Joe Henry moved with his family to Rochester, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, when he was a teenager and later majored in English at the University of Michigan. Now living in Los Angeles, Henry has a parallel career as a music producer, working with the likes of Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Bettye LaVette and Ani DiFranco.
Did Detroit’s rich musical heritage and history have much of an influence on you when you were living here?
Romantically, absolutely it did. I had grown up in the South and the kind of soul music I heard growing up there was more Ray Charles, Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and stuff like that. To get to Detroit, where soul music meant Motown, which was much more urbane, orchestral pop music, I was just electrified by it.
How did you get involved with doing production work for other musicians?
My friend T-Bone Burnett was encouraging of it for years before I had any notion that I would have an interest in such a thing. When I first moved to Los Angeles in 1990, my album “Shuffletown” was about to come out, and T-Bone had produced it. When I landed out here, he enlisted me to help him as a production associate. I looked at it as something I could do to earn money and still be called a musician. I didn’t see it as part of my career journey, and I never made a decision to start doing that. The more I started to produce records, the less distinction I began to see between my work as an artist and my work as a producer.
What work do you have coming out soon?
I just finished (producing) a record with Rodney Crowell. It’s beautiful and really different from anything he’s done before. I’ve been working on another record with Loudon (Wainwright III) in pieces that’s really wonderful. I’m curating a music festival in Germany in the fall - it’s called the Century of Song. It’s kind of like making three records in a way; I’m curating three different performance periods in August, September and October.
What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry?
People in my racket on both sides of the fence, the artistic side and the business side, are in a bit of a tailspin. It’s not like the idea of music is dying. Don’t mistake the fact that the industry is being forced to rethink a dead model, which is overdue and happening anyway, with the notion that the public’s interest is waning. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. But always, always, music is the thing. The way it’s delivered, whether it’s an Edison cylinder or streaming over your computer speakers, it’s all just a window in. None of those things define what the music is and decide whether it’s meaningful or not.
If you could pick up the phone today and call an artist up and say, “I want to produce your next album,” who would it be?
There’s a few. The first person who comes to mind is Bill Withers. I’ve spent two years trying to make that phone call, as a matter of fact. He’s a retired person and very happily so, but, yes, I’d love to make a record with Bill. I’d love to produce a Prince record, actually. I’d love to produce the Roots, but Questlove seems to have that sewed up. I’d also love to make a great, direct jazz record with Wayne Shorter or Joe Lovano or Brad Mehldau.