Interview with Joe Henry

Four years after his last record, singer-songwriter-producer Joe Henry cut his new album Civilians in just three days. Although he hasn't abandoned the feel of romantic, jazzy elegance that pervades his last few albums, he's peeled away layers of sound for a more nakedly emotional tone this time out. Most compellingly, "Our Song" imagines an elderly Willie Mays at a Home Depot store, an image he associates with a more hopeful America slipping into oblivion.

Henry, who also served as a producer for figures as diverse as Aimee Mann, Irma Thomas, Ani DiFranco, Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint since releasing his last album, kindly indulged me with the following interview this past Tuesday afternoon.

For Civilians, you've opened up the arrangements compared to 2003's Tiny Voices.

My last record was more appropriately chaotic, given the material. The production was meant to be obvious, like a character on the stage that's meant to be seen. With Civilians, I wanted to create the illusion that you weren't looking through an idea of a song, you were looking at the song. I wanted this record to be more emotionally available, and started writing the last half of the record with an idea of stark clarity in mind. It gave me license to do some things lyrically that I wouldn't normally have done.

It's easy to make assumptions about a record called Civilians that comes out on September 11 and includes a song called "Civil War," although it doesn't seem overtly political to me. How important was it to make a record that reflects the times we live in?

I'm aware that it's of its time. But the real ambition of an artist is to be not only of your time, but also outside of it. You don't want to be caught in the tarpits of your time. I didn't make the decision to write anything that I would regard as political, but I did decide to let it happen once I saw that element surfacing.

I would never write a song about politics; that's not a musical notion to me. But I'm aware that for the characters I'm writing about, politics is a wind that blows through the scene in the way that love and regret might.

"Our Song" lies in the middle of the song sequence. Is it meant to be the centerpiece?

It was one of the last couple of songs that I wrote. It seemed to suggest things about the other songs, and changed the complexion of the other songs around it, and gave a different subtext to everything. I didn't want to get caught up thinking of it as the big story, but it's an anomaly of sorts -- not a linear narrative, exactly, but very concretely about something. At first I was uncomfortable with it, but I chose not to be concerned.

I had first line of the song, identifying Willie Mays at a Home Depot in Scottsdale, in my head for days. I didn't know what form it would take. I didn't know what would follow it, but I believed something would. So, as opposed to me co-opting Willie Mays for my story, I felt like Willie Mays was there to tell me what the story was.

Are you a big baseball fan?

I used to be, as a young lad in the Detroit area. But I don't think Willie Mays only works as a baseball reference. He's a significant cultural reference, like Muhammad Ali or Jimmy Stewart.

And Charlie Parker, whom you mention in another song. I know you're an Ellington fan -- was there any musician with whom you were particularly obsessed while you made this record?

I have a longstanding obsession with a number of musicians, Duke and Parker among them. Very early Louis Armstrong, Mingus and Monk. Johnny Cash, Edith Piaf, Ray Charles. I've gone back to these people since I was very young.

You've produced several soul records over the past few years. What did you learn as a singer from working with people like Solomon Burke and Irma Thomas?

Historically my favorite singers are not always technically good singers. I don't have much of a range as a singer. Solomon has a range of four octaves! He's very unique. One thing I learned from him and Irma is how to be completely in service to the song. Irma, especially, loses herself in a song. When I watch her sing, I don't feel like it's about her, or how it might reflect on her. People think of how great the song is. She's without vanity in that regard.

What about producing Allen Toussaint? That must have been a daunting task.

Incredibly daunting. He's been a mentor to me in ways that he probably understands, and ways he probably doesn't. Because he understands the producer's job so well, he was very inclined to let me do it. He insisted, in a very quiet way, that I assume that responsibility.

How did you connect with Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks for Civilians?

I've been friendly with Bill for many years, and we've talked many times about working together. For whatever reason, instinctively, I decided now was the time to bring him into the room. He operates completely outside genre constraints.

I worked with Van Dyke on a film I was scoring, and we were all at a party. At a certain point in the evening, he said, "I heard Bill was going to be at your house. How would I get myself invited over for this?"

I know Billy Preston was your friend, and at the end of his life he was in Scottsdale, a place that figures into "Our Song." Is there a little bit of Billy in your imagined Willie Mays encounter?

I'd be hard-pressed to convince you that there's no relationship between my imagined encounter with Willie Mays, and Scottsdale as the place where I would set the story. I didn't think about it in relation to Billy when I wrote down that first line, but I don't think about Scottsdale otherwise without thinking of Billy. So there must be a connection there, but not a conscious one.

Maybe a strong subconscious one.

Yes. And I rely on that for everything that I do. Looking back at it as a spectator, I don't know that my point of view on a song has any more relevance than yours. I can certainly understand that what Willie Mays represents as an iconic figure of this particular time, Billy may be an evocative image for somebody as well.

What about your plans right now? Will there be a tour, or do you have other production projects on the way?

I've sworn off the idea of touring in the way that I used to, but I'm going to play shows wherever I can. I think these songs lend themselves to going somewhere else in the live context, maybe more so than anything I've recorded before.

As for production, I'm in the middle of making a record with Rodney Crowell, which is different for him and different for me.

In your wildest dreams, to whom would you like to apply your signature production style?

I would really like to produce a record for Prince. I'd like to make a record with the Roots. And I fear it's too late, but I'd like to work with Doc Watson too.