Singer, songwriter, and Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry has been making records since 1986. He has released a dozen albums of his own songs, most recently Scar (2001), Tiny Voices (2005), Civilians (2007), Blood from Stars (2009), and Reverie (2011). Allmusic.com’s Thom Jurek writes that as a songwriter, Henry occupies “a space that only he and Tom Waits inhabit in that they have created deep archetypal characters and new sonic universes for them to explore and express themselves in.” As a producer, he is sought after for his ability to illuminate the unique character of each musician with whom he works, and he has left his distinct imprint on albums as diverse as Solomon Burke’s Don’t Give Up On Me, which won a Grammy for best contemporary blues album; Ani DiFranco’s Knuckle Down; Aimee Mann’s The Forgotten Arm; Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s collaborative album, The River in Reverse; Toussaint’s The Bright Mississippi; Mose Allison’s The Way of the World; Bettye LaVette’s I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise; I Believe to My Soul, which featured Allen Toussaint, Mavis Staples, Ann Peebles, Irma Thomas, and Billy Preston; the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Genuine Negro Jig, which won a Grammy for best original folk album; and Over the Rhine’s The Long Surrender. His website is www.joehenrylovesyoumadly.com. He was interviewed by Linford Detweiler.
Image: What drew you to music early in life? Was there a definitive moment when you knew you were going to hang your hat mostly on songwriting and performing, or was it a gradual revelation?
Joe Henry: I found myself captivated by songs at a fairly young age—well before I understood that that was happening to me. It seems in retrospect that whenever true emotional understanding was available to me, songs were its delivery system. I have written at length—first in an obituary for Ray Charles (commissioned originally by Esquire, but ultimately published in No Depression)—about how his voice, issuing from a plastic bedside radio in Atlanta in 1967 when I was not quite seven, overwhelmed me so that I could barely take air. He was singing the Beatles’ song “Yesterday,” and even at that tender age I understood instinctively that he wasn’t just singing about a lost young love, but about an unshakable awareness of one’s own mortality. And it scared the piss out of me. Perhaps I have had music—especially song-oriented, narrative-voiced music—as life’s translator. I can accept a lot through the funnel of song that might be difficult otherwise.
During this same period I found myself obsessed with some truly great narrative singers: Glen Campbell doing the Jimmy Webb songs “Galveston”—my first forty-five—and “Wichita Lineman” (both examples of great record-making in every sense); Dusty Springfield doing “Son Of a Preacher Man”; Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe”; and of course a great many songs by Johnny Cash, perhaps my earliest musical hero—who stayed with me likely because he embodied a very persuasive persona that stood outside of any particular song. I made the assumption—and I don’t know what encouraged it—that such singers were the bearers of life’s real truth. What my mom got from the Bible, for instance, I believed I was getting from songs: real-life affirmation and a sense of the perils and wonder and weight of the human experience.
I don’t know exactly when I decided that this would be my life’s dedication; I don’t ever remember it having to be a decision. I knew from Johnny Cash—and Bob Dylan very quickly afterwards, with a thunderous clarity—that I had to live whatever life allowed me to dress like that—to wear pointy boots and glare out over a black guitar.
Image: You often mention authors when you’re asked about your influences, and indeed you write yourself. Your prose is tough and elegant and can feel as if it springs from the well of an earlier, more eloquent era. Who are some of the writers that have loomed large for you?
JH: True enough: novelists and short story writers have been as important in my development as any songwriter—I dare say even more so at times. It is often limiting to talk about music only in terms of other music—too on-the-nose—but one can look for a parallel in painting, film, or prose, and quickly have a new aerial view. My new album, Reverie, was tangibly inspired by very early Picasso works—the tone, terse romanticism, and the balance between the earthly and ethereal, between control and chaos.
A few writers and poets come immediately to mind whose influence has been in no way subtle: Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Nathanael West, J.D. Salinger, Alice Munro, and of course Gabriel Garcia Márquez.
