Interview with JOE HENRY, producer for Madonna, Elvis Costello - Jul 24, 2006
"When youíre young you think any record deal is better than no record deal. I donít think thatís true anymore. You donít have to finance an expensive session to start recording. You donít need anybodyís permission to work."... stresses Joe Henry, producer at Maine Road Management for Madonna, Elvis Costello, Aimee Man and many others.
As both recording artist and producer, Henry is tuned in to the needs and interests of the artists.
He talks to HitQuarters about his approach to songwriting, how to balance recording, management and publishing deals to stay independent, and how current times offer more possibilities for artists than ever.
What experiences have been important to you in developing your producing skills?
For the most part, simply producing my own records over a long period of time. I was producing before I realized what that job actually was. By doing things out of necessity I slowly learned how to manage the creative and logistic aspects of projects.
T-Bone Burnett was a great mentor to me. He produced my record ĎShuffletowní in 1990 and I worked on a couple of projects with him as a producer for other artists.
How did you shift from producer to recording artist?
I was always a recording artist first. I would never introduce myself to anybody as a record producer. I think of myself as an artist who happens to also produce records. Being an artist first is what informs my sensibility as a producer.
How did you get your first record deal?
I was living in Ann Arbor, Michigan and writing songs on my own. I hired a local band to back me up on some demos, and recorded a number of other songs just at the piano with vocals. I had a demo that was half with a full band and half solo work. I started sending it around to the new wave of independent labels that were cropping up in the early 80s, and Profile Records responded.
It turned out that they werenít necessarily the best home for me, but you are young and youíre looking for a record deal and you think any record deal is better than no record deal. I donít think that thatís so true anymore. I jumped in with them just because it was an opportunity to take the next step.
What was the reason for moving to L.A.?
Iíd lived in New York for five years at that point. I was signed to A&M Records. My wife (Madonnaís sister Melanie Ciccone) was working for Brian Eno, and he had a label partnership with Warner Brothers in Los Angeles. We had the opportunity to move for her to continue that job. L.A. just seemed like the next frontier. We decided to give it a try and weíve lived here ever since.
How important is it for an upcoming artist to be in a music centre like L.A.?
For someone like me itís crucial. Unlike New York, there are so many talented people here. Itís so easy to get work done. Itís amazing the session you can pull together within a very short notice in Los Angeles.
Maybe thatís true in New York as well when youíre in the right circle of people, but in my New York days it was a very insular existence for me. Once I moved to Los Angeles I was working with T-Bone Burnett and I fell into a great group of people. Over the course of fifteen years I developed a lovely network of musicians here.
Does it matter what style of music you play?
No, it doesnít seem to matter. The musicians that I tend to turn to at the moment are great musicians and great listeners. I donít feel like I need to call a different group of people because the music is different.
This group of people that Iím working with now could play with anybody that I might be involved with. They do so successfully because theyíre great listeners and have a great wealth of experience and a pretty broad palette of interest.
How do you collaborate with your label Anti now?
I made ĎTiny Voicesí for them as an artist and I produced the Solomon Burke and Bettye LeVette record. Theyíve been wonderful and supportive of me as an artist in that I feel like I can do whatever I want to do and theyíll be interested.
They didnít hear a single song until I finished my record. Iíve always managed to find a great degree of artistic independence. Iíve never had more support in doing so than I have in Anti.
What styles of music do you focus on?
From record to record the music adopts a different tone. I donít concern myself too much with what genre I may or may not fall into. I just decide that my voice as a writer is the common thread. Beyond that I like to think of myself like a filmmaker might think. I made a western and now I want to go make a gangster movie. I donít have to adopt a musical posture thatís going to suit every occasion.
What was the key in finding your own musical vocabulary?
Listening to a lot of artists for whom those kinds of boundaries donít exist. Who were not concerned with music being genre-specific. People who are very much inclined towards what the song dictates. I developed a sensibility that was pretty open ended. That encouraged me to think beyond the constraints of music that falls into a particular kind of category.
If I was an artist and I wanted to work with you, how could I make it happen?
Iím not sure I would know how to produce a record for someone writing songs that I donít think have a point of view. Iím interested in a voice and a great song, and somebody who is not going into the studio with a preconceived notion of Ďthis is what weíre trying to doí.
