Exclusive: Hear Joe Henry’s Poetically (and Politically) Motivated 14th Studio Album ‘Thrum’
By Randy Lewis
He’s about to release his 14th solo album. He’s also produced dozens more for a roster of artists that reads like a who’s who of American rock, R&B, folk, blues and jazz. But only now is Joe Henry ready to go public with the secret he’s guarded so closely for much of his life.
Yes, he willing to confess now, he’s a poetry lover.
“I’m deeply invested in poetry, and I write a lot of it,” Henry, 56, said from Nashville recently, where he’s wearing his producer’s hat yet again, working on a new collection with L.A. folk duo the Milk Carton Kids.
“I know how that sounds to most people, and how few people of my generation and younger read poetry anymore. A lot of people think that when you refer to poetry, you’re getting above your raising.”
He’s talking about a note he wrote to accompany the release of his latest album, “Thrum,” which The Times is premiering in full ahead of the formal release date on Friday, Oct. 27.
I recognize at this point of my professional creative life,” he wrote, “that I am seeking less to move along the paths of my earliest musical influences — whether Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong, or Ray Charles; Duke Ellington, Randy Newman or Johnny Cash — and more toward true alignment with the mystic poets [Rainer Maria] Rilke and [Walt] Whitman, [Arthur] Rimbaud and Rumi.”
Those familiar with the astutely literate content of Henry’s songs won’t be surprised, much less shocked, at his admission, which is all the more evident in the 11 songs on “Thrum.”
His lyrics studiously sidestep the obvious, the trite and the literal in favor of graceful allusions and mercurial metaphors that strive, like great poetry, to outwit the mind. That’s a tall order in a world that increasingly seems unable, or unwilling, to look beyond rigid literalism on almost any front.
“I think a great song is as powerful as the greatest poem,” he said. “Song is the first human expression, and I believe that poetry grew out of song, more than song grew out of poetry.”
On “Thrum,” Henry addresses themes of light and darkness, spiritual and emotional hunger, loss, rebirth and other fundamental aspects of human experience. The work, he conceded, reflects a deep concern over the coarsening of civic discourse in many corners of society, not just Washington D.C.
In “Hungry,” by way of example, he sings “Oh come let us be hungry in the world,” expressing a yearning for something most people spend their lives trying to avoid.
“That, for me, as much as any line on the record, probably speaks most directly about what I’m getting on about, if I’m getting on about anything,” he said. “We are not, as mortal people, going to save ourselves from hunger, from fear, from all the things that extend out from need. We can’t resist it, we can’t flee from it, but we can walk into it and meet it. In doing so, we live our life, and hopefully we live it awake.”
Henry had worked for years at his home studio in Pasadena on his own albums and those he produced for Over the Rhine, Bonnie Raitt, Mavis Staples, Mose Allison, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Solomon Burke, John Doe, Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Rodney Crowell and numerous others.
After selling that house and moving with his wife, Melanie, to Altadena, he recorded “Thrum” primarily at United Recording Studio B in Hollywood, which he calls “my favorite recording space in all of Los Angeles.”
He urged recording engineer Ryan Freeland to act not simply as an audio documentarian, but to exercise his own creative instincts to interpret sonically what was being played. Thus, the sound of instruments and vocals are often tweaked, twisted and distorted, or stripped down to their rawest form, as the songs unfold.
It all contributed to the ideal that Henry pursues in writing and recording each song of “how it might live in the air.”
Along with coming clean about his passion for poetry, Henry has been forthright on his Facebook page with concerns about the current political and social climate.
Following Donald Trump’s election in November, when Henry was on tour in the U.K. with English rocker Billy Bragg, Henry said he felt “paralyzed. I was gutted, and couldn’t imagine how I could do [the concert] I had to do that night.”
He reached out to veteran musician-actor-activist Harry Belafonte, with whom he’d bonded a few years earlier traveling through Europe working together on a film documentary.
“I wrote him saying, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m at a loss,’ ” said Henry, who will undertake a brief tour in December and January, concluding with a Jan. 13 show in L.A. at the Pico Union Project.. “He wrote me back, quickly and briefly, and said to me, ‘I, too, am disappointed. I remind you that this is not my first disappointment.’ That rang my bell really hard….
“I read that note from Harry, opened my notebook and in the course of 45 minutes, I wrote ‘Keep Us in Song,’ ” he said, referencing the new album’s gently reassuring closing track.
“I thought what I’d write would be angry,” he said, “yet I watched it literally come off the end of my pen and understood: I recognized that even if I was paralyzed, the song I was the vehicle for — the conduit for — was not paralyzed. I heard immediately the optimism in it.
“It’s the difference between thinking you’re writing to express a thought you’ve already had — and want to share with others — and what I more accurately believe as the need to write a song to hear what I believe,” he said. “I write to discover — not my wisdom, but a greater wisdom I need to engage for the sake of my own peace and survival.”