Ray Carver made me aware of the power in describing the wildly dramatic in flat, undramatic terms. As soon as the voice gets quiet, people lean in harder to listen, and the story becomes bigger in scope. It’s a fantastic gag.
Both Welty and O’Connor connected me to the mystery at root of even the most seemingly routine acts, and both have allowed me to embrace my southern heritage—its inherent strangeness—independent of the revulsion and shame I felt about it during my childhood there in the sixties.
Alice Munro continues to turn my head around in the way she sustains tension using the most elegant but conversational language.
And Garcia Márquez changed my entire notion, when I first read him at twenty-one, of what it was possible to conjure with words. He changed the scale with which I measured what I believed good writing to be, and made me reevaluate everything I was just beginning to try to do. In his work, even the simplest gesture can have near-erotic implications, not just in terms of literal sexuality, but in the greater scheme where the desire to live—to self-signify, to continue to survive and crawl upon the earth—is lusty in its determination.
Image: You mentioned your new album, Reverie. There is a wild simplicity to the album’s sonic palette. The raw materials consist solely of your voice, your early-thirties Gibson acoustic guitars, your 1912 Steinway upright piano, a small drum kit, an upright bass, and very little else—although the “little else’” provides immense rewards. When and how did you arrive at this vision for the project?
JH: It may sound like a memory that has been set-dressed after the fact, but the vision for how this record should sound and feel—even down to the inclusion of ambient noise through open windows, and the exact cast of players—came to me in a momentary flash one afternoon last May, while I was jetlagged and walking aimless and alone through the Picasso Museum in Barcelona. I had the epiphanal realization that at this moment in time no single musician has the influence over me nor offers me the direction and inspiration that Picasso does. While looking at a progression of his work—much of it from early on, and small pieces at that, pencil and paint dashed off on pieces of cardboard or salvaged boards—I knew I wanted to do with song what I witnessed him doing in picture. I found the work immediate and not overwrought; funny but rendered with serious intention; dark and sprawling and invariably romantic in its lust for living; referencing classic form, though not hindered by convention.
The simplicity of the tools he used to articulate ideas of great significance and implication seemed to telegraph to me in a heartbeat that what I most desired was to be more expansive but also stripped-down and unveiled. I wanted the sound to be fractured, but to have strength and buoyancy. I wanted the songs, as pieces of writing, to feel dashed off as if in the heat of revelation, yet fully realized; messy—unmannered and untamed—yet deliberate and conscious.
Part of this moment was the excitement of beginning a series of new shows in a favorite city, and with my son Levon and my two closest friends and collaborators, Jay Bellerose and David Piltch, in tow. I was also under the hallucinatory sway of profound fatigue. Reading titles beneath the paintings (as important to me as the pictures, sometimes), I heard where I was going the same way you can become aware of a filling in a tooth: it’s been there for years unobserved, and then for some reason you become keenly aware of its abiding presence, taste the metal. I became aware of a sonic possibility that had long been available, one that didn’t even rely on electricity. I wanted to push the songs into the air like dirt stirred up by bulls in a ring, and I wanted to record them in a way that evidenced all the grit and weather attending the spectacle. I wanted any change in color and tone to result from will and attitude: except for switching guitars here and there to accommodate different tunings quickly, and elements dropping out, the instrumentation never changes. I wanted to say all I had to say with a limited color palette, to wring the nuance out of a very few elements.
Image: The album sounds and feels as if the band gathered together closely in one room. I can hear everything bleeding into everything else. This approach flies in the face of so much modern recording, and Reverie feels feral, unruly in comparison. Why, in spite of the inevitable challenges, did you want the band to lean in to record Reverie?
JH: We knew that we had to be set up as close together as we could physically manage. I had talked about this a lot with Jay in particular: I was at his house for Thanksgiving dinner and we found we’d both been obsessing over the Duke Ellington/Max Roach/Charles Mingus trio album Money Jungle. We were both enthralled by the bleed of sound among them and the tough beauty revealed by the sounds of the trio bouncing around in a single room. We knew instinctively that this was what I had been describing. As keyboardist Keefus Ciancia and engineer Ryan Freeland were attending this same dinner party, we grabbed them both, hustled back to the smokers’ room, set the Ellington record spinning on an old record player, and talked about what was happening therein and what I intended to do. Part of the idea was tangible: to capture the overtones between instruments when people play music in a room together; but part of it was philosophical: to blur the lines between us as practitioners so that we all might disappear together into a song, like pieces of wood feeding a single fire.
