Joe Henry is a singer-songwriter of many moods. His first records in the 1980s were earnest folk-rock collections of poetry and promise, and he soon began collaborating on records of modern Americana with the Jayhawks as his backing band. But later in the '90s, his sound took a surprising turn toward the deep and smoky with an album called "Trampoline." It was just the beginning of a creatively restless period that continues still, documented across several albums of soulful, literate songs.
His newest album, "Invisible Hour," is his 13th and was released this week on his own label, Worksong. It was recorded in his home studio in South Pasadena, the same basement room where he's produced several critically acclaimed albums by artists ranging from Ramblin' Jack Elliott to Aaron Neville. In the new album's liner notes, Henry, married since 1987 with two children, notes that its 11 songs are "about marriage … not a thing to be possessed but a habit of one's being."
The music is mostly understated and acoustic, beginning with the subversively gentle track "Sparrow," which opens with the lyric: "It wasn't peace I wanted / So it wasn't peace I found." The songs are played with typical grace and inspiration by a variety of ace players (including guitarist Greg Leisz and drummer Jay Bellerose), with a key role now filled by his 22-year-old jazzman son, Levon Henry, who plays clarinet and saxophone throughout.
Henry spoke with Marquee on the phone from Madrid, a stop on his European tour. He returns home in time for a Los Angeles performance on June 21 at Largo on La Cienega.
One of your strengths as an artist has always been your lyrics. How does that translate overseas?
There's times when I make assumptions that people understand and then find that they don't. There are plenty of times when I assume that they couldn't possibly understand the nuances of what I'm going on about — that's even true in America, to be honest. And yet I'm wildly received. I make no assumptions about it. At the same time, I have to believe that people are here on purpose.
With "Trampoline" in 1996, it seemed like you'd arrived at a sound you were excited about and were putting the previous records behind you. And yet you continued to change.
It's all a matter of songs. I try really hard not to have any sonic concept in mind ahead of the written song. I'm much better off trying to be authentic to the song as it offers itself no matter what that is. Sometimes songs want a bigger parade and more confetti in the air. Sometimes they want to be much more minimal and intimate. I try to treat a batch of songs like a compass blade and just walk in the direction they point me.
Did you always feel that way, or was there a moment of revelation along the way?
It's something I always felt, which is maybe why I found my work in the "Trampoline" era so liberating. I realized I didn't really know how to make records. When I was beginning, I would make a record in three or four days, and then two years go by before you're allowed to try it again. It's like learning to swim by going to the pool one day a year. Somehow when I was making "Trampoline," even though I was approaching it very naively, I was working alone and giving myself the time I needed to find a new way to work.
At a certain point you also started working with some interesting jazz players — including Ornette Coleman.
It was never trying to present myself as any sort of jazz artist. It was about how enthralled I was at working with musicians who were liberated in a certain way — jazz might be their contemporary vocabulary, but they grew up hearing everything and being very broad in their interests. Brad Mehldau is one example — he certainly doesn't listen only to jazz music. You can talk to him about Edith Piaf and you can talk to him about Ravel and Muddy Waters. I felt very much at home with people like that.
In your liner notes, you write that these new songs are about marriage. Is that a subject of special interest?
I'm a devoted married person, and I understand its power and mystery in my life. But I didn't set out to write a song cycle about marriage. I just noticed that's a thread that runs through the songs. I write and listen to what the songs are meaning to say, not what I'm meaning to say.
Marriage is not a topic that's dealt with as much as romance before marriage.
We hear songs frequently about the demise of [a marriage]. What interests me is long-term commitment to one. There are also characters on my record that are living without that bond, and that is its own way to look at what marriage is: What happens to people who maybe desire commitment and are bereft of it?
Was there a song during the making of the record that set the direction you were taking?
The first song we recorded was "Swayed," and except for a couple of reed overdubs, it's a live-in-the-room performance. There was something sort of mysterious about it, and in the way it talks about the desire to be seduced — to really be persuaded into something. I thought if I got that right, it would tell me a lot about the way forward, and it did.
You said recently that some of this record is a reflection of time you've spent with Kris Kristofferson.
The song called "Lead Me On" that Lisa Hannigan sings with me — I had just been working with Kris and thinking a lot about his significance to a certain group of American songwriters for whom he is a giant. I wasn't trying to imitate the way he writes. He's a great lover of William Blake and his best songs have a great shadow life that hints at a lot more than what the song is literally saying. I was wondering if I could make it hover off the ground in a similar way.
Do you work exclusively in your home in South Pasadena now?
Over the last six or seven years, I've probably done about 80 percent of my work as an artist and as a producer there, just because it's a really soulful place and it's affordable for people and it works well. Right now it's my favorite place to work.
How is working with your son different from working with other musicians?
It's an incredibly intense and personal relationship. He's one of my favorite musicians — he's not just there because he's my son. That's just the voice I want to hear. He occupies a very particular role and bridges a gap between being really free — because he's a deep and studied jazz musician — but he's also completely in love with old American folk music. He's incredibly song oriented, and really concerned about the story being told.
Last year, you co-authored a book with your brother, "Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him."
It was a tremendous experience to do that with my brother, who was my first mentor. My brother Dave [Henry] is two years older than I am and he's been right there in front of me my entire life. He was always there handing me the next book, pushing me towards the next movie that I should see. It was amazing to take that journey with him.
That book is a result of your 2001 song, "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation"?
The label I was on at the time insisted that I get [Pryor's] permission to use his name in the song title. Richard was moved by the song and so was his wife, and they gave me permission. I recorded the song with Ornette Coleman, which was no small thing for me. Esquire commissioned me to write about Richard and about Ornette and how the idea of one led me to work with the other.
Richard and his wife asked me if I would write a screenplay based on his life. I enlisted David's help. We worked on the spec [script] a couple of years. At a certain point, my brother said let's just write the book. It's not a traditional biography. It's more of a cultural study.
Do you have another writing project?
I really hope that we shortly find what's next. It was a great experience in ways that I understand and ways that I don't.
-- Steve Appleford, email@example.com
Follow on Twitter: @SteveAppleford.