Welcoming Flies at the Picnic
Joe Henry faced his mortality in 2018 when he was diagnosed with stage 4 prostate cancer and told he might only have months to live. Now in remission, the singer-songwriter and producer has created a gorgeous new album, The Gospel According to Water. Henry’s wisdom on living — and the loss that strangely defines it — ran all the way through this conversation, recorded before his cancer, in 2015. Beloved by fellow musicians as much as by his fans, he’s produced over a dozen albums of his own and written and produced for other artists, from Elvis Costello to Madonna.
Joe Henry is a Grammy Award-winning producer and singer-songwriter. He's recorded 13 albums and produced dozens of other artists. He's the co-author of Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him. His albums include Invisible Hour, Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad, and, most recently, The Gospel According to Water.
Joe Henry: Well, we’re sort of seduced into thinking that, like, here’s life and then there’s these bad things that can happen that are like obstacles that just fall into your road. As if the obstacle is not the road, you know? We want to think that, all things being equal, we should be content all the time and would be except for these pesky flies that want to ruin every picnic — as if that isn’t what the picnic is.
[music: “Orson Welles” by Joe Henry]
Krista Tippett, host: Joe Henry faced his mortality this past year with Stage IV cancer; having been told he might have months to live, he’s now in remission and has created a gorgeous new album The Gospel According to Water. But Joe’s wisdom about living, and the loss that strangely defines it, ran all the way through the cherished conversation I had with him in 2016. [Editor’s note: This conversation originally aired in 2015.] He is beloved by fellow musicians as much as by his fans. He’s made over a dozen albums of his own and written and produced for an array of other artists, including Elvis Costello, Bonnie Raitt, Rhiannon Giddens, Billy Bragg, and Madonna.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
Joe Henry is based in Los Angeles with his wife Melanie. Their long marriage is a vivid presence, across time, in his songs. He was born in the South but grew up mostly in Michigan.
Ms. Tippett: You know, you’ve said that what the Bible means to your parents, the American songbook means to you. Was that always true? I mean, that gives me the impression that the Bible was a presence in your childhood.
Mr. Henry: Oh, it was absolutely. My parents — both from North Carolina, as I am. I didn’t really grow up there, but my parents both came from the Charlotte area. And they’re very devout Christian people. And, I mean, so I did grow up with that being an absolute, fundamental part of their being. And I was not only invited for that to be true for me, but — I wouldn’t say insisted — but I was brought up as if that was — this is your vocabulary. This is your spiritual, cultural vocabulary.
But I will say that — with no disrespect at all to my beloved parents and their faith, which is paramount to them and remains so — even as a young person that wasn’t authentic to me. Music, on the other hand, without me having to decide to let it in, changed me. And you’re so vulnerable to influence, especially when you don’t know you’re being influenced.
When you’re young enough and something enters your psychic bloodstream and changes that landscape, and you don’t know to protect those borders, you’re wide open to it. I found it doing to me what I now think other people — what they get out of a spiritual awakening, I got from a musical awakening. I didn’t know how to call it that. But I see now that that’s what was happening to me.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And is it right that you were a stutterer? That you stuttered when you were a child?
Mr. Henry: Yes. Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: But you could sing.
Mr. Henry: Well, yes. The truth is that I never really stopped. I’ve just gotten really good at driving around it. I don’t think about it. But there are moments where I notice that there’s a word that I understand that I can’t say. And I pick another one.
Ms. Tippett: You’ve always been really expressive in writing about your music, which every musician is not — even the liner notes. It’s not something I would normally have as part of the research, but I realized that those liner notes were really important.
When you’re writing about the new album, you write about — you say that this stands as a defining moment personally as an artist, though you preface that by saying, “I feel myself continuing to evolve daily.” And that’s really apparent, that kind of personal evolution through time. And it seems like you’ve been aware and maybe — and able to be articulate about this evolution, both of who you are and how songs arise and the interplay between those two things.