Luckily, I commune and work with musician friends who understand this kind of talk and direction. It was no abstraction to them, what I was getting at. And I decided right then that we would push the idea as far as we could and still allow Ryan the same freedom to contribute as any of us. As engineer, he is as big a part of the sonic equation as any of the musicians.
Image: Throughout the record there is ambient noise. It feels as if the whole world is simultaneously breathing and holding its breath with you. The odd bird joins in, a dog miraculously bays the two-note hook in the intro of “Deathbed Version,” and a distant siren wails like the ghost of Doppler himself. Why did you want to record with the windows open?
JH: I am not an autobiographical songwriter by any means, but I am becoming increasingly aware that it is impossible to separate my songs from the life that allows them to happen. I have become less and less concerned with the noise of living when recording, and more and more aware that ambient and accidental sounds do little to take me out of the picture. Quite the contrary. I work on a lot of records, and as they progress I hear songs over and over with the preamble of conversation and the clinking of glasses not yet edited out; and the more I listen, the more the extraneous noise becomes not only a part of the picture, sonically speaking, but becomes invariably musical. Additionally, I stress a great deal over such noise—footsteps overhead, barking dogs, doorbells—when working on behalf of other artists; when it came time to make my own recording, I decided to liberate myself entirely from that worry, and indeed began to see all the sound surrounding me as part of the musical equation of the moment. Once I entered that field, I found the songs and recordings significantly diminished without the birds and dogs and cars. It felt like a film with no score.
That neighbor’s dog baying at the beginning of “Deathbed Version” is as important to my ear now as anything anyone played in the room, as much to the point of the song. Lucky me: the dog and I had our moment on the same take.
Image: Every writer has his or her own standards of perfection. Could you talk about some of yours? What helps you get started? When do you put the pen down and know that you’ve caught it? What do you tend to discard?
JH: It is of paramount importance to me to walk on the wire where songs are both specific enough—emotionally and in their imagery—to invite you in, yet with enough prevailing mystery intact to keep you from ever feeling like the song can’t continue to provoke revelation. If a song is a house, the writer needs to leave enough doors and windows open that listeners can come and go freely. As soon as you nail an idea to the floor and start directing the flow of traffic, the house has become a museum and a relic, not a living space: you can peek in, but you’re not allowed to lie on Mark Twain’s bed or touch his pencils.
As a writer, I am looking for the same thing I look for as a listener: an image or phrase that seduces me. Or a melody that implies forward motion. A title, for instance, can be like a tiny piece of something shiny in the dirt, catching the sun: sometimes you don’t have the time and you step right over; sometimes you wonder if there might be a whole bicycle under there, and if you get down on your knees and start digging, you might be able to pull it loose and ride away on it. But I don’t allow myself to decide in advance where I might ride. Frequently, songs know where they want to go once you’re up on top of them. I just try to keep my balance and remember to look up at railroad crossings.
I might wrestle a song off and on for weeks, or—as happens with the ones that seem most alive—they might reveal themselves over the course of an hour or two; but either way, a song is finished when it seems impervious to manipulation. I laugh out loud with surprise when a third verse, oddly and without preconception, comes along and concludes a thought, or, better, leaves it dangling perfectly and in a way that defies assumption and gravity.
When my wife’s beloved grandmother was telling us how she made a piecrust, she said, “Then you add some cold water to the flour and shortening.” “How much water?” my wife asked. “Oh, just enough, but not more,” she replied. And that’s how long you work on a song.
