The All Seeing Eye of Joe Henry
Catching up with the renowned singer-songwriter
Joe Henry is calling from his home on the coast of Maine, where he and his wife recently moved after living in California for more than three decades.
“We live in the woods on a dirt road by the water and it’s extraordinarily beautiful,” he says. “It’s a sea change, literally and figuratively, from our long life in Los Angeles, for sure.”
Although Henry’s life has changed dramatically, one thing has remained constant: his exceptional songwriting talent, as he demonstrates on his latest album, All the Eye Can See, (released on January 27 via earMUSIC).
All the Eye Can See is Henry’s sixteenth solo album – but being so familiar with releasing his work doesn’t make it any less exciting for him. “There’s nothing like it. It’s a high,” he says. “Every release day of a new album feels very much like your birthday. I feel buzzy around it. Just the fact that it now exists and it’s out in the world, it’s still startling to me that it can happen.”
With this album, he says, “I feel like I am more liberated than ever as a songwriter and a record maker. When I listen or think back to the record, I witness myself writing with both a new abandon and with a fresh clarity, emotionally speaking, that I’m not sure I’ve exactly put my hand to before.
“I wrote most everything in, for me, a surprisingly brief window of time where songs arrived in a bit of a torrent,” he continues. “When that happens, I recognize that the songs are sharing a lot of the same concerns – and that’s one way that I know that these aren’t a lot of just disparate elements, but they are speaking like a whole. I always look for an album to play like a full movie. Whether the narrative is linear or abstract, it still needs to be of a piece. And in the same way that a movie has an overriding feel based on the lighting, direction, things like that, I think that songs that arrive in a compressed period of time with great rapidity seem to share imagery and themes.”
That said, Henry admits that it’s hard to explain exactly what those themes are. “When I’m writing a song, I promise you, I almost never know what I’m writing about while I’m doing it. I write to find out what I’m writing about,” he says.
Henry knows that his poetic way with words can make his music somewhat inscrutable at times. “A lot of things that interest me as a writer take place in the shadows of our lives, and you don’t explore a shadow by shining a light on it. It vanishes,” he says. “You have to step in there and be in the cool dark with it. And sometimes that might lead me to write things that are a bit sprawling and maybe hallucinatory, more than they are narratively linear. But that’s how I hear things. I don’t do it to be difficult in any way. But there’s a musicality to that kind of mystery that is deeply compelling to me. It’s just something that I understood, quite early on, that I needed to do.”
Born in North Carolina, he then grew up in Georgia, and then in Michigan, and always eagerly absorbing a vast array of influences: “When I was young and listening to a lot of music and reading a lot of literature that was and remains important to me, I wasn’t conscious of the fact that I was being schooled in old mysterious country blues music and country music and Southern soul music and the Beat Poets,” he says. “I just was completely immersed, and I knew that even if I didn’t always intellectually understand what I was hearing and reading, I was emotionally being moved at a cellular level, which seemed more impactful to me than striking a certain note intellectually, if you know what I mean. So I just kept pulling on that thread of that thing that vibrated for me in ways that I didn’t fully understand.”
Now, nearly 40 years since his debut album (1986’s Talk of Heaven), Henry seems rather amazed that he’s been a professional musician for this long. “Yeah, we’re like baseball players: we’re not expected to last very long,” he says wryly. “The industry says, ‘We’ll just get some fresh ones when you guys get worn out.’”
He speculates that he’s sustained a career “by being unconcerned about what anybody thinks about what I’m doing. I’ve always done exactly what I wanted to do. It probably sounds like I’m being flippant to say that I’m blessed by never having become successful, in the way that I have imagined at times that I’d like to be, [but] the upside of that is that I have an incredible amount of autonomy as an artist. I have very few people’s expectations to concern myself with.”
VIDEO: Joe Henry “Karen Dalton”
That said, though, Henry says he does pay attention to what his fans think – and, he adds, “I’m frequently surprised by the things that people find either singular or particularly significant from a batch of songs – in the same way that I can be surprised by the ones that nobody seems to notice at all. There are songs of mine that I feel like are the best examples of what I really mean to do as a songwriter that are invisible to a lot of people.” As examples of this, he lists the title track to his 1999 album Fuse, “Lock and Key” from Scar (2001), and “After the War” from Reverie (2011).
Henry says he looks forward to finding out how fans connect with the tracks on All the Eye Can See, especially when he performs them at shows later this year (plans are in the works for North American and European tour dates). “I look forward to going out and playing these [new] songs, and there are things that I’ve never really performed or rarely performed that I really am anxious to get in my hands anew and sing out into the world,” he explains.
This writing-recording-releasing-tour cycle is one that Henry hopes he’ll do many more times. “Nothing makes me happier than to feel a group of songs coalesce, and then to go record them with some of my nearest and dearest friends,” he says. “That’s just terrifically great fun and very satisfying to me.”
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