TERRY GROSS, host: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is singer, songwriter and guitarist Joe Henry. Over the past decade, he's
become a go-to guy as a producer. In his home studio, Henry produced Grammy Award-winning albums with Solomon Burke, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and the Carolina Chocolate Drops. He's also produced a couple of albums with the eminent New Orleans songwriter, producer and piano player Allen Toussaint. One album brought Toussaint together with Elvis Costello.
On Joe Henry's new album of original songs, "Reverie," you hear his love of blues and jazz. Here's his song "Strung."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRUNG")
JOE HENRY: (Singing) I keep wooden boxes like traps strung with wire. In the light of old tires (unintelligible) on fire, wearing their smoke like a flower in bloom, cut like a thread in a pipefitter's room. I dig in the dirt and yank at the root of the shadow's dark vein in a story gone mute 'til I burn with the blue of a hangman in time. And I give away what never was mine. Oh, I give away what never was mine.
GROSS: Joe Henry, welcome back to FRESH AIR. That track has such a great instrumental opening. Did you write or arrange that part?
HENRY: Well, there's a - there's sort of a melodic theme that opens the song, and that was a written piece. And we talked a little bit before we recorded it, just about the fact that it should feel orchestral, and it should sort of come off the rails a bit. Otherwise, we didn't talk about it; it just happened.
GROSS: The coming off the rails is what I really like.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: There's a lot of that on the album, of things just kind of unraveling a little bit.
HENRY: Well, that was exactly the intention, you know, to push songs to the point, both as pieces of writing and as recordings. We would have the impression as a listener that it was literally, pushing the seams and that the song was so full of itself and so full of its life that it would - you know, it was threatening to come apart. I find that invariably - I don't know why - romantic as a listener.
GROSS: Well, it's consistent with the lyrics, too, because a lot of the lyrics on this album are about people who are unraveling a little bit.
HENRY: I think they are unraveling, for sure. And that was certainly a driving concept, that the music needed to feel as visceral as I hoped the songs themselves, as pieces of writing, would feel alive and visceral and, you know, like a body with real blood running through it.
GROSS: Now, you've said that when you were young, what your mother got from the Bible, you got from song. And song gave you a real-life affirmation, and a sense of the perils and wonder and weight of the human experience. What do you think she got from the Bible?
HENRY: A sense of her own humanity and how it connected her to everybody else's, and that's exactly what music offers me. I never feel more connected than I do when I'm lost in a great song, you know. A great song, to me, is life-affirming. It's not putting too fine a point on it. I mean, it really is - it makes me feel awake to being alive.
GROSS: So when you were young and feeling all these like, deep emotions from songs, and feeling so connected through song, did you try to start writing songs at a young age that would have that kind of - you know, that profundity and depth, even though you hadn't really experienced life yet?
HENRY: Well not at the earliest age, where I started to find myself obsessed with songs. I'm not sure, at that point, I understood that a song was something that someone walking around could write. And I think when I was very young and heard Ray Charles and Johnny Cash and, you know, I loved Glen Campbell doing Jimmy Webb songs. You know, the first 45 I ever bought was "Galveston" - and a great story, a perfect bit of record-making that was.
But I'm not sure I thought of songs as something that someone actually sat down and wrote. They sounded like pieces of gold that people went into a cave and came out with. And it wasn't until I was maybe 11 or 12, and I heard - sort of right around the same period of time, I heard Bob Dylan and then I heard Randy Newman, and understood that somebody was making this up.
And at that point, I wanted to go in. I didn't know how, but I knew that I was going to. I knew that I was going to find a way to do so.
GROSS: So what were the first songs that you wrote like?
HENRY: You know, very derivative, I'm sure, of Woody Guthrie songs and very early Bob Dylan songs, and things that John Prine was writing very early on. You know, I was very enamored with all of the songwriters who were sort of writing in a narrative voice, you know, in character. And I understood when I was very young, I think, that Randy Newman was not writing about himself; that Bob was not writing his own story, that he was making up a character and following him.
So I never got seduced by that idea that sort of was popular in the '70s, that the singer/songwriter was offering you pages from his diary set to music. You know, it wasn't about how much of your life are you willing to expose, it was about how wild a character are you willing to inhabit.
GROSS: Let me play another track from your new album, "Reverie," and this is called "Sticks and Stones," and the lyrical hook is: Every new leaf I had is gone.
I really like that because it implies like, nothing left to try, out of options, no more chances. Every new leaf I had is gone is playing on an expression, you know, of turning over a new leaf, but it's not an expression in and of itself. It's a kind of phrase that you made up.
