Born in 1960 in Charlotte, NC; grew up in the Detroit, MI, area; married Melanie Ciccone (sister of recording artist Madonna), 1987. Education: Graduated from the University of Michigan. Addresses: Record company--Mammoth Records, 101 B Street, Carrboro, NC 27510, website: http://www.mammoth.com.
Joe Henry is a widely respected musical artist whose moody vignettes about life's dark, sorrowful, and uncertain moments have remained powerful over the course of more than a half dozen albums. "He's about as far from big-picture, collective-experience guys like Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, and Bruce Cockburn as you can get," mused Thom Jurek in the Metro Times, who went on to note that Henry does not fit in with the rock world's canon of "wordsmiths" or confessionalists, either: "Henry's more like a filmmaker using jump cuts and disruptive devices to communicate a musical message that even he doesn't understand fully." Henry concurred, waving off those who would term his tales autobiographical. "I don't really write about myself, and think that it's conceited for songwriters to think that any small revelation they have is worth everybody else hearing about," he told Jurek. "I'm trying for things I can't even understand fully. I just want to set these things in front of people and let them make up their own minds about what's there."
Henry was born in 1960 in Charlotte, North Carolina, but his father's work with Chevrolet soon took the family to Michigan. He grew up in the Detroit area where he met Melanie Ciccone, whom he eventually married in 1987. By the mid-1980s Melanie's sister Madonna was entrenched as one of American music's most well-known stars; Henry, meanwhile, was just beginning his career. In 1985 he and Melanie moved to Brooklyn, New York, where he played at small clubs and began shaping the songs that appeared on his debut album, 1986's Talk of Heaven.
Impressed with his first album, A&M Records subsequently signed Henry to their label. Over the next few years he released two albums for A&M, 1989's Murder of Crows and 1990's Shuffletown, that cemented his reputation as a literate songwriter with a penchant for keeping the odd loose end or unexplained detail in his songs. Shunning the tidy endings and shopworn themes that mark the work of so many other artists, Henry instead opted for a style that was notable as much for what was missing as for what was included. As Jurek later observed, "he asks more questions than he answers, and tells stories that don't add up to a punchline. He's a rhythmic singer who looks for spaces in between the words."
The release of Shuffletown also established Henry as a member of the swelling country-tinged "roots-rock" movement, in part because of his studio recording style--employing largely acoustic accompaniment--he recorded the songs live onto two-track master tapes. The result on Shuffletown, said Rolling Stone critic Bud Scoppa, was "a testament to the effectiveness of unvarnished recording in accurately capturing mood and vitality, as well as sheer, seductive sound."
In 1990 Henry and his wife moved to Los Angeles, where Melanie took a job with Opal Records. In the meantime, Henry's relationship with A&M deteriorated to the point where he would later term his stay on the label as "disastrous." In 1992 Henry left A&M to join the independent label Mammoth, located in North Carolina. His first effort on Mammoth was Short Man's Room, another album that received a fair amount of critical praise but only modest sales. A year later Henry released Kindness of the World, on which country-rock band the Jayhawks provided much of the instrumental backing. Guitar Player reviewer James Rotondi called the album "downright heartbreaking," while Deborah Frost observed in Entertainment Weekly that Henry's "plain-sung, pedal-steel-pierced vignettes (in which firemen marry beneath paper bells and hope always squeaks past irony) plumb America's psyche with a classicist's, not a provocateur's, perspective."
In the mid-1990s, Henry made some fundamental changes in his approach to his music. "I was getting a bit bored finding myself in this country-rock thing," he told Rolling Stone's Matt Hendrickson. "I really wanted to do something decidedly more electric because I didn't want to just make the same record again with different songs." Abandoning the live recording process that he had often used in his earlier albums, Henry enlisted the aid of producer Patrick McCarthy, who was well known for his mixing and programming capabilities, in making his next album, 1996's Trampoline. "Seventy-five percent of the record was the two of us in this little studio near my house, with the guitars set up in a circle," Henry explained to Hendrickson. "We just started putting pieces [of music] together. It was like gluing Ernest Borgnine's head on Jayne Mansfield's body. It was a completely eye-opening experience for me, and now I can't imagine doing it any other way."
