Music Interviews
2:47 pm
Mon October 24, 2011

Joe Henry's Raw, Raucous 'Reverie'

Originally published on Mon October 24, 2011 5:31 pm

When Joe Henry sets out to produce an album — and he's produced dozens, from the great soul singers Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette to the actor and blues singer Hugh Laurie — he says he's looking for a point of view.

"You know, I just want to be seduced," Henry says. "I love a song. I am particularly attracted to the human voice ... so that's always the starting point for me."

Reverie is Joe Henry's 12th solo album, which was self-produced and recorded in his basement studio in South Pasadena. Henry says he wanted a sound that was "raw, raucous and messy."

"There's sort of a smeared-lipstick kind of beauty to it, I hope so," Henry says, "but I think it is sort of disjointed and fragmented, and deliberately so."

In an interview, All Things Considered host Melissa Block wonders why Henry likes it "raucous and messy."

"Well, if you haven't noticed, Ms. Block, that's what life is like," Henry says. "I was trying to embrace the chaos instead of pretending it wasn't happening."

'No Such Thing As Silence'

When you listen to Reverie, especially on headphones, you can hear traffic in the background or a neighbor calling her dog. It's not always a pristine recording environment. Henry not only left the windows open at his basement studio, but also put microphones on them.

"It just occurred to me when I was writing songs one day that there's no such thing as silence," Henry says. "When you're working on a song, invariably someone rings the bell. Someone walks through the room. The song might recede into the fabric of life happening around it, but it doesn't fade to black politely. So I decided to emphasize that fact, because I think it's real. I don't think any real music ... I don't think any real living happens in a vacuum."

Tribute To A Friend

"Room at Arles" was written for singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, a paraplegic who died of a drug overdose in 2009.

"He was a great friend of mine, and I've always been a great admirer of his songwriting. I think it was fantastic — and a really underrated singer, you know," Henry says. "I loved everything about what he was doing, and the way that he confronted the most euphoric and the most demanding and difficult parts of his humanity. I think he was a rare bird in that way. And after he took his life — and I'm pretty certain that he did — I found myself writing about him, because that's the way I process things. I was writing with him in mind out of my own need to answer my grief at his passing with some forward motion."

In "Room at Arles," Henry sings, "Just behind the wall, I think / She pulls her stockings on / The creaking floor speaks through the door / of one foot, then the other." Henry says it's a "human impulse to make something romantic as we need to out of the smallest scrap available."

"I guess my sensation was in this moment — this frail person who feels very alone starts imagining the expanse of the world outside of his small, little encampment," Henry says.

The song title is similar to the name of a Vincent Van Gogh painting.

"I'm reluctant to say what I'm doing is drawing a parallel between two troubled but brilliant artists," Henry says. "But what it got me thinking of was, if you've seen the painting by Van Gogh of his very humble bedroom, he's not in it. But his painting of his room is as much a self-portrait as anything he ever did, I think. I mean, you know so much about him from looking at this small space. And in a very real way, I started to think that all of Vic's songs were rooms that he constructed and then walked out of. They're still here in front of us; he's absent, but we still see him and feel him in these rooms he left behind."

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Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host: And I'm Melissa Block.

When Joe Henry sets out to produce an album - and he's produced dozens, everyone from the great soul singers, Solomon Burke and Bettye LaVette to the actor and blues singer, Hugh Laurie - he says he's looking for a point of view.

JOE HENRY: You know, I just want to be seduced. I love a song. I am particularly attracted to the human voice and song is trump, so that's always the starting point for me.

BLOCK: Now, Joe Henry is out with a new solo album of his own, his 12th, which he also produced. It's titled, "Reverie." He recorded it in his basement studio in South Pasadena and says he knew he wanted a sound that was raw and raucous and messy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HENRY: (Singing) Gather wood against the weather. Pile of stones against the sky. String of bulbs like pearls between us in the heaven's blackest eyes.

There's a sort of a smeared lipstick kind of beauty to it. I hope so. But I think it is sort of disjointed and fragmented and deliberately so.

BLOCK: And why deliberately? Why do you like it raucous and messy?

