EL’s Managing Editor Dave Roth had the pleasure of chatting with singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry.
Henry has released 15 albums and has produced records with artists such as Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Rodney Crowell, Mose Allison, and Bonnie Raitt, to name only a few. The record he produced with Solomon Burke, Don’t Give Up on Me, won a Grammy award in 2002.
Dave Roth: I think a good place to start is that valuable moment of recognition that you were talking about. The point when you first latch onto what feels like something that deserves your respect and your time. Did I understand that?
Joe Henry: Absolutely, you understood that very well. I think there’s always a moment, whether you’re prepared for it, whether you’re looking for it or not, when there just seems to be an idea that floats past your screen, and you feel some, resistance, I mean, like tensile strength, you know, where you just like, “oh, there’s something here that is pushing back on me a little, in a very invitational away.” It’s probably a very corny metaphor, but it’s like fishing, and you sit there, with your lines still all day, and then all sudden, you just feel an electrical charge… it doesn’t have to be a big one for you to kind of snap to attention and understand that attention must be paid if you want to be involved in an opportunity. It frequently happens when you’re not prepared for it… I always think that if somebody loans you a mountain cottage, and you’re up there alone, with your notebook open, a fresh pot of coffee, a bottle of wine, or whatever, that nothing would happen. But as soon as you have to drive in the carpool lane, there’s the idea you’ve been waiting for all day. Right?
DR: Right, yeah, there’s something alive at the end of the line, right?
DR: I sometimes think of it this way in my practice as a sculptor – it’s like I’m pulling a thread that starts to pull back on me.
JH: Yeah, like a thread in the sweater.
DR: I wanted to talk a little bit about this idea of being captivated by ideas because there’s something that came through in your description that I’ve felt before, that there’s a tension between something that feels like it’s both of you and not of you. Townes (Van Zandt) used to say he was “sitting in the right chair.” He referred to them as sky songs, you know, they just kind of came from the sky. It’s not a problem to be solved, but I wonder if this rings true for you, that there’s that interesting tension between “this is something that is personal to me, and yet I feel like it’s outside of me also.”
JH: Oh, I’ve thought about that a lot. When I’ve talked about my process over the years, I’ve gone out of my way to say that I’m not an autobiographical songwriter, and I realized that I was giving the inclination to others and that I was suggesting my songs are not personal.
Of course, they couldn’t be more personal; just because I’m not basing them thematically on some story from my life doesn’t mean I’m not deeply, and personally invested in the relationship of how it wants to speak through me. I know this can sound like I’m trying to be coy or overly mystical or something. But I have thought very much that, and this is probably very much in line with Townes; I don’t typically think that I’m having an idea, I think an idea is having me.
I don’t typically think that I’m having an idea, I think an idea is having me.
You know, I feel like a song is not something that I do; writing a song is something that’s happening to me. I just understand that something is pushing on me; something’s tugging at the cuff of your pants, [and] you’re going to have to shake this free or you’re going to have to give into it. One of those two things is going to have to happen. You can’t walk around like this all day. You certainly shouldn’t be driving, because it can be totally distracting.
I’ve sailed past many exits where I was supposed to get off because I was just trying to hear this thing that’s inviting my involvement. Like, “this can be yours if you get involved, if not, the idea will go find somebody else.” That’s that. That’s what it always feels like,
DR: Yeah, there’s that idea of inspiration, that it’s taking something in, right? Like, the act of breathing is a form of inspiration.
JH: You say that like a true yoga master, you know because the Yogis talk about exhalation being life’s greatest mystery.
DR: This brings to mind this thought of a dichotomy between instinct and discovery. I would think that you’ve come to rely on your instincts and that you are very familiar with that “way of being” even though you have said that you keep yourself off-balance when writing.
JH: Yeah, a little disoriented is how I tend to think of it. I’m pretty well on record as saying that I’ve never as a writer been terribly interested in so-called self-expression. By that, I mean an idea that I’ve already had, kind of refined, and now I’m going to find some way to tool it into three verses that I can then deliver to somebody because this… this thing that I’ve just thought is so important, it must be shared.
I don’t think so much consciously about self-expression, I think always about discovery. I think I’ve always kind of felt that if I’m trying to express a thought or an experience that I’m trying to drive how that gets delivered, and how that gets refined into a viable piece of work. But if I’m thinking in terms of discovery, that I’m always kind of in that disoriented, reaching, searching mode.