The resulting album--which also featured Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton on five songs--garnered Henry new levels of critical acclaim as well as his most significant radio airplay with the title track. Blessed with such stand-out tracks as "Ohio Air Show Plane Crash," "Flower Girl," and "Parade," the album seemed to mark a turning point for the artist. Entertainment Weekly reviewer Steven Mirkin called Trampoline "a searingly honest and compelling album" that "comes at you in oblique, disjointed snatches; woozy and haunted, with slow-motion replays and muffled violence." Rolling Stone critic Roni Sarig agreed, writing that "the stylistic shifts make Trampoline Henry's most diverse and adventurous work. But if Henry is widening his horizons, he is also focusing his vision. No longer the folk poet spinning archetypal psalms, Henry pares lyrics down to their rawest bits and draws vivid scenes." For his part, Henry admitted to Jurek that "I'm really proud of the way [the album] turned out."
Henry also collaborated with his famous sister-in-law for the first time in 1996. Asked to contribute a song to a benefit album for singer Vic Chesnutt, Henry enlisted the aid of Madonna on a cover of Chesnutt's "Guilty by Association." "I've been answering questions about her for so long, but I find it kind of a relief now, because now there's a reason to talk about her," he told Hendrickson, before wryly adding that "I'm sure she's tired of answering questions about me, too."
In another stylistic departure, Henry released the experimental Fuse in 1999, an album on which "the new groove-a-delic Henry knows how to work the sound as he mixes and matches old and new," according to Denise Sullivan of All Music Guide. Scar, Henry's eighth album, followed in 2001. A "highly textured sonic meditation on love and its twisted redemptive power," according to Thom Jurek of All Music Guide, the album features a tango called "Stop," a song reworked for use as "Don't Tell Me," a top-five hit on Madonna's multiplatinum smash Music in 2000. About her brother-in-law, Madonna said in a statement, as published in the New York Times, "Joe is a real undiscovered poet. Some of his songs rip my heart out. He is a guy from another time.... A lyrical giant." Other notable tracks from Scar include "Edgar Bergen" and "Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation," on which famed jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman guests.
by Kevin Hillstrom
Joe Henry's Career
Moved to Brooklyn, NY, 1985; released first album, Talk of Heaven, 1986; switched to A&M Records for next two albums, Murder of Crows, 1989, and Shuffletown, 1990; relocated to Los Angeles, CA, switched to Mammoth Records label, 1990; collaborated with sister-in- law Madonna on song "Guilty by Association" for Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, The Songs of Vic Chesnutt, 1996; released Fuse, 1999, and Scar, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Talk of Heaven , Profile, 1986; reissued, Astor Place, 1999.
- Murder of Crows , A&M, 1989.
- Shuffletown , A&M, 1990.
- Short Man's Room , Mammoth, 1992.
- Kindness of the World , Mammoth, 1993.
- Trampoline , Mammoth, 1996.
- (With Madonna) "Guilty by Association," Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, The Songs of Vic Chestnutt , Chaos, 1996.
- Fuse , Mammoth, 1999.
- Scar , Mammoth, 2001.
- Acoustic Guitar, July-August 1994.
- Entertainment Weekly, November 19, 1993; March 29, 1996.
- Gentleman's Quarterly, May 2001.
- Guitar Player, March 1994; July 1996.
- Metro Times (Detroit), May 1-7, 1996.
- New York Times, May 4, 1996; May 20, 2001.
- People, May 6, 1996.
- Rolling Stone, March 9, 1989; November 29, 1990; August 20, 1992; April 18, 1996; June 27, 1996.
- Spin, February 1994.
- "Joe Henry," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 20, 2002).