Joe Henry Shares a Romantic 'Gospel' In the Wake of Cancer Diagnosis

Joe Henry
Jacob Blickenstaff

Joe Henry

In the liner notes to his latest album, The Gospel According to Water, poetic songwriter and prestigious producer Joe Henry emphasizes twice that "where a song comes from is not what a song is." He's at once saying that these 13 raw, sinewy and intimate poems -- written in rapid inspiration earlier this year and recorded in spare, demo-like takes after being diagnosed with prostate cancer last November -- are not autobiographical, but rather "songs about finding light" in the midst of overcast circumstances. "It's like someone carrying a lantern through the dark woods," the SoCal resident says.

His 15th studio album, The Gospel According to Water (earMUSIC), marks a serendipitous milestone in Henry's thriving three-decade career, which has included such compelling recordings as 2001's pop outing Scar (which featured a rare appearance from avant jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman), 2007's Americana gem Civilians and 2016's duo album with Billy Bragg, Shine a Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad. He's also produced more than 50 artists, including Grammy wins for soul legend Solomon Burke (2002's Don't Give Up on Me), folk hero Ramblin' Jack Elliott (2009's A Stranger Here) and roots band Carolina Chocolate Drops (2010's Genuine Negro Jig).

The singer/songsmith celebrates the Nov. 15 release of The Gospel According to Water at Largo's Coronet Theater in Los Angeles with pianist Patrick Warren, bassist David Piltch, reeds player Levon Henry, background vocalists JT Nero and Allison Russell from Birds of Chicago and drummer Jay Bellerose. At the Big Ears Festival in Knoxville March 26-29, Henry will be featured with his 115th Dream band that will include roots-to-jazz guitarist Marc Ribot and MacArthur fellow jazz pianist Jason Moran.

Billboard talked to Henry about his new album as well as his current health status.

The new album is very poetic. Your songwriting takes on a quality of poetry that requires multiple listens to get to the depth of your emotion.

I assume I should thank you. It's a compliment, but poetry isn't for everyone. People in contemporary America aren't prone to reading and appreciating poetry. You can say poetic, but people seem to think that means pretty. But really they have no idea about what you're talking about. I take that part of my music seriously. I process anything significant in my life by writing. I write to learn, to understand, to discover. When the shoe dropped last November, my beloved wife said that there are a lot of support groups. But that's not how I processed what I was going through. I needed to write to get through the darkest days. I could have easily coiled up on the floor and accepted that the walls were closing in on me, but as soon as I began to write, I found new access to my own imagination, and I could imagine my way to the other side of the forest -- and I did.

A year later, how is your health?

I'm proud to be in remission. In fact I'm feeling better now than in a couple of years since I found out what was crawling in me like ivy on a chimney. I'm on androgen deprivation therapy. It's a pharmaceutic protocol that defeats the production of androgen in my body. That's not what caused the cancer, but it's the primary fuel for it. Unfortunately, I didn't catch the prostate cancer in time, and it metastasized to my bones. The upside is that this therapy does not involve surgery or chemo or radiation. There have been things about my therapy that I didn't care for, but I've responded remarkably well, so I take that as a blessing that has allowed me to press on.

Was part of your overall therapy being the creation of the new album?

The songs all arrived at once. I didn't go chasing songs. Mostly the poetry would wake me up at 4:30 a.m. It would be pitch black and I would light a fire and then I would come up with a new poem every day. But I was bereft of the song itself. Then one night, I wrote a new poem and I could hear the music in it. I wrote the words as quickly as I could. One time I was in my car on my way to have coffee with a friend and I just started singing out a song of a poem I had just written. The melody offered itself almost fully formed. I pulled over to the side of the road and sang it into my iPhone. I had remembered all the words from the night before which was its own surprise. Then I went home, got my guitar out and found it there.

So that was how it played out every night?

They came in a tumble, one after the other. I had never experienced this before. There came a point where I wished it could stop, so that I could take stock of what I had. But the songs kept coming. I've trained myself for years to not just let the fish swim by the boat but at least make some kind of play for them. So I kept writing and I realized they were a body of work. And I felt desperate to record it, but I did not know how I could.

You had given up your basement studio when you sold Garfield House in 2015, so you had no place to record. But you had given your engineer Husky Höskulds a piano when you moved, so he offered his studio to you.

The industry in which I participated had collapsed. In my studio, I was doing twice as much work for a third of the money. There was such anxiety in trying to hold on to this beautiful, historic house. For ten years, I produced almost 80 percent of the albums I worked on in my basement. I couldn't believe the long boat of people who had recorded there. I even offered my studio sometimes for free to people whose work was deeply meaningful to me. I said, pay me as a producer and I'll include the studio as part of the deal because I want to see this record happen. A good example is the Ramblin' Jack Elliott record that ended up winning a Grammy. I had been obsessing over the Reverend Gary Davis song "Death Don't Have No Mercy," and I wanted Ramblin' Jack to sing it. So we came up with an idea of doing country blues from the Depression era as an excuse to hear that song.