Image: I remember certain images from your songs the way I remember a particularly vivid image in a film. In “Room at Arles,” a woman is pulling on her stockings on the other side of a thin wall, and the protagonist knows this because of the floor creaking. As a listener, I can barely move because it’s a holy, erotically charged moment that I long to sustain. But you’re actually showing us very little—just barely opening the door on an intimate moment. It feels like the world could explode, it’s so understated. Can you help us understand what is happening here?
JH: I don’t understand the impulse and realization of every song enough to talk about it concretely, much less explain it, but in the case of “Room At Arles,” I know precisely what inspired it, and think I know how it swings upon its hinge: I wrote this in nearly a single sitting, words and music, on December 26, 2009, following the death of my friend Vic Chesnutt. I can’t say I was surprised by his suicide (he’d tried before), but I was heartsick over it nonetheless.
I can now readily see what is happening verse-to-verse, but I didn’t when I wrote it, any more than I normally can. I wrote it to find out what I needed to say, and put one word after another as I have instinctively learned to do, in good faith that an arc would form.
The title refers to Van Gogh’s well-known painting of his humble abode in Arles, and I suppose it’s obvious now that I was thinking of Vic, a similarly troubled artist of great depth and misunderstood powers; but that came after the fact: I don’t believe the character in the song to be either Vic or Vincent specifically, nor do you have to know about either to hear the deafening fall of lonesome that descends as the light fades on this scene.
The opening verse finds the character alone in a small room, and with nothing but a creak to go on, he makes the leap to imagining a woman on the other side of the wall pulling on her stockings. The image he conjures is only made more burdensome by the growing dark, the curtains blowing as if to register his own sense of impending surrender. It is erotically charged, that image of a woman just out of view pulling up stockings, but like many who are alone and despondent, the character is quick to assume wondrous beauty just out of reach, real or not, there for everyone but him.
The camera of the song, then, continues to pull back, following as the character ventures on: out of the rooming house, into the street, and across a field, where he climbs a tree and sees the moon eyeing him—like the rest of the world and he himself, he must feel—with judgment.
And then he lets go.
There are some references particular to Vic for me: a man confined to a wheelchair, if taunted in a tree by a row of crows, might well liken them to useless and dusty shoes he can no longer wear. And then there’s a line I remembered hearing from a mutual friend who, when traveling with Vic, had asked him to go for a walk on a snowy day, and Vic begged off because turning his own wheels would only leave him with cold and wet hands.
Ultimately, though, the song is a reminder that Vic had always been pointing us toward his own determined departure.
Image: Your guitar-playing on Reverie is full of what I would describe as casual virtuosity. It feels very tossed off and in the moment, but the changes and voicings are often dauntingly intricate. Can you read music? Did you study with any particular musicians, or is it an aural tradition that you’ve absorbed from other recordings?
JH: Well, that’s flattering. I love to play guitar. I find it an immensely romantic thing to do, but I have never felt I play particularly well—though my infatuation with certain open tunings has led me to feel I do something unique in service to my songs. Except for three songs on Reverie that feature the great Marc Ribot (my favorite guitar player currently alive, bar none), I play all the guitar you hear, and I loved digging in and playing with my brothers while recording. Like the ambient noise I described earlier, once I embraced what my playing has to offer uniquely and understood its voice, I ceased hearing my own limitations and found I was liberated to hear it all as music. I should add that I chose guitars not only based on tunings, but for that optimal dark thud and string buzz, which I find as musically satisfying and appropriate to these new songs as any note I could reach for.
But no—I have never studied guitar with anyone. I learned, like many of my generation, by sitting in front of a record player as a young teenager, with a Sears Harmony flattop and a capo. I’d put a record on—The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie’s Library of Congress Recordings, Loudon Wainwright’s first four albums, John Prine, Hank Williams, Mississippi John Hurt, Jack Elliott, Van Morrison—and just try to play with each song that went by. I learned the way people learn to speak a language on the streets of a foreign country, as opposed to in a classroom: you start learning to give voice to a few necessities (“Where is the post office?” “May I please have another coffee?” “Is her sister also nice?”), and expand as your need and desire do. After a while, you start recognizing patterns in your speech. You observe that there are rules that support what you have been doing unconsciously and instinctively: Oh, that’s why I always put the verb in that spot. Or: Oh, that’s why I always hear resolve in a D chord when playing in G.
