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JOE HENRY RETROSPECTIVE

Henry on Henry
Hearsay #20 / 1999

joehenryjoehenry"I don't recognize this record as having very much to do with me: like seeing a picture in a magazine of your head grafted on to the body of Barbara Eden"

I was asked, dear friends, to write for you a brief reflection on my recorded body of work. That makes me sound, I know, as if I think I'm Glenn Miller or Al Jolson, but I assure you this is not the case. Not yet, anyway. Still, I will shed light where I can and hope it doesn't sound eulogistic or overly nostalgic. And be advised that I am flying completely from memory; it would take love and serious money to entice me to actually go and listen to all of this again. I'm an artist, and I don't look back.

PHASE ONE

TALK OF HEAVEN: My first record from 1986 (I was eleven), released on Profile Records (allegedly). This album, I should say up front, has served me better in theory than it ever would have in application. By that I mean to say that people have shown wild interest in it only because they haven't—and can't—hear it. To the few who have, I'm sure it sounds like what it was: first demos pressed to vinyl. I still live under the belief that there are some good songs there, but they do not exist as realized recordings. Only skeletons, to which I believed I would assign organs and flesh later. Its existence did facilitate my move to New York and helped create the illusion that I was, in fact, a ‘professional’. Beyond that, I remember it like the musical equivalent to jr high school. But you live and learn. And my parents taught me to harbour no grudges.

MURDER OF CROWS: My first record for A&M was produced by Anton Fier (the drummer and the brain behind the Golden Palominos projects). This was my first experience with both a major label and a producer, and though I lost a lot of sleep over it at the time, I understand things a bit differently now. Suffice it to say that Anton and I had entirely different records in mind. And the label had a lot more invested in his way of thinking. I became the frame and voice for his vision, and, while I learned a great deal, I don't recognize this record as having very much to do with me: like seeing a picture in a magazine of your head grafted on to the body of Barbara Eden. And not that I don't think Barbara is probably a perfectly nice person. But her clothes just wouldn't look right on me, and would no doubt give some people the wrong idea. But I did work with Van Dyke Parks, and Mick Taylor and Chuck Leavell and David Bromberg. And it gave me plenty to talk about at cocktail parties for some time to come.

My second and last record for A&M was called SHUFFLETOWN. It was produced by my long-time friend T-Bone Burnett (who I had just met at the time), and represents my attempt at ‘starting over’ after the frustrations of the record before. We recorded ‘live’ in the studio direct to two-track stereo tape, and I am still proud of the band that I was able to assemble for the four-day sessions: Jazz legends Don Cherry (trumpet) and Cecil McBee (acoustic bass); young jazz titan Phil Kelly (piano); David Mansfield (multi-instrumentalist and alumnus of a couple of Bob Dylan's bands); Michael Blair (drums and percussionist who had been recording and touring with Tom Waits); and, of course, T-Bone, who by his participation provided me enough credibility in the eyes of my record label that they stayed the hell away from me (he is a very tall man, if you don't know). I had tried to interest Charlie Rich in playing piano, as I thought it would be a gas to hear him and Don play together, but I couldn't get him away from his chicken franchise in Memphis, and maybe just as well. Anyway, I found it terribly exciting to play a song and crowd into the control room to hear a playback. Musically, it was exactly what I set out to do at the time, which I counted as a major victory. It sounded to all of us involved like gypsy music, and it was terrific fun. Not to mention that I got to be seen walking around New York and sipping espresso with Don Cherry—someone I had admired since my early teens when I first heard his work with Ornette Coleman. Life is beautiful, and this record gave me a career in Holland, for some reason.

