Historical home studio

Like most professional musicians these days, singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe Henry has a home studio where he produces records for himself as well as other artists, which — unlike most at-home recordings — include recent Grammy-winning albums by veteran troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (2009's “A Stranger Here”) and string-band revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops (2010's “Genuine Negro Jig”).

Even more unlikely, these discs — plus albums by such diverse artists as Mose Allison, Aaron Neville, Loudon Wainwright III, Rodney Crowell, Over the Rhine, Michelle N'degeOcello and Mary Gauthier — were all recorded in the basement of a home that's listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places as the Garfield House.

Located on a leafy South Pasadena street, the house was designed by famed architects Greene & Greene as a winter home for U.S. President James Garfield's widow, Lucretia, who died there in 1918. Henry has owned the house since 2006, and his last three albums for L.A.-based independent Anti- Records — 2007's “Civilians,” 2009's “Blood From Stars” and the just-released “Reverie” — were recorded there.

Citing Ray Charles as a primary musical influence, Henry distills folk, country, blues, jazz and the traditional pre-rock sounds of singers such as Frank Sinatra into a heady, moody brew that's distinguished by Henry's character-driven (as opposed to confessional) songwriting, and by sparse, casually virtuosic performances from the same select group of musicians that never overshadow the songs. And it's this songs-first, sympathetic arrangements-second approach, combined with Henry's broad musical palette and relaxed studio demeanor, that's made his production services so attractive to such a wide range of artists.

On “Reverie,” Henry and his longtime engineer Ryan Freeland placed microphones at the basement's open windows and captured the sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs and passing traffic, all of which were funneled into the musicians' individual headphones while they were recording the songs and can be heard throughout the resulting album.

“I don't believe a studio needs to be a hermetically sealed chamber, 'cause music doesn't happen in a vacuum,” explains Henry. “Although ‘Reverie’ is an all-acoustic record, I didn't want it to sound too precious, too clean or polite. On 'Tomorrow Is October,' the cars wooshing by sound almost like a rising and falling orchestral score and create a sense of drama. And hearing all these ambient sounds provides suspense, like everything in the songs is happening in real time, even though it isn't.

“The challenge of working here is that the room is irregularly shaped. It's not a rectangle or square; there's a lot of odd angles. There's also a lot of different textures: brick, stone, wood. Although the ceiling is low, it's a live-sounding space because of the concrete floor and the stone wall, but it retains an amazing amount of intimacy because of the shape. We can make it sound big and splashy, but it's really easy to make it sound intimate.”

To mirror the hazy atmospherics reflected in “Reverie's” title and lyrical themes, Henry — drawing inspiration from Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus and Max Roach's freewheeling 1962 album “Money Jungle” — positioned drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist David Piltch at the foot of the basement's stairs, almost within reach of the upright piano played by Keefus Ciancia.

“I was right there in a chair against that stone wall.” Henry gestures. “We wanted all those overtones, all that smoky, gritty bleed, and Ryan — who really makes this place a viable recording space — wound up using a lot of vintage ribbon microphones to get that.

“But we set Ramblin’ Jack Elliott up in that little room where those drums are now. Put a stuffed chair, an end table with a glass of whisky and a picture of Lucretia Garfield in there, so it was like a sitting room. One of the first songs Jack recorded back in the mid-'50s was about the assassination of James Garfield, so he thought it was incredibly serendipitous to be recording in his widow's home.

“Although this is a wonderful, soulful environment for making records, the most important thing is that I live here with my family.” Henry, 51, has been married since 1987 and has two children. “So I tell people up front that we'll basically work from 11 to 7, then we'll have dinner, and then I expect people to leave. 'Cause it doesn't work for my family for people to be here at midnight or 1 in the morning.”

Working in this manner, Henry and his usual collaborators recorded “Reverie” in three days — plus a fourth to accommodate contributions from guitarist Marc Ribot. “I had a car running in the driveway to take Marc to the airport so he could play with Tom Waits at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame [induction ceremony] in New York. And it got to where we weren't even listening to playbacks. We'd just play a song three times and say, 'I know it'll be in there somewhere.'

“I don't do everything here,” notes Henry, citing his production efforts for Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint, Solomon Burke and “House” star Hugh Laurie, among others. “But when there are projects I find really meaningful and the budget is really small, I'll reduce my studio fee because I really want them to happen. Period. 'Cause if I didn't, they wouldn't. So having this place enables me to do that.”

DON WALLER has written professionally about music, TV, films, books, comedy, magic, cooking and drinking for more local, national and international publications than we have space to list here. Contact him at donwaller@roadrunner.com.

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