Joe Henry talks his open-door policy and 'Reverie'
Songwriter and producer reveals how he's landed with Hugh Laurie, Solomon Burke and more
Joe Henry’s latest solo set had an open-door policy. Literally. The songwriter and producer kept windows and doors open during the recording process, letting what he called “the racket” lead his backing musicians like T Bone Burnett drummer Jay Bellerose and labelmate Tom Waits’ main axe man Marc Ribot.
“It was a deliberate decision to allow those sounds to be heard as music. Songs don’t happen in a vacuum,” Henry told me in an interview this week. “When you’re writing a song, there’s life coming all around you. [Musicians] try to disappear into some hermetically sealed chamber. I resist that. I believe all kinds of racket to be musical. We called it the weather in the room.”
Of course, allowing “the field” into the room may not be a new, novel idea, but it certainly gives a raw sheen and texture to “Reverie,” released via Anti- last week. These groaning blues and abstractly folk capsules are the composite of Henry’s 12th solo release. His writing has meandered admirably around varying genres over the last two decades, almost as much as his production credits have.
Recently, he left his mark on Hugh Laurie’s New Orleans blues album and Irish songwriter (and Immaculate Noise favorite) Lisa Hannigan’s sophomore set “Passenger.” He’s produced for artists like the late, great, Solomon Burke, Americana mark-makers like The Jayhawks and Son Volt, Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann and “my hero since I was 19,” Loudon Wainwright III; he’s worked, too, with his sister-in-law Madonna and composed for major television shows.
His daughter thinks he’s pretty cool too.
“She said, three or four years ago, ‘I want a job like yours when I grow up. You just sit downstairs with your friends and laugh all the time,’” he boasts. “That’s the reason why you invite people into the process… Prince can make music at home by himself all he wants. It’s more exciting when you invite people in… taking your best mates and disappearing into the basement with coffee and wine.”
Again, it’s the open-door communication, may be part of Henry’s appeal as a go-to for soul-filled recordings. With Hannigan, for instance, it was he that approached her after hearing her sing at a Kate McGarrigle tribute concert. As he says "Some of the most meaningful work has come in because I went and asked for a job."
“I cant afford to just sit at home and hope for a fluke, for someone to call me… I have to be proactive on my own behalf,” Henry continuted. Even in a 21st Century environment where so many bands opt to record and produce themselves, at home, rather than seek out producers in general, Henry says his production work hasn’t suffered.
“People don’t [work] with my because they can’t record themselves. It’s because they want a concierge, a ship captain or a maître d’. It’s all in what you want. Over the last 10 – even five – years, I have a lot more awareness about my work. I’ve also taught myself from the very beginning to adapt quickly and affordably, even as the record business was in a free fall. I think I’ve sharpened my blade over a long period of time precisely to work under these circumstances.”
Joe Henry has slated only a pair of performance dates for the remainder of 2011, but is scheduling more dates for early 2012. He will also next produce songwriter Natalie Duncan and "something very exciting" for around January next year.