I don’t think so much consciously about self-expression, I think always about discovery
You might not look as composed and cool while that’s happening. It can be messy and unattractive while you’re trying to grasp at an idea that might pull back on you. But I do think that if I’m in the mode of discovery, that that’s when something can happen to me, that’s beyond what I could have imagined. And I’m always looking for that thing to happen, you know, to write that song that I couldn’t have imagined.
DR: I’m taken with this thought that you’re downplaying the part of it that is you, and the part of it that is volitional, or at least conscious. After having been at this for so long, I would think that you’ve got a pretty big toolbox. There is a little bit of a push and pull; I’ve heard it described as driving down the highway, you take your hands off the wheel, and as you start to veer towards the shoulder, you correct a little bit. You have a general sense of where you’re headed, you don’t quite know exactly how you’re going to get there.
JH: Yeah, the only way I would describe that differently is, if you’re going down a road, it’s already been mapped, [and] you can see where the edges are. You can see the guardrails and where there might not be a guardrail. I think more [that] you’re just kind of in a big open expanse, and you have a general idea, “that way, I’m going to walk north.”
I don’t know what I’ll encounter and what way, I’ll have to be serpentine. What hill I might approach that I can’t climb, but I have to circumnavigate. You’re basically walking in a direction, but you have no idea what you’ll encounter in that journey.
And you asked me about tools a minute ago like, “I must have a lot of tools in some way.” Again, I always fear that I might sound like I’m being flip, and I promise you, Dave, I would not be that with you. I kind of feel like as time goes on, I have fewer tools.
You know, I think when I started out, I thought I had to have every tool. Like, I thought I had to have every instrument in the house. And as I’ve moved on– that’s just one example because I think this is psychically true, as well– and as I’ve gone on, and endured at this pursuit, I feel like I have maybe fewer tools, but the ones that I really, really turn to all the time.
I feel like I have maybe fewer tools, but the ones that I really, really turn to all the time.
I know people who have kitchens full of beautiful cookware, but there’s one big black skillet that they use 85% of the time because they have a relationship there. It’s not like they’re cooking the same thing in it every time. But this is something I understand. And I think that I have developed tools that might not be more than I had when I started, but I understand them better. I understand how they serve me. I can sort of forget that it’s a tool in my hand because I’m so familiar with it. And that might be the key, as I stopped thinking about the fact that I’m driving a tool of any sort.
DR: Yeah, that sense of an instrument being an extension of you right?
JH: Well, that’s what has to happen. I’ve told the story numerous times, and forgive me if I’ve told it to you already. But when I spent the one evening that I did in the company of Ornette Coleman, when we were recording together, in 2000, he played take after take, and they were all beautiful and inventive.
I went up to take him a tea into the performance room at one point. And he said to me, “You know, I’m not doing badly for you. But I know the saxophone so well. And I can hear that I’m still playing the saxophone. If you don’t mind, I need to keep going. Until I’m not playing saxophone, but I’m just playing music.”
I understood that what he was sharing with me was this idea of transcending his tool, getting beyond his delivery system, into what he was delivering. I’ve thought a lot about that since he shared it, how hard we have to be willing to work to get beyond, to transcend the tricks and the methods, and we actually disappear into something that is wholly itself and waiting to be revealed.
Because I always tend to think, and I’m not being falsely modest, if you’re really good, you don’t really see your hand at work. I mean, I certainly, I think less of that as a songwriter, maybe than I do as a record producer for somebody else. But I think if I’m really on my game, nobody should be thinking about what I was doing. If I’ve produced Mavis Staples, nobody should be hearing that music and thinking about how clever I was to do invite Mavis to do this or that they should just be thinking about how unbelievable and otherworldly Mavis is.
It may sound like I don’t have an ego, but mine is plenty sated if that happens, I know what my participation has been. And I think about that as a songwriter – that if I’m really on it, it’s not about me, it’s about it. And people are responding to not what I the creator might have done… You know, look how smart he is or how clever or anything, but just, you know, “oh, that song did something to me.” It doesn’t matter who created it or how it penetrates.
And I think about that as a songwriter – that if I’m really on it, it’s not about me, it’s about it.
DR: I think audiences can lose sight of the fact that you’re experiencing the song also. I don’t know if I was reading it right, but at the show you played at The Old Town School of Folk Music right before the shutdown, I definitely had a sense that you were having an aesthetic experience, and that there were emotional aspects of it where you were experiencing the music, not as an audience, but not in an entirely active way.
