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Joe Henry’s insights from ‘Invisible Hour’

Daniel Wheeler

Joe Henry might appear alone onstage Friday at the Brighton Music Hall — except for the portions of the show for which his son, Levon, will sit in on reeds — but he’ll have a whole cast of characters joining him.

The acclaimed singer-songwriter-producer has long investigated storytelling in his nearly 30-year career, crafting more than a dozen albums that offer a beguiling mix of rock, folk, Americana, jazz, and soul music.

His latest, “Invisible Hour,” is no exception, as he loosely explores the idea of love and marriage through the eyes of those in and out of those states.

“I don’t necessarily want anyone to think about me as the artist as they listen to the song,” says Henry of his decidedly non-autobiographical style by phone from an Alexandria, Va., tour stop. “I want them to be seduced by the song, not by the artist or the delivery system.”

In addition to his solo career, Henry coauthored a 2013 book on Richard Pryor with his brother David — “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him” — and has carved out an equally venerable profile as a Grammy-winning producer for a long list of esteemed artists, including Bonnie Raitt, Aimee Mann, Solomon Burke, and Rodney Crowell.


Q. The last time we spoke in 2012, you talked about the concept of marriage being a verb, not a noun, so it was intriguing to see that idea pop up again in the liner notes of “Invisible Hour” as a sort of guiding principle. Was that an idea you were preoccupied with?

A. Yeah, but it was not something I was conscious of as I wrote any of the songs. It’s just something that I recognized after the fact. I saw marriage as being the common denominator. And not necessarily directly. I knew it was dicey for me to say that in the liner notes, because when you offer one way to hear things, for many people that’s the only way that they’ll hear them. But to suggest that at least one way that you could look at the songs and what unites them is that there are characters on the record who are completely devoted in commitment with another, and we see what that means, and then there are some who are bereft of it, and we see what that does to them.


Q. There’s something pleasantly symmetrical about the fact that the shortest song on the album, “Alice,” is a tribute to short-story writer Alice Munro. Was that intentional?

A. Intentional in that while I was writing it I was very conscious of not trying to imitate her writing voice by any stretch, but observe the way in which she draws the cleanest, most conversational lines and implies so much. There’s something so unique about her writing voice. I recognize it in a moment, though I can’t tell you what it is that is so identifiable because she is so conversational. She’s not being heroic in word use, but she has a tone that is unmistakable, and she’ll draw the simplest arc of the story and imply so much emotionally. And I was trying to experiment to see if I could write the briefest of songs and imply the full scope of it.

Q. Rodney Crowell once told me that in addition to being a musician and a songwriter, you see yourself as a poet in the world. Do you see yourself that way?


A. I do write poetry, though some things just arrive in that form and they’re not songs. There’s a tendency in music that if people think you’re a really good songwriter, they’ll say, “You’re not just a songwriter, you’re a poet,” as if that’s an elevation of status. I happen to think that a great song is as great and as powerful as any poem, if not more so, so I don’t observe that hierarchy. But I do think what Rodney says, I do know what he means, and I think it’s true that the way that I write functions in the way that I believe poetry functions, which is using words to name the unspeakable.

Q. When you work as a producer for other artists, do you find yourself inspired in your own writing?

A. Oh, all the time. To me one of the greatest things about producing as part of my working life is that I learn all kinds of things from different artists and different situations, because as different as artists can be as individuals, we’re all after one thing when we’re making a record, which is how do we make the songs vivid and alive so that we don’t have to baby-sit these ideas anymore and they stand on their own in the world? That’s the whole gag. How do you make a song feel like a living thing? People have different ways of getting to there and being able to enter into the picture with a wide variety of artists, and many of them heroically great artists that we all admire — I’ve been very fortunate that way — I’m invited to be fully invested in something that doesn’t have to have my creative persona sit at the center of it, whatever that might be. So I have a really unique vantage point, and I learn tremendous amounts all the time.


Interview has been edited and condensed. Sarah Rodman can be reached at srodman@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.