Weíre not just trying to capture a particular butterfly under a glass. I like to work with people who are really open to where the process might take us. That doesnít mean that Iím only interested in people who sing. Iíd love to make a record with Sonny Rollins, and he doesnít have to sing.
Do you get songs submitted to you?
I like to hear what somebody is planning to do, unless they are an artist that already has an established body of work that I can understand and get a sense of their artistic persona from. When I worked with Solomon Burke there were no songs already picked, and it didnít matter to me. I knew that he was a very gifted and powerful singer. I knew that if he was open to the process we would find things that worked.
The same with Bettye LeVette. And if Emmylou Harris called me, that would be the same with her. I have a keen enough sense of who she is and what her work is about that I wouldnít need to hear songs to be intrigued.
But if there was an artist with whom Iím not familiar already or an artist who hasnít made many records - or maybe any records - before, then of course the material is really important. Iím very song-oriented.
What does a session with you look like?
It starts from a point of view of a live performance in the studio. Iím not a purist in that regard. I donít insist on records being live performances captured in the studio. But sometimes thatís the best way to record a song.
The way that I believe is engaging and has a dynamic arc that weíre all listening to is to start from the point of a performance of people in a room discovering the song when the tape is running or a computer is running.
Do you prepare a rough production and finish it yourself?
I always work with a mixer whenever possible so that Iím still overseeing mix sessions the same way that I oversee a session. I expect a person who is engineering and mixing to bring a point of view the same way that I expect that of any guitar player - someone to come into the room and hear something rather than waiting for me to tell them what to do.
But Iím certainly directing things and helping to shape things as theyíre happening. Iíve only made one record as a producer that was handed off to another mixer and I didnít have anything to do with the mixing.
Do you have a pool of musicians that are available on the spot when you need certain instruments?
Thereís a small group of people that I turn to frequently. Sometimes itís nice to reach outside of your pool and work with somebody different, or when there is a special need for an instrument where I donít have a relationship already. For the most part I have a great gifted group of people that I love to work with no matter what the music is, and I tend to turn to them.
What equipment do you use in the studio?
I like analogue tape. I love what ProTools can do. I like a lot of old recording gear. Tube Mic Pres and old Ribbon mics. But I donít have the particular things that I insist upon. The artist and the songs dictate everything.
How do you get the best out of an artist?
By surrounding them with creative sympathetic musicians who are also responsible and enjoyable people. So that they feel supported enough and confident enough to do something that maybe they havenít done before. That nobody feels afraid to go out on a limb. No artist is free who isnít free to fail. People should feel completely confident to push themselves as far as they think they can or even a bit farther.
What is your writing process like?
Iím still very lyric-oriented, but I donít always start with lyrics. Itís frequently a lyrical idea that will push me to finish the song, something that Iím excited about. Sometimes itís a track or chord changes on the piano that I think are interesting and inspire the idea of a lyric. I try to be as open to the process as possible, and not feel too trapped by one particular method of working.
I almost never sit down with a preconceived idea of what a song is about and then try to write it in verses. I start writing based on some fragment of an idea and insert just a line or a phrase. And as Iím writing I discover what it is thatís there to be said. And you can like it or you can reject it, but whatís exciting about writing for me is running with an idea and seeing what itís trying to become.
When you write a song do you let it sit for a while and then go back to it?
If thereís an initial inspiration and I get some sketch of that down on paper, then I can leave it and come back to it and continue to work on it. But frequently as an idea comes up and I donít somehow get that down it can just be gone and I never get it back again.
Once a song is far enough down the line where it has its own character and thereís enough material that you donít have to babysit that idea and itís already articulated, then itís easy to come back. And sometimes itís really good to walk away from it and come back later to it. But there is a moment where there is a fish going by and if you donít get it into your boat youíve missed it.
Where do you get your inspiration from nowadays?
Iím not an autobiographical kind of songwriter. And even though I find world events drifting into my writing, I donít in any way set out to be a topical sort of songwriter. Iím always shocked and a little dismayed for a moment when I find current events surfacing somehow in what Iím writing.