Image: Reverie marks the year in which you turned fifty, and it occurs to me that your voice has never sounded better. Do you increasingly enjoy your voice as an instrument as it ages?
JH: I think my voice is an acquired taste—or that has been suggested to me over and over—but I have learned to make it work for my songs. I have written melodies that my limitations know how to serve, and I believe it is an evocative instrument toward certain aims. I notice when I am consciously writing for other singers—Bonnie Raitt comes to mind—that I allow myself greater melodic range; and I can sometimes become frustrated about what my voice will do versus what I might like it to do. But I have gotten better as a singer. I hear new overtones creeping in that I quite like. Though like anybody else, I can hear an old Harry Belafonte record—or listen to Ray Charles, Nat Cole, Dean Martin, Leadbelly, Nina Simone, Johnny Hartman, Frank Sinatra, Salif Keita, Edith Piaf—and want to stop altogether. But I am not proud of that impulse. I know it speaks only to vanity. I think the desire to sing is deeply human, and I think we are diminished as a culture in that we have such narrow views about what we consider acceptable in a singing voice. There are many ways the human experience can be expressed in song and with a voice, and anybody who wants to sing damn-well should. I weep when anyone tells me, “When I was in school, the teacher told me I couldn’t sing.” Over the years I have heard some of my favorite singers labeled as people who can’t sing: Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman. I think Vic Chesnutt was an unusually powerful and soulful singer, and no one has a better delivery system than he did for his songs.
Image: In your view, what are some of the choices an artist can make along the way to help create a space where something can be nurtured and improved upon over the long haul?
JH: You can choose to be more concerned with putting a light on the work than how the work shines a light back on you. You can choose to be more concerned with discovery than expression. Anything you can do as a human that supports an attitude of selflessness as opposed to one of self-gratification is a gift to both living and artistry. Talk less, listen more.
Image: Singers as diverse as Solomon Burke, Madonna, and Bonnie Raitt have covered your songs with surprising and convincing results. What does it feel like to hear your songs embodied by other singers?
JH: There is nothing so gratifying as hearing someone else take up a song you have written—a dedicated singer or a kid on a street corner. But it is especially heavy if that singer is someone we have all admired and listened to for a long time—and particularly satisfying to have written something specifically for an artist like that, and then be present to hear it get up into the air. I have experienced the latter on a few occasions—with the late soul legend Solomon Burke, and recently with Bonnie Raitt. It was deeply moving to know that the songs spoke to each artist as intended, and unbelievably exciting to be in the studio as producer, after having imagined an artist’s voice in your head while writing, in the abstract, and then witness the shift into reality. With Solomon and Bonnie, the songs happened in one and two takes, respectively, but I had the impulse to extend the moment because the process was so hallucinatory and affirming.
Image: What are you drawn to in the musicians with whom you choose to surround yourself?
JH: There are certain musicians who, when they play, the result isn’t that something more has been added to the song, but that the song has somehow been revealed. They play, and clutter and indecision disappear. I don’t care, generally, about chops or solo prowess: I want the song illuminated. The musicians need to be people who love and energize the process. I suppose musicians are like karate masters: if you are on top of your game, you rarely need to show it off.
Image: Jay Bellerose told me that when he relocated to Los Angeles, he mostly felt lost, a bit off balance, and then when the two of you met, everything started making sense. Anyone who’s heard the records the two of you have worked on together knows that there is a rare chemistry, a real gift at work between the two of you. Could you talk about why he quickly became indispensable to much of your work?
JH: I am not entirely sure how to talk about this, except in terms of the deeply familial: my dear wife Melanie made a comment to me just this morning, in regard to some troubled family members, that few of us can ever be our complete and better selves without another who will stand before us, reflecting back an image of ourselves as someone worthy of being loved and forgiven. Musically speaking, that’s what Jay Bellerose offers me. Additionally, and in more concrete terms, he is a painter, an inventor, a conjurer. As a drummer, he articulates time in ways both structural and elastic. He is also one of my closest friends in the world, and that attends and informs the work we do together. We laugh all the time, and rarely need to discuss musical direction: our communication has become near telepathic. We both know what we want out of a performance and a recording: to make a song feel like a living thing. Then we want a glass of good red wine and a lamb chop.
