Though Joe Henry is billing his latest tour as a solo acoustic venture, there is one person who will be joining him onstage for select songs; his 22-year-old son, Levon.
“He’s on the other side of college, he lives in New York, went to the New School for jazz and he was for a time working for my manager in New York,” says the elder Henry, beaming with pride. “It started out as an internship he needed to do for his school program. He’s no longer working with the management office, but while he was there in the last throes of it, he was basically doing all of the grunt work, coordinating the logistics of the tour, so at one point, because I was going alone, I said, ‘Hey Lee, I need a little bit of help and you’ve already done all of this groundwork, so why don’t you come with me, sit in wherever it makes sense and it’ll be a great experiment?’”
Levon Henry is all over his father’s new album, “Invisible Hour,” adding colorful and moody wind instruments to the epic narrative songs. It’s as if the jazzy flourishes of clarinets and saxophones set the scenery — a raincloud here, a dust-filled ray of sunshine there — for his father’s poetic character sketches. So is Levon Henry getting a hands-on lesson about the temptations of a touring musician?
“He’s a very bright young man. I don’t think I need to do any additional schooling aside from what he’s already had in his upbringing about what he values and how to value it,” says Henry. “Obviously he’s learning about how to survive on the road and to take care of yourself on the road when you’ve got to be traveling every day and playing meaningful performances. It’s not just about being awake. But none of that is lost on him.”
Henry shares that he has been teaching his son about the tricks of the trade from an early age.
“I have a song from my album called ‘Fuse’ that’s a good example, and it’s called ‘Monkey’ and I say the word ‘monkey’ one time in the song, but there’s a repetitive chorus where I say ‘maybe someday you’ll come back to me,’ and when my son was about 7 or 8 when that record was being finished and hearing me listening to mixes in the car, he challenged me directly on why the song was not called ‘Someday,’” recounts Henry. “And I said it’s because ‘Monkey’ is just a much better title. ‘Someday’ sounds vague and harmless. ‘Monkey’ sounds potentially nasty and dangerous. There’s no contest! It’s like, ‘What color of a light are you putting on this scene?’ That’s really what a title is. In what way are you amplifying what is about to happen with the title?”
Listen to "Sign," one of the epic one-word titles on Joe Henry's 13th album that showcases the stylings of Levon Henry.
Though Joe Henry is known for his elaborate titles — 2000’s “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” probably being the most notable — a majority of the titles on “Invisible Hour” are one word only, shining only the necessary amount of light on the characters within the songs, so they remain evocative and continue to unfold into reinterpretations.
“You don’t know how to hear the song without the title,” he says. “I sit down to write and play with a notebook and find some point of entry, whether it’s an image, a title, a phrase and just start putting it together to see what it offers. It’s the same way that Fellini said as a filmmaker, you create a character and see what he has to tell you.”
"Sign," the song embedded above, has an especially interesting character who began life differently than most of Joe Henry's characters. His friend, novelist Colum McCann invited him to be a part of a literary project he was doing for Esquire magazine, called Narrative 4, where Henry was instructed to write a story in less than 500 words that would fit the title "How to be a Man."
"I liked it well enough that I couldn’t quite let go of it," says Henry. "I couldn’t shake it off of me. And then one morning as an experiment I wondered, ‘Is this a story that can be sung? Might this be musical to me in some way?’ And I took the beginning of this short story and tried to formulate it into a verse, and it happened fairly organically and fairly quickly. I let the story unfold in the shape of that song."