But I think the time right now is insisting upon a certain awareness of whatís happening and Iím trying not to worry about it too much if it leaks into my work.
When you go in a session, do you split the publishing 50/50?
If itís my song I donít split the publishing. I try to pay people well for their time. If everybody was a part of the songwriting process, then of course I would. But I donít know any songwriter who as a matter of course splits publishing with musicians on a session unless the process of recording is part of the compositional process. If youíre jamming in the studio and that becomes a song, then sure, but not if a song is already a written piece.
How do you get your songs out to artists?
Maybe two or three times Iíve been covered by somebody that I donít know. Joan Baez did a song of mine and I donít know how she got it.
I wrote ĎDonít Tell Meí with Madonna. With Rosanne Cash, I was asked to write a song for her. I already had an avenue to get to her. Once in a while I send a song to somebody I donít know. Iíve been in the business long enough and I know how to get a hold of anybody if I need to.
Do you have a publishing deal?
Yes, with Chrysalis.
What advice would you give an upcoming songwriter going into the market?
Keep finishing songs. There is a tendency with young writers to be halfway through with a song and get discouraged about it and then start another song and then try to take the good parts of the first song and feed it into the second song and then so on and so on until you donít finish anything.
Every song has to represent the pinnacle of your artistry at that moment. You need to get into the habit of learning how to finish a song. Even songs that may be of little use to you later. Finish a song and move on to the next one, because thatís how you learn the mechanics of how a song needs to exist.
Is it important to stay independent initially or should you sign to a management?
Itís important to stay as independent as you can all of the time. Independent doesnít mean that you donít have any help. When I was first starting out a lot of people advised me against having a publishing deal. ďHang on to your publishing as long as you can!Ē But I could never have survived without publishing advances at a certain point of my life. Having a publishing deal was what allowed me as an independent to keep working.
I have managers now who allow me a tremendous amount of my artistic independence, because they help shoulder a lot of the logistical workload. There are different kinds of independent. I certainly wouldnít suggest anybody to go and just get a manager for no reason. A bad manager is like a bad automobile. It could strand you at any time.
How can today's musicians think outside the box of traditional approaches and engage creatively with new possibilities?
It has never been easier. For starters all the music in the world is available to be heard. You can school yourself in a very broad way with the best music that the world has to offer. If you were living in rural America in 1940 for example, you only had access to local music and maybe a couple of records here and there and whatever you could pick up on the radio, which was not much.
In this day and age you can hear everything, and it has never been more affordable than it is now to have a small computer set up at home so you can record, whether youíre using GarageBand or ProTools. You donít have to find a record label thatís going to finance an expensive session to start recording. Itís really important that you donít need anybodyís permission to work.
Listen to everything. And then ignore as much of it as possible when youíre writing for yourself. All the influences are in your filter system somewhere. Work! Work gets more work. Ultimately, you are learning more about the process.
How does an artist remain creative and soulful while making money in the music biz?
By staying in touch with the things that inspired you to want to write songs in the first place. Some people begin writing songs because they want to earn a lot of money doing it, which is completely fine. I would never say that thatís a less authentic point of view.
But most people that I know, and myself included, began writing songs because we love songs. Weíre driven by the idea of doing something that wasnít there already, even when we started making money doing it. Itís important to remember that the thing that inspired you initially to write a song was that you wanted to accomplish something that moved you musically.
Itís important to stay tuned to that, even if you are making a lot of money doing it. I donít believe that making money automatically makes you less connected to the music or means that youíve sold out to it. Itís important as an artist to be dedicated to the craft itself, but I donít think you have to be ashamed of earning a good living while youíre doing it.
How do you view the current music business climate?
Itís a mess, but itís a good mess. Most people that I know who are working for a record label are a bit frightened right now because everything is changing. But I think that those changes are very good, even if theyíre difficult. The record industry is being forced to re-think a really outdated model, and I think thatís ultimately good for everybody.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
I can change it for myself any time I want by changing my attitude about my work. I would never look to the industry to change on my behalf. I would challenge anybody to change themselves and their attitude if theyíre in conflict with the current music industry.
Look for new ways to work. Donít be financially beholden to a company or anybody that you donít respect. Donít let yourself or your work be disrespected because you think theyíre going to move you farther down the field.