Mr. Henry: Well, I will say that there was a long time where I didn’t think I was allowed to be observant of my process — or certainly not allowed to talk about it. Because the musicians I most admired were, and are, famously big liars, for starters. [laughs] But even beyond that, unwilling to cast too much of a light on the work that the work itself is not throwing off. You’re not there to explain a song to anybody. You’re not there to hold anybody’s hand through it, nor should you.
But I will say that as I continue in my work life more and more, all the lines that I used to think distinguished one part of my job from another part of my job are all very blurred now. I don’t really observe a difference in what I do for myself as an artist or what I do for other people when I work as a record producer. I don’t think very differently about how I write liner notes, for instance, than how I write songs. It’s surrender, more than anything. And it’s about listening to what this means to say, and not what I mean to say. Because I love a lot of songs, but I don’t have one idea what’s going on in them.
Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But see, and I think that’s what intrigues me, is the kind of the adventure and the mystery of writing that you’re very aware of as you write your songs.
Mr. Henry: Well, mystery is the word.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. That you give voice to something that you didn’t know you thought. And that you may have to spend some time figuring out what it means. It’s very mysterious and wonderful.
Mr. Henry: Well, it is mysterious. I think as anybody who lives any kind of create — is devoted to a creative life, but not only — I mean, any of us alive. We’re really called not to dispel mystery but to abide it, to engage it. And that doesn’t mean necessarily making sense out of it. It’s just understanding that there’s a big part of this that is inherently and beautifully and romantically mysterious — has to be and always shall be. I write to discover. And if I’m engaged by what that writing has become, then I try to think about what — might it engage anybody else? It’s to just try to put my finger on it and hear it.
[music: “Plainspeak” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: Some of the ways you’ve written about that process, they remind me about the way novelists write about the process of writing. You’ve written, “There are many ways a song can take shape, and they can always be different. They need only to be finally a living thing unto themselves.” That “the opening line of a song might come to you like a book falling open.”
And that’s that adventure, that …
Mr. Henry: Well, again, it’s the idea that even as you’re writing, you’re not trying to rearticulate a finished thought that stands fully formed in your mind. I assume that maybe you know the poet Jane Hirshfield. You know her work at all?
I’m a great admirer of hers. And we’ve never met face to face, but we’ve become great pen pals. But she was writing to me recently about that very real notion that “the poem has an intelligence that the poet does not have.”
Ms. Tippett: So how do you think about the alchemy that does happen between — we talked about you as a writer, but you write songs. And how do words shift and change when music wraps around them or they make their way inside music? How do you think about that?
Mr. Henry: Well, I think about that as little as possible in some ways. There’s an impulse that’s purely fear-based that if you try to understand too much about how that works, it will stop working. And I don’t really think that any of this is that fragile. I’m not actually fearful of it. But it’s something that is absolutely mysterious — why some thought seems to be musical thought. Like I said, some things show up as a poem. And I just understand that this is not something that would be musical coming out of my mouth, even if it’s thematically something I might write a song about or might show up in a song. There are certain words — I’ll be writing and say, “If this is a poem, that’s the right word. If it’s a song, that’s the wrong word.” Because that’s not a musical — there’s not a musical tonality to that word. You might write something that’s deliberately a little awkward to slow listeners and readers down so that they don’t just blaze through it like they’re reading a grocery list.
Ms. Tippett: That’s really interesting. I think that’s the kind of analysis that most listeners to music wouldn’t make. I’m not aware of that. Until you say it, and it sounds true.
Mr. Henry: Well, one of your confederates was talking to me earlier this morning about George Jones. And I was just remembering — I’m remembering now that at one point, he was pitched to sing a song that Paul Westerberg had written — one of your favorite sons here in the Twin Cities, Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. His song “Here Comes A Regular” was pitched to George Jones. And the word “fridge” is in the song. And George says, “I can’t sing that song. I could never sing the word ‘fridge’.” That’s the way I heard the story anyway.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah.
Mr. Henry: And I thought, ‘Well, of course not.’ To George that’s just — that’s not a musical word.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And not a beautiful word.
Mr. Henry: No. No.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah. That makes sense.