HENRY: Well, if you haven't noticed, Ms. Block, that's what life is like. And I was trying to embrace the chaos rather than pretend it wasn't happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHISTLING)

BLOCK: It's interesting because, if you listen closely, especially on headphones, you hear traffic in the background. It's not a pristine recording environment. You hear all sorts of stuff going on. There's even one point when you hear - I guess it's somebody whistling for her dog or maybe a kid.

HENRY: It's my neighbor calling her dog. I left all the windows open and not only that, we put microphones in all the windows.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

HENRY: There are quite a few dogs, actually, not just one dog. There are birds. There are sirens. There are many cars and trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HENRY: (Singing) How do you like your blue-eyed boy?

It just occurred to me when I was writing songs one day that there's no such thing as silence. And when you're working on a song, invariably, someone rings the bell, someone walks through the room. The song might recede into the fabric of life happening around it, but it doesn't fade to black politely. So, I decided to emphasize that fact because I think it's real. I don't think any real music - I don't think any real living happens in a vacuum.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

HENRY: (Singing) How do you like your blue-eyed boy? Now the horses have all worked, now the rebel hanged for fun. (Unintelligible) hard to express and run and how do you like your boy?

BLOCK: I'd like to hear you talk about the song, "Room at Arles," which is a song that you wrote for Vic Chestnutt, a singer who was a paraplegic. He died in 2009, apparently of suicide, died of a drug overdose.

HENRY: Yes. He was a great friend of mine and I have always been a great admirer of his songwriting. I think he was fantastic and a really, really underrated singer. You know, I loved everything about what he was doing and the way that he confronted the most euphoric and the most demanding and difficult parts of his humanity. I think he was a rare bird in that way. And after he took his life - and I'm pretty certain that he did - I found myself writing about him because that's the way I process things. I was writing with him in mind out of my own need to answer my grief at his passing with some forward motion.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM AT ARLES")

HENRY: (Singing) Just behind that wall I think she pulls her stockings on. A creaky floor speaks through the door of one foot, then the other. The curtains wave a flag to say this afternoon is done and giving in to evening, who will beat him like a brother, giving into evening, who will beat him like a brother.

BLOCK: You imagine at the very beginning of the song, a woman whom you don't see behind the wall.

HENRY: Right. It starts off by hearing a creak of the floor on the other side of the wall and imagining that a woman is pulling stockings on, which I also think is a very human impulse, you know, to make something romantic, as we need to, out of the smallest scrap available. I guess my sensation was that, in this moment, this frail person who feels very alone starts imagining the expanse of the world outside of his small, little encampment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM AT ARLES")

HENRY: (Singing) Crows and then another crow beside me in a tree like black shoes in a dusty road trailing after me.

I titled it "Room at Arles" after the Van Gogh painting of the same title and I'm reluctant to say that what I'm doing is drawing a parallel between two troubled but brilliant artists. But what it got me thinking of was, if you've seen the painting by Van Gogh of his very humble bedroom, he's not in it, but his painting of his room is as much a self-portrait as anything he ever did, I think.

I mean, you know so much about him from looking at this small space. And in a very real way, I started to think that all of Vic's songs were rooms that he constructed and then walked out of. And they're still here in front of us. He's absent, but we still see him and feel him in these rooms that he left behind.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM AT ARLES")

HENRY: (Singing) I have left the table now and this is just to say every song I ever sung has been a song for going, and every song I've ever sung has been a song of going.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Joe Henry. His new album is titled, "Reverie." Joe, thanks so much.

HENRY: Melissa, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NORRIS: Before we end the hour, I have a bit of news I want to share with listeners. I'm going to be temporarily leaving the host chair and here's why. Last week, I told NPR that my husband, Broderick Johnson, has accepted a senior position with the Barack Obama reelection campaign.

And after careful consideration, it's clear that I should not continue hosting this show while he's in that role. This is a mutual decision and it is the right decision for a whole host of reasons. I will step away from hosting duties until after the 2012 elections. I begin this temporary leave on Friday, but I'm not going far. I'll still be on the air, working on new reporting projects and doing some signature segments, and I'll still be on Twitter.

I will, of course, recuse myself from all election reporting while I'm still on the air and I look forward to beginning this next chapter at NPR. As they say, stay tuned.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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