Hi Joe. Could you please tell me about Reverie? I don’t enough about jazz to know if it’s a jazz record or not, but I DO know that I hear a lot of intimacy in these songs, like a group of very good friends being stuck in your basement. Am I way off here?
Well, that's exactly what did happen. It was a group of friends playing together in the basement. But I would never call it a jazz record, because, for starters, that's not what I do, and beyond that, I don't really believe in those genre designations, I don't think they're terribly helpful. Certainly anybody of roughly my age - and I'm 50 - has grown up in a time with so much music available, with so much to take in. The small-town borders of genres don't really articulate how the world is laid out anymore. I don't prefer to look at them as "jazz elements", but Reverie certainly has elements of liberation that so-called jazz music shares. But in no way is it a genre posture of any sort. I just thought the songs needed to be close and intimate, but not in any way fragile.
Is that how you prefer to work? Just to sort of lean back and see where the songs and this community of friends go?
It's certainly about community. I don't impose an idea or a concept or anything else onto a song, but once I have a pile of songs that suggest they might make a body, I listen to what they tell me. What's the landscape on which these songs might thrive? But it's driven less by what I think they will sound like than by the way I want to work and the people I want to work with. I know that between us, we will find a way to make it sound beautiful and alive, but I don't necessarily want to know what it's going to sound like.
It seems to me that a lot is defined by the people in the room, that who ever is in there with you play a big role in what comes out of the studio.
Definitely. In that regard, I feel like a film director who also wrote the screenplay. You have people come in, these musicians who are actors, and you can direct them, you can tell them what part
of the room to stand in and to dip their face a little more into the light, yet what happens when they start speaking between them and assuming their character can be different take to take. It can be
incredibly exciting and surprising and wildly gratifying. And it makes me happy when a song announces itself to be other than you thought it would be. It always tells me that a song has enough character of its own to look out for itself.
But does that mean that Reverie ended up being a completely different record than you had first thought it to be?
What I mean is that I just didn't have any pre-conceived notions of how it would sound, I just knew how we would walk towards it. I knew I wanted these particular people and I knew I wanted to set up this way, I knew I wanted to leave the windows open and put microphones by the windows and invite the ambience of real sound into the equation, but I never knew what that was going to sound like. I mean, I always instinctively know when something is alive to me when I hear it, but now because I've decided what it should sound like.
Is opening all the windows in the studio and putting microphones next to them also about removing yourself from some sort of artistic comfort zone?
No, I just thought it would be exciting. That required no departure from my comfort zone, it was just me doing something because I took great delight in it. You know, all that noise excises. A song is a song, it doesn't come to flourish in a vacuum, neither as a song or as a piece of writing. People can be seduced into thinking that once you're ready to record, the rest of the world needs to disappear for a moment. I shoulder great anxiety about such when I'm producing other people, but when it comes time to work for myself, I didn't want to worry about that. In fact, beyond not worrying about it, I'm going to accentuate that element, and once I did, I couldn't live without it. I could turn the microphones off in the mix if I wanted to, but when I did that, I found that the songs were signiffically diminished.
A few years ago, I had the great honor of speaking to Rodney Crowell and the work you did with him on Sex & Gasoline. What he said was something about you and him having some great conversations, about drinking wine at 4 in the afternoon and turning work into play. Is that fundamentally how things work in your studio? That recording an album is not some boring task one must endure?
Absolutely so. I love making records as much as I love any part of my job. But that doesn't mean it's always easy. Even the greatest moments are a challenge, but I take delight in the process, and I go out of my way to work with people who love the process and not just tolerate it. I find the process…especially when I work with a lot of freedom, you know, when I work on my own records, I can invite whoever I want into the studio, and often, when I'm working on behalf of another artist as a producer, I'm given the freedom to decide who we want to have in the room. I find the process invariably exciting and exhilarating.
It's actually funny you should say that. When I interviewed Mary Gauthier about Between Daylight & Dark, which you also produced, she said that it was in fact one of the easiest records she'd ever made. Is that something you strive to do as a producer, create a comfortable setting in which an artist like Mary Gauthier can evolve and make what is probably her finest record ever? If that makes any sense.
