Joe Henry and the Art of Disappearing Into a Song - The New York Times
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Joe Henry and the Art of Disappearing Into a Song

By Jon Pareles

Nov. 18, 2019

In 2018, he was told he had Stage 4 prostate cancer and months to live. This week, he released his 15th album and is more dedicated than ever to finding humanity in music.

One year after learning he had Stage 4 prostate cancer, Joe Henry is releasing his 15th solo album, “The Gospel According to Water.”
One year after learning he had Stage 4 prostate cancer, Joe Henry is releasing his 15th solo album, “The Gospel According to Water.”John Francis Peters for The New York Times

PASADENA, Calif. — “The shoe dropped,” as the songwriter and producer Joe Henry dryly puts it, on Nov. 15, 2018. He had been suffering from incapacitating back pain that doctors insisted was temporary; he finally demanded an M.R.I. scan. The first doctor who read it recognized Stage 4 prostate cancer that had metastasized into his bones, and told him he had three to seven months to live. That doctor was wrong. Henry’s cancer is in remission, and he is vigorous and happily making music.

Exactly one year after his diagnosis, Henry has released his 15th solo album, “The Gospel According to Water.” The album is filled with songs that “came in a flood as I’ve never experienced,” Henry said in an interview at his home office and studio.

On the albums he has been making since the 1980s, Henry has built a trove of sturdy and mysterious songs: cryptic yet evocative, nonlinear yet clearly heartfelt, rooted but exploratory. His melodies are steeped in folk, blues and Tin Pan Alley, but take unexpected turns. Through the years, Henry has experimented with styles and recording techniques and spiked his studio bands with jazz musicians, among them Ornette Coleman and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. His lyrics are full of perfectly enigmatic quatrains, like the opening verse of a song on the new album, “The Fact of Love”: “My eyes are closed but they are raised/Keeping light both out and in/I will walk this river, dazed/Without a trace that I have been.”

“I write a lot of things that I can’t explain but I know them to be right,” Henry said. Fellow songwriters are among his most dedicated fans; John Prine, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Elvis Costello, Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams all premiered songs from his new album on their own websites. T Bone Burnett, an early champion of Henry’s songwriting and a mentor for Henry’s career as a producer, said, “His songs are open to interpretation, but the feeling of them is very clear. He uses language in a completely surprising and unexpected way.”

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If Henry, 58, had been born a decade or two earlier, he would have been acclaimed alongside literary-minded songwriters like Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, Robbie Robertson and Randy Newman, all of whom he readily cites as influences (along with John Cage, Buckminster Fuller, Gabriel García Márquez, William Carlos Williams, Flannery O’Connor and Wallace Stevens).

While Henry’s own releases have built him a loyal following, he has also produced dozens of albums for other musicians including Raitt, Costello, Aimee Mann, Allen Toussaint and Bettye LaVette. He won Grammys in blues and folk categories for producing albums by Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“I realized I wasn’t only interested in just recording myself, but that I felt devoted to the art of record making,” Henry said. “On my own, I got a chance to do that every couple of years. That’s like trying to learn to drive by driving one day a year. You’ve got to log some real time.”

Henry’s best-known song is rarely associated with him. It’s Madonna’s “Don’t Tell Me,” a Top 10 hit in 2000 that he wrote with Madonna (who is his sister-in-law) and her co-producer, Mirwais, based on his own song “Stop.” 

“There were lyrics in that song that I was sure would go by the wayside because they were too obtuse for a pop song,” he said. When he saw her perform it in an arena, he was amazed when “At one point they stopped playing and were singing a cappella, and 25,000 people were singing the song.” Henry realized it wasn’t that his lyrics were obtuse, but “that my delivery system doesn’t vibrate at this frequency. But she knew how.” As performer, songwriter or producer, Henry said, the goal is the same: “To make something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers.”

What has defined Henry’s career, and probably circumscribed it, is a principled sense of modesty, always deferring to the music. “When he talks about songwriting, he talks about how mysterious the process is and how unconscious it is,” said his son, Levon Henry, a saxophonist who has played sessions for many of his father’s albums. “And when he talks about record-making, he talks about who all the musicians in the room are and what they’re bringing to the table, and how important it is to create an environment in which people feel emboldened to display their own creativity and listen to each other. The way that my dad holds up a mirror to things around him, and tries to not take credit for it, is a real testament to how collaborative life is and how creativity works.”

At his house, Henry’s office held a spinet piano, a rack of acoustic guitars, a turntable, vintage ribbon microphones and assorted CDs and LPs. A sizable old desk was topped with books — James Joyce, Confucius, Langston Hughes — and a pencil sharpener, with a few fresh shavings from that morning; he writes first drafts in longhand. Around the walls were photographs of his heroes — Dylan, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Guthrie, W.C. Fields — and his studio collaborators. He had cued up background music on an iPod: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, the bluesman Lonnie Johnson. “I’m a talker,” he noted on the way in to a four-hour conversation that ranged through reminiscences, musical history, vintage gear talk and broader philosophies.

