Being himself helps this artist-turned-producer help others do the same

By Michael Gallant

“When I listen to music, all I want to know is what works and why it works,” says Joe Henry. “I don’t care about genre distinctions. I’m happy to do anything that’s of quality.” Apt words from a prolific producer who has helped craft distinctive albums for artists as diverse as Elvis Costello, Aimee Mann, Mavis Staples, Brad Mehldau, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hugh Laurie and many more. Henry built his name as a singer, songwriter and guitarist before earning notoriety as a producer—an evolution aided in no small part by veteran producer T Bone Burnett, who he describes as his “professional godfather.”

Henry began working as a producer regularly in the late 1990s, but his career behind the board truly blossomed in the new millennium with his work on albums like Solomon Burke’s 2002 Grammy winner Don’t Give Up on Me. Henry worked both sides of the glass on his own latest album, Reverie, recorded over just three days with guitarist Marc Ribot, bass player David Piltch, drummer Jay Bellerose and keyboardists Keefus Ciancia and Patrick Warren. “When I come back to make a record for myself,” he says, “it’s easy for me to take what I’ve gleaned from other projects and use those tools on my own behalf.”

The crew recorded in a studio housed in the brick- and stone-lined basement of Henry’s vintage Los Angeles home, built by President James A. Garfield’s widow in 1904. “When we bought it, we knocked out crumbling plaster walls, boosted the electrical capability and reclaimed it,” he says. “It’s a unique, versatile, soulful space.” Henry enjoys working there not just for the ambience, but also for the creative flexibility the space allows. “Budgets can be modest, given the climate of the industry,” he says. “Working here, I’m able to take on projects I care about deeply. We could never afford to do many of them if we had to pay daily rates at a rental studio.” We spoke with Henry about his methods, his mentor and the often blurry line between artist and producer.

‘What interests me is making something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers.’

How did you get to know T Bone?

T Bone produced my third record, Shuffletown, in 1990. I was on A&M at the time. He was actually my advocate even before we met—he had overheard my A&R director at the label speaking discouragingly about the record I hoped to make and said, “That guy’s great. You should let him do what he’s doing. In fact, I’ll help him do it.” He put himself as a buffer between the label and me, which was an incredibly generous move. About the time the album was released I moved to Los Angeles, where T Bone was working. He needed some help and thought I had something to offer, so when I wasn’t touring I worked for him as a production associate. I still work on projects with him, and I turn to him all the time for advice.

What have you learned from him?

To let the music speak. Don’t go into every situation with a preconceived notion of how you think a song needs to be or how it can live. Listen to what’s happening. I learned that from him even before I knew I was learning it.

How do you carry that out?

I don’t tell musicians what to play. I invite the right people into the room and give them enough encouragement to feel fearless. When people feel supported, they’ll give you everything they’ve got. It’s a different philosophy from, say, a Phil Spector character who stands there and tells everybody what to play—or how Prince works, where everything is in his head and he just needs people to articulate that vision. I’m much more about discovering what can happen, rather than dictating what I imagine must happen. That’s something I learned from T Bone.

What’s your process like?

I don’t believe in preproduction. My version is to have demos of the songs we’re doing in the most skeletal form possible, so the musicians can make notes for themselves and very quickly move past learning the basic structure, tone and chord changes. Once we’re in the studio, the idea is to immediately put the song in the air and listen to what it’s trying to become. There’s a moment of discovery that inevitably happens with every song. Sometimes it’s the first, third or fifth take, but it usually happens early on when a song stands up and presents itself. That’s the moment I want to record. And if it happens in a rehearsal space rather than the studio, you’re chasing your tail forever.

So you prefer live takes.

I always work from the point of performance. A song has the best chance of being revealed when people are standing together in a room in real time, on a journey of mutual discovery. Mistakes and miscalculations can all be sorted out, but you’ll never get that moment back.

Was Reverie recorded that way?

Completely. There were mainly four of us playing at a time, and we set up in the same room as physically close to each other as possible while still leaving space for the engineer to move around us. Then we played aggressively, so there’s a lot of bleed. You can hear drums bouncing off the walls and sounding in the piano mics, and you can hear my voice all over the piano mics as well. That’s what gives it a careening, raucous, raw feel. We also left the windows in my studio open and miked them so the ambient sound outside could be recorded. Those sounds became musical to me, whether it was the sounds of cars, dogs or dishes being washed upstairs. This album is a movie, and ambient noise is its particular sonic signature.

Do you ever use a click track?

I’ve never done that in my life and can’t imagine why I would. Music breathes, and it’s supposed to do that. Even if you’re going to add strings and edit a recording later, that doesn’t mean you have to defuse one of the great ingredients of music: its swing and sway. That’s insane. A click track is rigid, unpleasant, unmusical and not fun for anybody. So why in the world would we let it dictate policy for a song?

Can you still edit between takes?

We do it all the time. Sometimes you chase a song for a dozen takes, but when you land the one that announces itself as the thing you want, you may still want to sculpt it. One of the great things about Pro Tools is that nothing has to be thought of as disposable. If you can find something that really speaks, usually you can use it. I can count on a few fingers the times we’ve wanted to edit between takes and it hasn’t worked. Usually, if you’re in the zone of getting a take, people are observing a very real pulse that the song is dictating, and that pulse typically doesn’t vary much at all.

Do you ever record to tape?

Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s The River in Reverse [2006] was the last album where my engineer used tape. Elvis couldn’t have cared less. It slowed him down, actually. He’s instinctive and fast in the studio, but I was trying to be diligent to a certain sonic aesthetic. Elvis said it was my call, so I insisted on two-inch tape. There were many times when he wanted to hit a new take immediately and I had to ask him to wait while we changed reels or rewound. It occurred to me then that tape’s day was over.

So you’re OK with digital?

Analog-to-digital recorders are getting better all the time—and more importantly, I’m working with an engineer who can make things sound the way he wants them to sound with a computer. When we’re working with Pro Tools, we don’t have the benefit of analog tape offering additional sonic treatment to the signal we’re recording, so we have to frontload the sound with whatever outboard gear may be necessary to get that sound. The computer won’t enhance our sound, but it will take a beautiful picture of whatever we offer it, and I’m perfectly happy with that picture.

How do you use session players?

When artists approach me to produce they usually want me to choose the musicians. I’ve adopted a Motown philosophy, where I have a particular pool of musicians I turn to frequently. They know how to play together and they can all disappear into a song. I love working with musicians who have broad experience, but are willing to let it all go depending on what the song suggests.

What about working with bands?

When I produced the Carolina Chocolate Drops, they showed up as a band—that was a given. When I worked with Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, we put both of their bands together. That was a given, too. When I’m working with an established band, my work methods don’t change. But I don’t stack the cards in my favor in the same way, and I don’t know exactly how they’ll get fanned out.

Is it hard to produce yourself?

When I was first producing for others, I saw a big distinction between what I did as a producer and what I did as an artist. But the more I worked, the less that was true. I found that whether it was my voice and song or anybody else’s mattered less. What interested me was making something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers. When I’m producing for others I’m constantly being challenged with problems that are different every time, but somehow uniformly applicable. I’ve stopped thinking of “producer” and “artist” as different modes. When I produce myself, I still try to listen free of judgment. I try not to let my ego be the first thing I hear when I play something back. I don’t want to hear myself in the picture. I just want to see the picture.

What do you consider yourself first?

I’m an artist first and foremost. I’m a singer and a songwriter, and even as a producer that’s how I approach everything. That’s still my lens. My judgments come from wanting to know how a song speaks from that perspective.

‘I’m more about discovering what can happen than dictating what must happen.’

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