Branching out beyond reflective folk-based singer/songwriter to artful jazz-affected rhapsodist, multi-talented acoustic guitarist/pianist Joe Henry’s a roving chameleon who has become an entrusted producer for several veteran singers. Fact is, the unrivaled Los Angeles transplant refined and redefined his widening artistic profile over the course of a dozen evolving albums while commendably reintroducing respectful aged-in-the-wool vocalists who’d been unfairly neglected in recent years.
Finding solace wherever he roams (then calls home), Henry’s developed a deeply engrained Americana perspective reflected in his keenly broad lyrical observations and even-keeled temperament, slowly gaining access to a laundry list of reputable musicians from across the country. Esteemed crooning Civil Rights activist, Harry Belafonte, and venerable Delta folk-blues pianist, Mose Allison, Henry’s latest clients, benefit from the same minimalist studio technique previous high-profile customers like soul singer Bettye Lavette, ‘60s folkie Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and New Orleans funk legend Allen Toussaint found integral in regenerating their dissipated careers.
Following three formative, conventional folk-leaning albums, the affable Henry attained a higher profile when alt-country architects, the Jayhawks, offered back-up for ’92 breakout, Short Man’s Room, and ’93’s even better Kindness Of The World. Jazz titans Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry, who’ve “blown” on a few solo sessions, left quite an indelible mark on Henry, as subsequent sets (‘99’s Fuse, ‘01’s Scar, and ‘03’s Tiny Voices) delve into the type of eloquent jazz he’d soon fully explore.
By ‘07’s Civilians, Henry became a raspier crooner whose intimate interpretive abilities, evocative character sketches, cautionary intimations, and shadowy candlelit sonatas sharpened his investigative poetic conviction. Seeking restitution along the trail to contentment, he acquired an unconfirmed taste for Leon Russell’s maudlin heart-on-the-sleeve drawl, sometimes adapting Bob Dylan’s crusty sonorous croak as a reliable tactical device utilized best on grievous battle-scarred requiems. Beat-thickened dirge-y lament, “Time Is A Lion,” handily articulates mortal’s hard luck survival. Dour rumination “Our Song” decries America’s Yellow Alert state through a Willie Mays encounter at Home Depot and may be Henry’s most powerful political tune.
Cut from the same cloth, ‘09’s valiant Blood From Stars features what Henry called “oddly translated country-blues” reanimating long-gone traditionalists Willie Mc Tell, Robert Johnson, and the Carter Family. August studio ace, Marc Ribot, a studied flamenco guitarist, once again adds poignant textural nuances to Henry’s romantic orchestral meditations.
Introspective down-and-out cocktail lounge threnody, “The Man I Keep Hid,” sets the somber tone, creating a slumbering moodscape anchored by a slowly evolving New Orleans piano arrangement interweaving fat Louis Armstrong trumpet through sullen sax and sweet clarinet. Withered and weary broke-down Blues forecast, “Death To The Storm,” continues the funereal march as Ribot’s clipped six-string lines hang in the dense post-midnight air. Even more harrowing (and elementarily similar in stylistic approach), grievous anecdotal portrayal, “Bellwether,” refuses to surrender even as the end draws near.
Drawing from many musical wells, Henry’s sad-eyed slow-grooved acoustical wanderings retain a liberating thoughtfulness aimed straight at the heartland. His rich legacy, not yet fulfilled, may include future film scoring.
Are many of your song ideas based on fictional characters?
There’s all kinds of life experiences happening around us. You don’t have to reference your own particular narrative. To a degree, like Woody Guthrie famously claimed, ‘All you could write is what you know or see.’ But I don’t think he meant you could only write about your own life experiences. Instead, you could only write about what you’ve invested yourself in to feel empathy or sympathy for. It doesn’t have to be your own story to give legitimacy to the point of view. As humans, no matter how diverse we are, we all grapple with the same problems and expectations. It doesn’t have to be a downer to address these things. But those are common threads snaking through everything we do. How do you live vibrantly when you know there’s gonna be an end upon death.
A melancholic Prohibition Era sententiousness inhabits Blood From Stars.
That’s because I can’t play fast. It’s true. I write a lot of the piano, but I don’t know enough to play briskly. In truth, the songs people go back to historically are the melancholy ones. ‘One For My Baby’ will outlive ‘Good Day Sunshine.’ It’s very human to spend very little time celebrating our successes and more worrying over the tiniest things gone astray. From an artistic standpoint, I’d be first to admit I’m not depressed. It’d be disingenuous to claim my life’s a struggle compared to anyone else. I’ve been surprisingly successful and have a wonderful family I’m deeply devoted to. But what struggle reveals in humanity is interesting as an artist.