By Jason SchneiderWhen thinking about Joe Henry, the description "the straw that stirs the drink" readily comes to mind. Like his mentor, T-Bone Burnett, he has the uncanny ability to bring out the best in everyone he works with, having proven that by producing late-career masterpieces for the likes of Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette, and most recently, Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Yet, this reputation has not come at the expense of his own career as a singer-songwriter, which over the past two decades has seen him undergo a Tom Waits-ian transformation from country-rock troubadour to visionary audio-poet specializing in arcane Americana. Henry's 11th album, Blood From Stars, has a more pronounced jazz feel than arguably any of his previous work - aided in no small part by the saxophone playing of his son Levon - although overall it remains an expected feast for the ears from an artist who deserves to be regarded as one of the most important figures in contemporary American music.
I'd like to say right off the bat how much I enjoyed Ramblin' Jack Elliott's A Stranger Here that came out earlier this year. I'm glad to hear that. That was definitely one for the books. I've known Jack for a really long time, and owe him a debt as many of us do. It was a great coup for me to be able to do a project like that on his behalf.
I think I was mainly blown away by the group of musicians you put together for that session. It really brought clarity to everything he represents. What are your thoughts on that record now? Well, as I said in the liner notes I was obsessed with Woody Guthrie, like most songwriters of my generation were - I'm 48 now - and it was Jack that I'd first heard singing Woody's songs. I couldn't find any Woody Guthrie records, so to finally hear those words as actual songs was incredibly meaningful to me, and I've always had a tremendous respect for Jack. Then when you start digging a little deeper, you realize how significant he was during that whole [folk] movement. I'd produced the one song for him for the I'm Not There soundtrack at my house, and after he was here for that afternoon I couldn't stop thinking about what it would be like to try to make a whole record with him, and what concept would we try to put into place that would give shape to the whole thing. I wanted to make sure that it wasn't just ten songs on a pile; I wanted him to be leading a very tough and dark, atmospheric sort of a band. I felt like I could hear it in one instant, in the song "Death Don't Have No Mercy." I was obsessed to hear him sing that, and to me that was an excuse to make the whole record. So I just went with the idea of what kind of record could I create that would allow me to hear him sing this song. And as it turned out, that was the very last thing we recorded. We'd tried it earlier, but it didn't come out as transcendent as I'd hoped it would be. When we cut it again, it was when David Hidalgo was here and I was shaking up a batch of martinis for everybody for a Friday evening and I said, "You know what? Just to quiet my mind, let's run through that song one time with David and Van Dyke [Parks], and if it's not going anywhere, we'll stop." What we had worked, but I had a feeling from what we had just done with David that day that we would pull something new into the boat. When everyone started playing, it immediately turned into that strange, tango-like feel. So I told them all to get in front of a microphone, knowing that whatever this was, it was what we wanted. A lot of the record was like that, mostly because that band could automatically hear something that was authentic for Jack, and at the same time it was a sound that he clearly had never attempted before. That's always the goal when you're working with a great legacy artist who has a tremendous amount of history that you're playing upon. How do you do something that sounds like them, yet is still wholly unique unto itself?
Was Blood From Stars something that came out of that, or do you always separate your own music from your production work? Well, I'm always writing. I don't make records based on a calendar. There's plenty of music in the world; I make records when I have one to make, and I think doing so much production for other people allows me the luxury of that attitude. I'm getting completely satiated through other projects that I'm not just kicking around the house in a bathrobe until I make another record. I'm always putting songs on a pile, and at a certain point a group of them will start to identify themselves as the body of something, either overtly or obtusely. I'd kind of noticed quickly with this record that I had a particular pile of songs that were going somewhere, and at that stage it's easy to finish. It's like writing a play and knowing that I need a scene that does this, and a scene that does this. So I wrote what needed to be filled in, and then I wanted to hit it as quickly as I could while I could see it and hear it. Everybody I work with is busy, thankfully, so back in the fall I had to identify a time in February or March when I could get all of them together for a week. Once I got that on the calendar, it became easy to finish, because I'm a very deliberate writer and editor, so by the time I get into the studio I'm not really messing around with the songs anymore. I think that's what makes me feel so liberated in the studio; even if we're struggling to get something on tape, I know that there's still a song there that I believe in.