Joe Henry's earliest releases made it seem as though he had his feet firmly planted in the world of folk, country, and roots-rock. But, judging from albums like his exciting new Scar, it's sometimes hard to believe he even has his feet firmly planted on the planet. Henry's music incorporates the raw ingredients of blues and jazz, shaping them into a unique and iconoclastic sound. The Onion A.V. Club recently spoke to the songwriter about his work, collaborations with artists from Ornette Coleman to sister-in-law Madonna, and his place in popular music.
The Onion: At this point, how would you categorize your music?
Joe Henry: Well, I'm not being coy: I don't. It's not my business to categorize what I do. Again, I'm not being stubborn, but I just think that a lot of people in my basic age group grew up listening to records with everything available. We're influenced by everything, and you can't help but for your own voice to be kind of pushed around by 100 things. I just assume that my point of view as a musician, as a writer, and as far as the production and whatnot, is to just become a product of availability. I've heard everything and I love everything.
O: Sure, but pretend that you work in a record store. Where would you put it?
JH: In the Joe Henry section. I guess it would be in the rock section. I grew up in a period of time when rock music in this country had already hybridized into a dozen things. So I'd put it in the pop/rock section, because it is pop music. How popular remains to be seen, but it is on purpose, and decisively, pop music.
O: Your new album might be the most challenging of your recent output, but at times it sounds like your most accessible.
JH: I never think of my records as being inaccessible. It's always other people who point that out to me. If I were aware of that, then I would think of myself as being deliberately difficult, which I'm not. I think this is my most accessible record, but I also think it's the most ambitious. Obviously, I just have a very particular, specific point of view, but I don't feel that ambition and accessibility are mutually exclusive. One place my ambition took me was to write songs in a much more emotionally direct way.
O: You're one of the few pop musicians to have collaborated with Ornette Coleman.
JH: You know, I may even be the only one. I'm not sure if anyone's done it before.
O: I think Jerry Garcia worked with him.
JH: Yeah, you're right. He did something with Jerry Garcia, though I don't know if that ever came out.
O: How did you get Coleman involved?
JH: I was writing that song and had a vision that his musical voice was exactly right, and I pursued him. I've been really fortunate in my career that when I've had such ideas about collaborating with peopleeven though it may seem really daunting as an ideathey're pretty receptive if you approach them with respect and a genuinely appropriate idea of what they might do. I approached Ornette, and his first response was kind of, "No, thank you, I don't do that sort of thing." He gets asked all the time, and he always has been asked to do that sort of thing. He makes a policy not to do one thing over another thing, because he thinks it implies that he's judging the music that people want to make, and he doesn't want to do that. So he just says no. But, as luck would have it, when he heard my last record
[1999's Fuse] and reflected on what I was doing, he found himself to be musically very interested in collaborating with me.
O: Speaking of your past collaborations, a lot of people were introduced to your music through your two collaborations with The Jayhawks. Those albums are so different from what you're doing now that I wonder if you've noticed your audience changing as your music changes.
JH: Oh, sure. I meet a lot of people who have never heard a record before Trampoline, you know? I never play a show where someone doesn't yell out for something from that period of my body of work. For a lot of people, that still is ground zero.
O: Did some sort of epiphany spark the transition from what you were doing with The Jayhawks to what you began with Trampoline?
JH: I don't know if I would look back and classify it as an epiphany. I reached a point where I was fed up with what I felt like I was musically able to accomplish. I felt like if I didn't learn a new way to do this, then I wouldn't do it anymore. I guess that's an epiphany of sorts.
O: You got a lot of press for your most recent collaboration with Madonna. How did the collaboration come about? Did you just donate your lyric?
JH: No, it didn't exactly happen that way. I had written "Stop," as you hear it now, as a tango, and way before I recorded it for my record, I just had a demo of it. She heard it and was really taken with the lyric, even though musically what I was doing didn't at all fit the record she was making at that moment. A couple of months went by, and she still found herself intrigued by the lyric, so she called me one day and said, "How would you feel if I kind of radically readdress the music so that it makes sense in the context of my record, but use your lyric as a jumping-off point?" Of course, I said, "Knock yourself out."
O: It must be strange to hear a song that sort of is your song and isn't your song.
JH: I don't think that at all. It's a completely different thing. I don't hear it and think, "Oh, it's half of my thing and partly not." I look at that collaboration as a thing unto itself. I barely relate the two. When I recorded my record, I went back to my original orchestrated tango approach. Many people don't know the relation between the two songs unless it's pointed out to them. They don't hear the lyric and say, "Hey, that's the Madonna song."
O: The syntax of the delivery is so different.
JH: I'm just that much more convinced that people don't listen to words. Most listeners don't listen to lyrics. It's all about the groove. People don't recognize it as the same thing.
O: That's the challenge: Trying to make the meaning of the songs clear while at the same time balancing it with the music.
JH: That's the great fun of it. It's a great tool. You can take a lyric and put a decidedly different spin on it with the undercurrent of the music. It's a terrifically evocative tool when you take a happy lyric and cast it in a dark place, and you get a completely different musical response than if you had just written a more upbeat melody or a decidedly darker lyric. The juxtaposition of the two is a great effect.
O: It also rewards further listens to explore that balance.
JH: I think so. I'd hate to think I made a record that you listen to one time, and you're inclined to think that you've taken all the good from it. "Oh, I know what that is. No point going back to it." If there's not a healthy layer of mystery, there's nothing that makes people think that they're going to revisit it and still take something away from it. I've been listening to some of the same records for 20 years, and they still sound mysterious to me, evocative and alluring.
O: It's also fun to listen to old albums on different stereos.
JH: I do the same thing. If I hear something in the car, there's a different frequency that's kind of highlighted by whatever system you're listening on. There are things that I've put on my albums that I had forgotten about, where I go, "Oh, yeah, there's that!" They're subliminally there when you listen to it, though not completely inaudible. But these things are always different. The state of your mind as a listener that day can be really different. You tune into things that you might have ignored before.
O: You've worked with players as varied as Mick Taylor, Richard Thompson, and Ornette Coleman. Do you sometimes find it hard to tell the musicians what to do?
JH: It depends. When I made this new record, we were tracking live, and I'm all about liberating everybody. To me, it's all about being a great casting director and getting great people in a room. I'm not Prince. I wouldn't tell the bass player what notes to play, as I'm sure he frequently does, because that's the kind of musical mind he is. I do demos of the songs at home alone, and I know what that is. I have no interest in going in there and trying to recreate that in higher fidelity. Nothing makes me happier than to go in and completely forget about the roadmap that is the demo and have it turn into something else. It can always be different. Get these people in a room on this particular day. What will it become? I have no interest in trying to overly drive the proceedings. To me, it's like jumping into the ocean. There's a current already in play, and you learn to surf, swim on top, or get pulled under, but you're not going to control it. So when I'm in a room with Marc Ribot, and Brian Blade, and Me'Shell NdegéOcello, and Abe [Laboriel Jr.] and Dave [Pilch], what will happen? I can't wait to find out.