Music News

Joe Henry explores both sides of "Paradise"

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Before singer-songwriter Joe Henry records or produces an album, he asks the musicians he’s working with to watch a movie that conveys the mood he wants to create. And as befits an artist whose recordings run the gamut from alt-country to jazz, his assigned films make for eclectic viewing.

For Henry’s last album, “Civilians,” the accompanying movie was the Howard Hawks thriller “To Have and Have Not.” For “A Stranger Here,” the project he recently produced for Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, it was the film noir classic “Night of the Hunter.” And for “Blood From Stars,” Henry’s new set -- due Tuesday (August 18) on the Anti- label -- it was the French critical favorite “Children of Paradise.”

“I make the most rudimentary demos I can, and then I say, ‘Here are the songs, go watch this movie and it will tell you all you need to know,’” Henry says.

In the case of “Children,” a 1945 epic about a mid-19th-century theater troupe with political overtones, that sounds like quite a bit. “We are seeing throughout both grand facades erected and the heartbreak just behind them,” Henry says of the film. “There is every manner of humanity on display -- lust and greed, vanity and fear, love, hope and deception -- and the characters all balance their secret hearts against their public personae, with trembling and with bravado. Every line of dialogue is deep, free, terse, rich and poetic, infused with as much romance as mortal panic.”

As on “Civilians” and his other recent albums, Henry weaves whole worlds from atmospheric jazz and spare, evocative lyrics. The words on “Blood From Stars” are more elliptical, though most are full of struggle -- characters rage at storms and climb mountains -- and the production is more nuanced.

Henry has been making albums since the mid-‘80s, and he’s built a small but loyal following; “Civilians” sold 15,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. If mainstream music fans know Henry, it’s probably from “Jump” and “Don’t Tell Me,” which he co-wrote with Madonna, his sister-in-law. But he gradually has become well known as a producer, most notably for heritage artists like Allen Toussaint (“The Bright Mississippi”), Bettye LaVette (“I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise”) and Solomon Burke (“Don’t Give Up on Me,” which won the 2003 Grammy Award for best contemporary blues album). He’s currently working with Harry Belafonte on music for a documentary based on his life, as well as a new album.

“Some people try to put these artists in a contemporary setting that’s not appropriate for them,” says Henry, who favors a production style that’s full of reverb and dynamic range and which appeals to serious fans. He used to consider production a break from his day job, but his work behind the console also offers him exposure to an audience that might respond to his work.

Further branching out, Henry has written music for “Six Feet Under” and, with Loudon Wainwright III, for “Knocked Up.”

“Somebody asked me if I was the only person alive who had ever worked with Madonna and Ornette Coleman,” Henry says with a laugh. “And I said, ‘I’m absolutely the only person alive who’s worked with Madonna, Ornette and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.’ I’ve been incredibly fortunate.”