Youth may fuel the pop mainstream. But in the cultish world of Joe Henry, elders rule.
“I’m a big believer in the places that experience takes you,” says Henry. “Some of my favorite Duke Ellington recordings were made toward the end of his life. And I’m interested in what Dylan has to say now, at his age.”
Small wonder Henry has carved out an esteemed place for himself as the go-to producer for artists of a certain duration and stature. In the last few years, Henry has produced remarkable albums for everyone from fortysomethings Aimee Mann and John Doe to sixty-pluses Solomon Burke, Mavis Staples and Loudon Wainwright. They’re vital, searching works, hardly the stuff of museums or revivals.
At the same time, Henry has maintained a career as a solo artist, putting out 10 albums that stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the work of the classic artists he produces.
His latest, “Civilians,” combines euphonious lyrics with sounds that roam the landscape of American roots music. Fine folk-rock ballads float over the dreamy beats of swing. “I’ve always listened to all kinds of music, to the point where it’s become a blur,” says the songwriter. “That’s helpful in derailing any cliches.”
Accordingly, Henry’s career connects to a rambling range of names and references. Talking with him is like flipping through the world’s densest Rolodex. By turns, he’ll refer to jazz legend Ornette Coleman (one of his proudest collaborations), Madonna (with whom he co-wrote some songs, and who also happens to be his sister-in-law), and even Jeffrey Dahmer, whom he knew well in junior high school.
(“He was like many young men at that age - shy and uncomfortable,” Henry says of the mass murderer and cannibal. “Nothing I saw can account for what his life became.”)
The Midwest-born Henry first issued an album in 1989 called “Murder of Crows,” which had some of the rustic rustle of The Band. While his albums have always shown erudition in the lyrics and confidence in the music, “Civilians” represents a career high on both fronts.
It’s also his most sonically direct CD, in striking contrast to his more elaborate, previous work, 2003’s “Tiny Voices.” “At this point in my life, I’m striving to be more available,” he says. “I want to strip it back and leave as much air in the room as possible. I want the production to be invisible.”
The approach puts a harder focus on the tune and the lyrics. The latter bear the scrutiny especially well. In the title track, Henry sings that “Life is short/but by the grace of God/the night is long,” nailing the disconnect between the brevity of the literal life and the great duration of the inner one.
“Life is so fleeting,” says Henry, “but night seems to be a period that’s out of time. When I was young I thought you could accomplish anything, even build a skyscraper, if you stayed up all night.”
Time and God serve as the CD’s motifs. The deity earns more name checks than on any other Henry album. “The Bible is a frame of reference for me, in the same way Bob Dylan is,” the songwriter says. “It’s in my DNA.”
Henry’s lyrics have a musicality even when read cold. “I’m a savage and delighted rewriter,” he says. “That makes me a very snobby listener. I’m hard to hear other songwriters who haven’t developed a craft or who are lazy.”
That attitude greatly informs what Henry looks for in a production project. “I won’t work with musicians who don’t already have their own sound,” he says.
In fact, Henry opposes the one-style-fits-all production approach of some producers. “I try to be a facilitator,” he says. “And I want to help the artist get outside of whatever cage they’ve been put in.”
He’s done an especially notable job of that with older soul stars. In 2005, Henry created the “I Believe to My Soul” project, which featured vintage stars such as Staples, Allen Toussaint and Billy Preston.
“I was dismayed that so many of the soul artists we revere didn’t have record deals,” he says. “They’re just working the oldies circuit. Or they get shoehorned into hip-hop and produced by Wyclef Jean. I wanted to do something authentic with these artists that wasn’t nostalgic. It had to be contemporary but without putting an uncomfortable suit on them.”
Henry pulled that off magnificently on solo albums for Bettye LaVette and Solomon Burke (whose collaboration bagged a Grammy). The singer also realized a dream by producing a powerful dual album with Elvis Costello and Toussaint (“The River in Reverse”). “It turns out that, aside from Jerry Wexler, I’m the only other person who has ever produced Allen,” Henry remarks. “I’m glad I didn’t know that before going in.”
For all Henry’s acclaim, there’s one kind of CD he has never produced: a hit. “I’m surprised how many projects I’ve been given for somebody who doesn’t sell records,” he says, with a laugh.
Yet by keeping budgets modest, profits can be had. Besides, Henry finds warmth in a broader realization. “In the end,” he says, “there are a lot of ways music can be successful.”