Henry was born in 1960 in Charlotte, N.C., but his family moved frequently: to Georgia, Ohio and Michigan, where he met his future wife, Melanie Ciccone, in high school. “Every couple of years I was the new kid at yet another school,” he said. “My response to it was to disappear into my room in front of a record player. I understood from a very young age that that was my language.”

He taught himself to play guitar and piano, listened to old blues, folk songs, Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, and wrote a lot of poetry as a steppingstone to songs. He got his first record deal in the mid-1980s and made his first albums while living in New York City. But he found more like-minded musicians after moving to Los Angeles, where Burnett eased him into producing (and also produced Henry’s third album, “Shuffletown”). He and Burnett still share a pool of regular stage and studio collaborators, and a recording philosophy that prizes live interaction.

“I’m not a purist,” Henry insisted. “Edit, tune, fly something in — anything to make it musical — ultimately it’s all fair game. But there’s a moment of discovery, a moment where something else takes over, and that’s the thing I want to document. The stuff that I invariably go back to is where I can hear somebody’s humanity unveiled.”

While Henry’s early albums were clearly indebted to Dylan and Waits, his songs were already distinctive: erudite and surreal. “The early part of my working life, I completely rejected the genre classification of myself as a singer-songwriter,” he said. “I associated it with a certain group of singer-songwriters of the ’70s whose whole ethos seemed to be, how real are you willing to be? As if this is a page from your diary, and the more painful the better the song. And I just reject that completely. I’m trying to shake off facts. I don’t want facts to obscure my truth.”

He also chose not to devise a marketable public persona for himself. “I couldn’t. I knew I wasn’t going to,” he said. “What I wanted to do, and the only thing I felt like I could do, was to try to create songs that were persuasive enough that I could disappear into them.”

When Henry received the cancer diagnosis, his first instinct was “I’m going to have to write my way through this,” he said. Through last winter, he wrote poems daily; “I felt bereft of song,” he said. But as his condition improved with treatment, songs arrived in a rush. “Every song but two was written between Valentine’s Day and Father’s Day,” he said. “Some of them, I wrote lyrics like I was taking dictation. And on at least three or four occasions, I just picked up a guitar and knew where the song was, without one thought to melody or changes.”

By spring, he wanted to test his new songs in front of an audience. He set up a solo concert at Largo at the Coronet, the longtime Los Angeles songwriters’ haven. The show announcement echoed words that appear on William Butler Yeats’s gravestone: “Casting a Cold Eye on Life, on Death.” 

He had decided to reveal his situation. “I announced the diagnosis from the stage because I thought it would illuminate the songs,” he said. “When I did finally say it out loud there was a gasp. And as I kept talking before I started playing there were people in the room audibly crying.” 

Henry still hadn’t recorded the songs. An old friend, the recording engineer S. Husky Hoskulds, offered some studio time, and Henry thought he’d take a day to make some solo recordings to see if the songs were good enough for an album. But then he brought along Levon Henry on reed instruments, the pianist Patrick Warren and a visiting British guitarist, John Smith. “We ended up with a band by accident,” Hoskulds said, “but I kept the same plan in place which was just put everyone in the room, no headphones, put up a handful of microphones and let them go.”

The recording turned out intimate, pristine and charged. “This is people in a room listening to each other,” said Hoskulds. “Joe texted me and said ‘I think we might have an album here.’”

Henry left the original sessions almost completely untouched, though he did overdub backing vocals from JT Nero and Allison Russell (of Birds of Chicago) on two tracks. But he was grateful that he had let the songs escape the weight of his expectations.

“If I had dared to think, maybe this is my last record — because at the time I could have easily been convinced to be thinking in those terms — then it’s got to be everything, it’s got to be the ultimate,” he said. “For me, it was, I have to be committed to the absolute truth essence of what these songs mean. And they happened fast and they were alive to me because I gave myself over to them. That’s what I needed to do as a recording artist too, was to stand aside and be available, do my job. I’m not driving the wagon — it’s running away with us. As it always is.”

The new songs invoke time, silence, music, faith, love, death and remembrance — none of them new topics in Henry’s catalog. “I’m writing about what I’ve always written about. How do we stand up to whatever life is asking us? Anybody who’s writing anything, if it’s going to endure, is writing about our baseline humanity and how we hang on to it as long as we can,” he said. “I’m not writing about cancer. I wouldn’t and I wouldn’t know how. This is the black earth out of which these songs have grown. But like any living thing, they’re reaching toward light.”

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