JH: Absolutely true. That’s not always true. I mean, I live for those moments where I feel like I am also having an experience, I’m not just delivering one. I’m not just offering an audience an experience, but I’m having it too.
Because if we really stripped back our egos to think [about] what performance actually is, you know, the performer needs to be having an experience for it to become that otherworldly transcendent thing that we all sort of long for.
Bob Dylan said something really interesting a number of years ago, not too long ago, about performing, where he said that you have to work really hard as a performer not to feel the song that you’re delivering. He said, “if I become emotional singing a song on stage, then that becomes the spectacle.”
“Oh, I saw Bob last night – he cried during Simple Twist of Fate, it was unbelievable,” you know, that becomes the spectacle. He said, “I have to let the song move beyond me, I’ve dealt with it, because if I break down, then the emotion stops with me, and then the audience is watching me have it, the spell gets a little bit broken.”
But it has to be like wind through a tree, I have to let it move through me and out. Otherwise, it stops with me. I’ve thought a lot about that, too, because I have witnessed performers literally weep in performance. Ray Charles comes to mind; the first time I saw him, he noticeably was crying during a song. And it did sort of happen, as Bob would later describe it, that what I really remember, it was kind of watching this thing happening to Ray, where most typically, nobody has ever made me cry Ray has made me cry.
But it has to be like wind through a tree, you know, I have to let it move through me and out
DR: I’m thinking about The Goldberg Variations. You can hear Glenn Gould just sort of uttering these sort of…you know, whatever they are. I don’t even think he’s aware of it until listening to the playback.
JH: Yeah, yeah. I’m trying to think about how to deal with that. I’ve worked with musicians in the studio where they make involuntary sounds between verses when they’re playing. There’s a lot of conversation about “how do we eliminate that?” And of course, it begs the question, are we supposed to? Or is that, in fact, part of that performance?
You have to ask the question, you have to make choices, like, does that further the story? Does that amplify it and illuminate the experience for our listener? Or is it a distraction? Does it remind people that somebody was in a studio, creating this, because, you know, I always think, in the perfect world, a piece of music is supposed to take you beyond whatever it took to create that moment so that it can be manufactured, and handed over.
You know, I don’t want to picture somebody with headphones on.
I had this conversation when I was producing Elvis Costello about how often in his recording life he has sung harmony to himself, and I said, “I’ve always been distracted by that. Because I picture you with headphones in a studio. I picture what it technically took for that to happen. Like, if there should be another voice, it should be another voice. But if it’s another one of you, then the spell is a little bit broken for me.”
He understood me. Didn’t necessarily change anything…
DR: I suppose that’s enough, though.
JH: You know, he heard me out, and he took it very seriously. He’s an incredibly sincere man. I remember him, really, really thinking about it. But the thing is, he really likes to sing, and some people are just supernatural at matching their own phrasing. My dear dear friend Lisa Hannigan, the great Irish singer and songwriter, was probably the only person I ever produced, where I didn’t have one notion to say, “Hey, if that needs to be another voice on the song, let’s get another voice.” Because the way that she sings with herself is really close-rub harmonies. Nobody else could do that, you know, she conceives of that, and they’re not traditional kind of harmony roles. It’s not like somebody singing a third above. It’s really a part of her compositional voice. As soon as I heard her do it, I understood, A: That it was necessary to hear that other sound, and B: there was nobody we could call who would be able to give that to us.
DR: This is an excellent segue to the formal aspects of song, or any creative pursuit. Poetry has a form, painting, sculpture, dance, different types of music… there are formal aspects to it, which are thankfully no longer considered to be rigidly required. One of the things that comes to mind in our conversation is an artist’s maturing process. I’ve witnessed that there’s an ability to tolerate the wrongness until the rightness is there. Do you know what I’m driving at there?
JH: I think I do; we have to learn to be comfortable with just being in motion. It goes back to something I know I talked about in the class at Old Town School, where John Cage stressed the importance of understanding that there’s a distinction between the creative mind and the analytical mind. They both have a purpose.
John Cage stressed the importance of understanding that there’s a distinction between the creative mind and the analytical mind. They both have a purpose.
When you start drifting into the analytical mind, you pull yourself out of the creative stream, and you’re kind of up on the bank looking at it. That voice, as you’re working, is hyper-aware that something is not yet right. You’re even asking yourself the question, “Is it right?”
