Joe Henry has been a sui generis songsmith since the mid-eighties, traversing and transcending genres over the course of fifteen albums. As a Grammy-winning producer, he's helmed projects by legends like Solomon Burke, Mose Allison, and Allen Toussaint, as well as Hayes Carll, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, and tons of others. The searching, idiosyncratic perspective that's powered all of it offers a fascinating vantage point, but in Durham this week, he'll offer an even more intimate perspective on his work.
"I'm fascinated by any invitation that challenges me to do something I wouldn't do otherwise," Henry says about his residency at Duke Performances.
Over the course of three nights he'll deliver a talk about the power of artistic influence, offer a peek behind the curtain at songwriting and production, and give a special performance of his new album, Thrum, in its entirety. It's a unique opportunity to spend some time living in the world of one of the most uncompromising singer-songwriters and producers operating today.
On Thursday, Henry hits the Nasher Museum Auditorium to present Take Me to the River, in which he looks at the mighty, mysterious power of influence in art. But as someone who always zigs when you're expecting a zag, he's neither planning to focus on his own influences nor even on musical influences.
"I can rattle off a list of primary influences, but I don't think that's as enlightening a thing to talk about," he says. "I think it's a lot more potent to talk about how any of us are influenced in whatever we're doing. Things of influence are not static relics of a past. We are constantly calling things up and reimagining their significance to us."
Henry embraces a pan-medium approach to the idea of artistic influence, citing Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, and Miles Davis as some of the most significant artistic forces in his life. Those who've paid attention to Henry's output over the years will have picked up on a few other musical influences, too. Henry didn't cover Tom T. Hall's "I Flew Over Our House Last Night" on 1993's Kindness of the World or include Ornette Coleman's sax on his 2001 LP, Scar, just for the hell of it. But even in that context, Henry sees extra-musical connections.
"Tom T. Hall was writing in these very flat, beautiful first-person narratives, scratching at a lot of the same themes that [minimalist author] Raymond Carver found interesting," Henry observes.
In assessing his aim for Take Me to the River's spotlight on the nature of influence, Henry says that he wants to "not dispel any of the mystery of it, but to see the mystery in a vivid way." That goal also applies to Is It Rolling, Bob?, Henry's December 1 talk at Sound Pure Studio, which focuses on the art of songwriting and record-making. He intends to flout expectations there, too—he says he doesn't think the specific hows of recording are as interesting as the inherent self-discovery that unfolds within the recording process.
Henry's own eventual move into production was essentially an accident, precipitated by an unexpected invitation from venerated producer T Bone Burnett in 1990, while Henry was working on his third LP, Shuffletown.
"He just said, 'I need some help, I think you'd be really good at this, why don't you come work with me?' And I did so on a number of projects for a few years," Henry recalls. "I learned a tremendous amount about my personal ethos regarding record-making by evolving into that job with T Bone. And then people just started asking me to produce records."
When it comes to his own production approach, Henry is a strong believer in letting the magic happen on the spot rather than trying to plan it all out in advance.
"I resist the notion that discovery happens beforehand and you show up at the studio just to read it into the public record," he says. "There's a real moment of revelation that happens when a song is caught on the floor and taken up by musicians who are deeply invested in essentially a séance—you're calling something into the room that wasn't there ten minutes ago, and it has to be alive when it happens. I don't want the work to represent me—I want to disappear into it."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that's exactly the route he took in making Thrum, not only cutting the songs live in the studio but having the engineer make live (and adventurous) mixing decisions in the moment.
"As we're making choices on the floor, he's making choices," explains Henry. "Not just to archive what's happening, I wanted him to be as bold and paint with the elements as I'm asking anybody in the room to paint with the elements at their disposal. I wanted things to be treated and stepped on and fractured. It just had to happen as the songs happened. It can be incredibly liberating to work that way."
On Saturday, the third night of his residency, Henry will hit the Baldwin Auditorium to play Thrum, accompanied by the core musicians who helped create the album. "It's an opportunity to present it like a play, as a full statement," he says, "I'll play some other things after, but the idea of presenting the album as a full statement, basing the heart of an evening on songs I haven't had a chance to perform before, it's an exciting way to imagine working. I don't have any attachment to playing the songs like we recorded them."
From Durham, Henry will head out on the road, but he has no plans to play another Thrum-centric show. "I think that evening will be unique," he says.
He's undoubtedly right, but that's not the only reason.