Joe Henry On Marriage And The Songs That Embody It
Joe Henry sounds like a pretty good name for a no-nonsense jack-of-all-trades, a guy devoted to family who knows about a day's pay for a day's work, and about commitment. His particular line of work has made him a much-sought-after record producer for the likes of Mose Allison, Bonnie Raitt and Solomon Burke, just to name a few, and has put a few Grammys on his shelf. But he has always returned to his own muse, his own songs and his own life as a performer.
Henry has just released his 13th album, Invisible Hour. He spoke about it with NPR's Don Gonyea, and performed a few songs live in NPR's studios. Hear it all at the audio link.
DON GONYEA, HOST:
Joe Henry sounds like a pretty good name for a no-nonsense jack of all trades - a guy devoted to family who knows about a day's pay for a day's work and about commitment. Joe Henry joins us in the studio this morning.
His particular line of work has made him a much sought after record producer for the likes of Mose Allison, Bonnie Raitt and Solomon Burke, just to name a few there. Yes, there are Grammys on his shelf. But he has always returned to his own muse and his own songs and his own life as a performer. He has just released his 13th album, "The Invisible Hour."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPARROW")
J. HENRY: (Singing) It wasn't peace I wanted. So it wasn't peace I found. I wouldn't stand for reason. And it never would sit down.
GONYEA: Joe Henry, welcome. Thanks for coming in.
HENRY: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
GONYEA: So you've brought your guitar. We'll have you play in a moment. But let's talk about this new CD. There's a theme that runs through it from start to finish - marriage.
HENRY: Well, that occurred to me much after the fact. And I knew that when I wrote that in the liner notes, that it was a dicey thing to say because when you invite people to hear something in one way, that's how they're going to hear it. I don't mean that it's literally an album full of songs directly pointed at marriage.
But I did recognize, after the fact, that the unifying thread was real commitment. And we see characters who live with it. We see characters who are bereft of it. I think that's as clear a way as any to look at what marriage means, is to look at people without it.
GONYEA: And in the liner notes you describe marriage as, in this case, as a verb, not a noun.
HENRY: Yeah, not a thing that you possess, but a habit of your being.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRAVE ANGELS")
HENRY: (Singing)We are gathered together. We are hidden from view.
GONYEA: There's a song on the new disc called "Grave Angels." In it, you turn the wedding prayer - that benediction that we all hear at every wedding we attended, we are gathered here together - but then you kind of turn it inside out.
HENRY: Well, it turns itself inside out, Don, you know. I promise you, when I wrote that opening line, I had no thought that I was being clever. I didn't know that I was writing about the beginning of a marriage. It just sounded like a point of entry.
I don't mean for it to sound overly mystical. But it is mysterious, you know? A line just sort of speaks itself to you. And then you just sort of follow where it goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GRAVE ANGELS")
HENRY: (Singing) Then, foolish we are, in the presence of God and what all his grave angels have done. In love’s growling weather, if we’re dreaming together of a heaven apart from this one, apart from our own.
GONYEA: You have been in a long-term marriage.
HENRY: I've been married for 27 years, yeah.
GONYEA: So you're looking at this from the inside, though these aren't necessarily autobiographical songs - maybe not at all.
HENRY: Well, I've never written a song - or I should say, rarely - where I was conscious that I was writing about myself. It's not what I'm interested in. Though, of course, if you were to tell an analyst that you are not writing about yourself, they'd have to excuse themselves from the room, I'm sure. There's no way that you're not writing through your own filter of experience.
But, you know, Fellini said, you create a character, then see what they have to tell you. That's what I do. I just start writing. And as I write, I find out what I'm writing about. You know, I write for discovery.
GONYEA: I'd like to ask you to play the song, "Invisible Hour"...
GONYEA: For us if you would. First give us a little context.
HENRY: It's the title of the record. And it began its life - I was reading a novel by my friend Colum McCann. I was reading his book called "Dancer," which is based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev. And I read this line, in love we come alive in bodies that are not our own. And I thought that was such a startling bit of revelation.
GONYEA: So this is the "Invisible Hour." And your son, Levon, is in the studio with us as well.
L. HENRY: Thanks for having me.
GONYEA: You're on reeds - clarinet?
HENRY: (Singing) I left the yard then came back in. I drank up your bathtub gin. And though I lived, it left me weak. But I raise myself back up to speak. For it hit me hard, the mandolin that cried just there inside your door. And though it left me high and dry, I know too soon I’ll ask for more.
Oh, I’ve come back to plead and dance, to forgive us both all in advance. Salt and sugar, tooth and nail, tongue and groove, and all for sale. Thoughts and prayers, and words and deeds, bruised and broken, spilling seeds. Tar and feathers, clocks and spoons, falling shoes and flashing signs. Fits and starts, and hearts and moons that wane come either rain or shine.
Oh, I’ve come back to plead and dance, to forgive us both all in advance. Well, we all come into this world scared and bare and blue and curled. And we all bring the knife we need to sate our mouths and not concede. The love that stands a moving bridge, where blood moves under skin and bone. To feel the hum and come alive in bodies that are not our own.
Oh, I’ve come back to plead and dance, to forgive us both all in advance. Yes, I've come back to plead and dance, to forgive us both all in advance.
GONYEA: Singer-songwriter Joe Henry is our guest. He's playing here in the studio for us. So the sound of this album - there's a real intimacy there. And I find myself listening, as we do so often these days, on a - you know, on a small speaker attached to my smartphone or MP3 player. And I find myself kind of on my elbows, leaning in, getting closer to the speaker. I don't want to turn it up. I want to lean in.
HENRY: Well, that works for me. You know, we all want to make music that entices people to lean in in whatever way they might. I would say you might want to get a better system, Don. But...
GONYEA: (Laughing) It's low-fi, but it's...
HENRY: But at the same time, we all hope that people go home and turn it up loud on an old Macintosh system. And I do not mean a computer system. I mean a 1972, vintage tube amplifier.
There is a intimacy in his record that I worked really hard to maintain. And it's one thing that Levon and I talked about a lot going into it is how to allow an orchestral element into it when it needed to go widescreen and never lose a very intimate quality that we associate with a lot of early folk music, where the rumble of acoustic instruments is very much in the forefront. I think that's a very seductive sound.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIDE")
HENRY: (Singing) Oh, cursed morning, who told you to rise?
GONYEA: There's a song called "Slide." And you sing, we're learning more than we intended.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIDE")
HENRY: (Singing) Try not to, though I might.
GONYEA: Try not to, though we might. It does describe a lot of relationships, especially long-term ones, doesn't it?
HENRY: It sure does. And it - I think it describes a lot about living. You know, we all want to do just what we have to, you know, any more is unbearable. Too much truth is too much to bear. You know, what did Flannery O'Connor say? You know, the truth will set you free, but first it'll break your heart.
GONYEA: Can we close it out with something that feels right?
HENRY: Sure. I would say, "Plainspeak."
GONYEA: Before we do that, I want to thank you for coming in.
HENRY: Oh, Don, it's my pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PLAINSPEAK")
HENRY: (Singing) A blind man looks out through your eye. He hears the color of your sigh, tastes the laugh upon your thigh, then roars. But let this be clear, my sighing balladeer, I want nothing more than for you to see me now.
GONYEA: That's Joe Henry and his son Levon playing in our studio. You can hear full performances, including a web extra, at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.