'That’s my tribe'

Grammy winning singer-songwriter Joe Henry on music and place

Joe Henry.

Joe Henry.

JOE HENRY, the acclaimed singer-songwriter, is in Galway next week for an intimate gig at the Black Gate Cultural Centre. Since his 1986 debut, Talk Of Heaven, he has released 14 albums, with his most recent, 2017’s Thrum, hailed by American Songwriter as "literate, lovely, and artfully created".

Henry is currently in the west of Ireland doing a writing residency at the Burren College of Art. “It all came about when my wife, Melanie, and I were in Ballyvaughan a year and a half ago for our 30th wedding anniversary,” he tells me over an afternoon phone call. “One of the people I met was Conor McGrady, the dean of the college, and he asked ‘Would you consider coming and writing here?’ and I replied ‘Why wouldn’t I?’ After I returned to LA we kept in touch and identified this autumn as a good time for me to come and I arrived in the Burren a week ago. It’s wonderful to be here, I love the community and it is a very fertile writing space for me as well.”

Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Henry grew up in Michigan, where his father was an executive engineer with Chevrolet. Though neither of his parents was musical, he was smitten by it while still a child. “My parents, as they got older, became great lovers of music but when I was young they were not people of leisure,” he explains. “They were working people so I didn’t hear music from them playing it. There’s that old quote ‘when the student is ready the teacher appears’ and when I was about six or seven I heard, in quick succession, Ray Charles and Johnny Cash, and I knew straightaway that my life was different. I just heard them and thought ‘that’s my tribe, that’s where I come from’.”

'Mose Allison was another character. I was 14 when I first heard his music so to find him in my house playing piano it was never not shocking'

Where he came from, as a Southerner, was once a source of guilt for Henry as he pondered the South’s history of slavery and racism but his discovery of music altered that. “Oh sure, it just took me a while as a young person to understand the parts of my Southern heritage that were positive,” he admits. “As a young person I had deep shame around that when I moved to the Midwest. But as I got older I realised Nina Simone is also from North Carolina, Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Link Wray, Doc Watson – all that gave me a new way to hold my heritage and to find respect in it.”

Aside from his own music, Henry has won three Grammys as a producer and has helmed albums by legends like Mose Allison, Joan Baez, Solomon Burke and Allen Toussaint.

“I grew up listening to all those people,” he recalls. “I especially recall my relationship with Allen Toussaint. I worked with him on many projects over 10 years. We finished his last record just three weeks before his untimely passing. I couldn’t begin to explain to you what it was like for me over that 10 year period to be so consistently in his orbit; he was a really remarkable man and musician and I learned a lot from him. Mose Allison was another character; I was 14 when I first heard his music so to find him in my house playing piano it was never not shocking. Working with those people, whether it was Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Irma Thomas, Billy Preston, Salif Keita and so on, it never becomes routine for me. I’m always marvelling in the fact that I am standing with them trying to be of service. It’s an incredible honour to offer help to someone who has been as meaningful to so many of us as these artists have been.”

For his Galway gig, Henry will be supported by Tony Trundle. “When my wife and I were here a year and a half ago we met Tony,” he relates. “We spent an evening in a pub together playing music and he gave us a copy of his album Winter Swimming. We had no chance to hear it until we were back in LA but once we did we completely fell in love with his voice and his writing; that whole album is a beautiful statement. When I was asked to play a few shows while I was here my first thought was, ‘Sure, but I want to do it with Tony’.”

Joe Henry plays the Black Gate Cultural Centre on Thursday September 27 at 8pm. Tickets are €19.50 via www.tickettailor.com/

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