So before we hear the song, I'd like you to talk about coming up with that line.
HENRY: Well, I think the idea of the song is that this character is paralyzed to act as long as he thinks there are options otherwise. And, you know, he is so distraught, he's found himself so out on the wire, that he's got no choice but to push himself forward - because his survival is to move forward. He can't stay still, you know.
You ever watch somebody try to not move on a tightrope? You know, you sort of can only keep your balance if you're moving forward. And I think this character does feel himself completely out of sorts and out of options, you know - when he sings, I'm turning over the dark Missouri now that every new leaf I had is gone. You know, I'm
turning over the river. I'm setting myself out into the water because I don't have any options left.
GROSS: OK, well, let's hear it. This is "Sticks and Stones." And I should say that I want people to hear the - we were talking before about how a lot of the music just kind of unravels and gets really out there on this album. So I want our listeners to hear where I think that happens at its utmost on the album, and that's in the middle of this track.
So what we'll hear is, we'll hear the opening of the track, and then we're going to cross-fade it into the unraveling because I want to make sure that we get to hear that.
GROSS: So here's "Sticks and Stones."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STICKS AND STONES")
HENRY: (Singing) Gather wood against the weather. Violet storms against
the sky string above like pearls between us and the heaven's blackest eye. Tell the hour, go take another. Go down Moses, without a forest. Get into the longest water, and send that little boat for us.
(Singing) Sticks and stones, blood, ash and bone. I shake a tree, swim out alone. Turn it over the dark Missouri now that every new leaf I had is gone...
(Singing) ...Missouri now that every new leaf I had is gone. Horse is dressed in fire and feathers...
GROSS: That's "Sticks and Stones," from Joe Henry's new album, "Reverie." Now, that musical unraveling there, where the drummer,
especially, starts to go like, really outside - almost like it's going to turn into a free jazz date or something - it sounds great. He's an incredible drummer. He works with you on your music and some of the music that you produce as well as your own records. Is he primarily a jazz drummer or a rock drummer?
HENRY: I'm not sure what to call what Jay Bellerose does except that he's a revealer. You know, as a musician, he reveals songs. I hesitate to even say that he's a drummer. He's a musician who happens to work from that chair, but he's completely remarkable. And yeah, he's involved in almost everything I do as a producer, or as an artist, because I don't know anybody who thinks like he does.
You know, he's a painter, and he finds ways to articulate time and rhythm in a way that, you know, defeats none of its mystery, which is the whole point to me.
GROSS: What did you tell him you wanted there, and why did you want it?
HENRY: I said the whole song should sound like, you know, all four of us were falling down a flight of stairs.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HENRY: He knows how to take direction.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
GROSS: Now, you play a very blues-influenced style on this song. How did you learn blues? Did you learn it from listening to records? Did you have a teacher?
HENRY: No, everything I learned about playing, I learned from records. You know, when I was of high school age, you know, I literally just sat in front of a record player every moment that I could, with a guitar in my lap. And I would put on a side of a record, and try to find my way into every song as it went by.
And a lot of that music I was hearing at the time - were, you know, the great country-blues musicians who were primarily guitar players, too: Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt, Lightnin' Hopkins, Robert Johnson, Willie McTell, Skip James - on and on, you know. It's still incredibly evocative music to me, and sounds completely alive when I hear it.
GROSS: You know, here's a formative - a question about your formative music experiences. I think you wrote about this. When you were young, your father worked for Chevrolet, and he drove a company car, and one of those cars happened to have a demo tape player in it, and the tape that was in the car was a promotional tape for Chevrolet. And at the end of it was a song by Lorne Greene - because Chevrolet sponsored Lorne Greene's show "Bonanza."
And the song was "Ringo." It's one of those like, Western ballads that's half-spoken and half-sung. From what I remember of the song, I don't remember thinking, that's really good. Something about that must have really struck you when you were a kid. What struck you then, and do you think you still like it?
HENRY: What struck me at the time was what a great narrative bit of storytelling it was. And also his deep, half-spoken voice, you know - I loved everybody who sounded like that. You didn't have to be a great singer for me to be engaged. You just had to be a persuasive singer, you know.
And his voice, I found very seductive, but it really was about the story. You know, I found very early on that I was attracted to songs that really did draw a bit of character, you know. I loved "Ode to Billy Joe" - like anybody, you know, Bobbie Gentry. That was such an incredibly deft bit of writing in the way that that story is unfolded.
