Did stoic singer/songwriter Joe Henry—like many folks—find himself shivering in mortality-minded fear when the coronavirus clamped down on humanity in March of 2020? Sorry, the triple-Grammy-winning folk-rock veteran sighs—been there, done that. To the point where, at 62, he had nothing left to fear but fear itself.
Sure, Henry had hit his stride in 2019 with his 15th studio set The Gospel According to Water, a spur-of-the moment collection of demos he’d recorded with friends that sounded so strong he released it, as is. But he quickly tumbled from that lofty plateau when he was confronted by what he now lightly downplays as a “little health scare.” But there was nothing insignificant about the surprise diagnosis he received in autumn of that same year. “I had stage four prostate cancer,” he admits. “And I was very receptive to treatment, and I felt immensely better very, very quickly. And I’m doing good right now—I still get treatment, but I’m asymptomatic and feeling fully well.”
Even so, his life philosophy has shifted dramatically. Or, as he sagely put it now, as he releases a resonant, reflective pandemic-sculpted followup, “All the Eye Can See: “We are called to live robustly in the face of knowing that we will not always. So what my health journey offered me was a very conscious awakening to the fact that my story has always been unwritten, and now feels newly unwritten. So I can’t know the unfolding of my life, but I can choose to let the terror attached to that either consume me or not. And some days it does, and has, but that’s not the balance that I am to meet.”
When he first learned of the disease while residing in Pasadena (he’s since moved to the more remote wilds of Maine, his wife Melanie Ciccone, Madonna’s sister, sat the artist down for a serious talk. No matter how much time he had left, what, exactly did he want to do with the rest of his life? She asked him, earnestly. There was no time—or reason—to be depressed; If touring fed his soul, he should get back out and do it, as soon as lockdown allowed. If it was recording? There was a multitude of new Zoom-enhanced writing and recording options available, so being absent from his old SoCal stomping grounds would have no impact at all on his career, she insisted. “So I just really started thinking about my creative process in a completely different way,” says Henry, who was also blindsided by the sudden death of his mother, to whom his new album is dedicated.
First, Henry encapsulated the past by publishing Unspeakable: The Collected Lyrics of Joe Henry, 1985 – 2020. Then, aided by music-biz chums like Patrick Warren, Daniel Lanois, Lisa Hannigan, The Milk Carton Kids, and his son Levon on saxophone and clarinet, he composed 13 gorgeous studies of our human condition, circa 2020-21, plus “Red Letter Day,” a cut expressly written for the upcoming film Downtown Owl. And his voice has grown smokier, more gravelly with time, and it insinuates itself into every rustic crevice of the record with Dylan-determined aplomb, until each track seems to contain a treasure trove of almost Biblical wisdom the man is imparting, even on the humorous “God Laughs.” Which underscores the bullet point of Henry’s presentation: If God was ever laughing at him with all the Job-like test of will he’s endured, no matter. He’s laughing right along with Him in grand carpe diem fashion with his art, as he explains in detail in our conversation:
Paste: It took some creative folks a little while after the pandemic hit to get their bearings. What phases did you go through, and where were you living?
Joe Henry: Well, in that moment we were still in Pasadena, on the outskirts of Los Angeles county, where my wife and I had been living for three years. And you know, I had just released a new record in November of 2019, and I had a lot of touring on the books, after having lost a year to my health crisis. So then I saw all that touring in America and abroad get raked off the table, just like it happened to everybody else. But then I very quickly decided that I could spend my time just rewatching On the Waterfront endlessly, or I could throw myself deeper into my work in whatever way I liked. I just understood that what I needed to do was learn to record myself at home, and just as soon as I started to do that, I realized that I heard the possibility—heard my voice come back over a pair of headphones—then I just started writing songs, kind of in a torrent. I would sometimes take solitary walks very early in the morning and write an entire song in my head on the walk. And then I could come home and because I had the capability, and I was learning, I didn’t have to wait until I had an album’s worth of songs in the boat before I started thinking about how to articulate them.
Paste: Lots of artists use their iPhon’e Voice Notes to remember songs they’ve come up with when they’re out.
