Interview with Joe Henry by Paul McGee

Thank you for taking the time to speak with Lonesome Highway and your fan base in Ireland?

My pleasure to take a few moments with you here, truly. Thank you for your attention.

When you started as a musician who were your main influences?

I was obsessed with songs long before I ever thought of that as something one might choose to be. I just recognized songs to be my language, and saw myself within them –did not see in them where I wanted to go, but saw in them, in fact, who I was. We are all most vulnerable to influence when we don’t know we are being influenced; and as such, when I first heard Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Glen Campbell, and Dusty Springfield as a young boy of 7 and 8, I was completely seduced and accepting of their collective version of reality. Not to sound overly dramatic –though it was-- the atmosphere their music created was the air I breathed.

Did you find it hard to gain a foothold in the industry at the beginning and what was your first big break?

It is still hard, and I am not sure I have ever had what one might refer to as a “big break.” I still operate very much under the radar –not exactly by choice; but I do recognize that what I do is not for everyone, and am at peace (most days) with that. There is a lot of freedom that comes along with my low-grade recognition: I feel I have no one’s expectations but my own to serve, creatively-speaking.

With 12 studio recordings, spanning 20 plus years, what subtle changes have you noticed in your approach to song writing over the time?

Well, the most notable change for me might be that I used to be concerned with whether my songs, lyrically speaking, might be too obtuse and abstract for some listeners; and now…I don’t give that much of a thought. I don’t ever mean to be difficult; but at the same time, I don’t ever deliberately shift my direction on behalf of what I imagine might be more “accessible” to others. I offer what I have open-heartedly to whomever the song might speak. We are all called to own our voices and to offer what we each can most uniquely offer; and I am trying to be less fearful about doing exactly that.

Do the early recordings stand the test of time or do you wish to revisit them and bring the perspective of an older view to bear, in hindsight?

I rarely listen to my old records on purpose; and if I did, it wouldn’t be as entertainment. I did the best I could at every juncture, but I have no illusions that I would be satisfied with them from this vantage point –or even if I am supposed to be. I am proud of the work and the accomplishment that it all represents; but I happen to think I am better at my job now than I used to be. Hearing an old recording is like looking at your junior high school year book picture: I know that that’s me; I just don’t know why I was dressed that way on picture day.

You have produced many recordings for other artists; Solomon Burke, Loudon Wainwright III, Rodney Crowell, Salif Keita, Bonnie Raitt, Mary Gautier, to name just a few; tell me about the challenges here and how you got started on this road?

My professional godfather is songwriter/producer T Bone Burnett; and he was the first person to encourage my work as a producer alongside my work as an artist. But I never decided to be a producer, consciously. I just…found myself being asked to assume the position. I was as surprised then as I am now by the work that continues to come my way, and am grateful for it. I love making records –for myself and with others.

The goal is the same, on my record or anyone else’s: to make something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers. And the challenge really comes down to allowing a song to dictate policy…to not being married to an idea beforehand, and letting the song identify itself and be the compass blade. If I am ever at a difficult moment with an artist on my watch, the solution more often than not is to remind the artist that it is all about “it” –the song/recording—and not about them. As soon as we are serving the song, not an artist or an idea, problems vanish.

I have heard that some of your earlier recordings were described as "idiosyncratic broadmindedness” – is this a view that you subscribe to?

I am not sure what someone meant by that, exactly, though I think I am broadminded, musically-speaking. Anyone growing up roughly when I did has been exposed to a wealth of music from across time and distance. And all of it is fair game; all of it is valuable as human expression; ad I have been influenced by everything I’ve heard.

I have also read a quote from you that states; ‘If you are being honest, you are being entertaining’ - can you elaborate on this please?

I have never said that, but have said the exact opposite, when talking about the so-called “confessional” songwriters: I said that it is foolish to ignore song craft in favour of believing that just because you are being “honest” it is automatically meaningful –or entertaining—to others. I have also said that in this context, I believe honestly to be wildly overrated. Just because you are willing to rip a page from your diary and set it to music doesn’t make it a good song. Further: just because you made up a story in song from thin air doesn’t mean it isn’t “true.”

