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Rubber-Band Blues: Joe Henry on Stretching Time to Write and Letting Go or to Record

September 1, 2009
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When it comes to autobiographical songwriting and studio preproduction, Joe Henry is a disbeliever. But that hasn’t held him back musically. As a producer, Henry has worked with the likes of Elvis Costello, Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Aimee Mann. As a writer, his credits include Madonna and Me’shell Ndegeocello. His 11 studio albums, ranging from country to rock and soul, are nothing to shake a stick at, either. Henry’s latest, blues-inflected effort, Blood From Stars [Anti-] was borne from meticulous rewriting, followed by a whirlwind recording process.

“I’ve never gone into a studio without songs really set in stone, as far as pieces of writing,” Henry says. “For this particular batch, I worked harder than ever to write and finish the songs, and at the same time, I found myself very free and spontaneous with them when I was recording.”

But his attention to detail doesn’t stop with individual songs. Henry wants every one to work together as a whole “to push the story forward.” What’s unusual is that the story is completely fabricated.

“There’s that great QUOTE from Picasso, ‘Everything you can imagine is real,’” Henry recalls. “I think a lot of people coast as writers because they think, ‘If I’m willing to be completely truthful, then it will be a good song.’ I think that’s ludicrous. In that regard, truth is wildly overrated. I find it easier to give voice to human frailty and doubt when I’m not writing about myself. As a writer, you have two significant choices: You can look in— which is a very finite space—or you can look out.”

In the past, Henry made “detailed demos” for his collaborators to draw inspiration from. This time, he made no demos at all.

“I don’t want musicians to be limited to my imagination,” he says. “Once people hear a song in a certain way, it’s hard to forget that they’ve heard it. It’s like when people say things in court that get stricken from the record. How can a jury disregard something that they’ve heard?”

In his Garfield House Studio in South Pasadena, CA, Henry played songs on guitar or piano for Blood From Stars’ cast of characters, the musicians took notes, and they were off to the races and recording within minutes. The album took less than five days to produce (hours were 11 AM to 7 PM), and it was performed almost completely live.

To give themselves options in the mixing process, Henry and engineer Ryan Freeland avoided mic bleed as much as possible. Pianist Patrick Warren and guitarist Marc Ribot were in the main room, but Ribot’s guitar amp was “in a doghouse under the stairs.” Bassist David Piltch and keyboardist Keefus Ciancia went direct. Drummer Jay Bellerose was isolated in his own room, as was sax/clarinet player Levon Henry (Henry’s son). And Henry sang in the vocal booth. Pro Tools ran continually while the musicians were playing.

“What I want to get on ‘tape’ is that moment of discovery somewhere in take two, three, or four, where people have the song but it’s so new that nobody is doing anything by rote,” Henry says.

The loping, bluesy track, “The Man I Keep Hid,” was recorded in one take.

“In the third verse where I sing, ‘Something startled you late last night,’ you can audibly hear the door to the drum room close. Ryan was standing over the drum kit moving mics, and he slammed the door behind him because it was the first time we played it. Nobody’s thinking this is a take, of course. Sometimes, the moment of revelation that you’re hearing is that completely unmannered, unselfconscious stepping into the song when musicians are just playing it to discover what it is. Frequently, that’s as musical a song ever gets.”

In making the album, plug-ins and a Shadow Hills compressor represented some newer gear, but Blood From Stars benefited mostly from a collection of vintage gear. Bellerose’s antique drums (“which have very particular rattly, flappy papery sounds,” Henry says) were recorded with ribbon mics: RCA 77DXs for overheads, Royer 122s over the snare and floor tom, and an RCA BK-5 in front of the kick drum.

Henry’s 1912-era upright Steinway piano was captured with a combination of ribbon and tube mics.

“We have an RCA 77DX toward the treble end, where the lid opens at the top,” Henry explains, “and between the back of the piano and the wall, I have an old Sony C37A tube mic. Ribbon mics like the RCA are very grainy, vivid, and textured, and the Sony mic adds a bell-like warmth of the low end to the picture.”

Ribot played through Henry’s ’50s Gibson CF-100E cutaway acoustic, ’57 Gibson ES-175, ’52 Fender Telecaster, and a Spanish gut-string guitar. Amps included a mid-’50s Gibson tweed and a’65 Fender Blackface Deluxe through an old reverb tank.

A combination of Neumann M 49 and AEA A440 mics were used side-byside, an inch apart, for Henry’s vocals.

“There’s a character in my voice that I quite like, and then there’s a range in my voice that’s less flattering, in the high mids. I think the combination of those two mics allowed even that range of my voice to stay fat and warm and not annoying. We also used a vintage Teletronix LA-2A compressor to clamp down on that edgier part of my high-mid range, to make it a little distorted, and to blunt the blade of that frequency—making it grainier.”

Some ’50s Gates Sta-Level and Level Devil compressors, the Retro Instruments Sta-Level replica, and some Ampex and Pultec preamps figured into recording, too. But all that vintage gear wasn’t responsible for making a great album in under a week.

“Making a record in three to five days is not for people who can’t or don’t want to make decisions,” he insists. “My attitude about recording is that there are all kinds of ways that a song can work. We just have to find one of them and commit to it. Some people are troubled that it could always be different. I am liberated by the fact that it could always be different. We just need to find a way right now for this song to feel like a living thing.”

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