Henry: I didn’t care to have my phone on my person. I just sang, over and over, what I was writing, until I got home. And then I wrote the words down, grabbed a guitar, figured out how to support what it was I was singing, and then I would immediately record it. And then I started sending those session files at first to my dear friends and collaborators across town, and then across the country, and then sort of around the world a bit, once I understood that all of my brothers and sisters—with whom I had been collaborating, or who I wanted to collaborate with—were at home also wanting to feel connected, and wanting to keep their creative lives sparking. So when I would send a song, first to my friend Patrick Warren, for instance, just for a response, like, “How does this song sound to you?” And then he would answer by sending the file back with cellos and a pump organ and an upright piano on it. Then I would integrate that, and then listen in my mind, thinking, “Who else should get it now?” So I just started expanding the songs and then writing the next one, and starting the process anew. And it just went on from there.
Paste: How many more songs than these 14 did you come up with?
Henry: Well, a few more, certainly. But I was also very judicious, because at the end of this period of time, my wife and I made the move from Los Angeles to Maine, where we now live, and I recognized that for the most part I wanted this new record to just be the songs that I wrote and recorded in that window of time from when that Covid curtain came down to when we started driving across the country. And I was pretty much faithful to that, except that on the drive across, I wrote one last song as I was driving late one evening through Nebraska. And I ended up recording my part of that once we’d gotten to Maine—I had brought a kind of a skeletal recording that I could utilize while our furniture was all in storage and our house was being built and we were renting. And the song was “Karen Dalton,” and she is absolutely a real person. She was part of the early-’60s folk music boom, and she was kind of a tragic figure, but also a wildly influential singer and character on that landscape.
Paste: Meanwhile, how do you get a song commission for the film adaptation of Chuck Klosterman’s book Downtown Owl?
Hendry: Because my dear friend and mentor, T-Bone Burnett was overseeing the music for that film, and he asked me if I would write a song. And in this case, at the point when I was approached, the film was still in production, so I read a screenplay, I saw a couple of rough scenes. And when I’ve ever done any writing for film, I don’t ever think that the point is to try and write narratively. So what you’re already seeing on screen? That’s not offering you any new perspective. But hopefully, there’s an emotional tripwire, as somebody is trying to find their way to a song that might be in service to a scene, and help elevate it and illuminate it, what am I feeling emotionally in this scene? How do I describe that emotion, and what emotion might I articulate that would stand alongside what we’re already seeing onscreen?
Paste: So what ephemeral magic did you capture in that track, “Red Letter Day,” which is also featured on the album?
Henry: Well, just what I heard for myself, I think the character in the song that’s speaking is trying to hold in balance a deep sense of trauma and dread, while also trying to maintain some sense of hope and optimism going forward.
Paste: Going back to that post-diagnosis epiphany you had, is that what motivated you to collect and publish all of your lyrics in a book during lockdown?
Henry: Well, that’s actually an idea that my manager has been putting forward for years now. So it wasn’t a new idea because of my health crisis, but maybe without really thinking about that being what I was doing, maybe at that moment it opened me up to wanting to take some time and collect all that work in one place. But I didn’t do it thinking I’m about to sign off, so I should get my affairs in order. I could easily have done that, or I can see that it might easily be seen as that. But that really wasn’t the motivator. My thinking around it really was, “I want to get this all ordered and set aside somewhere, so that I can leave it and go on to what’s next for me, whatever that is.”
Paste: You’ve also spoken about being deeply affected by the recent passing of a friend and musical idol. Was that John Prine?
Henry: Yes. John was both my friend and he’s been a hero since my teenage years, as a songwriter. We did not become friends until the last five years of his life, and it was powerful. I’d always wondered why our paths had never crossed, because I’d met every other significant songwriter to my evolution that was still living, except for John, and we had a number of very close friends in common. And I wondered, frequently, about why my path had never crossed his, because I knew it would be meaningful for me to just thank him for what his songs had meant to me. But as it turned out, I kind of met him right when I needed to. He had endured savage bouts of cancer that had left him disfigured, but he was out touring the world in a way that he never had before, with a joy that he’d never fully embodied before. And he offered me so much strength and inspiration, in the way that he handled a very critical moment for himself, and I wanted to follow his example. I wanted to see myself go deeper into my work, and relish it more, and offer more when I’m on the stage, as I saw him do. So I was really grateful, and especially grateful to his wife Fiona, a wonderful, strong Irish woman, who was sort of John’s gatekeeper, and did a lot to allow John to be his full self in the world. It was Fiona who invited me into their circle and allowed my friendship with John, which remains significant to me even in his absence.
Paste: And you’re a photographer, too?
Henry: Well, I do take some pictures. I dunno if I’d call it ‘photography.’ And I do not hate digital—every photograph of mine that is in my lyric book I took with my phone.
