Joe Henry has long been one of America’s most interesting singer-songwriters (with more than a dozen solo albums stretching back to 1986), as well as a celebrated producer who has worked with such soulful artists as Bonnie Raitt, Solomon Burke, John Doe, Bettye Lavette, Aimee Mann, Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, Billy Bragg, Aaron Neville, and many more. As both an artist and a producer, he always strives to capture natural performances, as live as possible, in the studio.
His latest album, Thrum, is a case in point. He wrote the songs on acoustic guitar, then made vocal-and-guitar demos which he sent to some of his favorite “intuitive” musicians (all of whom he had worked with often), such as bassist David Piltch, drummer Jay Bellerose, keyboardist Patrick Warren, guitarist John Smith, and his own reeds-playing son, Levon Henry. When they arrived at the studio for the sessions, there was no rehearsal and no discussion of the parts anyone would play. Instead, they dove right into takes, hoping to capture the magic of their first musical interactions on those songs. Further, Henry’s engineer, Ryan Freeland, mixed the album live—there’s no overdubbing and exactly one edit on the entire disc. It’s a deep and somewhat dark album—titles include “Blood of the Forgotten Song,” The Glorious Dead,” and “The Dark is Light Enough”—but it’s also passionate and compelling, the on-the-fly arrangements fitting the vibe of the songs perfectly. All have acoustic guitar at their core, and many feature splendid interplay between Henry and Smith.
We chatted about the album, the guitars Henry used on it, and what he plays as a live performer.
How do you know when a batch of songs you’ve written is ready to become an album?
Usually, it’s when I find a group of songs that have something of the same language and attitude and atmosphere. Once I see that a number of those are playing well together, I start imagining the movie they might be collectively. And then I start noticing as I’m writing new songs: Are these speaking that same language? Then, invariably, there will be some moment where I’m in the midst of my day, I’ll just hear the whole thing in an instant, like a struck bell. I’ll hear the tonality, the atmosphere, the “weather” of the album, and then I’ll imagine, “If that’s where this lives, who do I need to have in the room with me?” And it’s not even so much about instrumentation at that point, it’s about character.
Do you play the same guitars onstage as you used on the sessions for Thrum?
No; in this case, everything I used on the sessions was old. I’ve been touring with various combinations of newer guitars in the last years, trying to find an instrument that is vibey and inspiring to play; something that has some stability that my favorite old guitars don’t have on the road. Most recently, I got a pair of guitars from the lovely people at Collings, and I never imagined I would have much interest in new or boutique guitars. I resisted that for a while, but I have many friends, from Bill Frisell to Rodney Crowell, who said, “You really have to check out these Collings guitars. They’re incredibly beautifully built. They’re vibey right out of the case and they’re going to get more so.”
Collings reached out to me and sent me one of their OM Traditional guitars and a 002H, which is kind of like a late-’20s-style Martin parlor guitar. I’m a particular enthusiast for 12-fret guitars; that’s really my thing. So these guitars—and they’re really quite different, but both compelling—sort of turned my head around; that there’s something I can lean in to that’s inviting and is going to get better, that intonates great, and holds up to changes in weather and travel conditions that we all deal with.
What I had been touring with, until I started experimenting with these newer guitars, were mostly late-’20s and early-’30s Gibsons. I have a particularly deep love for L-00s. I have a pair of them that are 12-fret versions from 1931 and ’32, and I have a 14-fret L-00 from 1935 that’s very much like the one Woody Guthrie famously played—it’s black with a tiger guard. And beyond those three, my best guitars are a pair of Gibson Nick Lucas Specials. One is a 12-fret from 1929 with mahogany back and sides, and the other is not only the best guitar I own, it’s the best guitar I’ve ever played—a 1932 Nick Lucas Special that’s 13 frets to the body with Brazilian rosewood back and sides, which was unusual for Gibson because that was not what they did primarily. It was an experimental model with a flat top, an X-brace, a tailpiece, and a trapeze bridge. I played it like that for the first seven years I owned it, and then I had it converted to a pin-bridge, because I knew there was more tone to pull out of it. A couple of years ago, I finally got the nerve to have my friend Mark Stutman from Folkway Music in Waterloo, Ontario—who I had bought the guitar from originally—convert it to a pin-bridge. And it’s just extraordinary; it doesn’t sound like anything else I have or have ever touched.