Image: The piano player on Reverie, Keefus Ciancia, delivers a tour de force. He sounds like one of the great Russians—Prokofiev or Rachmaninoff—or at times Maurice Ravel or Scott Joplin. Very few producers or songwriters or singers (and you are all three) could give a musician that kind of free reign on a project with such compelling results. There is a fearlessness, a wild permission that pervades this record. When did you stop being careful?
JH: At some point when I was alone in my garage studio, making the album Fuse, I recognized that I was just going to do what I wanted, without concern for how anyone—my wife, manager, brother, publisher, so-called fans—might receive it. I didn’t know how, exactly, but I knew I was in the process of learning to let go and become whatever it is I am uniquely wired to be as an artist. I can recall writing the song “Angels.” It was a new process for me. I began by building a track based on an organ figure, a bass line, a drum loop, a wah-wah guitar, and some samples of Dizzy Gillespie—and all without melody or lyric to drive it. Then I began singing to it, trying to find a way into the music, with a character, a story, and melody arriving last. And when I heard myself sing the line—spoken by an angel to the first-person human narrator—“give us milk, you little pig,” I laughed out loud. Not because it was a funny line, though I think it is, but because I recognized myself so purely in the work. And it delighted me, made me feel free. That, and it’s a funky track, owing more to Allen Ginsberg and Sly Stone than, say, Woody Guthrie.
That began something of which I remain in pursuit.
As for Keefus specifically, he is some kind of genius. He is best known as a sound designer of sorts, employing all manner of created sounds and samples; but I have caught glimpses—as you have, Linford—of how he can be just as inventive at a piano, and that’s what I wanted: the full range of his imagination articulated in a fairly primitive, organic way. I find his playing endlessly electrifying and romantic throughout Reverie. I knew instinctively what he would do, even though he claims he’s never played before or since like he played on these sessions. I was unwilling to discuss making this record without him, when our schedules at first refused to align. We joked during the sessions that Keefus sounds like Nino Rota and Fats Waller trying to dance together on the rickety stairs of a fire escape.
Image: David Piltch, who plays upright bass on Reverie, is one of the leaders of his unique industry, and I’ve been trying to identify some of what makes his playing so satisfying. How would you describe what makes him unique?
JH: I was just asked to provide some liner notes for Hugh Laurie’s record, which I produced, and I said about Dave that I know of no other musician who offers as much firm foundation and liberation in equal measure. He is a true brother, personally and professionally. His tone is deep and expansive; but more to my purposes, his sound is fully present and articulate, while never giving away the mystery that has to lie at the heart of all enduring music. I love where he feels time, and how much space he allows without ever giving the impression that the jump of a song’s pulse has disappeared or grown faint. I can’t imagine my working life without him, and don’t care to. He and Jay are a unique combination: when they play, I hear them trading roles all the time. Dave’s pulse frees Jay from having to be the time articulator, and Dave will also play what amounts to tom fills on the bass. It’s a great brotherhood of which I am a beneficiary.
Image: There is a fecundity that pervades Reverie, a sense of abundance and plenty. Do you feel a pervading abundance in your life that this mirrors? Do you encounter dry spells as a writer?
JH: There are times when I am not writing songs, but I would never label them as dry or (God forbid) writer’s block. I recognize that there are times to make hay, and times when we must wait for the grass to get long and willowy enough to be worth cutting down. The stewing is part of the process, and it is disrespectful, not to mention needlessly frustrating, not to acknowledge time as important to what will follow. If I am not writing a song, I am writing something else—a poem, an essay, a letter—or I am doing laundry or the dishes. All those things attend the work, support it and allow it. I find it most arrogant to suggest to the universe that every moment I am not awakened by tangible inspiration I am somehow being betrayed by my muse. People who feel this way should go read to the blind or mow some grass. There is a lot of work to be done in the world.