You know, it starts off, you know - it places the character in a moment, and then the story just starts to unfold around it. And I think it's a perfect example of great songwriting. And Lorne Greene's song "Ringo," you know, I could see it. I saw it in the backseat of this new Chevrolet station wagon, with the fake wood paneling, that we were driving around.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HENRY: You know, I was back there in the dark, and I could see it in front of me just like a movie.
GROSS: So as you've talked about before, one of the things you've done on your album "Reverie" is when you were recording in your own studio - which, I think, is in your home - you left the windows open so that there'd be ambient sound.
And you hear, you know, background noise - you hear birds; you hear a dog howling in the background. Was there a moment where like, there was like, a garbage truck going by or something with a sound like, that you actually didn't want on the album, and
you had to do another take?
HENRY: No, I was prepared for that except that when I embraced this as a concept, I decided that, you know, we were going to live with it. But keep in mind, too, that I didn't just open the windows. I put microphones at the windows.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HENRY: And I could have toned that, you know, I could have toned any of that down if I had wanted to. But, you know, we were all working together, and we had a headphone mixer. And you can adjust, you know, for yourself what you want to hear as you're recording.
And we had the ambient noise from outside coming up on a fader and, you know, we all had it pushed pretty loud because we found ourselves responding to what was happening around us before, during, and at the end of a take.
And I noticed that if I had - pulled the fader down, that the songs were significantly diminished; that the sonic picture went from being three-dimensional to being very flat. And then I, you know, I couldn't live without it.
I did imagine that, you know, once we had finished the record, that there would be moments where, well, this was a good take for me, but the dog had a better take before...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HENRY: ...and that we would have to do some sleight-of-hand to cut it together. But we didn't. You know, what you hear is what happened in those moments. And we just stitched it together to sort of encourage the idea that if you listen from start to finish, it feels like the whole record happens in real time. There's never silence.
You know, a song ends and then a car finishes passing, and another song begins. It sounded like we just played it as you hear it, you know. It's an attractive idea to me. I like hearing it that way.
GROSS: So last year, you produced an instrumental album by Allen Toussaint, who's one of the key figures in New Orleans music. He was one of the key behind-the-scenes figures as a pianist and producer and songwriter in early New Orleans rock 'n' roll and, you know, produced a lot of other people; wrote a lot of songs, including "Working in the Coal Mine," "Lipstick Traces," Mother-in-law," "Yes we Can-Can" - which the Pointer Sisters had the big hit of.
And you took him in a different direction on this album. It's early jazz. It's spirituals like "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." There's a Monk tune on it, an Ellington tune. It's not what you associate Allen Toussaint with. And you've said you even got him playing songs that he'd never heard before, let alone never played before.
And I'm thinking, it's such an interesting thing for you to do because Toussaint knows so much music, and he's such an important producer himself. And to put himself in your hands, and let you be the producer and guide him in a direction that he didn't even know he wanted to go in is, I guess, kind of a gutsy thing to do.
HENRY: Well, it was gutsy for him - I mean, very generous of Allen to have given me that kind of latitude and been willing to go there with me. But I had heard him in a studio one day, between takes of something else, play a Fats Waller tune, just to sort of clear the air for a minute. And I was so stunned to hear this piece of music that I knew very well, and hear it coming from him because he still was playing it purely authentically, as himself. And I knew he'd never been featured as a piano interpreter, and I thought he should be because I thought he had such a beautiful, song-oriented approach to this music that so many of us revere.
And so I threw the idea out there, and he was open to walking through the door, even though he had people in his world, I know, who suggested it might not be a good career move for him to make, you know, an old-timey jazz record, in a way. But I just really wanted to place him on that landscape, you know. So much of the music from that record, "The Bright Mississippi," is associated with New Orleans: Jellyroll Morton, Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, etc.
And I just wanted to see Allen considered on that broader landscape than just '70s R&B producer. I wanted him to be seen on the greater stage that is New Orleans historical music. I think he belongs there.
GROSS: So tell us who wrote "Egyptian Fantasy," and why you chose this.
HENRY: Well, it's by Sidney Bechet, the great New Orleans - he started off to be - as a clarinet player, and then moved to the soprano saxophone. And I just thought it was, you know, wild like a Fellini movie and expansive, and sounded like a great overture, you know.
We recorded it to be the opening track. I always imagined that it was the parade going by. I think it sounds like a great parade passing.
GROSS: Well, Joe Henry, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
HENRY: Terry, it's my pleasure to talk to you.
GROSS: Joe Henry's new album is called "Reverie." Here's "Egyptian Fantasy" from the Allen Toussaint album "The Bright Mississippi," produced by Joe Henry. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)