Eclectic is a word that describes your muse and the reach that you have into the creative firmament. So many artists have wanted your guiding hand and your particular take on song arrangements and melody – is this ever daunting?

It is daunting and flattering in equal measure; but I am very wary of trying to direct anyone else’s songwriting, as I hold that statement to be very personal. If someone asks for songwriting help or opinion while I am producing, I will offer it; but I would never volunteer without being invited that someone else’s song needed my help. I might decide a particular song doesn’t speak to me, but that doesn’t mean I should manipulate it so that it might.

One of the great unsung bands, in my opinion, is Over the Rhine and I know that you have produced some of their recordings. What does it take for artists like this to break through the queue of talented hopefuls to sit at the commercial table for the feast?

I have no idea, truly, what it takes to “breakthrough” commercially, at any significant level. But I do think that the best gamble is deep and generous writing, and soulful singing; and Over the Rhine are heroic in that regard. I can’t say enough about them.

Lisa Hannigan is an Irish Artist of great talent that you have worked and performed with – can you speak a little about this special bond and how it ended up with you playing your first show in Dublin recently?

Well, Lisa in not only one of the greatest artists I have ever worked with, but she is quite honestly one of my favourite people I have ever met. My entire family loves her as I do…she’s a remarkable and –I don’t use the word lightly—a special person; a truly great singer, a gifted songwriter; a generous, open-hearted, and egoless collaborator; and she will only get better, I am quite certain.

When I first worked with Lisa on her album “Passenger,” I was warmly embraced by her whole band, and I have become more than casual friends with most all of them, sincerely. I had never been to Ireland, but there was nowhere else on earth I more wanted to visit. I feel deeply connected to the creative landscape there, and always have. Anyway…my relationship with Lisa’s world convinced me that the time was right; and that whether invited or not, I was going; so I accepted a well-paying date in Switzerland with the notion that it would facilitate, at long last, my arrival to Dublin.

Were you surprised with the reaction that you received to your body of work at the show?

Yes, I was surprised to be so warmly received; but then again, Lisa and her camp –most notably her dear friend and tour manager Una Molloy—went to great lengths to see that my inaugural visit would be a satisfying and successful one –and it was in every way.

You were very generous with the inclusion of songs from Lisa and I wonder what you see for her into the future?

I wasn’t being generous, but selfish: I wanted Lisa onstage with me, and wanted to sing with her. Period. She was the generous one, letting me ride her coattails into Whelan’s as she did. As I said above, she will only get better. She has that kind of voice, that kind of soul: I believe ten years from now, her voice will take on some additional overtones, and there won’t be a better singer on the earth.

I was interested in your encore of a Jackson Browne song and I wanted to ask if he was a particular influence on your approach to song-writing over the years?

Jackson and I have been friendly for two decades; but I must say, he’s a bigger influence on me now than he was during my formative years.

When Lisa and I was touring in America last summer –and with John Smith and Ross Turner in our company—I invited Jackson to come to our show in Los Angeles, and mentioned it in passing to Lisa and the boys; and once I had, I realized what a significant thing it was bound to be for them to have Jackson there. That led to us listening to and talking a lot about Jackson Browne as we travelled, inching our way toward California. And out of that, we began singing “These Days” together as an encore, just because we all have a mutual love for the song. It feels great to sing it together in 3-part.

Once we finally arrived in Los Angeles, I told Jackson we’d been performing “These Days”, and asked if he might care to sing it with us, which he did –and it was a highlight of the tour for all of us; and as such…we have continued to sing it --Lisa, John, Ross, and I—whenever we perform together.

Finally, having teased your Irish fans with a premier performance, can we expect a return visit in the near future?

I would love to come back –and sooner than later. I am discussing with Lisa now how we might collaborate on a full tour of Ireland. I am not sure when it can happen, but I am committed to the idea.