I had to change and I had to find new ways to do what I was trying to do. But I would never sit around and wait for the music industry to change so it would be better for me, because itís not going to unless Iím somehow realigning my thinking and my work method. ďBe the change you want to see in the world.Ē That applies to every aspect of your life.
How did your collaboration with Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint come about?
I know Elvis Costello for some time now. We really became friendly when I was working on the Solomon Burke record. He wrote a song for us and then visited the studio. Shortly thereafter, he invited me to go out on tour with him, opening for his shows. And then we just stayed in touch. I started to confer with him when I was developing my soul project called 'I Believe To My Soul'.
He was very encouraging. When the opportunity came up for him to make an album with Allen...I had just finished two different projects with Allen over the proceeding six months, and had a relationship with Allen and Elvis. It was very natural for both of them to bring me in. I'm certainly very flattered that they did.
Additionally, we did the first eight days straight in Los Angeles. We recorded very quickly and vigorously for eight days, and then got up on the ninth day and flew to New Orleans for five days recording. I was very reluctant to go to New Orleans because the city was devastated. I didn't want to be perceived as a sightseer. We were coming down there as if we were trying to soak up some of the tragic local flavour.
But the real truth of the matter is that Allen is a lifetime resident and native New Orlean, and it meant the world to him that if he was going to be involved in a project that some of it should take place in New Orleans and that we should put some of the budget of the record back into the economy of New Orleans.
So once we got down there... we've just got off from eight days of straight 14 hours days in the studio, we were very exhausted... I found it very sad and I felt a lot of despair because of what had happened to the city.
But at the same time, as devastated as we all were, Allen, who I had thought would be the most devastated, was completely invigorated by being back in New Orleans and being a part of making yet another record there in his beloved city.
And he showed up in the studio the first day after we all arrived late the night before, and not that he was in denial at all about what had been happening in the city, but he's just the kind of individual that could see straight through it and was completely upbeat and positive about the fact that... here we are in three months after the hurricane back there doing what he thought we were supposed to be doing.
In his mind it was what God intended us to be doing. Being down in New Orleans making music.
How did you end up producing Aimee Mann?
We've been friends for a long time. We're both taking boxing lessons from the same instructor. One day after we've been boxing she and I went out for coffee and Aimee was talking about wanting to make a different kind of record than she made before. She, historically, spend a lot of time making records.
She said: "I feel like I need to find a new way to work. And I like to work with somebody who has some other frame of reference other than The Beatles.", and I said: "That would be me! Because I work very fast. I spend two weeks making a record, not two years making a record." I don't know anything about The Beatles really or how they made records.
I like a song here and there, but that's not my orientation.
We just decided to take a few days and experiment, to go in the studio and we felt we record three songs over five days. We ended up recording five songs over two days. And that became the nucleus of the record that we would consider to make together. A good experiment.
Why do you take boxing lessons?
I think Aimee does it as a workout. I do it because I'm an insomniac. It helps me sleep.
How did you hook up with Ani DiFranco?
Ani and I had been friends before. I had been out on the road on tour opening for her. We spend a lot of time together. She made up to that point 17 records. She always produced herself. I'm not sure exactly what inclines her to want to step out of that pattern and do something different, but I just got a handwritten fax from her one day suggesting that we make a record together and we should try something.
We only met a couple of times after that between deciding to work together and when we were actually in the studio together. I opened another week of shows for her and listened to her play some new songs every night and kind of formulated an idea of musicians that I might put in a room with her so that we could make the record that she never made before.
It was still be authentic to her, but I put a few colours on the pallet. And it was a new experience for her and certainly a new experience for me. Most of the other artists that I work with tend to be very self-possessed and very singular. Ani is a brilliant and intense very forward thinking fast moving artist. It was a good experiment for both of us.
What are you currently working on?
Iím working on a Todd Haynes film thatís based on Bob Dylanís life entitled ĎIím Not Thereí. Iím one of many people doing some music for that.
Iím about to record a track for a tribute to The Band, and about to produce Jakob Dylan doing a track for that same record as well.
Interview by Kimbel Bouwman
Read On ...