You are by default analyzing what you’re doing in real-time. Thus, you’re not kind of lost in it the way I think we all really want to be lost. So I’ve had to really learn this, and I don’t know if it was a conscious thing.
I think, at the point when I heard Cage say that it was something that I already understood, just experientially; I hadn’t heard it phrased, I hadn’t heard anybody name it. It was really affirming to me to remind myself to give myself permission to keep working, even when I don’t know how things are adding up. Like, “I know, this is not right. I know this won’t last, but it might be the scaffolding that gets me up to the part of the roof that I have to be working on right now.”
I can’t worry about how baggy the scaffolding looks. I need to get up there, and I can’t worry about how I look doing it. It’s probably a scourge of our times where we think everything is being documented at all times, for all time. Thus, we don’t really believe that there’s a chance to be “less than,” and it not exist somewhere, you know? I don’t know if we even know how much that’s working on us right now.
DR: There’s a level of self-awareness that comes from that that’s typically unwelcome, to me, at least, very unwelcome. I make my living as a designer, and we talk about these phases of inspiration, execution, and refinement in the creative process, where intuition and analysis are often antagonists. I think it’s important to trust that sense of intuition before that analytical framework gets applied to it, or you run the risk of taking whatever magic could be in there completely away.
JH: Well, I think I’ve learned for myself privately to really trust my instincts. I can have many moments – and I do – where I have no idea why something is working, but I believe fully that it is. I’ll write something and I’ll say “I don’t really know what that suggests fully, but I know that it’s right. “
It just buzzes in a certain way that I know that some wires have crossed and a circuit has been completed. I also recognize it because I’ve been ramping up to produce a record for a wonderful singer and songwriter named Aoife O’Donovan. She’s a fairly important solo artist, but she’s also in a trio called I’m With Her. [She’s an] Irish American singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and as we’ve been ramping up to me producing her, which is going to sort of happen remotely, I’ve been making a new record, recording myself at home, and sending things out.
But because we’ve written a couple of songs together, I realized that circumstance required me to see if things were working to hand things over, for her to review, that were not in any way refined.
It’s one thing for me to go, “Oh, no, I know that this is, this is bread, that’s still proofing, but I believe where it’s gonna go, it’s just, it’s fine.” It’s one thing for me to do that in the privacy of my own home. It’s another thing, I recognize, to make myself vulnerable to another person and say, “I’m going to hand something to you, that could make you think I’m not as good as you thought I was before I handed it over to you.”
Because, you know, I work really hard at what I do, and I don’t really let much out of the house. I don’t take anything out of the house unless I fully believe in it. It doesn’t mean I don’t execute it in a very raw way. When I talk about refinement, as a writer, you know, as a recording person, as a person who makes noise, I love the raw edges as much as anybody, hence my devotion to people like Mingus. [It’s] one example where I just hear so much, you hear him on his bass mic, calling audibles to people in the band, and there’s that great energy to that, that I find endlessly inspiring.
But as a writer, I’m much less likely to air out something that I don’t think is refined, you know, I think maybe that what I’m really getting at, Dave, is because I work at the writing so much, and get it to a place that I really believe in the way that I’ve refined the writing, then I feel really free to be really reckless with its articulation. Because I believe in the architecture.
DR: Is that a feedback-feed forward process inside of you, that sort of creation/refinement process? You’ve spoken so much about surrendering to song, to giving yourself over to the recognition of the value of an idea, of staying in the stream and avoiding the trick bag of getting too analytical too soon; clearly, it is happening, though. You talked about refining, I don’t know if you’re using the term refinement in the same way as others may think of analysis of the material. I’m wondering how those two things end up sequencing or interacting. And then there’s that refining… Is it a different phase? Is it just a different layer on top of that creation mode?
JH: It’s not like, for lack of a better word, “here’s the inspirational hauling in of the net, and then you move on into cleaning and preparing fish with real purpose and decision.” The border is not that clean, and it’s not well-guarded, it usually happens back and forth, where I’ll spool something off in a very spontaneous way. I believe that it’s really good resource that I can work from, and then I’ll go into kind of a refining mode of really editing, and maybe taking one verse in particular if we’re talking about songs, and that’s mostly what I do.