I used it quite a bit on the album, and if I wasn’t playing it, somebody else was. The new album happened in four sessions, two pairs of days. John Smith, a friend from England, used it as well. If he was using that, I was either playing the mahogany Nick Lucas or the all-mahogany L-00 from 1932. That one has a completely unique, really throaty tone; it has a beautiful growl to it—very prominent overtones. And beyond that, I used a 1929 Martin 0-28—also a 12-fret Brazilian rosewood guitar—on a couple of tunes.
You must have done a lot of rehearsal on this to get the parts down enough that you could record and mix live-to-tape.
None. I don’t really believe in pre-production as most people think about that term. I frequently am saying to artists I’m producing, “There’s really a moment of discovery when people are playing music together. When a song really stares up and identifies itself in character and intention. And that’s what I want to record.” And if that happens in a rehearsal space somewhere—when the genie kind of comes out of the bottle and everyone knows what it is—if you’re in a studio a few days later and people are saying, “What was that thing you did the other day that was so cool?” it’s too late. You’re looking over your shoulder at an idea that’s already happened and it’s tough to recapture that. I love that moment of real revelation to be the moment we’re working from.
I’m not a purist about it—I’ll still chop, channel, edit, tune, fly anything to make it more musical if it’s needed. But I really make a point of—certainly on my own records, where there’s nobody to deny me—to just say, “Here are iPhone demos of each song, as skeletal as it can possibly be—in this case guitar-and-vocal demos—and I want everyone to learn the fundamental architecture of the song, so they’re not charting it when we’re all together, but as we start running it, nobody has any idea of what anybody else is going to do, so everyone has to listen at a really deep level, and that’s when things can really start happening. The first or second or third or fourth take when people are no longer reading charts but they’re also not doing anything by rote yet, and nothing is assumed. That’s my favorite way to work.
So you never discussed with Levon to have that breathy, almost drone-ish thing going through some of his reed parts?
No. We like so much of the same music and we have such a similar sensibility—as I do with every musician on this gig with whom I have a real history—we don’t have to talk about it. Levon had the same freedom as everyone in the room had. He was running his reeds through pedals and amps and he and Ryan Freeland concocted on the side a way for him to decide on the fly whether he was sending Ryan straight signal from the bass clarinet or tenor sax or whatever he was playing, or amp-and-treated versions of what he was doing; or both. And Ryan was free to do whatever he wanted on his end, too.
Were the players isolated in the studio or all in the same room?
We recorded at United Recording Studio B in Hollywood, which is my favorite room in Los Angeles. It’s a remarkable place—Ray Charles recorded Modern Sounds of Country & Western Music in there. You can’t be in there and not think about it. Although we had a lot of people in the main room, we did isolate things to a certain degree because I wanted Ryan to be really free to have the availability of bleed in the room and also feel free about treating different elements.
How did you work out your guitar duets with John Smith with no rehearsal? Were you two at least in the same room?
I was in a side room [0ff the main studio room], and he was just outside my nearest window, so we were still essentially nose to nose. John has a very orchestral sensibility, which is one reason I love his playing so much. He comes out of the John Martyn, Martin Carthy, Bert Jansch landscape, and I love the way he orchestrates around what I do, which is pretty straightforward. I also love the idea of two or three steel-string acoustic instruments playing consciously together, but not everything mannered and organized. I love that collision of sound, and that when two people are playing a passing phrase and they cross, there’s a moment of consternation that can be surprising and still really musical. The fundamental approach for me is going to be consistent because I’m compositional as a player; I don’t have the ability to improvise that John does.
Did working on the traditional album with Billy Bragg [Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad, 2017] affect this?
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I’d be a fool to say no, because everything affects everything. Getting down the essence of very old folk songs that are our shared and common vocabulary was its own thing, as was the way we approached them as field recordings. So whether he or I made a mistake was completely beside the point. Is the song good in the air, and does it feel like a living thing? So on this album, when I challenged everyone to perform live in the studio and have it mixed in real time, I was asking people to be totally committed.
I feel that if music is too mannered it loses its power and it becomes invisible. I’m always trying to get people to hear the humanity in what they play or offer, even if they might think it’s a little out of tune or “off.” Maybe it does need to be fixed, but there’s also a chance that what might sound a little broken and frayed is exactly what it needs there.
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.