How did this new album come into creation?

I can't remember laboring over any of these songs. They all arrived intact. They offered themselves up. All I did was to pull them into the boat. They moved through the room like weather, and I tried to get my kite up into it. I was deeply invested in these songs so I wanted to document them before I forgot them. So I brought together important people in my personal and creative life to go to Husky's studio for two days to do that. That process left me incredibly liberated. I never felt freer in recording -- no expectations of what the songs had to be as we got deeply involved in them. At home, I listened back and I knew immediately that this was emotionally how I wanted the songs to appear. It would be a fool's errand to put a budget together and go into a studio and adorn the songs to a greater degree. But I felt the essence of the songs were better realized in a very sparse and live setting. Husky and I talked about how much drama is available in recording solo. You can add more elements, but the acoustic guitar and singing made the album intimate and enormous. In the studio you don't make drama by adding more instruments. The voice in a room becomes intense and huge. It's haunting music for me. And I respond to any music that conjures ghosts in the air.

The opening track "Famine Walk" sounds like a self-reflective flower emerging from the black earth.

I wanted to expand my imagination as I went through my dire circumstances. But this is not autobiographical. Everything comes through the lens of my own experience. I rarely put my personal life into my songs. This is based on my time before my diagnosis on the West Coast of Ireland last year when I walked with locals on the Famine Walk where victims of the [1845-1849] Great Famine cut roads through the mountains in exchange for a bowl of soup every day. The walks were quite high where you can see the shoreline and the old abandoned famine houses that still stand -- with enormous trees growing through the middle of them. That became an easy and apt metaphor of dealing with the present moment confronting you about being consumed back into the earth. It's like what the poet Mary Oliver wrote: "What are you going to do with this wild and precious life?" What's my role in the present? We're only here for a brief time. There are a lot of journeys, some revelatory in the essential ways of being acutely aware. With the unexpected visitor nonetheless, I can't dismiss the wild revelations.

In almost all the songs, water appears as a recurring image -- a sea, crashing waves, a river, rowing, winter rain.

There's an Eastern philosophy that says we all need to be like water. Water is incredibly powerful yet unimaginably flexible. It penetrates everything. It moves through everything. For me it's about recognizing water as the landscape that's also moving through your body. In the title song, water is the force behind the waves we see. The wave is there to let you know about the power of water. Everything in life is in motion, in evolution constantly. That's what makes life mysterious -- nothing can be nailed to the floor. We can attempt to stay hunkered down, but we'll be swept away.

You name two people in the titles for your songs: Orson Welles and 6th century B.C. military strategist General Tzu. How do they fit in and why did you title them as such?

I have no idea. They spoke themselves to me. If I gave myself over to the fact that the title would be "Orson Wells," then I knew something was going to happen. I don't really know why he was in the delivery system for the ideas expressed in that song, but I was very happy when he arrived. The character expresses in the line "Moving earth and heaven marks a man" in response to the question of why "black is on my hands." As for General Tzu, before anything, I had the title "General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children." He just sort of appeared. It's like seeing a vapor trail of a plane above. You look up and there it is. But I knew there was something significant in his name. So I wrote about this great commander who is arrogantly looking up from an empty beach and feeling he has the control to name planets for his children as if he owns them.

There's both a sense of romance and spirituality in many of the songs like "Green of the Afternoon," "The Fact of Love," "Gates of Prayer Cemetery #2," and the "pray for me" refrain in "Choir Boy."

All the songs on the album are deeply romantic. I don't see them as dark at all. "The Fact of Love" was the last song I wrote a day or so before the recording sessions. My wife is a textile artist and a sculptor. She was working on a piece of unearthed poured concrete that looked like the trunk of a person's body. She called it "The Fact of Love," so I stole that title from her knowing that there was something there to be written. I think the spirituality has been very palpable in my last few albums. I used to get squeamish about talking about spirituality and our mortal lives because I was way too caught up with how that would strike people. But the characters in these songs are desperate to understand beyond themselves and to see the divine in each other, and how to allow ourselves to live robustly knowing that we won't always be here.

Tell me about the video for the song "Bloom," which is you just staring into the camera.

I have no interest in music videos. They don't serve me or serve the song. But I was asked to create visual content. So I asked my friend [portrait artist] Jacob Blickenstaff to make a video of just my face with a dark background, referencing Andy Warhol's Screen Tests in the '60s which trained a camera on a person's face for an awkward amount of time. The original idea was to run the lyrics underneath, but once we saw the clip we realized the lyrics were distracting. So we left it as an invitation to people to listen to the song. Listening is not a passive activity. A number of people have written to me to say it's unnerving to see me sitting there and meeting my gaze. I don't mind if I'm unnerving. That's not the goal. I was inviting attention to the song, not me.