[music: “Civilians” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry.
Ms. Tippett: I really, really love Invisible Hour.
Mr. Henry: Well, thank you.
Ms. Tippett: As we’re speaking here, it’s your newest album. I’m so intrigued by how we use, like — I think people still talk about records and albums.
Mr. Henry: Those of us who make them, I promise you.
Ms. Tippett: We haven’t cast those things aside, right? It’s not the same as …
Mr. Henry: Oh, we still say album, because it’s a deliberate statement. We understand album as a durable format just like a haiku is a durable format. The blues form as a songwriting form is durable. And the hour-and-a-half movie, the three act play — an album’s still 10-12 songs. We know how to hear that and still follow the arc.
Ms. Tippett: Right. So Invisible Hour is the latest one. And you kind of said after the fact — writing about after the fact, that you realized it was about marriage, but really, the redemptive power of love in the face of fear. To me, if it’s about marriage, it’s just marriage as a most intense way to talk about the complexity of human beings together.
Mr. Henry: I realized — I thought, after the fact, that time was the thread that connected all the songs — that in some way all the characters were grappling with time. And after I finished Invisible Hour, I thought, well, all the characters in some way are challenging themselves with commitment to somebody. Or they are bereft of a commitment and desperately in need of one. But looking at it from either side, you’re still talking about the way in which real commitment informs and changes all of us.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And also I think how real commitment is so exacting and never complete, right? Or how it’s always this — there’s just these two lines from “Grave Angels”: “We are gathered together. We are hidden from view.” And those two things are always true even in the most intimate relationship.
Mr. Henry: Sure. And, I mean, I think one thing that you’re getting at is this idea that marriage is a verb, not a noun. It’s not something you did. It’s not something you possess. It’s something that you engage in and you have to be — you are being married all the time. You didn’t get married. You are in the process of being married. I am, as I sit before you, even though I’m a long way from home. I’m asked to be constantly engaged in being married. And I think that’s something that’s — it sounds like a subtle distinction, and it’s not subtle at all.
Ms. Tippett: And that’s where all this comes from in you. And then I guess, part of this mystery and power that we’ve talked about of writing or songs is — those of us who don’t have a marriage still have all these other relationships where we grapple with this reality of being gathered together and hidden from view at the same time.
Mr. Henry: Sure. And I’m not just talking about formalized, legal marriage, of course.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah, I know.
Mr. Henry: I think if it works at all, it’s that idea of — I sort of accept my own marriage as absolute fact of my person. And I think of that like I look at my relationship to my children or to my brother David, for example. I could have a big falling out with my brother David, but it wouldn’t change the fundamental fact that he’s my brother. Even if we were estranged, God forbid, that would be true. And I think that, at least for me, that’s how I see my marriage. It’s just that no matter what happens, that has become a fundamental absolute of the fabric of my being. And I don’t know how to see myself without that component. I don’t know myself without that piece of that puzzle in place, just like I don’t know myself not being a parent.
I almost don’t remember what it’s like. I’ve said to my wife, Melanie, I can think back to our married days before children. And it’s almost like I knew who our children were, they just hadn’t arrived. But in retrospect, I feel like I don’t know myself without knowing them.
Ms. Tippett: I know. I said that to one of my best friends the other day because we’re at this place where our children are growing up and leaving. But I said I cannot imagine who I would be without them. I can’t even imagine that person. It’s impossible.
Mr. Henry: It’s impossible.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Henry: Yeah.
Ms. Tippett: I just want to read these lines because they’re so beautiful. This is also from the “Grave Angels” song: “I take this to be holy — If futile, uncertain and dire: Our union of fracture, our dread everlasting, This beautiful, desperate desire. The cloud darkens to harrow, It crosses your heart like hand, but it’s cool like the shadow of all that we’ve seen by the Light that we can’t understand.” What’s it like for you to hear words like that read back to you?
Mr. Henry: Well, I happen to like those, so thanks. [laughs] I hear a different musicality in them coming from you than if I were to try to read them, which is really interesting.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Do you know what those words mean now?
