“There were lyrics in that song that I was sure would go by the wayside because they were too obtuse for a pop song,” he said. When he saw her perform it in an arena, he was amazed when “At one point they stopped playing and were singing a cappella, and 25,000 people were singing the song.” Henry realized it wasn’t that his lyrics were obtuse, but “that my delivery system doesn’t vibrate at this frequency. But she knew how.” As performer, songwriter or producer, Henry said, the goal is the same: “To make something meaningful come out of a pair of speakers.”
What has defined Henry’s career, and probably circumscribed it, is a principled sense of modesty, always deferring to the music. “When he talks about songwriting, he talks about how mysterious the process is and how unconscious it is,” said his son, Levon Henry, a saxophonist who has played sessions for many of his father’s albums. “And when he talks about record-making, he talks about who all the musicians in the room are and what they’re bringing to the table, and how important it is to create an environment in which people feel emboldened to display their own creativity and listen to each other. The way that my dad holds up a mirror to things around him, and tries to not take credit for it, is a real testament to how collaborative life is and how creativity works.”
At his house, Henry’s office held a spinet piano, a rack of acoustic guitars, a turntable, vintage ribbon microphones and assorted CDs and LPs. A sizable old desk was topped with books — James Joyce, Confucius, Langston Hughes — and a pencil sharpener, with a few fresh shavings from that morning; he writes first drafts in longhand. Around the walls were photographs of his heroes — Dylan, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Billy Strayhorn, Woody Guthrie, W.C. Fields — and his studio collaborators. He had cued up background music on an iPod: Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, the bluesman Lonnie Johnson. “I’m a talker,” he noted on the way in to a four-hour conversation that ranged through reminiscences, musical history, vintage gear talk and broader philosophies.
Henry was born in 1960 in Charlotte, N.C., but his family moved frequently: to Georgia, Ohio and Michigan, where he met his future wife, Melanie Ciccone, in high school. “Every couple of years I was the new kid at yet another school,” he said. “My response to it was to disappear into my room in front of a record player. I understood from a very young age that that was my language.”
He taught himself to play guitar and piano, listened to old blues, folk songs, Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra, and wrote a lot of poetry as a steppingstone to songs. He got his first record deal in the mid-1980s and made his first albums while living in New York City. But he found more like-minded musicians after moving to Los Angeles, where Burnett eased him into producing (and also produced Henry’s third album, “Shuffletown”). He and Burnett still share a pool of regular stage and studio collaborators, and a recording philosophy that prizes live interaction.