Paste: Why did you select “Thomas,” the 1913 Seamus Turner photo on the album cover? He looks one of the original hard-working Breaker Boys.
Henry: Because that young lad looks to be unwell—he looks to me like maybe he has polio or something—and yet there is such a beautiful, regal elegance and strength to his person. He has a cane, and he looks outcast, and I feel some resonant courage in his countenance. It just speaks to me.
Paste: And what’s the back photograph, taken by Carrie Vernia in 1977?
Henry: Carrie Vernia took that picture of me when I was 16. That’s me at 16, and I’m looking over a bridge at a moving body of water, a river. And my dear friend Carrie, a friend from my high-school years, died suddenly a year and a half ago, and she took analog photographs while we were in high school, and had set up a dark room in her parents’ house somewhere, in the basement or wherever, and I had forgotten that she not only took picture, but took a lot of them of me because I was a willing subject for her. And when she passed, there was a memorial service for her in North Carolina, which one of our mutual friends was able to attend, and Carrie’s mom handed this mutual friend this stack of old photographic prints of a number of us who were in this particular friend group. And I was among them, and I saw a few photographs of myself at 16 that Carrie took, and I wanted to both honor my young spirit of that moment and honor Carrie’s passing by incorporating it in the artwork for my record.
Paste: I ask this question sometimes when it feels eerily appropriate. But have you ever had a past-life regression? Or do you feel strangely in touch with another era?
Henry: Well, I’ve never necessarily had a vivid past-life experience. Although I have experienced many encounters with a realm that has inclined me to believe that the past is not dead. And I mean, I’ve had interactions that feel like spirits that are familiar to me, that once belonged to people that are no longer roaming this Earth. And no, not anybody famous. But I had a really close friend in my high-school years who was very important to my musical formation, and his name was Greg Peters. And he died when he was 25 and I was 22, and I have felt his presence undeniably around me at times, in decades that have followed since his passing.
Paste: Listening back to All the Eye Can See now, you probably hear a lot more than you originally put into it. But don’t you hear a new seasoned—maybe hard-won—maturity in your singing voice?
Henry: Oh, it’s definitely a different instrument than I started with. And thank you for that—I do think that I’ve grown into my voice, and by ‘growing into it’ I mean that I’ve understood, over the last little while, the way that I think that it most effectively works. I mean, I certainly have great limitations as a singer, but I do think I know the parts of it that are emotionally calibrated for what it is that I write. I’ve learned to write in keys that suit me better, and I’ve learned to record myself in a way where I’m singing as intimately as I need to, and believing that I’ll be completely heard
Paste: Some of the microphones sound really vintage. As do some of your guitars—what models do you prefer?
Henry: I like really small-bodied old Gibson guitars from the late ’20s and the early ’30s, and they can have a sort of a nasal projection, like a Gibson I own from 1935 that records sort of like the best arch-top I’ve never had, kind of nasal and forward and edgy that can kind of put you in the mind of a National. And I’ve used a lot of different mics on my voice in the process of this new album—I started off exclusively, for the earliest songs that I recorded, with an old RCA BK-5 ribbon mic, and then from there, when I wanted more of a luminous quality—as opposed to a reedy quality—I moved to a tube mic, an M-49. But there were a few things in between there, depending on what the song asked for.
Paste: I like how you casually refer to bringing in the mail. But during the pandemic, that often became this huge daily event if you had a ways to walk. And then you’d finally get there, only to find a bill or another Bed, Bath and Beyond circular.
Henry: Yeah! Where we were living in Pasadena, the last place where me and my wife were living before moving to Maine, it was an old Spanish townhouse on what had once been a college campus, and there was a pretty decent walk to the mailboxes out by the main road. And when we were all first in lockdown, you’re right—that walk out for the mail was no small part of the day. And yeah, you’ve gotta be prepared for whatever you find there!
Paste: Were there any conclusion you came to via this record? About your craft or just life in general?
Henry: Well, I don’t know what I think I may have learned from it. Other than it bolstered my confidence to see that I could meet a critical moment and teach myself a new way to work. Because I’ve never made a record like this. And it’s serving me now, living here in the woods, out by the water in Maine, across the country from all my closest collaborators—we don’t have to stop working together, because there are other ways that we can get things done now. And there’s great liberation in that.
Watch Joe Henry perform live at the Paste Studio in New York on Oct. 31, 2017:
Tom Lanham has been interviewing musicians for Paste since 2004 and for other outlets a good while longer.