Joe Henry's new record Blood From Stars begins with a poignant and haunting piano prelude before launching into "The Man I Keep Hid," a raw, bluesy track undercut with a ghostly voice of a man rambling on before Henry comes in with the first line "nobody knows the man that I keep hid." An apt beginning for Henry's eleventh full-length record, for Blood From Stars reveals a side of Henry rarely glimpsed in his recent work, which has been notable in its suave urbanity, poetic lyricism and literary sensibility. Rather, the new work is a passionate and direct breakthrough from one of today's most acclaimed singer songwriters.
"It's more emotionally available, certainly less mannered," says Henry, speaking of the difference between Blood From Stars and his 2007 release Civilians. "It's much more electric, in the literal and also the emotional sense of the word. It is raw, with many loose threads hanging."
Backed by a handpicked collection of players, including Marc Ribot (Tom Waits, Elvis Costello) who worked with Henry on his 2001 release Scar and acclaimed jazz pianist Jason Moran, Henry crafted Blood From Stars with a clear idea of structure, but also with a refreshingly open and fluid approach to the outcome of the songs, creating a loose, swinging, vital sound.
"Partly, I just loved what happened when this particular group of musicians heard a song and had to respond to it in a very immediate way," Henry explained. "I can always go back to what I thought [the song should sound like], but if you limit them to your own imagination, then you're just cutting yourself off from the richest resource you have."
Henry has spent the better part of the last decade in a recording studio, lending his considerable talents and tastes to producing records from the likes of Solomon Burke (who's Henry-produced Don't Give Up on Me won a Grammy for the Best Contemporary Blues album of 2002), Bettye LaVette, and many others.
"When I find the production work to be satisfying, it really does fuel more work. I tell my wife, 'the more I work, the more I work.' It keeps the engine idling all the time. I used to see producing and my work as an artist to be separate enterprises but the more I've continued, I start to see less and less distinction between what I do for myself and what I do for other people. In both cases my job is to make something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers."
Two recent releases Henry produced, Allen Toussaint's the Bright Mississippi and Ramblin' Jack Elliott's A Stranger Here, find the venerable artists exploring classic blues songs. With his work as a producer and a songwriter overlapping and informing one another, it is only natural that the blues found their way onto Henry's Blood From Stars.
"I was playing with a writing form...a blues structure, in the same way that you might sit down and try to write a sonnet or a haiku. I was intrigued by how structured and how simple those ideas of, say, a pair of repeating lines answered by a refrain can be," Henry says and continues, "I've been reading a lot of poets lately, and lot of diverse poetry very consciously references a blues tonality, whether its Langston Hughes or Allen Ginsberg or e.e. cummings. Poets are very aware of the power of that structure."
Ultimately, Blood From Stars is a departure from the expected sound of a Joe Henry record, and its author seems perfectly at ease with his new persona. "If it's standing up, declaring itself as living thing, I'm completely enthralled by it. My ego has no problem with not controlling the process," he paused, then continued with a laugh, "as long as it makes me look good in the end."
Track listing for Blood From Stars: Prelude: Light No Lamp When The Sun Comes Down The Man I Keep Hid Channel This Is My Favorite Cage Death To The Storm All Blues Hail Mary Bellwether Progress of Love (Dark Ground) Over Her Shoulder Suit On A Frame Truce Stars Coda: Light No Lamp When The Sun Comes Down