Joe Henry
Joe Henry Credit: Lauren Dukoff

Since the mid-80s Joe Henry has been one of America’s most thoughtful singer-songwriters, and while his earliest work was often called alt-country, over time his sound has grown to encompass the whole of American music. He’s also developed into an accomplished producer who specializes in framing veterans (Bettye LaVette, Allen Toussaint, Mose Allison, Solomon Burke) in musical contexts that rebooted their careers. Henry is interviewed here by Steve Dawson, one of Chicago’s most talented singers-songwriters, who performs in the bands Stump the Host and Dolly Varden and, as a solo artist, has surveyed a range of Americana nearly as broad as Henry has. Joe Henry plays Old Town School of Folk Music on Fri 1/27. Steve Dawson performs with Dolly Varden at Schubas on Sat 1/28. —Peter Margasak

I’ve been a fan of your songwriting for probably 15 years. How do you begin to write a new song? I don’t set out to write about something in particular. It’s incredibly rare that I’ve had an idea in advance.

Steve Dawson

Are you sitting with a guitar or at the piano? Is music involved right from the beginning? It can be, but it happens in every possible permutation. I am really lyric oriented. I always have been, even as a seven-year-old. The first songs that completely captivated me [did so] in large part because of some kind of narrative voice. I start writing like I might write a letter to my brother. I don’t know what I have to tell him, but as soon as I sit down to start writing, I find that I do. I just try to spool off as much raw resource as I can. I’m creating bolts of cloth, and once I have those I can make anything out of them. I find it easy to come back and tailor something that’s an intact idea, even a very rough one.

You must naturally think in terms of the voices of characters. Once I begin writing, it’s very natural to give over to a character’s voice. I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally written about myself autobiographically. I finish a song and look back and recognize how my life experience is manifested in the song. But that’s never my intention.

You’re a superbusy guy. You’re producing records and making your own. How do you find time to write? I’m just sort of writing all the time. Or I’m not. I don’t get overly concerned. I feel that whether I’m writing a letter or an essay, I’m still sharpening the same blade. I don’t find that I write less because I’m busier. If I’m incredibly busy I might feel more inclined to be writing in those moments that I can find, just because my creative adrenaline level is high.

I imagine having produced Mose Allison—or any of the people whose work you’ve produced—is really inspiring. That’s the good part about producing other people. I no longer regard that as a separate pursuit from what I do as an artist. When I have someone like Mose here, or Aaron Neville, or Loudon Wainwright, I can be really, really inspired by the window they provide. Being around someone that I admire and that excites me creatively makes me want to get to work.

There must be moments when you’re producing these legendary people when you’re just in awe. All the time. I’ve walked into the bathroom and looked in the mirror and quite literally thought, “How did I get here?” Mose was certainly one of those moments. When I was doing Aaron Neville’s record here the year before last and Allen Toussaint was here on piano, I had the greatest time. I’ve known Allen for so long that it can seem incredibly natural to stand in front of him. At the same time, I can walk into my kitchen and see Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint at my table, talking over tea. I would never have imagined a scenario like this. It’s never lost on me.

I was thinking about the Ornette Coleman thing. You wrote on your website that it came to you as a conceptual idea that could never actually happen—and then somehow it came to be that Ornette played on the Richard Pryor song [“Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” on Scar]. I thought of Ornette immediately. I wasn’t thinking of it as possible—I just know his music well enough to know that that ethos was significant to what I was trying to do. And then serendipity just sort of took over. I was on the phone with my lawyer, who was in New York, and he mentioned without relation to anything that he was going to have lunch with Ornette Coleman the next day. I told him of course you’re not going to clutter this first lunch doing this bidding for me, but at the point when it seems comfortable I think I want you to give him a letter for me. That’s how I’ve always worked. If I have an idea, I try really hard to follow through on it—not because I’ll know where it’ll go, but you can talk yourself out of anything. You can convince yourself that it’s not worth trying, because it seems unattainable at some level. But I’ve had enough great fortune with people being responsive to me, historically, that if I have an idea, I marry it to an action. So I wrote Ornette a letter and I sent him my record Fuse. My thought was if he listens to Fuse, he’ll be confused as to why I want to work with him. I really believed he’d be baffled by me. He read my letter, but he has a rule against being a sideman historically. I got word back from somebody in his camp that, look, he’s been asked by people all over the world. His feeling is that if he says yes to you and no to somebody else, it’s like he’s judging the music. He doesn’t want to do that, so he just says “no thank you.” Well, that’s what I expected. And then two days later, the same person called me back and said, “Hey, Ornette spent the weekend listening to your records and said he understood exactly why you want to work with him and he’d love to.” And that was that.

Let me ask you a question about producing your own records. It seems that the newer record is looser on purpose, and that was obviously a conscious choice. You recorded it live, all sitting in the same room. Could you talk a little bit about that? It’s fragmented and frayed, and that was by design. There’s so much real weather in the room when people play together, and if you have an engineer that knows not only how to get what every instrument is doing, but to take a picture of the relationship in the room—like the bleed between instruments if you’re standing halfway between the piano and a drum kit—the air itself is an evocative sound. All the ambient noise is like having a fifth musician in the room.

I noticed the drum sound in particular was bouncing all around. [Drummer] Jay [Bellerose] and I had both been listening intently to the trio record between Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, called Money Jungle. They’re playing beautiful ballads throughout, but very aggressively and in the same room and you can really hear the drums, the piano, and the bass colliding against the walls. It provides this incredibly potent, dark energy that pushes the songs along, and I was really intrigued by that attitude. I had already decided I was going to make an all-acoustic album, but I didn’t want that to mean it was going to be small and polite. I don’t say this as any offense to James Taylor, but I wasn’t trying to make a James Taylor album. It wasn’t about making it more demure; it was about how much texture and rumble there really is between each instrument.

I think that it underlies a certain—maybe “desperation” isn’t the right word, but . . . Oh, “desperation” is a fine word.

It feels like things could fall apart and that these people are sort of at their wits’ end. There’s this suggestion that the characters are on the fringe of something. But as we all know, when people are the most broken, that’s when they’re susceptible to real revelation.

It sort of reminded me—I hope this is a compliment—of the Band’s second album. My son’s name is Levon if that tells you anything.