An Interview with Joe Henry

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Almost Famous: An Interview with Joe Henry
By Gail Worley

Joe Henry is one of those artists you tend to discover either by word of mouth or by accident. He's made eight critically acclaimed albums covering genres as diverse as country, jazz, blues, and rock, but is far from a household name. Henry gets loads of press, but -- unless you count the eclectic programming of NPR -- little or no radio airplay. He looks like Paul McCartney circa 1965, but has never exploited his boyishly handsome good looks. Chances are, if you're familiar with one of his more popular songs, it's because it was recorded by and became a huge hit for his very famous sister-in-law, a woman we all know as Madonna. Keen ears will recognize the song "Stop," a dark, seductive tango off Henry's latest release, Scar, as being Madonna's über-hit, "Don't Tell Me," (it's the video where she dances around in a cowboy get-up) despite its wildly different arrangement. That Henry is happily married to one of Madonna's younger sisters is perhaps just one of those many fortunate cosmic occurrences that frequent his life. Many times during our conversation, Joe Henry emphasizes how fortunate he feels that he's able to make a living doing what he loves, and acknowledges how blessed his life and career are. That superstardom has, to this point, eluded him seems of little consequence.

Past 11 PM on a school night, Joe Henry spoke with Ink 19 from his home in suburban Los Angeles about "accidentally" writing a hit song for Madonna, the mystery of his own creative muse, and told a pretty good story about meeting one of his most revered musical heroes.

To someone who's never heard your music before, and has no idea who you are, what song of yours would you play for them to give them the best idea of what you're all about?

I would say [long pause] the one from the beginning of my new record, "Richard Pryor?"

Tell me more about how you came up with that title, "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation."

Believe me, I tried everything to get rid of it [laughs]. I didn't set out to address my interest in Richard Pryor in a song. It wasn't so deliberate. The song just presented itself to me, and I realized, as I was writing it, what it was about and where it was going. After I wrote the song, the title presented itself, kind of at the end. I thought it was ludicrous and I tried to get rid of it, but it seemed like a thread on a sweater: You better just leave it alone, but then you start pulling on it and the whole thing comes apart. I really thought that somehow, even if I couldn't exactly, literally account for it, that [the title] gave you a handle as to how to listen to the song, and it was a subtitle to the song, in a way. I imagined him, his thoughts about himself and this country, and I imagined the nation listening to him and having a response to what he was saying and giving him a response about where he was and who he became, but that's all after the fact. It's easy to have ideas and clarity in retrospect. [Songwriting is] a lot more mysterious than that to me. The process is a lot more mysterious. I think that, for some songwriters, it can be seen as more of a gift that you can hone, rather than a skill that you learn. There's certainly a songwriting school that says you can only write what you know. You start out with an idea and then learn how can you put it in three verses that rhyme. For me, writing is a process of finding out what you're writing about, because I almost never know when I begin something. I come across a line or image that feels musical to me, and it's like a hunk of something sticking out of the ground. You just have to keep digging and uncovering it until you find out what it is. I just wonder how it is that you aren't really ridiculously famous. You should be thought of as the modern day Bob Dylan or something. I don't really have an answer for you. I make a fine living and I haven't had a regular job since 1983. I've been what they like to call a "Critics' Darling" for a long time -- [and that's] kind of like an albatross. It's kind of a code word in my business. "Critics' Darling" is a really polite way of saying, "This man does not sell any records to speak of." I've always felt like I was respected, but I don't know why some things go over the way they do and some things don't. Timing and luck have a lot to do with it, and I've always been incredibly lucky. I would never pretend I wasn't. On my worst days, I think I should be farther along than I am in my state of visibility. On other days, I think I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be. If I wasn't, I wouldn't be doing the work that I'm doing, and I'm happier doing this work than I've ever been in my career. You can't really have it both ways.

I guess not. Still, it must be at least somewhat frustrating.