Mr. Henry: I think I do. At a certain point, I think my interpretation after the fact doesn’t have any more authority than yours or anybody’s. I like the acknowledgement at the end of that stanza that you read about sort of the idea that we live among shadow. But the light that creates the shadow is absolutely, in so many ways, unknowable to us. And yet it’s a source of all that moves around us and makes things move around us. And yet there is just this part of it that is paramount and completely unknowable.
Ms. Tippett: And that thing you said about your interpretation not being any more valid than anyone else’s once the song is out there in the world — that’s so interesting. That’s part of that mystery of writing, isn’t it, too?
Mr. Henry: Well, it’s back to letting go of this idea that you’re not going to — of the impulse of trying to explain anything to anybody.
Ms. Tippett: But I also think you’re talking about the fact that there’s reality and dignity in however it lands — whatever meaning it lands with, in any ears, in any life.
Mr. Henry: Well, in the same way that when Thomas Merton said, “Everything that is, is holy,” takes away any impulse to want to judge anything — to be anything other than sacred. The only thing that’s “other” is how we choose to dishonor those things. But nothing by its nature is not sacred. Even the most deadly thing only is anything other than sacred if we elect to be less with it.
[music: “The World and All I Know” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: I want to talk to you about God, which many people would hear what you just said about that light that’s ever present. That that might be a way of talking about God. I sense that in the course of your life in your writing, you’ve had a different relationship with using that word.
Mr. Henry: I sure have.
Ms. Tippett: But then it’s kind of surprised you that it’s become more overt and more present and more frequent?
Mr. Henry: Well, part of it is you just live long enough, and you really do learn to care less about what anybody might think about what you might offer. That’s one of the great bonuses of surviving.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah.
Mr. Henry: Yeah. For a while, I think I really would’ve resisted anything that felt like I was directly referencing so-called God and how anybody might perceive God.
Ms. Tippett: You just wrote in those liner notes to the Civilians album in 2007, “Speaking of which, I have noticed with surprise, and only in retrospect, how often God is mentioned throughout this 12-song cycle, and He must be surprised as well.” You went on to say you recognize “in his many appearances one among us who stretches like” — oh, OK, so I have to read the whole thing. “I recognize in his many appearances, though, not the God of my Methodist raising, who sat judging tennis balls in or out from high on a perch. But one among us who stretches like the net itself, wholly visible and there but to frame the attempt.” That’s pretty great. That’s a theological statement.
Mr. Henry: Yeah. I probably stole it from somewhere and I can’t remember where. [laughs] Well, Krista, it’s one of those things. I see how many of the musicians, writers, poets that I have been devoted to my entire adult life who are in no uncertain terms grappling with their spiritual lives, whether that’s Flannery O’Connor or Merton or James Wright or Rilke, who probably gets name checked on your show more than almost anybody.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. That’s true. Yeah.
Mr. Henry: I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t call any song finished if I don’t think that it somehow is vibrating with that awareness of how we live in spite of the inevitable, which is what all spirituality is, is how do we come into being? How do we live fully in the constant, conscious knowledge that we won’t always? And how do you invest in any kind of idea of real commitment in the face of everything being finite? And I think that every — in some way, every song that I write is awake to that awareness of that disparity. And I don’t think anything else interests me at some level.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. You know, the song that’s in this album, “Every Sorrow.” “After every sorrow comes a joy, but every sorrow knows one more.” And it ends with, “After every sorrow comes a joy, and every story knows one more.” And that’s the gritty manifestation of this struggle, tension, this big cosmic tension, right? That we kind of live with in all of our days and all of our relationships and …
Mr. Henry: Well, we’re sort of seduced into thinking that, like, here’s life and then there’s these bad things that can happen that are like obstacles that just fall into your road, as if the obstacle is not the road. We want to think that, all things being equal, we should be content all the time and would be except for these pesky flies that want to ruin every picnic — as if that isn’t what the picnic is, you know? It’s that idea that you cut yourself off from great sorrow, you also cut yourself off from great joy. It’s a simple enough idea that if you don’t really understand…
Ms. Tippett: It’s a simple enough idea. It’s a hard enough reality.
