Joe Henry is easily led on a tangent.
During the course of a conversation meant to last 20 minutes but stretched to three times that length — and which was ostensibly supposed to cover his upcoming tour with fellow singer-songwriter Lisa Hannigan, which comes to the Paradise Wednesday — the Grammy-winning producer waxes eloquent on everything from Richard Pryor (on whom he is writing a book with his brother David) to marriage (his has lasted 25 years).
On that last topic, Henry credits the longevity of his union to treating marriage as a verb, not a noun.
“We always have to be evolving, in every aspect of your life: work, parenting, marriage,” he says on the phone from his home in South Pasadena, Calif. “If you’re not in a state of evolution all the time, you’re absolutely losing ground. Nobody gets to stand still.”
Henry certainly hasn’t. Since 1986, the Michigan-bred artist has released a dozen albums, each pushing the conversation between the styles that interest him in new directions. The latest, 2011’s “Reverie,” is one of his most open and direct in terms of its acoustic instrumentation and sound. Recorded in his basement studio with his go-to repertory company of players — including sure-handed drummer Jay Bellerose and inimitable guitarist Marc Ribot — the tracks offer a rootsy mélange of folk, gospel, soul, Americana, jazz, and rock that crackle with the live intensity with which they were recorded. As the title implies, listening to “Reverie,” which moves from languid and wistful to clattery cacophony, feels akin to being inside Henry’s head as he daydreams.
That sense of intimacy was a driving concept, says Henry. “That not only would it be an acoustic record, but that would not mean that it was careful or quiet or precious in any way, because nothing rumbles and frays like acoustic instrumentation. A great, old small-body acoustic guitar with lots of fret buzz sounds really human to me. A hollow wooden instrument in your lap rumbling right against you makes a small orchestra out of your entire body.”
“When musicians are in a room together, there is this overtone between them,” he says. “Part of how the piano sounds is the way it’s hitting the drum mikes four feet away. And there’s a blurring of the lines between individual instruments so they become one sound, like a big calliope. That was a choice, to record in such a way, that all that weather in the room from instruments colliding from when we’re all really set up in really close proximity is as important to me as any single instrument being played.”
That meticulous approach to recording has translated into a second career as a producer that arguably has brought Henry more attention than his solo endeavors. He has helped everyone from octogenarian jazzbo Mose Allison to youthful upstarts Carolina Chocolate Drops express themselves. He has worked on Grammy-nominated albums by Susan Tedeschi, Allen Toussaint, and Grammy winners by Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and the Drops.
“Joe has a very delicate artists’ sensibility,” says Rodney Crowell, whose 2008 Henry-produced album “Sex & Gasoline” was also nominated for a Grammy and who enlisted Henry for “KIN,’’ his recently released collaboration with author Mary Karr.
“He’s able to help the rest of us realize what we’re trying to get at in a real gentle and supportive way. And in terms of his own music and songs, Joe pushes himself each time out. He’ll send me songs he’s written before he records [them] to test out if his poetry is moving forward. Because besides being a musician and a songwriter I think he really sees himself as a poet in the world.”
Henry has also co-written a number of songs with longtime friend and sister-in-law Madonna including her hit “Don’t Tell Me” – which appeared in different form as a song called “Stop” on his 2001 album “Scar” — and recently produced several tracks on Bonnie Raitt’s latest album, “Slipstream,” on which Raitt covers a few of his songs.
“It’s incredibly touching for me when anybody would take up something I’ve written and it speaks to them in such a way that they want to give it voice,” says Henry of his work with artists like Madonna and Raitt, as well as clips he receives from musician fans across the world. “When that person is an artist that we all admire and is a much beloved, heroically great singer [like Raitt] and takes up a song of yours as their own, that’s unbelievable. There’s not much more affirming than that. When I was making the record with Bonnie, I remember at one point I was sitting on the floor and she was apologizing saying, ‘I’m sorry this must be so weird for you to sit here and have to listen to me sing these songs of yours over and over.’ The mere suggestion that that was in any way a hardship was hilarious.”
It is also no hardship to Henry that his fanbase remains small, but fervent. “The upside is I have no trouble walking the streets.”
That liberation allows for ventures like this tour with Hannigan, whose 2011 album “Passenger” he produced, and with whom he will share the stage throughout the night.
“I’m tremendously excited about it. There’s not an artist working that I have more respect for than Lisa, creatively, and she is a dear friend as well. And when this idea first came up, my immediate thought was, ‘I have something to learn from her,’ so I’m going for the love of it but I’m also taking myself to school.”