It's not like going to Med school; where you go through an internship and then you get played somewhere. Everybody who's been successful has a very unique story as to how they got there. I get letters from young musicians all the time and I'm always a little taken aback at first that they look at me as somebody who's successful. I think, well, certainly I am. I have a lovely house and I take care of my family and I do exactly what I want to do. I don't know anybody who sells fewer records than me who still gets to make records on their own terms. Sometimes it's dodgier than other times trying to get that accomplished. I tell you, when I was in the studio working on this record with Ornette Coleman, I was thinking "How can I think I'm not where I'm supposed to be?"

Yeah, you've collaborated with some tremendous talents.

I've been really lucky. I've worked with some fabulous people. I've also found that, you know, you get an idea [and you just have to go with it]. Ornette is a good example -- that occurred to me purely as a musical idea. It was an abstraction, where I was writing the song and I just had an idea about Ornette's musical voice and what that would do to my song. But, at that moment, I might as well have decided that I wanted Edith Piaf to sing with me. I didn't think of it as feasible. I just thought, "well here's an idea that's come to me, I'm going to find out if this is an idea that tells me more about what the song is supposed to be." It didn't occur to me at the time that that was something in the realm of possibility. It's easy to talk yourself out of those things; "Oh, I can't get to Ornette. He wouldn't be interested." But you find out -- I certainly found out -- that almost nobody has ever told me no. Other musicians are frequently shockingly supportive and have incredibly broad taste. I listen to wildly different music, and Ornette, it wasn't a stretch for him to decide to work with me, apparently. He was enthused and immediately felt a kinship to what I was doing, he understood it. He regarded me as a peer.

I wanted to ask you about the song that you wrote and recorded as "Stop," that Madonna recorded as "Don't Tell Me," for her album, Music. Did you write that arrangement for her?

No, I didn't. You know, I had a demo of "Stop" -- a pretty clear demo of what it became, it was a tango, that I did at my home studio with string samples. I thought the song was either really, really good, or just embarrassingly direct, in a way that I'm not normally. It never occurred to me that she would be interested in it. You know, I never pitched a song to her, it never occurred to me. It's just a line I've never crossed. I've never, on a Sunday afternoon at dinner, said "Hey, I've got a new song you should listen to." I don't want her to see me coming and think I've got opportunity in my eyes.

But somehow, she heard your demo?

That's exactly what happened. I played the demo for my wife and for some odd reason -- she's a very instinctive person -- she said, "You know, I can really hear Madonna singing this song. You should send it to her, you know, she's making a record in London right now." I thought, "you know, if I was going to pitch something to her, I could probably dig something up, but it certainly wouldn't be this." A day went by, and she goes, "If you're not going to send it to her, give me a copy and I'll send it to her," and I said sure. I burned a CD of the demo and Melanie sent it over to London and I heard back from her probably within 24 hours of her having gotten it. She really loved it, but it was so musically different from the record she was making that she didn't know how she could make any use out of it. That was kind of the reaction I expected. Time went on, and I was talking to Madonna on the phone one day about this and that, and she goes, "What are you going to do with that song, by the way?" And I said, "I'm just writing for a record and it's on the pile." And she said, "How would you feel if I rearranged the music so it fits in better with the record I'm making?" I said, you know, try to offend me. You know, what could she do? I was wildly curious. Again, months went by, and I got an e-mail from her where she wrote -- almost as a P.S. -- "I recorded the song. I'll send it to you as soon as I put the strings on it." That's the first time I actually heard that she'd recorded it.

That's exciting!

Oh, it was great. It was terrific.

I had seen the video for Madonna's version on MTV or whatever, and I thought it was a good song. Then, when I put on Scar and started listening to it, right away I was like, "This is that Madonna song!" I recognized it from the lyrics immediately.

It's been a real hard lesson for me as a songwriter -- because I've always been very word oriented -- to realize how many people in-the-know have heard both versions and it never occurs to them that it's the same song. And I realized that, you know, groove is everything. If you have some kind of hypnotic groove going on, lyrics, to most listeners, become absolutely invisible. On the other hand, I heard from a lot of people who said, without knowing that I had anything to do with it, that it was their favorite thing she'd ever done. Like, "What a strange thing for her to be singing." So I guess I'm surprised by how much people do notice lyrics.

It's cool that she kept the lyrics the same.