Mr. Henry: We only know any such thing as light because of darkness. I mean, it’s fundamental. If you exorcise your demons, your angels will leave too. That’s sort of the common wisdom, I think.
[music: “God Only Knows” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again to this show and everything we do on Spotify or wherever you find your podcasts.
[music: “Grave Angels” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with singer-songwriter Joe Henry. After a year in which he faced his mortality, he’s now released a gorgeous album, The Gospel According to Water. This song is “Grave Angels” from Joe’s 2014 album, Invisible Hour.
[music: “Grave Angels” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: You do use the imagery of angels a lot. It weaves in and out.
Mr. Henry: Yeah. It’s probably a bad habit. I mean, they’re such faithful images, you know?
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. Well, and they’re different. I mean, the “Grave Angels” is the title of a song, and that is …
Mr. Henry: The angels have gotten nicer, by the way. I have a song on an album called Fuse from 1999, I think. And there’s a song called “Angels,” and they’re really nasty in that one.
Ms. Tippett: Here’s “Plainspeak”: “Blood-lusty angels looking to rumble in town.” What are you — in this “Sparrow” song, which I love so much: “I wait for one grave angel, and I know she waits for me.” What is that? Do you know? What are the angels? What is that image about?
Mr. Henry: I guess the angels are just this concept of needing to visualize some way in which the higher powers might be loving and benevolent even when we don’t deserve it, you know? But yeah, I think the angels might — may be, in literary terms, being a bit of the brokers between the earthly and the divine. They’ve got a foot in both streams.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. So, you and I are very close in age. We were both born in 1960, right? I was born in November and…
Mr. Henry: I was born in December.
Ms. Tippett: … in December. Yeah. We were just starting to take in world events. And so much of it was just unbelievably tragic.
Mr. Henry: It was.
Ms. Tippett: Personally tragic. Even the public events were personal tragedies.
Mr. Henry: Well, interesting. I think my earliest memory — and I subscribe to when John Cage said, “The past doesn’t influence me, I influence it.” [Editor’s note: The original source for this quote is the painter Willem De Kooning. However, John Cage does cite this De Kooning quote in his writing.] I know I’m constantly reimagining my past and assigning different significance to it. It’s completely in play all the time. But I have a memory, and I think it’s my earliest one if it’s accurate, of laying on the floor underneath the ironing board as my mother ironed and watched Kennedy’s funeral on T.V. And the reason I remember — and I can remember looking up at the foam lining underneath her ironing board and understanding that she was upset and that somebody had died. And I remember saying to her, “Does this mean you’re going to die someday?” And she said, “Yes, it does.” And then I said, “Does that mean I’m going to die someday?” She said, “Yes, you are, honey.”
Ms. Tippett: Wow.
Mr. Henry: But I moved Atlanta after that and was living in Atlanta when Dr. King was killed. I mean, he was killed in Memphis, but he lived in Atlanta. His church was in Atlanta, of course. And I have really visceral memory of that particular time. And certainly as I got a bit older, more and more I tried to erase my Southern background from my sense of self. And it took a long time to be able to find how that is a significant part of who I am and to be — I’m proud about a lot of things about my upbringing, but I have a hard time, still, connecting myself to the South as I understood it in that moment.
Ms. Tippett: You don’t do much that’s overtly political, I don’t feel. But you do care about public life, common life — really, really liking talking about common life these days. You actually wrote a book about Richard Pryor, which I don’t even know how to talk about that. [laughs] I don’t think we’re going to go into that. But “Scar” — “Scar,” which begins with “Richard Pryor Addresses the Nation.” I mean they’re just these lines like, “The blade of our outrageous fortune. Like a parade, it cuts a path. Light shows on our foolish way and darkness on our aftermath.” I mean, I don’t know what you were writing about there, but to me it’s very resonant as a nation.
