Fail to learn how to operate your drum machine
Write with instruments you don’t play particularly well
Sing gibberish in the car
Over the past two decades, Joe Henry has evolved from rootsy balladry (Short Man’s Room, 1992) to atmospheric pop (Trampoline, 1996) to the hypnotic blend of jazz, gospel, funk, and tango that marks his most recent LPs, Scar (2001) and Tiny Voices (2003). Along the way, he has quietly amassed a fan club that includes Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau, Don Byron, Brian Blade, and Marc Ribot, all of whom have played on his records. His work as a producer helped Solomon Burke win a Grammy for the album Don’t Give Up on Me (2001). More recently, he’s manned the boards for Elvis Costello, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, and the incomparable Bettye LaVette. He is also one of the only musicians on earth to land jazz legend Ornette Coleman as a session player. It happened like this:
Several years ago, Henry wrote a song called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” It was a languid blues, built around a saxophone solo he wrote with Coleman in mind. Henry didn’t know Coleman and had no idea if he’d be interested in collaborating. But Henry sent a letter of introduction anyway, along with his most recent album, a moody, soulful release called Fuse (1999).
Coleman’s lawyer called on a Friday and explained that Ornette was flattered, but he didn’t do session work.
On Monday, the lawyer called back. “I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” he said, “but Ornette listened to your record over the weekend. He says he knows exactly why you want him to play on this project and he’d love to do it.”
Such is the unsung mojo of Joe Henry.
Henry, who spent his first nine years in Charlotte and Atlanta before moving north, still has the soft twang and impeccable manners of a Southerner. I interviewed him in the DIY studio behind his Pasadena home, a tiny room crammed with an astonishing array of guitars, keyboards, amps, and mics. The decor included a gigantic photo of his hero Richard Pryor, a pair of ancient boxing gloves, and a placard presented to his wife, Melanie Ciccone, “For Outstanding Service as President of the Van Husen High School Student Council, 1976-77.”
Henry’s patience was particularly noteworthy, as he was in the midst of moving to a new home, an event that was provoking considerable unrest from his eight-year-old daughter, Lulu, as well as his minidachshund, Sadie, who, toward the end of the interview, peed on the rug.
THE BELIEVER: You’re clearly inspired by film. Are certain writers an inspiration as well?
JOE HENRY: Absolutely. I mean, it’s really limiting to talk about songwriting in terms of other songwriters. I don’t know how many interviews I’ve done where people ask, “What songwriters did you grow up listening to?” And I could rattle them off. But I’ve been just as influenced, if not more so, by other forms. I’ve written some of my favorite songs coming out a movie theater. My juices are really revved up. It’s not like I listen to a song and want to write another song.
BLVR: Do you have an example in mind?
JH: I wrote much of the album Shuffletown  while reading Eudora Welty, though I wrote the song “John Hanging” immediately after watching Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. I don’t know the connection there. When I was stuck trying to write the song “Want Too Much” [from Fuse], I got myself unstuck by reading Ginsberg’s poem “America.” Thirteen verses followed.
But it’s broader than that. I remember one particular day—I was maybe nineteen, twenty. I hadn’t made my first demos yet, and I read the first paragraph of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and I thought, I have a clean slate. I have a completely different notion of what good writing is and how it can work. I used to be able to quote the opening sentence verbatim. It’s a guy waiting to be executed, and he remembers his grandfather taking him to see ice for the first time—and it’s the most startling image. It was like somebody took a big hood off my head. I felt daunted and ashamed and… liberated. I hadn’t known I was allowed to do that. García Márquez said the same thing when he first read “The Metamorphosis.” He was suddenly liberated. It’s like, as an artist, you look for someone to give you permission to be your true self.
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