When I heard that Madonna had recorded it -- and I knew that she'd taken some liberties with it -- I assumed that what she had done was radically alter the lyric. So, when I finally got a copy of it -- I still remember the pouring rainy day in March or something, I'd been at the studio working all day -- and I got back to the house. My first thought was just absolute shock that, lyrically, it had remained completely intact. I thought, "if she's going to use the song, the first thing that will go is 'Open mouth of a grave/...Like a calf down on its knees.' That will never stand." But I think that's exactly what she liked about it, the fact that it's such a pop groove with lyrics so obtuse and dark. But it still surprised me that she respected the integrity of the lyric; I certainly didn't ask her to. Believe me, I'm not precious about what I do. I'm serious about it, but I'm not overly precious about it.

Has this whole experience, and her having such a huge hit with the song, gone far towards raising your profile at all?

With Scar, I've been a lot less in obscurity than I was. I've always gotten really, really good press, but I've noticed a difference in my visibility with this record. I'm sure Madonna anointing me as being valid -- her validating me to a certain group of people -- has helped. But there are people who have been fans -- journalists for example, who felt they had the ammunition with this record to give me more space. You know, I've never had half a page piece in the Sunday New York Times before. But I'm sure Madonna has had something to do with that. It certainly hasn't hurt me any. Keith Richards said, "there's no such thing as bad publicity."

I read somewhere that you were in an episode of Dharma & Greg on which Bob Dylan was making a cameo appearance, and you were a member of his back-up band?

Yes, I was.

What was that like?

Completely surreal is what it was like. It happened because of my good friend, T-Bone Burnett, who just surfaces in my life with regularity and performs some kind of strange miracle or ritual. It was one of those things where I hadn't talked to T-Bone in many months, and I get a call at, like, nine o'clock one morning; "Hey Joey, what are you doing?" I'm like, "well, I'm doing some laundry?" "No, what are you doing tonight, man?" I'm like, "I don't know, T-Bone, what am I doing tonight?" He's like, "Come down to 20th Century Fox, wear some black pants, bring a few guitars with you." It was very cryptic. Apparently Bob, at some moment of whimsy, had agreed to appear as the punch line of this episode of a sitcom. He called T-Bone and asked him to put a band together to support him that night. So, I went down there thinking this might not happen at all; I could play with him and not even meet him. Anything could happen. It turned out it was a complete gas. I've turned down opportunities to meet him in the past, because I just didn't want to be somebody in a receiving line with my hand out. You know, if it's ever appropriate to meet him, great, but I just won't be one of those people. "Hello Bob, I'm a songwriter too," ya know?

I hear you.

But there I was. He seemed to know very well who I was, he was a complete sweetheart, and it was great. We drank martinis out of these big, plastic picnic cups because they didn't want us to look like we were drinking on the set. I was in the make-up room with him -- we were side by side in these salon chairs getting made up -- and the producer came in all flustered and said, "Can I get you guys anything? Water, coffee, soda?" And I was just being giddy, I wasn't trying to be funny, and I said, "Yeah, I'll have a Tanqueray Martini, up with olives," and Bob said (imitating Bob's accent), "Oh yeah, man, I'll have one of those, too." So, because Bob said that, all of a sudden the guys had to actually go out and produce martinis. Otherwise he'd have told me, "Well, we don't have martinis! This is a TV show!" So, there we all, are drinking double martinis out of these picnic cups. And it was great. It makes a good story.

Besides having obvious vocal influences like Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, I know you're a big fan of Frank Sinatra and composers who come from a more classic jazz and blues background -- like Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. Have those artists, or maybe some of their individual songs, been very influential on your own music?

Both, I'm sure. I don't think there's anybody [I like], as an artist, that hasn't been really influential. To maybe a lesser degree, the songs themselves have been very significant in my education. I have a pretty big record collection. It's not that I'm old fashioned, but in terms of stuff that I go back to [listening to], there's just not as much attention to that kind of songcraft [anymore]. People who are writing contemporary songs in the pop world are 19-year-olds who don't have a frame of reference as writers, necessarily. Duke Ellington was doing his best work when he was in his late sixties. In the pop world [today], if you're very eclectic, left of center, the whole gag is, "How do you survive long enough to actually get good?"

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