Mr. Henry: I mean, that song “Scar” is an anomaly for me in that — I say I can count on less than a hand how many times I’ve written a song and knew, when I was writing it, what I was writing about. I have a few of those experiences. And when you talk about the political, the album that I put out after 9/11 — the first record I would have made after 9/11 was called Tiny Voices, which is a very chaotic sort of record and sonically messy, as it had to be, and I think, in a lot of ways, very overtly political. There’s a song on there called “Flag” that is about nationalism. And when I was writing the song, I knew there was something about it I thought was significant to me as a song. But I could not abide the way in which I thought it was so overtly political and of this moment.
[music: “Flag” by Joe Henry]
Mr. Henry: I was traveling a few years ago. I spent about three weeks traveling in Europe with Harry Belafonte, helping him — well, I first came into his orbit — he was asking for some musical help when he was finishing the film documentary of his life. I have to be careful here because I could talk about this for about an hour because a lot of mystical things happened to me surrounding Mr. Belafonte, but …
Ms. Tippett: Well, just tell me one, maybe.
Mr. Henry: Well, he’s a very — as you know, he’s a very politically — savagely politically active person. And God bless him. He’s walked that walk his entire professional life. He’s a remarkable person and a true blessing to be in his company for an extended period of time. But one night, we were up late in the hotel bar in Berlin when we were travelling together at a big table of people, a lot of conversations going on. He overheard me talking about this and saying that I didn’t allow political content to surface in my songs. I wouldn’t abide it. And he stopped conversation and spoke in that whisper that everybody hears and really dressed me down about it. And said he didn’t give a [bleep] what I meant to say. It’s what the song meant to say. I didn’t have any right not to let the song say what the song needed to say. And I should take myself out of it. And then he asked me if I wanted to walk home. Because we were in Berlin, of course.
And he really challenged me. And I really did go back and think a lot about the inherent vanity of trying to — of thinking at all about how a song made me look. That as a writer, I was not allowed to have an opinion about that. Or it was a mistake to. It was a distraction to have that opinion.
Ms. Tippett: I’ve had a few conversations lately with musicians who are different from you, but — the folk singers, the Indigo Girls talking about how they — they and others they’re in conversation with, or — wondering if they need to create that — whatever our version would be of the tradition of Pete Seeger — the song, the music that was not just the soundtrack for the Civil Rights Movement but really powered it in many ways.
Mr. Henry: Well, the danger in our culture is that anything that becomes ubiquitous becomes frequently invisible and then meaningless to people.
Ms. Tippett: And that’s probably more true now than it was then.
Mr. Henry: And it’s something I’ve thought a lot about. And when I was traveling with Harry in Europe, the film project that we were researching together — he wants to make a documentary about violence but most specifically about how the hip-hop movement, which he was instrumental in allowing to flourish — how it went from being a very communal tradition to being so much about violence and degradation of women and degradation of self. And he went on this trip, and I was in his company. And in Paris and in Berlin and in London he was meeting with the most significant hip-hop artists and challenging them. They thought they were being summoned to sort of be anointed by Harry.
And he sat there with cameras running. They had agreed to be interviewed, and he would begin by saying, “Why have you allowed your music — your vocabulary to be co-opted?” It was incredible. It was amazingly intense. And it was not comfortable. And it was incredible to see because Harry looks at the power of folk song in particular. But the political power and the unifying power of all folk music, which, in his mind — and I agree with him — hip-hop was folk music in that moment in that community. That’s his point of view. And you’re letting it be defanged. You’re letting its authority be co-opted and used against you. And I think a lot of us have allowed that.
Ms. Tippett: So, just coming back to this very notable feature of your work of a self-aware evolution. And again, I mean, I’m going to read you some lines. And I have no idea if that’s what this — you meant by it, but the “Sparrow” song …
[music: “Sparrow” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: “It wasn’t peace I wanted, so it wasn’t peace I found. I wouldn’t stand for reason, and it never would sit down.”
[music: “Sparrow” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: That’s the kind of observation one makes about one’s — that one’s only able to make about oneself, whatever the context of that was. And I guess, I appreciate how you are being so self-aware about this process of moving through life and getting to a place where you can see things you couldn’t see before.