It does. In fact, the biggest part of my job is to make the artist … I wouldn't say to feel comfortable, that's not really the point, although I do love that that was the case with Mary, but to make an artist feel encouraged and supported enough for them to also feel fearless. They're liberated, and in a situation as Mary described, they frequently come out on the other side feeling that although we worked really hard, it wasn't difficult. It's work that requires a lot of you, your full investment of thought, time and energy, and I think Mary was very invigorated by the particular people in the room and the way we worked. I think she was surprised by how quickly we were onto something that sounded very much alive.
I suppose that what makes Karen & Linford from Over The Rhine, Mary Gauthier or Hugh Laurie feel liberated and invigorated in the studio is fundamentally different from what makes someone like es Ramblin' Jack Elliott or Solomon Burke feel liberated and invigorated. How soon in the process do you know how to approach producing a particular artist?
There are some parts of my job that are the same every time out. Like I just described, my desire to make people feel supported and allowed to feel fearless, is the goal for me every time out. But you're right in saying that what people need to feel that is different all the time. It's like any part of your job. You start an interview, and you very quickly have to assess the rhythm of their thought, how open are they, and is their openness, or lack there of, something you just need to accept or something you can alter. I just have to listen and remind myself consciously that it's not about me, it's not even about the artist. It's about the work. It's about that thing that we are collectively trying to reveal. And of course, it's about not imposing a concept that you had in advance upon anybody, but meeting them on their terms and in real time. What do we need to do today to make this forward motion?
One thing I've always admired about your production work is that you never let this certain Joe Henry sound take over the records you produce. These records never sound like, say, Aimee Mann or Ramblin' Jack Elliott singing on a Joe Henry record, but Joe Henry producing an Aimee Mann or Ramblin' Jack Elliott record. Do you have a set of ethics when it comes to the sound that tie all these records you produce together?
I do, and thanks for saying that by the way, cause that's important to me. I do have a sensibility that I am devoted to. There are sounds I like and ways that sounds get presented together that I find musical and alluring. But again, I never have a concept, like a suit of clothes that I've picked out for Jack Elliott which I'm going to dress him up in, even if it's not natural for him. Trust me, Jack, this'll look great on you. I would never want to do such a thing, and I would never want anyone to hear a record that I've produced and have them think that it's just my record with somebody else's voice. There's a sonic through-line to most everything I do, but my devotion is to be in service to the artist, and not to use an artist as an excuse to serve my own will. I reject that categorically.
It's the same thing with someone like T Bone Burnett, isn't it? He has his own distinct sound, but it really never takes over. Is that something you learned from working with T Bone Burnett?
Absolutely. T Bone is my professional godfather in every sense of the word, and I've learned a tremendous amount of things from him, and I still do. But almost none of it is technical. It's mostly philosophical in the way that we're talking about what do you find musical and how do you allow that music to stand up and not get in its way and not hamper its development. And one thing I've learned from him, of how not to hamper music from getting into the air and becoming itself, is by not having an idea in advance of how that might happen. You can go to a consistently reliable studio and work with people you know and have faith in, and yet you still have to, at some point, surrender to the song, there's still a desire to disappear into the song. I have, anyway.
How do you balance your production work and your own recordings? Are you a producer who makes his own records too, or an artist who frequently produces other people's records?
First and foremost, I'm a songwriter. That's my sensibility and most things I do is from that point of view. I'm a singer/songwriter who's frequently employed to produce records, and I've never introduced myself to anybody as a "record producer". I'm an artist, and a big part of my job is to produce records. And I enjoy it, it's a big part of my livelihood at this point. But to answer your question, I balance the two by not seeing them as separate ideas any longer. I used to initially worry about what would happen to me as "the artist" if I was to become more and more employed as a producer, but I just stopped seeing them as a different jobs. I'm a music artist and different days require different things of me, different projects, whether they're mine or somebody else's, require different things of me. I don't see them as opposites anymore, and therefore I don't need to balance anything.