Image: How did you discover that you had something significant to offer other musicians as a producer and curator? How has producing enriched or challenged your own writing life?
JH: My friend and mentor T Bone Burnett first recognized it on my behalf and put me to work. Maybe he just needed the help and deputized me because I was standing there handy, but he was the first person to suggest to me that there was work to be done if I was willing to take it on. He generously invited me into his circle and began to treat me like a peer, which had tremendous value to me and still does. And then I started to be asked more and more. I didn’t necessarily have faith that I had something authentic to offer anybody else, but I continued to find myself in situations like the one I was first in with T Bone, on a Bruce Cockburn session in 1991.
This was our first project together with me as his associate and sidekick, and one day early in the process T Bone was a few hours late. I sat there as paralyzed as everyone else, waiting. In the room were Jim Keltner, Booker T, bassist Edgar Meyer, and Bruce—an incredible wealth of diverse experience sitting around the same coffee table. The afternoon wore on, and I could see the musicians were bored and a little frustrated; and then Bruce asked me again where I thought T Bone might be. I was uncomfortable, but I heard myself say, “Bruce, I have no idea where T is. But everybody else is here, and if you want to try something, I’ll offer you whatever help I can.”
And that’s sort of how I operate: I invite musicians into a room and say, “Look: here we are. If you want to try something I’ll help however I can.” Then I offer them coffee and encouragement—usually in that order—and things start to happen.
I never decided to hang out my shingle as a producer, understand. I just found myself, more and more, employed as one. It’s like what Kurt Vonnegut said: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”
It can be challenging, in that taking on work on behalf of other artists can hinder what I might otherwise be doing for myself. But I am allowed to witness so much, things I couldn’t see from any other vantage point, and I won’t pretend it has ever kept me from accomplishing anything I’ve wanted to. In fact, it’s given me new insight into my own work, because when I am working for others I am free of any vanity. I am no less invested, but I have the freedom of a different kind of perception, one that is fairly untethered. I am like the navigator on a road trip: I am expected to know where we’re going, but I am free to look out the window, talk loudly over the backseat, and have a martini when we stop for a dinner break. I may even have the driver’s martini too.
Image: You recently drew attention to the following Thomas Merton quotation:
If you write for God, you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men, you may make some money, and you may give someone a little joy, and you may make a noise in the world—for a little while. If you write only for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written, and after ten minutes you will be so disgusted you will wish that you were dead.
Do you see your writing as connected to a spiritual discipline? In light of the above, how has God haunted the body of your work?
JH: If your heart and mind are connected—each striving to be true to the other—then you are working at a spiritual discipline. By that I mean that you are concerned with trying to be a fully realized soul within the confines of a mortal frame. You have to live within the bounds of what is knowable—without extinguishing the luminance of what is by its nature unknowable. Like the best songs: we all want clarity, but without defusing the mystery of the process. I want to be seduced rather than have anything explained. Our mortal selves are here to let us know about the light that is dancing through us, but we’re not the flame any more than the candle is; but we likewise stand in service to it.
I don’t identify myself as a Christian any more than I identify myself as an American, by the way: both things speak authentically to my orientation and upbringing—my dialect and vocabulary; but the latter carries implications that I find outdated and downright shameful in many respects; and the former not nearly expansive enough to speak to what it might truly mean for God—whatever your perception thereof—to be alive and working in the world.
Having said that, I should conclude by noting that no one could be more surprised than I am to find “God” mentioned so often and so directly by the characters that give voice to my songs. I have never once set out to write about anyone’s notion of God, least of all my own, but the characters are haunted by God just the same—God’s nearness, or absence from their lives, the fear of and the desire for. I suppose I am compelled to write such songs the same way I am compelled to write about love—its power, glory, redemption, temptations, and wreckage: because to recognize another’s humanity with love and forgiveness is to be able to offer yourself some of the same.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.