Mr. Henry: Well, it’s essential — how close any of us get to it on any given day is up for grabs. Some days, I feel like I have a very good aerial view. I’m the lifeguard above the pool, and I can see everything for better and worse. Plenty of days, I feel like I’m chin deep in the middle of that water. And I don’t know how deep it is. And I am, in fact, a lousy swimmer. That’s more like it. I have the desire to be aware.
Ms. Tippett: But, I mean, that’s half the battle. I kind of feel like you, like me, are fascinated by this process. I was just talking to my daughter the other day because I was — I wasn’t complaining about something about being older, but she heard it as complaining. I was noting something about being older. And she’s like, Oh, mom. I wish you wouldn’t think about those things. And I said, I don’t think you understand. I used to hear people talk about — older people talk about being older and I — it disturbed me. I felt like, why are they focusing on that? Like they were highlighting what was wrong. And now I realize that the process of growing older is so fascinating. I mean, you talk about it because it’s really interesting.
Mr. Henry: Yeah. And I think you — as we get older, you come into some true ownership. I think when you’re young, you’re inclined to believe — invited to believe that yet you couldn’t have done anything significant enough to own an identity, a point of view. And then you get to a point when you’re just like, “Well, I think I’m basically who I am now. And whatever this is — however I can work from this as a base of operations, this finite mass, I’m going to.” And there’s a liberation that comes with getting to a point where you think, “I’m not waiting for that next great shoe to drop.” Both the shoes may be laying here. And this might be what there is. And there’s terrific liberation in acknowledging what is. That idea of actually seeing in real time, this. And our culture does not know how to encourage that kind of thinking. We don’t know how to teach young people, I don’t believe, to think about — everything is about later. I watch my dear daughter going through her senior year of high school, and everything’s been about — or last year in particular, everything about SAT scores. Everything is like — you know, you’re having an experience right now that I hope is not completely lost on you because everybody is — has you so anxious about, “What next?” You’re invited just to check things off the list just to say that you’ve done them as opposed to actually having experience and giving that any value.
Ms. Tippett: I mean, here’s a great line from “Slide”: “I’m learning more than I intended, try not to though I might. [laughs] We’re dying to be other, but we kill not to become. Grief sides with glory, they laugh deep into the night. Learning more than they intended, try not to though they might.” That’s so wise.
Mr. Henry: I do think we — there’s only a certain amount we really want to know. I really believe so. We think it would be impossible to continue if we actually had the teacher’s edition of the book with the answers in the back.
Ms. Tippett: Yeah. And it’s also just a kind of inborn contradiction in us. It’s this weird human condition.
Mr. Henry: Well, we all know we’re going to die. But we’ve made a pact with each other to pretend that we don’t know that until absolutely necessary. So even when you’re 91-year-old aunt dies, you go, “Oh, my God, she died?” Like, you didn’t think she was gonna?
[music: “Slide” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with singer-songwriter and producer Joe Henry.
[music: “Slide” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: You know, that place of being at peace with this, with what is, which does become easier with age. It’s not that it makes you get everything — start getting everything right. But maybe it opens you to learning more than you intended. [laughs] Right? It just makes that a little bit less painful, less surprising. And more welcome when it comes.
Mr. Henry: And we jettison a lot of the distraction that’s taken up a lot of space on your hard drive that you can really clear the field a bit. I’m ashamed to think, in my early professional life, how much time I wasted and how much agony I allowed based on being treated poorly by an industry that advertises itself and brags about how poorly they treat people. [laughs] I mean, it’s just a fact.
Ms. Tippett: But you still took it personally.
Mr. Henry: I took it personally. And I wasted a lot of time. I spent a lot of significant time hurt over all the ways in which I was not being acknowledged by the people with whom I was trying to be in business. And I look back now just think, ‘How did I not see through that?’
Ms. Tippett: But that’s what we do.
