Joe Henry now routinely gets up in the darkness of the morning. Call it a poet’s time. Or call it what you do when you’ve miraculously survived cancer’s death sentence.
Stage 4 prostate cancer. It had metastasized to his bones. No surgery, no chemo, no radiation. Three to seven months to live.
The veteran singer-songwriter/Grammy-winning producer turned to androgen deprivation therapy. In the middle of all the treatments, the 59-year-old announced the frightening news of his diagnosis in concert at a small Los Angeles club in May 2019.
“On one hand, it was a hard decision to be that candid in front of an audience. On the other hand, I had to find a way to do it that was authentic to me,” said Henry, who will be performing Thursday at the Dakota in Minneapolis. “We’re all going to be dealing with challenges to our mortality. I didn’t think I had a choice. I needed to find a way to do it.”
As Henry went through treatment, he wrote poems.
“I process things by writing,” he explained. “I felt instinctively that I needed to write my way through. I’ve been writing poems before I was writing songs.”
One evening he got into bed early with his notebook to pen what he assumed was a poem. He realized it was a song — “the beginning of a flood of songs that followed.”
He was writing tunes so fast that he didn’t even take time to record his usual musical voice memos on his smartphone. Realizing he was being careless, he decided to document these songs to evaluate them. So he invited a handful of his favorite musicians, including his reeds-playing son Levon Henry, to a friend’s studio.
Over two days, they recorded 14 songs. Henry assumed they were demos.
“Only after I got home and listened to everything with my wife and my son, I heard that it was a complete idea,” Henry reflected. “This became something more than I envisioned it could.”
It became an album, “The Gospel According to Water,” that Henry released on his own label in November.
To promote the project, the well-connected music maker enlisted a host of famous friends including Lucinda Williams, John Prine and Gloria Steinem to announce his new songs on social media.
“There is enough anger, enough misery in the world,” Elvis Costello posted. “Too many tears, fires and trampled flowers, so make room in your life for some beauty like this.”
“His inimitable style/raw beautiful lyrics make this entire body of music a wonder to behold,” Joan Baez opined.
Rosanne Cash, who also touted a tune, said in an interview that Henry “has a direct pipeline to the creative force. Even in technical or sonic matters, he expresses himself as a poet.”
“The Gospel According to Water” arrived 12 months after Henry’s cancer was diagnosed. One of the best albums of 2019, the record is powerfully stripped down, with warmth and immediacy, focusing on his nuanced voice and poetic words about faith, love and life.
“I don’t in any way think of these as cancer songs,” Henry observed. “The songs grew out of the black earth of this moment in time for me. They don’t mean my story. They mean what they mean.”
Henry is in remission now, ready to hit the road, opening his comeback tour in Minneapolis, a place that’s long been special to the longtime Los Angeles resident.
“It always feels like a bit of a homecoming because I have so many roots and dear friends there,” he said. “For a while, Minneapolis was a home base for me because the Jayhawks were working as my backing band.”
In the 1990s, Henry rehearsed in Minneapolis and toured in the Jayhawks’ converted ambulance van.
“It was like being in the Army,” he romanticized. “We went through something significant and treacherous together. Those are lifetime bonds.”
Henry is performing solo this time around so he can “look people in the eye.”
He approaches life differently — a new diet, yoga, meditation, even boxing.
“I go to bed earlier,” he detailed. “I get up earlier. I’m monkish in that regard. It’s a great time to work.”
Moreover, Henry is pacing himself. He’s plotted a fairly extensive tour for winter, spring and summer but in smaller segments.
Producing a legend
Born in North Carolina, Henry became obsessed with poetry and music during his high school years in suburban Detroit. After graduating from the University of Michigan, he moved to Brooklyn to launch his career as a singer-songwriter. Over the years, he’s released 15 solo albums that have earned him a sterling reputation as a literate but idiosyncratic singer-songwriter.
He’s had side hustles like writing a song (“Don’t Tell Me”) for his sister-in-law Madonna, co-authoring a Richard Pryor biography and producing albums for cool legends, including Solomon Burke, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Bonnie Raitt, and such new faces as Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens. His production work has earned Henry three Grammys.
He recently returned to producing on a project in Nashville that he can’t announce but described as “an elderly and fading and wildly significant legendary artist at the end of a life felt compelled to record an album of old gospel songs.”
He’s ready for more producing.
“My shingle’s out,” he said. “That [Nashville recording] felt like taking back my life that I had to set aside for a year or so.”
Henry is reclaiming his station as a producer, songwriter, poet, singer, performer and life force.
“I know that music saved my life. I know it sounds trite except I really mean it,” he offered. “Fear about my future pulled all the blinds. Every time I engaged in something creatively — a poem or a song — I’d feel like the windows and doors blew wide open, and I had access to imagining something other than a worst-case scenario. I felt alive.”