It has been over 28 years since the release of your first album, can you share with us three highlights from your career?
Personally speaking, there have been many, of course; but since you seem to be asking about my recording life as an artist specifically –as opposed to my production work– (and understanding that the answer to this might differ if asked on a different day) I will share that my evening in a New York studio in the fall of 1999, collaborating with Ornette Coleman on the song Richard Pryor Addresses A Tearful Nation (from the album Scar, released in 2000) remains one of the great moments for me. He had long been a hero to me, as he has been to many; and the generosity with which he brought himself to that moment was both humbling and affirming. I believed it to be a sound idea, when I first got in touch with him to discuss the possibility; but in truth, his performance on the song exceeded my expectations. The blues Ornette plays against the languid orchestration was so pure to my ear that I believed then (and continue to now) that I could have dispensed with the lyric and vocal altogether, and the emotional intention of the song would remain nonetheless perfectly realized.
I would also say that the making of the album Civilians (2007) was a highlight for me, as I felt fully liberated by the recording process rather than merely at peace with it. It was a rare moment of feeling I had achieved what I intended to: an album where the production disappears fully into the realization of the songs themselves, leaving them to sound … inevitable. It was also the first of my own records that I recorded in the basement of my home –the studio known as The Garfield House– a place where I have to date had some of the most meaningful musical experiences of my life.
Lastly, I’ll offer that performing at Carnegie Hall in New York this past spring as part of a benefit concert celebrating the songs of Paul Simon was a highlight. I sang The Boxer in a stripped-down trio setting with Kenneth Pattengale (of The Milk Carton Kids) on second guitar and backing vocals, and my son Levon on clarinet; all of us crowded around a single microphone. Walking out onto that stage with my son –standing on boards previously occupied by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Lead Belly, Edith Piaf, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Harry Belafonte, etc.– was quite an exceptional sensation.
The music industry has changed immensely over your career, how do you adapt?
To be honest, I have never really operated within the mainstream –and it has taken little interest in me– thus I don’t feel this moment I have had to change my methods very much, though I believe (and thankfully) that the playing field is being levelled a bit. I have always made records on my own creative terms, and have received little help, in truth, from the industry machine whose demise so many now lament.
I have released my own new album (Invisible Hour) on my own label, Work Song, which in part is a response to the changing times; but has as much to do with dedicating myself this moment of my life to true ownership of and responsibility for the work as it does the collapse.
I think the changes within our industry are frightening and disconcerting, but essential, in fact, like fire clearing a dead forest. We are all being called to rethink the model for ourselves, and many are. Much good will come from it.
Who inspires you?
At this point I feel I am more inspired by filmmakers, photographers, poets, novelists, and painters than I am by other music or musicians. Picasso says more to me about what I mean to do with my songs than any songwriter could.
I am also, it won’t go without saying, inspired by my family, and the activities of real living. It’s limiting to speak of influence only in terms of other art: songs grow as an extension of the life you live; and I am happiest when I see no distinction or separation between the two.
If you had the opportunity to collaborate with any musician, past or present, who would it be?
Billy Strayhorn. And I would ask that he bring Johnny Hodges along.
Are you planning on sticking around to see any other acts at Brisbane Festival?
My schedule will not allow for it, but I’d be keen to see Juana Molina if I could.
At Brisbane Festival, the month of September is kind of a big deal for us. We go a little mad with festival fever. What does September mean to you?
I grew up on the eastern side of the United States, and the autumn is my favourite season. Thus I have always regarded the first day of September –the gateway to fall– as the true New Year’s Day. When it arrives, I feel a door has opened, and I am invited to start anew. The light changes and so do I.
Joe Henry plays The Telstra Spiegeltent on Sun 14 Sept.