Mr. Henry: Yeah. I mean, I’ve read books. I’ve heard other stories of musicians who I admired terrifically who are much more gifted than myself and who suffered much more indignity than I’ve ever been asked to suffer. And yet, we push on as if we’re supposed to be exempt. And then we’re shocked when we learn that we’re not.
Ms. Tippett: I think that’s a good — I kind of wanted to come back around to Thomas Merton. And you also quoted Thomas Merton. And I think this follows on what you just said about, that you were moved by this — these lines of him that if you — who are you writing for? Like, “If you write for God, you will reach many men and bring them joy. If you write for men, you may make some money, and you may give someone a little joy, and you may make a noise in the world for a little while. If you write only for yourself, you can read what you yourself have written, and after ten minutes you’ll be so disgusted that you will wish that you were dead.” [laughs] And there you go, talking about God again. But I did just want to ask you, what was it about that captured you and spoke to you in terms of what you’ve learned about who you’re writing for and why?
Mr. Henry: Oh, I know that when I read that, it related instantly in my mind to something that I had read earlier from Buckminster Fuller, of whom I am a terrific admirer. As an inventor, as a philosopher, as an architect, as a social scientist, his thought was, I am exponentially more successful when I am working for the good of the most people. When I was trying to serve myself, I wasn’t successful at all. When I worked to benefit ten people, I was that much more successful. When my work was to benefit a thousand people, I was that much more successful. And when I thought that the work that I was doing would benefit all mankind, I was infinitely beyond my imagination successful.
And when I read that from Merton, I thought it was sort of the same idea. As soon as I am taking my focus off my own finite being and pointing my lens out, I’m still filtering my work through my own experience. It’s impossible not to. But, if as a writer — as any kind of creator — if you look within, that’s a very finite space. If you use that lens to look out and use your experience to look at everything else, it’s infinite. And I think Merton saying that was the most concrete I’d ever heard that stated. Because I’ve certainly written things that the next morning I read and wished I was dead.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] But maybe you loved them the night before when you first wrote them. Right?
Mr. Henry: Of course you do.
Ms. Tippett: But there’s nuance there, because to write for all mankind, as Buckminster Fuller says, or to write for God, as Thomas Merton says, is not necessarily about having the highest profile thing, right? It’s not necessarily about having the biggest thing or being the celebrity, right?
Mr. Henry: Yeah, apparently not. Yeah but it is about just …
Ms. Tippett: It’s more about intention.
Mr. Henry: Yeah, and that intention is to free yourself of your own vanity. And vanity in the great sense of the word, not just the way that we use it so colloquially now. But the idea of everything having to reflect back on you.
Ms. Tippett: But I don’t think that’s what you do. And I think there’s a way to let truth and insights and words and songs come through you and be shaped by everything you are and know, but not have you at the center of the equation.
Mr. Henry: We all want it to be pretty. Back to Bucky Fuller: I remember him saying to a group of young architect students — he said, ‘Quit thinking about beauty — making anything beautiful. Put it out of your mind. If you’re designing a structure for somebody — if the structure is sound, and it’s realizable, and it’s feasible for them, and it serves the purpose, and they can afford to do it, it will be beautiful. You can’t miss beauty.’
And in the same way that I think that the rawest, most brutal parts of our humanity are — nonetheless, can be incredibly beautiful if we’re willing to see it that way. That’s the great disparity. What’s the great quote from Tom Waits where he said, “I love beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah. Right. Yeah.
Mr. Henry: I might have gotten that a little bit wrong. But that idea that is when we can really embrace every bit of our humanity, even the parts that shame us the most, I mean, there’s such great beauty in being cracked open. How much beauty is there in our brokenness. And if that’s not a good summary for what I look for in a song, I don’t know what is.
[music: “Famine Walk” by Joe Henry]
Ms. Tippett: Joe Henry has recorded 15 albums throughout his career and has written with and produced dozens of other artists. His new album is The Gospel According to Water.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Marie Sambilay, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, Colleen Scheck, and Christiane Wartell.
The On Being Project is located on Dakota land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
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And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.