Joe Henry Returns to His Roots

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Joe Henry was cool even as a teenager. I just happen to know this because we both attended Rochester Adams High in the suburbs of Detroit. His family had moved to Michigan from the South, and even now, you can hear the southern gentleman in his cadence and manners. But, yes, back in 12th grade, Henry was smart, kind of quiet and, to my mind, very cool. Today, he is the thinking person's songwriter: an L.A.-based family man (he married my classmate, Melanie) and a citizen of the world. Melanie's big sister, by the way, was in my big brother's class of '77. Her name is Madonna. But that's another story...

While we didn't break out our yearbooks during this visit, we did dig deep into his new CD Civilians –- a rich, acoustic affair that returns us to Henry's rootsier sounds. It is certainly among the best records of the year and a perfect complement to an album he produced — Mary Gauthier's Between Daylight and Dark. And why do I bring up Gauthier? Two artists, one studio and one great musical moment.

More About Joe Henry

While Joe Henry is best known for his early country albums, 1992's Short Man's Room and 1993's Kindness of the World, his interest in songwriting and producing has yielded an impressive and diverse resume. He's helmed albums for funk and soul singers, contributing some of his own songs to their albums. His latest CD is titled Civilians.

Joe Henry Is a Still Driving Man

Singer Joe Henry has been called everything from country to alt-country to folk, jazz and soul. He talks about his new album, Civilians, and performs some of its songs.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JOE HENRY (Singer): (Singing) I saw Willy Mays at a Scottsdale Home Depot, looking at garage door springs at the far end of the 14th row. His wife stood there beside him…

ALISON STEWART, host:

That's Joe Henry, hailed by one music critic as the, quote, "quiet genius among contemporary singer-songwriters." Now, the song most people know from Joe Henry is one his wife of many years asked Joe to send her sister, Madonna. We'll hear Joe Henry's version of "Don't Tell Me to Stop" in just a moment, as well as some new material, which is exciting for his fans because it has been four years since the singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer has put out something new.

Now, it wasn't an intentional hiatus. Joe Henry says he just had some other things going on, like producing Elvis Costello and Ani Difranco. But when he was moved to make his 10th album, "Civilians," he didn't have to go far from his Southern California home.

"Civilians" was a record that I understand was pretty homegrown, literally. You made it in your house?

Mr. HENRY: I have a studio in my basement, and…

STEWART: Is it tricked-out?

Mr. HENRY: Well, it's pretty tricked-out.

STEWART: Can you describe it?

Mr. HENRY: Well, it doesn't look like a basement so much anymore. It looks like, you know, sort of a like a hunting lodge without the antlers, you know. It's dark and vibey, and it sounds great, lucky for me. But that's probably one of the reasons that I'm having more trouble distinguishing my jobs, because when your studio is in the house, you know, I pretty smoothly move between, you know, returning calls and doing the business side of things and, you know, recording a song. It just all - it all feels like work to me.

STEWART: What about your real life, when you're working in your home and creating and spending time with your art, and then your kid says dad I need something? Or do they know just don't go to the basement, dad's working?

Mr. HENRY: Well, I have a red light that's turn on, but nobody pays any attention to it. You know, I just - that's not really an issue. My children are old enough that they understand that I'm working. At the same time, you know, I don't think of what I do - I don't do it in a hermetically sealed chamber. It's - you know, the studio's not like that more me. I'm not really too concerned about blowing a special moment. I don't look at what I do in that sort of a precious way, you know?

We just had it, now we'll never have it again. You know, you just play the song again. You cut a couple of takes together. It's nothing dramatic. And I think if you think in less precious terms about it, it's liberating. And, you know, having the buzzer of the dryer in the next room go off in the middle of a take is a good way to keep you in check, from taking yourself too seriously.

STEWART: Were you always this way about your music, or did you learn this form less being precious when you were a younger artist? Did you, you know, sometimes when you were a younger writer or a younger broadcaster, every word means so much to you.

Mr. HENRY: Well, sure. I mean, I think I instinctively knew it, but I wasn't able to put it into practice. You know, you just live long enough and you do enough work and you realize that there's always more. There's always a next opportunity. There's always the next song.

You know when I was first starting out and I didn't have a home studio, you know, you're kind of beholden into a record label to allow you, you know, to grant you the permission to do what you do. One of the great things about the digital age is that it's freed many people up, most of us up, from being in the position of anybody deciding for you how and when you can work.

When you're in that moment and you're sitting on your hands for a year and a half before your label cuts lose $800 so you can go record a demo, of course, you go into that moment and everything is precious. You know, this is my one opportunity, you know, maybe my only one for the next year to sort of, you know, put forth my artistic persona, to, you know, embody whatever it is I imagine myself doing. As soon as you get rid of that, you know, a lot of that preciousness just kind of naturally evaporates, fortunately.

STEWART: So many of your songs or either romantic, and they tell stories. But on this release, there are a couple which are really political. Let's listen to a little bit of "Our Song."

(Soundbite of song, "Our Song")

Mr. HENRY: (Singing) A vision of ourselves betrayed as younger and braver and humble and free. This was our country. This was our song. Somewhere in the middle there, oh, it started badly and it's ending wrong.

STEWART: What was on your mind when you were writing that song?

Mr. HENRY: Well, you have to understand that I don't have something in mind and then try to fit it into a song. I don't think that way. I don't have a preconceived notion of a statement I want to make, and then try to figure out how to artfully divide it into verses that rhyme so that others might share in my feelings. I just don't. I'm not that kind of a writer. I write to find out what I'm talking about. I didn't know what that song was. I didn't make it as a kind of statement.

