet I have worked frequently with some of the greatest of them: Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry, Brad Mehldau, Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Don Byron, Josh Redman, etc. And I haven't turned to them in order to appear as if I have stepped into their world, but rather I have invited them into mine, desiring the intensity of their expression, and the liberation of their approach. It has been wildly successful, creatively-speaking, these experiences and relationships, and have always felt completely natural for all of us, if their encouraging comments are to be believed.

What have you found most surprising, or most unpredictable while writing music?

JH: I don't really have "multiple methods," but rather tailor oneas best at continues to surprise me is the mystery inherit to the process. Working as I described previously, there is invariably a moment when the song announces itself, and sometimes in defiance with all the will in the room, and is conjured, like  ghost at a seance. It's incredibly exciting, and that's when you know you're on to something: when the song shows you where it wants to live.

Reverie is your latest solo album since 2009's Blood and Stars. Can you briefly describe your trajectory as a solo artist?

JH: I believe every record inhabits its own unique landscape; and as such, all of my albums (I am told) sound quite different, each from the others. My writing voice and my singing voice (though they are both, hopefully, evolving) provide the common through-line, and that's plenty of consistency for me. Every record is a movie, and I strive to surrender to what is unique in each one. I think my records have become more inviting and more immediate in their character, even as they might also be becoming more singular and strange. 

I might be dodging what you are really asking me. If you'd like me to draw the map from the so-called "alt country" albums, through the so-called "trip-hop influenced" records, up through the "jazzy" ones, and so forth,  I am not sure I can, as those are other people's descriptions and are not authentic to me personally... It is not a map I know how to read, much less construct.  

I would never suggest that the records don't strike people however they do, or that just because I don't share the perceptions that they have less value. Rather, suffice to say that I believe I have gotten better, period. The songs are more vivid, and the sounds are more soulful.

I was intrigued by something I read that you said regarding the making of Reverie: "We convened in a basement studio for three days of exploration". Can you discuss and share your process of developing sounds, and the how these bits and pieces all began to come together?

JH: Well, please keep in mind that I don't ever really have an idea in advance how something will sound, but rather have an idea about how we will work together; a concept of forward motion; believing that whatever it does sound like, it will be to the point of the songs in some way, since they inspired to process. I am delighted to be surprised, and I don't have any interest in whether or not a song lands or speaks as I thought it might. I just want it to feel alive and available.

In the case of Reverie, for instance, I knew I wanted it to be all-acoustic an stripped-down, yet also loud and spirited. I knew who I wanted in the room, and knew I wanted us to be set up close together...I also knew I wanted the ambient noise from outside to become part of the fabric of the sound. That doesn't mean I knew what it would sound like, just that I believed it would be vivid and raw, given the personnel and the method of recording.

I believed if we invested in it with open-hearts and little ego, that the songs would take over, and offer in return some dark romantic sense of life happening. And i was not disappointed. I wanted the songs, as recordings, to work like Picasso's paintings work for me, meaning that they feel visceral and inevitable, even when abstracted. They feel romantic towards living, and not precious. They feel fearless, I really mean to say, and that's what I most wanted for these songs.

The instrumentation, to me, has visceral, lurking, and lurching characteristics throughout. Elements of blues, country, soul, and rock are all pulsating in degrees. I particularly loved your description of the album's production as "I knew it should be stripped and lean but not demur, sonically speaking; in black and white, but not without red blood in its veins.”

JH: I know what you mean about there being elements of country, and soul, in evidence, but for anyone my age, roughly (I am 50), and who has been exposed to all of it, it ALL comes out of the blues, tonality anyway. At a point, it's like suggesting that America as a country shares aspects of both African and European traditions. Of course it does! Musically, we are all sharing. Generally speaking the same limited vocabulary. What is interesting, then, has to be: "What are you saying with it?"

Structurally, as a songwriter, I play on blues and folk forms, and on standards and vaudevillian traditions for that matter. But as a recording artist, I am trying to make movies, and I never want to think about how the work might relate to other recorded works. I work hard on the writing (I am a savage and delighted rewriter), then try only to disappear into the songs when recording them. Yes, my goal as an artist is not to create a public persona, but to write songs of character and strength that i may then disappear into.

Sonically the album covers a large amount of space. How did the all-acoustic instrumentation reveal itself to you? Did you set it as a challenge? Was it an intuitive decision that revealed itself? 

JH: I just very much liked the idea of saying all I meant to say, sonically, with a very few elements. If the song needed to be more exotic, for example, it wouldn't come from a more exotic instrument, but rather from our intent. If it needed to feel more expansive, well then, we needed to play it more expansively, not layer it. It just occurred to me that such a method was the best way for the whole to feel fully-realized yet be intensely immediate and, for lack of a better phrase, with all its humanity intact, revealed, with much weather and grain in the air.

Will you be touring for Reverie in 2011-2012? Is there any production work on your schedule?

JH: I'll be touring in fits and starts, as it makes sense, and as this particular 4-piece has the time. I can't right now imagine playing this music without David Piltch, Keefus Ciancia, and Jay Bellerose. 

As for production work, there are always, thankfully, things on the horizon, but not things I am presently at liberty to discuss, per the artists.


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