But Holland didn't mean much to A&M Records. I thought I had just made 'Veedon Fleece' (ah, youth...), which had encouraged me to try expanding my rather folkie melodies with a jazz vocabulary. But I had just moved from New York to Los Angeles and, still fairly undaunted, decided to try something different. As I hadn't had the help of A&M in regards to touring, I put together a mutually beneficial tour with my new friends and peers The Jayhawks. We toured the midwest and southern United Snakes in their converted ambulance (I like to keep some extra oxygen handy at all times); they would open the show as The 'Hawks, and then back me up for my set. I had never played with a band that was A Band before, and became infatuated by the way they fell into arrangements as a unit. My songs were intricate and a little too much like work for us all, but their set always swung, and had a great openness that I loved. So once home, I set out to write the next record with their sound in mind—or at least, the sound that we had started to find together, augmented as we were by their old, and my new friend, Mike Russell on violin and mandolin. I was without a record deal and so devised to use the demo fund from my publisher to fly to Minneapolis and record twelve songs over a weekend with Mike and The Jayhawks. I'm not romanticising it to say we recorded in an office building after-hours live to 8-track tape (though it does sound romantic, doesn't it?), but we did; all of us in a line at the secretaries' desks, looking at pictures of their lovely children and dead-beat ex-husbands. We had to be out by 8:00 AM Monday morning, and we were. And these demos became my next opus...

SHORT MAN'S ROOM. I liked the recordings well enough that it seemed beside the point to hunt a new deal and re-do everything just because I could. It was loose and raw and all very spontaneous, and the songs were very fresh to me at the time. So I offered it to Mammoth Records (then an indie) as a finished piece of work, and they bit. This and my next record KINDNESS OF THE WORLD, which I also recorded with some of The Jayhawks, among others, were responsible for people (especially in the UK) thinking that I was some sort of ‘country artist’. Or ‘Alt. Country’, or ‘Country-rock’ or ‘Folk-Rock’ artist. Sonically, it served my interests at the time, but left me feeling fairly limited as a writer and singer. I was listening to Edith Piaf and crying myself to sleep every night, and by the time KINDNESS was in the can, I was fairly disheartened by what I had (and had not) achieved. It was frustrating in a lot of ways to have to tour and talk about that record for the next year of my life. Not that I wasn't proud of it (and it was critically very well received), but it was like the evangelists on TV are so fond of saying: I had it all and yet... something was missing.

But mostly, I was sick of the clothes. I saw an old tape of Marvin Gaye on television one night, and that did it. I mean, there he was, on stage in white silk pajamas. A sexy motherfucker. And I felt... well, insignificant. I needed help. I needed to stop the madness. And I needed some white silk pajamas. Fast.

PHASE TWO

I've always listened to and loved all kinds of music. And I've been influenced by all of it, in one way or another (as I have been by movies, books, fashion and snack crackers). But when you begin a career in music, people hear where you are and assume that that's all you are. And if you're not careful, you might start assuming the same thing. I did, for a while, hear my ‘voice’ as a writer, producer and singer, and believe it was all that was available to me. And it's funny in retrospect to think that I could have been frustrated to the point of quitting without thinking first that maybe I just ought to learn a new way to work. But once someone put my nose in it—that someone being my new co-producer Patrick McCarthy (who had worked with U2 and Robbie Robertson, among others, and by now has engineered Madonna and produced REM)—I felt liberated for the first time; the recording process now becoming as much ‘a process’ as writing had always been. The turning point was in taking a bit of my recording budget (okay, a lot of it), and setting up a studio in my garage, allowing me to work whenever I wanted, piece by piece; allowing me to write to new rhythms, record to loops, play bass, and steal like a thief with my sampler. I was free from the role of Boy Scout Leader, which is how I always felt trying to lead six or more players in the studio during ‘live’ sessions. And as I learned all this, I made a record called TRAMPOLINE, which again, felt like starting over from scratch. I wrote backwards: from the groove up instead of letting lyrics dictate everything. I was also writing lyrics that were less narrative and more fragmented, in a way that I hoped the music was. I was using technology, but like a primitive, and many beautiful mistakes resulted.

And now here I am, having just finished a new record called FUSE, and I hope it is yet another leap towards technological advancement, higher learning, and beautiful accident. I recorded most of this record at home, producing it myself and deliberately working with musicians who were almost all new to me (the exceptions being T-Bone Burnett and Daniel Lanois, friends of many years who both did some mixes and offered keen insight and encouragement as I toiled). I did, in fact, try to interest Dr Dre in producing me, so great is my admiration for the way his records sound, but to no avail. I believe, though, that in time he'll be sorry for his reckless disregard for my project. And when he is, I'll try to be ready for him. In the meantime, I will continue my free-fall, learning what I can, bad-mouthing what I can't, and subverting what I don't understand. I think that that, all in all, is the hallmark of all great men.

Cheers,

Joe Henry
Los Angeles
, CA February 1999

 
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