Joe Henry is tapped into the American past in unexpected ways. He lives in a roomy South Pasadena Craftsman designed for President Garfield’s widow, and his preferred attire, a black suit and pointy boots, suggests that the 48-year-old singer and guitarist would have been at home playing in Elvis Presley’s first band.
“I typically come to things late,” Henry said. “I was too busy with Leadbelly when the Clash happened.”
These days, the easygoing musician is venturing back to some of the most harrowing music in the American canon: The tormented country blues of Son House, Robert Johnson and Skip James. “To me, it’s like reading Keats or Blake,” he said during a recent interview in his basement studio. “It’s about engaging in the idea of mortality. It takes God, sex, love and death and puts them all in the same room -- and grapples. It’s not all answered, but it’s all engaged.”
The album inspired by this journey, “Blood From Stars,” released Tuesday, uses the line-repetition typical of the blues tradition: “Nobody knows . . . the man that I keep hid,” the first lyric begins. “Nobody knows . . . the man that I keep hid.”
But “Blood” sounds less like a scratchy old Delta blues record than a collection of musical short stories, or the soundtrack to an invisible film. In its impressionistic liner notes, Henry calls the songs scenes for a play.
“I was very consciously thinking about blues song form, not musical tonality,” Henry said. “There’s no sense in trying to re-create a blues record, but I find the [blues] song form to be incredibly powerful. It’s like why people go back to the sonnet or the haiku. That form has power, and the structure gives you a bit of direction.”
Henry possesses one of those high-integrity reputations that doesn’t translate into heavy record sales. Elvis Costello deemed his 2003 “Tiny Voices” album -- the first of three on the Anti- label -- as demonstrating “a wonderful musical and sonic fabric that is entirely his own.” He also has become a noted producer, crafting career comebacks for soul singers Solomon Burke (“Don’t Give Up on Me”) and Bettye LaVette (“I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise”) as well as Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans-themed collaboration with Costello, “The River in Reverse.”
But his career has been long and twisted enough to fill, well, an old blues song. Born in North Carolina and raised in the South and Midwest, Henry fell hard as a kid for Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. He recorded several singer-songwriter style albums in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the last two of which featured members of the Jayhawks.
Those records inspired David Menconi to write recently on the No Depression website, “Henry seemed to be perfectly positioned to capitalize on the dawn of the alternative-country era,” though the style Henry developed, which emphasized mood and atmospherics, made it hard for him to land hit singles.
Anti-, a sister label to L.A.'s punk-oriented Epitaph, seems an unlikely place for an earthy, Americana-suffused performer like Henry, but it’s hard to figure out where he’d fit in otherwise. Drawn to everything from old-school country to free jazz to trip-hop, he’s both a very deliberate artist and a musical wanderer. His body of work has become, virtually, a hybrid genre of its own.
Part of what makes Henry’s music so distinctive involves him only indirectly: It’s his ability to maintain a stable core of musicians, many of them jazz guys, as well as bring in guest stars.
“It’s kind of a throwback to what would happen at Sun Studios or Stax or Hi Records where you have a steady crew and the chemistry is really great and your sense of the space is great,” said Henry’s longtime drummer Jay Bellerose.
For his 2001 release “Scar,” Henry persuaded saxophonist Ornette Coleman to provide a rare cameo on “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation,” and his Anti- records have enlisted Bill Frisell, Don Byron and Van Dyke Parks. Many of his players share his love of vintage instruments and equipment.
“I don’t feel like I’m obliged to adopt any kind of sonic dress code,” Henry said. “I think my writing and sensibility, my singing voice, for better and worse, that’s enough of a commonality to unify anything I might do.”
“Blood From Stars” opens with a piano prelude by Jason Moran, perhaps the leading jazz pianist under the age of 40. The album includes such longtime associates as experimental jazz guitarist Marc Ribot and vocalist Marc Anthony Thompson. There’s also a stirring tenor saxophone solo by Henry’s son Levon, who just graduated from high school.
“Typically, when I start out making a record for anybody, especially the ones I make for myself, it’s more about having the right personalities in the room,” Henry said. “I don’t think about instrumentation as much as I think about character. . . . Here I wanted the production to be an obvious player on the stage, the seams weren’t supposed to be invisible. I quite like the theatrical staginess of it.”
Drummer Bellerose compares Henry’s production style to T-Bone Burnett’s. “Joe is a great lover of music and live performance. We try to make a record in the moment, with excitement and spontaneity. It takes a real commitment and courage to make those decisions. He’s very romantic about the whole process and that separates him from most producers and people making records these days.”
Though Henry is by most descriptions a singer-songwriter, you won’t get much sense of the man by listening to his records.
“I don’t ever sit down to write about my own life,” he said. “I think as a writer you have two fundamental choices -- you look in or you look out. Looking in, that’s a very finite space. I never sit down intending to write a song with a subject in mind: It’s not about self-expression as much as it’s about discovery.”
This emphasis on looking outward is appropriate for an artist who often expresses himself best through the work of others. He just completed producing an album with jazz vocalist Mose Allison at his home studio, and recently returned from New York, where he’s “begun a very long, and potentially very sprawling, project with Harry Belafonte, who’s already changing the way I look at the world,” Henry said.
“It’s revelatory to be in the orbit of someone like that, and not just musically.”
It’s hard to picture someone more satisfied with his working life.
“I don’t know anybody who sells fewer records than me who gets to do what he wants to do continuously,” Henry said.