And I've always resisted of any political element in the song. It's a very dicey thing to, you know, engage topical material, because nothing ages worse than topical material. So when I saw that element continuing to resurface in almost everything I was writing, I have to find a way to be at peace with the fact that that was going to be smoke in the room of every song that I was working on unless I somehow acknowledged it.

STEWART: You said something interesting the beginning of your answer, which was that political songs or certain song they become aged, they become fixated in a certain time if you write it in a certain way. Is it important to you that your songs are the kind that you can just pop in in 10 years and it just sounds like maybe it was made yesterday?

Mr. HENRY: Well, that's always the ambition. You never know until later whether that's worked. Well, you know, when I say - it can't be specific, so specific to a time that if you nail it to the floor, you're going to leave it on the floor. And if you construct a song in such a way that, you know, it acknowledges the floor but is, you know, somehow floating above it, that's always the goal.

I mean, the greatest, you know, political songs are open ended enough, there are, you know, enough doors and windows open that you can pull them out in any era and in any bit of moment of turmoil and adapt it. I mean, you can listen to Sam Cooke's "A Change is Going to Come" and understand immediately what moment inspired that song, but it is by no means locked into that moment. You know? Bob Marley's best songs, same way. Marvin Gaye, Bob Dylan - the best ones, you know, the ones that really were - imply something specific, but don't trap themselves in that, you know, the tar pit of that moment.

STEWART: Well, let's listen to something else from your album "Civilians," but this time I want you to play it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HENRY: Okay. I'll play "Time is a Lion," because I like it.

(Soundbite of song, "Time is a Lion")

Mr. HENRY: (Singing) If you fear the angels above while you sleep, then I'll be the blood you paint on your door. Your dream is a worry that nothing will keep, but time is a story, and there will be more. Dream is a word that nothing will keep, but time is a story, and there will be more.

Well, death and disgrace can seduce anyone that needs to believe there's judgment at hand. Or God may be kind and see you like a son, but time is a lion when you are a lamb. Well, God may be kind and see you like a son, but time is a lion when you are a lamb.

The years see the best of intentions and greed. They come without shame. They'll leave you with some. Men become old when their hurt becomes need, but time is a lover, and your time is young. Men become old when their hurt becomes need, but time is a lover and your time is young.

The son is a soldier, out crawling the hill, setting fire to every house that's in view. Lighting the ruin of my hope and my will, till I'm like a shadow and I'm falling on you, crawling on you. Oh, you know how I do.

So sleep here with me and I'll keep you close for now, while I try to live up to you. You can't see the challenge of this, I suppose, but time is a dare and I'm trying to. You can't see the challenge of this, I suppose, but time is a dare, and I'm trying to. Time is a dare and I'm trying to. Time is a dare, and I'm trying to. You know, time is a dare and I'm trying to.

STEWART: We're listening to and talking to Joe Henry. He's got a new record out called "Civilians." And, you know, all of your press materials and all the MySpaces, face spaces, Facebook things, it describes you as Joe Henry: singer, songwriter, guitarist and producer. Is there a production credit you're particularly proud of?

Mr. HENRY: Hmm. Well, all of them - Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. I did a collaborative soul record that I developed myself called "I Believe to My Soul," which was with Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas, Ann Peebles and Billy Preston. That was - you know, because I imagined it and had to chase it for two years for it to happen. I'm fairly proud that it exists, you know.

STEWART: Mm-hmm. What's your strength as a producer?

Mr. HENRY: That I approach my job like an artist, not like a producer. I mean -and by that I mean, you know, the artist is trump with me, you know. And I say that up front, you know. I'm here to help you put a light on it. I'm not here to help you do what you would do if you were me.

STEWART: Right.

Mr. HENRY: So I think my strength is that I'm a good casting director. I serve espresso all day. I open wine at 5:15 every evening, like clockwork.

STEWART: Oh, you can come by here anytime you like, then.

Mr. HENRY: See. That's why this works. That's everybody's attitude, you know. It's a wonder I've got any free time at all.

STEWART: I'm a big fan of your songwriting. And you've a song that you've recorded and someone else had recorded. I like both versions equally. Would you play "Don't Stop" from your album, "Scar?"

Mr. HENRY: I will. I will do that.

(Soundbite of "Don't Stop")

Mr. HENRY: (Singing) Don't tell me to stop. Tell the rain not to drop. Tell the wind not to blow, cause you said so. Tell me love isn't true. It's just something we do. Tell me everything I'm not, but don't tell me to stop.

Tell the sun not to shine, not to get up this time. Let it fall by the way. Leave me where I lay. Tell the leaves not to turn. Just don't tell me I'll learn. Take the black off a crow, but don't tell me to go.

Tell the bed not to lay like the mouth of a grave, not to stare up at me like some calf on its knees. Tell me love isn't true. It's just something we do. Tell me everything I'm not…

STEWART: To hear the rest of Joe Henry's version of the song, compare it to Madonna's, you can go to our blog, npr.org/bryantpark. You'll also hear his explanation for why he decided to finally put that song on a record, as well as the rest of the interview.

But you've got your own version of Joe Henry's song. You were inspired, weren't you?

PESCA: Yeah. Here we go. I ran into former New York Islanders coach Al Arbour, fiddling with pottery in one of those make-it-your-own pottery places. (unintelligible) stood there in the first day

STEWART: This is THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News. Save it for the blog, Mike.

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