I’ll take a verse and really try to make it as complete and sound as it can be. Then when I need to write another verse, I have to let myself off that hook and get free again, and kind of have the seance that writing can be and kind of spool out something else that I can then refine from, so I’ve learned to do it kind of instinctively, where I’m moving in and out of those phases. It’s not like one has to be complete. I’m really swimming back and forth all the time. I think I kind of always know where I am with that because I’ll stop myself if I’m scrutinizing it, and refining it, as I’m kind of in my first blast, and I’ll have to walk myself back. Just like, as a parent, reminding yourself to be patient, you know, at certain times, just like, take it easy. I’ve had to say that to myself, “just take it easy, you know, that’s for later.”
DR: I guess that’s what I was thinking. “You know, I didn’t know I was thinking that until I said it.”
JH: That happens all the time. I had no idea what I was writing about until I begin to write, and then I see what I had to write about it. That’s mostly true, right? I don’t know, I can count on one hand, I think, the times I’ve written a song and had any idea when I began, about theme, about tone, about shape, and duration. Yeah, no idea…
DR: All those formal things that just feel so obvious and evident when they’re right.
JH: Well in that same way, lyric and melody sometimes come together, but frequently not. I always learn to recognize the point when I can’t imagine one without the other. It’s not like, “oh, here’s a lyric. And here’s the music that sort of props it up.” It’s not really a finished song for me until I no longer can imagine the words without that melody, or vice versa.
It’s not really a finished song for me until I no longer can imagine the words without that melody, or vice versa
DR: Speaking of words, and the human need to ascribe meaning to language – you alluded to this, and it resonated for me, it’s something that I’ve been thinking about for years, that truth and meaning are not the same things. And you used the example of the Willie Mays lyric in your song “Our Song.” A lyric that just emerged with meaning, with personal value. There’s a rich history in modern music of very earnest, sincere narrative storytelling. Which doesn’t mean that everyone has to express themselves that way. But I wonder if you can share with us a little bit your thoughts about this dichotomy between truth and meaning, if, in fact, it feels like there’s something there to you?
JH: Well, I certainly know that there’s a difference between fact and truth, without question. And I also think there’s meaning that exists outside of our intentions as a person who writes and records music. I know, for instance, that sound has a meaning before I choose to say anything with it. A note on a piano – not in a sequence – its tonality has a meaning that is suggestive, and it was there before I walked up to it, and I can hitch my wagon to that star if I can, and tap into it.
It’s just like, somebody’s voice has a gravitas, frequently outside of words that this person might be singing. So there’s got to be a marriage. I’m not sure if this gets to your point exactly or not, but there can be a marriage between what this instrument means on its own, and then what you ask it to do, in a way that is frequently startling and synergistic. That’s what we always hope for when we’re recording, and certainly in writing. We’re trying to tap into that thing that just speaks through and beyond us. I know everybody doesn’t think of writing in that way, but I think the people that I care about typically do.
Certainly, there are songwriters who have written things in a very formulaic way, and still did something that broke my heart open. So I’m not saying that there’s not all manner of ways in which this can work. But I’ve been frequently reminded that so many of those songwriters that have informed me, and from the time when I was very young, I came to learn were sort of doing what I described wanting to do, which is trying to entice that spirit to enter the room and do something to me because it’s paralyzing if you think you’re responsible for it.
I think there’s real arrogance that grows out of thinking that you yourself have done this, rather than, “I myself discovered it, or I allow this to happen to me.” Again, I’m not being falsely modest, I work really hard, Dave, and I’ve worked hard at getting good at something that I like to think is anomalous to me, but that’s not really the point of it. I think that happens to be true, but I know that I’m really that much less concerned with people thinking I’m good than people thinking the songs are good, that the records are good.
I know that I’m really that much less concerned with people thinking I’m good than people thinking the songs are good, that the records are good.
DR: Yeah, I’m gonna have to think about that one. It seems so fundamentally true to me, but I think that there’s a lot there – the idea that humility is not the same thing as a lack of pride.
JH: No, it’s not. In fact, I think about humility in the same way that somebody being courageous is not somebody without fear, and somebody with fear, who is acting anyway – that’s what courage really is. I think that that humility is not a lack of pride. It’s a civilized way to keep your pride in check, and it also is a decision frequently.
DR: It seems to also indicate an acknowledgment of a hierarchy of values.
