U-M grad Joe Henry has created his own idiosyncratic niche as a musician. But it is through his work as a producer that he has discovered another part of himself—one that helps musicians take a fresh approach to their music and, in several cases, to win a Grammy.
By David Menconi, Michigan Alumnus, late fall 2013
Close to a quarter-century ago, the career of Joe Henry, ’83, took a turn for the unexpected—even if he didn’t realize it at the time. Henry had just finished his third solo album, and producer T Bone Burnett was impressed enough with his in-the-studio acumen to suggest that Henry start working as a producer himself.
It turned out to be a big compliment coming from someone like Burnett, who went on to win numerous Grammy Awards for producing Robert Plant, Alison Krauss, and the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack. But Henry’s initial reaction was to bristle and ask a sardonic question: “What are you saying to me? That those who can, do—and those who can’t, produce?” In time, he saw the wisdom in Burnett’s advice.
“He was expanding my world, not suggesting I make it smaller,” Henry says. “If you just make your own records, that’s like learning to swim by getting in the pool once a year. You make an album, two years go by, and when you go back you’ve only got three days in the studio because you don’t have much money—how much can you learn that way?”
Henry still makes records of his own, carving out his own unique space in the musical landscape through a series of atmospherically noir-ish albums that fall somewhere in the vicinity of Tom Waits. But he’s had his highest public profile as a producer, overseeing albums by a staggeringly diverse array of artists, including blues-rock guitarist Bonnie Raitt, underground R&B diva Meshell Ndegeocello, and actor Hugh Laurie. He’s also produced various iconic soul legends—Aaron Neville and Allen Toussaint, among others.
Henry has also written a number of songs for his sister-in-law, a performer you’ve probably heard of named Madonna, including “Don’t Tell Me,” which hit the top 10 in 2001. As he’s been known to remark onstage before playing that one himself, “Her version of it was different from mine—it was a hit.”
But most of Henry’s for-hire work for others tends to be more left-of-center, including the seemingly oddball pairing with 1960s gospel-soul hitmaker Solomon Burke for his 2002 comeback …
Photo credit: Lauren Dukoff