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Joe Henry Takes Career In Many Directions
When Joe Henry was a teenager at Rochester Adams High School, he recorded his first song demos with a band from Ann Arbor — which he paid with a case of beer.
And, he acknowledges, “I had no idea where I would go with any of this.”
Suffice to say Henry has gone a long way since then.
The singer, songwriter and musician has released 10 albums of his own, most of them — including last year’s “Civilians” — to considerable critical acclaim. He’s also an in-demand producer with credits that include Loudon Wainwright III, Bettye LaVette, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Mary Gauthier and Allen Touissant and Elvis Costello, and winning a Grammy Award for Solomon Burke’s 2002 album, “Don’t Give Up on Me.”
Henry produced several songs on the soundtrack for the Bob Dylan film “I’m Not There,” and he’s collaborated with his sister-in-law, Madonna, who based her 2000 hit “Don’t Tell Me” on Henry’s composition “Stop.”
“The straight answer is, no, I never imagined being in this exact place I am now,” says Henry, 46, a North Carolina native who moved to Michigan when his father took a job in the automotive industry. He now resides in South Pasadena, Calif., with is wife, Melanie, and their two children — a 16-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter.
“Yes, it’s surprising, and strangely not so, at the same time. I feel like I’ve sort of been educating myself through my whole career to be appropriately diverse and ambitious, and I certainly find myself with opportunities I’ve never had before.
“And I feel like I’m on the cusp of being able to take that much further if I know how to do it.”
At the core of Henry’s career is an ethos of never standing still. Spin magazine called him “a skilled genre-hopper,” and that’s taken Henry from the alternative country strains of his early albums to a collaboration with heavy metal guitarist Page Hamilton of Helmet on 1996’s “Trampoline” and excursions into electronic dance music. More recently, his sophisticated, jazz-flavored outings feature notables such as Ornette Coleman, Brad Mehldau and Marc Ribot and have prompted comparisons to Tom Waits for their richly drawn, cinematic songwriting.
“Civilians,” meanwhile, was impacted by Henry’s work with Wainwright on “Strange Weirdos,” an album of songs that started life as instrumental pieces for the hit film “Knocked Up.”
“Working with him,” Henry explains, “I was really attracted to that strippeddown, very acoustic, very sort of raw presentation, very folk-oriented. But it wasn’t about being smaller and softer; it was about being dramatic in a different way than (2003’s) ‘Tiny Voices’ was dramatic.
“Then I got enthralled with that idea. What if I was to put myself in that same sort of position? How would I influence that idea, and how would it influence me? Can I be that stripped down? Can I be that forward and be comfortable with it?
“That became a big driving wheel for (‘Civilians’).”
“Civilians” also includes Henry’s version of “You Can’t Fail Me Now,” which Henry wrote for Wainwright’s album and include on his own “because of the fact it made women cry when they heard it.
“It sounds like I’m being flip, but I’m not,” says Henry says with a laugh. “I wrote it, and it didn’t feel very weighty to me. But when (Wainwright) recorded it, I heard the song in a completely different way than when I was writing it.
“(Wainwright) went home and played it for his wife, who had an emotional reaction immediately, as did my wife. It goes to show you that when you’re working on something, if you’re imagining it one way it’s hard to track yourself into hearing it differently until you see other people react.”
Holding that “I don’t ever think of the live show as needing to be a re-creation of a record,” Henry’s latest round of concerts is with a trio, stripping down his songs “without necessarily having to have them sound naked.” The short tour concludes with a special show on Thursday at the famed Allen Room in New York’s Lincoln Center, where the trio will become a quartet with a special guest appearance by pianist Mehldau.
Henry has a variety of other projects waiting for his attention, meanwhile. He and Toussaint are teaming again to record “a contemporary version of a New Orleans jazz record.” In March and April, he’s planning to be in France to work with Afro-pop artist Salif Keita, and in the fall, Henry will curate Germany’s Century of Song Festival.
Amidst all this, Henry says his record label “has encouraged me in a very polite sort of way that maybe it would be a good idea to make a record sooner than four years” — the gap between “Civilians” and its predecessor, “Tiny Voices.” Henry says he’s predisposed to listen, although “I don’t ever make a record ’cause the calendar tells me it’s time to do it.
“I have a couple of new things I’ve written,” Henry says, “that kind of suggest a direction, sonically, that I think would be very interesting — again more stripped down, though I would love to incorporate more orchestral elements, too.
“So I’m curious to see, if I start writing now with that idea in mind, what shape will it take? If you write with a purpose rather than waiting for songs to show up in their own time and turn into something, it’s different.”
Joe Henry performs at 8 p.m. Monday (Feb. 5) at The Ark, 316 S. Main St., Ann Arbor. Tickets are $20. Call (734) 761-1451 or visit www.theark.org.
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