JH: Just before we leave that topic, something that I was really conscious of in my early days of record making, I worked with a lot of musicians who seemed unwilling or incapable of owning out loud that what they did was good. It’s almost like; to admit that it was good was to admit that it couldn’t be better. They couldn’t do better. We’d listen to a playback and somebody would invariably go, “I mean, if you’re cool with it, that’s fine. I mean, you can use it. I mean, I’d do it again, I could do it again. But, you know, if you’re, if you’re cool with it, you know, you know, whatever.” I didn’t realize how deflating that was until I got to the point where I started working with people who, when they came in for a playback, weren’t hearing it as them anymore. They were just hearing it as it. They can be completely delighted by what they play, and it wasn’t about the arrogance, or, you know, enormous ego.
In fact, I found it just the opposite- the ego cares about how you look about what you’re doing. The fact that people could stand back and take delight in it was putting a tremendous amount of energy back in the room. How much I had been bereft of people who are willing to be excited about what they just played until I was around people who genuinely were.
DR: Yeah. It gets to that point about when you know you’re done. I think when you have that, the tumblers kind of fall into place internally, and you just kind of know, “I don’t know that I can do much more with this.” Music seems different than the plastic arts in this way. Because every time you perform the song, I would think you’re breathing new life into it…
JH: You’re always trying to, just like people who put on the same play night after night. They have to find something, even with this confirmed text, for the performance itself to be a changeable, engageable elastic thing. That’s for sure.
DR: But there’s a sense that happens in the creative process where you realize that even though the journey with that piece is not over, you’ve basically brought it into being.
JH: To that point – I’ve been in the studio many times where everybody played, [and] there’s not anything discernibly wrong. In fact, I had a great moment with Allen Toussaint in that way. We were listening to a playback when I was producing he and Elvis Costello’s duet record, called The River in Reverse. There’s a song that Allen and Elvis had written together, and we were chasing it for a couple of hours. And at one point, we took a break for dinner.
I found myself back in the control room listening to the last playback and I realized after I began listening that Allen had joined me in the room. We got to the end of this playback, and he just said, “well, it’s right. But that’s all it is.”
Understand that it has to be more than just “not wrong” to endure. Conversely, I’ve been in sessions many times where we’ve played the take of something, and it’s a fucking mess. And yet, everybody is jubilant. Everybody knows that it’s happened. It’s like, “Oh, we got to sort some things out, maybe we’ll edit it for the ending, where that just completely fell apart,” or more likely the take before the ending fell apart, but in the most glorious way, so you should have that.
But even though that it’s shot full of holes, we all know that emotionally, what needed to happen, happened. There was not one interest in the room and anybody trying to, like, you know, make it so-called “better.”
DR: Yeah. The difference between things that are deliberate and things that are intentional.
JH: Yeah, that’s a good distinction to make. You know, there are so many things that are powerful just because we witness them, and when we’re in creation mode, that idea [is] that we could be in control. It’s like seeing a shooting star and being sort of awed by it. “Hey, wouldn’t it have been so much more beautiful, though, if it had fallen over there? You know, past the Chester’s house over there because they’ve got this beautiful pine tree up there.”
But no, that would have been something, but why do we have this impulse to think that everything needs to be sort of stylized in a certain way? There’s certainly a place for that, of course, if you’re trying to create anything that we hope will be durable and useful for any period of time. But I do think that more often than not, we will miss a lot of beauty and a lot of power by trying to sort of perfect everything. Harry Belafonte told me at one point that his Jamaican grandmother used to say to him when he was a child, “oh, quit trying to make perfect, better.“
DR: It’s a great phrase.
DR: I’ve been listening to a lot of Monk lately, again. Have you heard this Palo Alto recording?
JH: I just did.
DR: Oh, my God what a story.
JH: Yeah, amazing. He was my pass key into being a jazz listener. I have a really close friend from my high school days in Michigan, who’s a brilliant jazz pianist who still does that for a living in Detroit. I was over at his parents’ house on a Sunday afternoon. I think we were both 15.
He was a beautiful photographer, too. He had his parent’s basement set up like a darkroom, we were down there, and he put a Monk’s album Criss-Cross. And I was just kind of paralyzed.
You know, I had that sensation. My thought was that “oh, this is jazz. I must like jazz.” It had nothing to do with genre. It’s just that whatever this is, I think I felt [that way] the first time I saw a Fellini film. I have no idea what this is, but I don’t know how I’ve been living without it, and I won’t be anymore. That’s how I felt when I heard Monk. It was as pure and life-affirming as anything I’ve ever heard, and it just completely knocked me off my feet.