Going back to the time you spent working with Mary Gauthier for a moment, a lot of good music seemed to come out of those sessions. You had Mary's record, you had your own Civilians record and you had the stuff you did with Loudon Wainwright, the soundtrack for Knocked Up (called "Strange Weirdos"- ed.) and Loudon's Recovery album. Have I got the discography mixed up here, or did you just do a hell of a lot of good work in a relatively short period of time?
Well, I did do a lot of work in a very short period of time, and I do like to think that it was good. Those records you mention all happened within a pretty tight span of time, especially Civilians and the work I did with Loudon, with one spilling right into the other. I'm doing a lot of work now, simultaneously, and I'd like to think that it's all good, although quite different. I just find that the more work I do, the more I opportunity I have, the more energy I rally and the more expansive my thinking seems to become.
Do you ever enjoy the commercial aspect of your production work? Are you fully comfortable when a record you've produced sells, say, 10 million copies?
Well, you know, first of all I've never experienced an album that I've produced selling a million copies, so I can only imagine it abstract. But I would be just fine with that. Everybody likes to be affirmed, nobody that I know would be unhappy to see the work they've done be acknowledged. I've won three Grammys to date, and I've been delighted by all of them and very happy for the artists that they've been acknowledged and embraced that way as well. So far there's not been a downside to this part of my career. I'm not a celebrity, I don't have problems walking down the street, and none of the "success" that I've enjoyed have hampered with my lifestyle.
What about the songs you did with Madonna (Joe is, as you might now, married to Madonna's sister -ed.)? Did that change anything in regard to you being able to still walk down the street without some, if not screaming teenage girl, then at least someone my age with a big interest in your work, suddenly approaching you?
I'm not recognizable, and most people who heard and love that song (Don't Tell Me from 2000's album Music -ed.) didn't even know who wrote it. I mean, most people don't really bother with those kinds of details anyway. But she and I have written three or four songs together, three that she's recorded to date, and I find that wildly satisfying. Sure, it's changed things for me, to have her create a hit song out of something that I wrote, and that would probably have had an entirely different life, has given me new resources with which to work and that's all great. I could work for decades without opportunities like that. But you know, I've known her for a very long time now, and there are parts of her celebrity that have been awkward for her family and I, but as far as the work goes, I'm happily when there's actually work to talk about and not celebrity to talk about.
The song on Reverie, Room At Arles, is about Vic Chesnutt. Can you tell me about what brought you to write that song about him?
I loved Vic tremendously, as a person and an artist, and I think he was a very, very gifted writer, and a wildly underrated singer. I thought he was an evocative and very emotional singer. I wasn't exactly surprised when he took his own life, but I was absolutely devastated by it nonetheless. I heard the news very early on Christmas day. But I was very careful, I didn't want to write a song about him, but I felt the need to write something while he was in my mind. The song is titled after a painting by Vincent Van Gogh, but I didn't want to be so obvious as to draw a correlation between one troubled artist and another. It just occurred to me that the painting is actually a self portrait. We know that we're looking at him and the room he has just vacated, and in some way it's his greatest self portrait. We know as much about him as we've ever known from any particular painting of his, and it got me thinking about Vic's songs as all being rooms that he built and then walked out of. And we're left looking at them now, and he's incredibly present and vivid in all of them. I wrote the song standing in the weather of this loss, but not aiming the song at him, but writing a song under the influence of my love and admiration of him.
I’ll be honest with you, I only recently managed to buy copies of the records you put out in the early and mid-90's, you know, the country records. A lot of things have happened since those records, musically. Do you ever see yourself making a country record again or just revisiting the sound on those records?
No I don't, actually. It's like that saying, you can't step in the same river twice. I do what the songs tell me to do, and in some regard, Civilians was my version of that now, of doing something as rooted in folk structure and instrumentation as that. If I was to do what you suggest, now, it would never sound like those first records now. Civilians was an example of me approaching the songs with that same amount of immediacy, but it would be impossible for me to go back to that. And I have no desire to do so. If a new set of songs would send me back towards that instrumentation, I would certainly be happy about that. I just wouldn't sound like those record.
Joe Henry's Reverie is out now on ANTI. For more on this truly visionary artist, including a full discography of all his work, go to Joehenrylovesyoumadly.com