As a singer/songwriter, Joe Henry’s been crafting idiosyncratic sounds since the ‘80s, variously incorporating country-rock, electronics, and the kitchen sink if need be. But for the last decade or so, he’s led a double life as a producer, aiding everyone from Teddy Thompson to Bettye Lavette in realizing their visions. Upon the release of his latest album, Reverie — a sparsely arranged, spontaneous-sounding, all-acoustic affair Henry describes as sounding “like the wheels are coming off, and they’re supposed to be coming off” — he looks back on the five collaborations that have had the most lasting effect on his music.
He’s had a tremendous impact on me, personally and professionally. He’s like Yoda, he just sort of moves through life on a completely unique plane. Allen Toussaint seems to see the past, present, and future as all being in the same room together simultaneously. I was with him in New Orleans, working on the collaborative record between him and Elvis Costello that I produced [The River In Reverse] maybe eight weeks after Katrina, and there was his beloved city in absolute, abject catastrophe. It was brutal, and without being in denial of anything … he moved through those days as if he was already seeing beyond the devastation to what was next, and thus he knew what was required to get to what was next. Being around him in that moment – aside from him having a tremendous impact on me as a musician – is something I’ll never forget, and I refer back to it all the time as a guidepost. It was an important lesson for me, and continues to be.
He very generously made himself available to play on an album of mine in 2000 called Scar. I had written about Richard Pryor, speaking in first person …“Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” And against all odds, Ornette agreed to sit at the center of this long, languid, and dark blues meditation. Everybody told me he would never do it, because he’s said no to everybody in the world. This tiny man who was 72 at the time I guess, who’s been a hero of mine since my teens [for] his bravery and the clarity of his vision and the buoyancy of his musicality. The fact that he’d offer his service to this song and this moment for me was the most validating thing and it remains one of my greatest achievements in the studio. That he heard what I meant to say and found it meaningful, and stood there and said something with the most intense blues-based solo I’ve ever heard in my life. I maintain a tremendous gratitude to him.
[Burke’s Don’t Give Up On Me] was one of the very earliest things outside of my own records that I was ever asked to produce. When that call came in I was stunned … not only to be beginning my parallel career as a producer, but to be climbing into the ring with somebody that so many of us have revered for so long as the pinnacle of American soul music who wrote the book for a lot of us. It was incredibly daunting, but he very quickly made me feel like I didn’t just get to be there, I was supposed to be there. He represented to me that he absolutely believed that God put me in his path. A day or two before the sessions I wrote a song for him called “Flesh and Blood.” Through the course of the project I was in the room with him, on his headphone mix, 12 inches from his face the entire time — he wanted me standing in front of him. He called out the song I had just written … what you hear on the record is the only take. He delivered the whole thing not just for me, but at me. It was a hallucinatory experience … to have one of the living heroes of soul music sitting in front of you, pointing these words you’d just written back to you, having transfigured them. As a lyric writer, it was an intensely valuable lesson in the power of the human voice.
A record I produced that just came out [Passenger] by the Irish singer/songwriter [former Damien Rice singing partner] Lisa Hannigan — that was an incredibly special project for me. She’s one of my favorite singers I’ve ever worked with. She just has a voice that goes through me, this Irish ballad, smoky, beautiful, soulful voice. She has amazing facility but doesn’t overplay it. She’s also a great songwriter. We recorded in a really funky place in North Wales. I had recorded my new record in toto at that point, but when I sat with her out in the middle of nowhere, I was so enamored with her voice. [I thought] “I want her to be involved in my record in some way, I want to hear her voice in this environment with me,” and I just sort of flashed on the [Reverie] song “Piano Furnace,” that she might help illuminate it. My wife still thinks Lisa should be louder in the mix, but Lisa and I both think the fact that she floats in and out in this ghostly fashion is very much the point of the song somehow.
5. Mose Allison
I knew he’d sworn off making studio records a dozen years or so before, but he was still touring. He was 82 at the time. I said, “I really want to make a record with Mose.” I went on a letter-writing campaign, I would write Mose these letters. This went on for well over a year. He said to me, “Why should I make a new record when nobody’s bought the old ones?” Finally I just had to cop to it, “Because I want you to! [Laughs.] You will get paid.” Mose basically sits at the piano and says, “This is how I play, this is how I sing. You can do whatever you want to around me, that’s your thing, but this is what I do.” We wrote a song together, the title song of that record [The Way of the World]. I listened to Mose Allison since I was 15 — to sit here and think, “I’m writing something for him,” and I’m hearing his voice in my mind, and to actually get to hear that [song] from him was incredibly meaningful. We did All Things Considered together when the record came out; I described the whole process of really dogging him, and of making the record, and Melissa (Block, NPR host) asked, “Mose, given all that, how does the record sound to you?” And he just said, “Oh, I haven’t listened to it.”
Reverie is out now on Anti.