It set me on a deep journey, not only into Monk’s music but a lot of his contemporaries, where all of a sudden, I was being taught a language. All sudden, there was Bill Evans and Bill Evans meant everything. And then it was Miles and Trane, and then Bird sort of destroyed me. But, Monk is so completely unique in my estimation. Not only the beautiful freedom of his articulation, but how incredibly great the compositional voice is. And those two things together, just sort of, you know, said a lot to me about what I wanted to be doing, even though I was working in a completely different color palette, really different ability set. It still spoke to me about, you know, I want whatever music I’m ever able to make, I want it to work on me that way – they’re just elements that I had to learn to incorporate.
DR: There’s a fundamental humanness in Monk’s work that I think, as much as I love so many of the other artists you mentioned, I don’t get quite as much. And I think it might be the elasticity of his relationship with time or the fact that he’s loose without being sloppy.
The early formative musical experience for me was Louis Armstrong.
JH: I could talk about Pops of all day and all night. I mean, he’s like Abraham Lincoln.
DR: He is sort of the mouth of the Nile, right?
JH: He is, and in most every way, and it completely transcended genre. He transcended so many things. Yeah. When people ask that question, “What’s the live music that you didn’t have the opportunity in your lifetime to experience that you wish you could have experienced?” and I just say, “oh, if I could have been in a room listening to Louis Armstrong in about 1927…” I can hear that off the record. And I just barely imagine the power of what that must have felt like to be in that room. Just kind of mind-bending.
DR: Yeah. I still go back to that record Ella and Louis a lot.
DR: I know, we have just a little bit of time. Like you, growing up in the Detroit area, I still have really clear memories of a little transistor radio on Saturday and Sunday mornings – turning it on, and hearing people like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder playing live in the studio down at WDET or WDRQ or CKLW. And, of course, we got all that stuff over from Sarnia, too, that came over the river; so much music that was just so activating. And I was 9, 10, 11 years old, and just thought, “How can there be a world where there are people who don’t get just completely ecstatic when they hear this?”
JH: Well, I think it worked on me, particularly because I was 14 when I finally wound up in Michigan. My formation, you know, the first time I was like, hearing music, in a conscious way, I’m living in Atlanta, where we moved when I was just five. So I was hearing a lot of Southern soul music.
That meant a lot to me, you know, Ray, chief among them, people like that. Clarence Carter, and a lot of narrative country music. When I got to Detroit and got completely immersed in Motown, you know, I was really primed for it. It did to me what it did to everybody. I have a distinct memory of the summer that Songs in the Key of Life came out. And it’s one of those moments I think about a lot because it was coming out of every passing car, and every storefront – just ubiquitous. But it’s like, when’s the last time, or how few times has something that popular also been that good? Yeah, something that’s that good been that universally received? Yeah, I think that’s true of a lot of Motown music.
Someone like Aretha, or just being reminded that Duke Ellington was a popular artist, even though he was, you know – along with Billy Strayhorn, you can’t talk about Duke without talking about Strayhorn – but the fact that he wasn’t ever talking down to an audience. He was bringing them up. He wasn’t dumbing anything down for the dancers at the Kentucky Club. He was bringing everybody up to his level. Which was not only an incredible feat of skill but an incredible feat of generosity.
DR: I saw that Songs in the Key of Life tour this last time Stevie came around with it. Did you see that show?
JH: I did not. I’ve only seen him live once. I mean, I’ve met him in a room once. But the only time I’ve ever seen him play was when I was still living in Ann Arbor, and he was touring. Hotter Than July. I saw that at the Masonic Temple in Detroit. Excellent.
DR: That’s another amazing album.
JH: And yeah, incredible. I had a friend who used to play this game of like, think about how few artists have made, without apology, three great albums. I thought, well, Stevie, off the top of my head made that up. He made five in a row. You know, beginning with Music of My Mind, Fulfillingness’ First Finale, Innervisions, Talking Book, Songs in the Key of Life. I mean, that’s like, that’s a run of five albums. I mean, who else? Not that many.
DR: Innervisions is still the highlight for me.
JH: Yeah, well, that era. Yeah, he was supernatural.
Joe Henry is a singer, songwriter, performer, and Grammy award-winning record producer. He’s currently working on a new album, and we’re hoping he’ll be touring just as soon as it’s safe to do so.
You can keep track of him on his website.
Dave Roth is an artist, photographer, and designer. He’s also the Managing Editor of Esthetic Lens. You can check out some of his work here.