Saturday, January 8, 2011

Joe Henry on Solomon Burke and the alchemy of songwriting and singing

"The game of language- the physical sounds of words, how they couple and disperse- is what inevitably leads me to meaning......... Songs are, indeed deliberate inventions that we are frequently wont to adopt as gospel; and I am timid to explain mine, probably because they leave me at a loss. I know they Mean, I just don't always know what they mean" Joe Henry

If like me you wonder how singers and songwriters really create a song then read Joe Henry who has written some of the most informative descriptions of the alchemy of creating a song. As well as being an outstanding and succesful singer songwriter and producer Joe Henry is an evocative writer about the mystery that is song writing and performing.

The latest edition of the music magazine Mojo features a wonderful article written by Joe Henry  on the sudden passing of the soul singer Solomon Burke in October 2010 (my blog piece written upon his death is here).

Joe Henry produced one of Solomon Burke's most succesful albums Don't Give Up on Me (2002) and in the Mojo piece he writes about Burke's musical legacy, as well as the genesis of the album and his experience of working with Burke.Henry writes beautifully and movingly of Solomon Burke, but it is the insight he provides into the wonderous craft of creating and delivering a song that is most intriguing. Henry writes how Solomon Burke was able to interpret and deliver one of his songs  in a way that enscapulated precisely what he intended as a songwriter, but in a way that was different to the lyrical content of the song. Of Solomon Burke's interpretation of his song Flesh and Blood Henry writes:
" As a lyric oriented songwriter, it is worth noting that the track taught me a lasting lesson about the power of vocal delivery to impart not just emphasis and texture but meaning.
Henry describes how Solomon Burke changed the lyrics of the song to be the exact opposite of what Henry (the songwriter) had written, but his delivery of the song was such that the emotional intent and experience conveyed by the singer was precisely what Henry had meant. Writing of Burke's performance Henry writes:
" He bore down on those four words again and again and by force squared them with my intention and made them mean exactly what I'd meant, and the exact opposite of what he'd literally sung....And I started in that day to think differently, in a very concious way how a lyric released to the air is different from the written word"
A version of the song Flesh and Bloood is here.

Joe Henry has also written an illuminating description of how the song Our Song (from his 2007 CD Civilians) was formed, crafted and delivered. It is intelligent and insightful writing about the songwriter's craft. Henry describes how the song started with a single line and then emerged more fully formed from a  series of events, daily happenings and reflections on the larger social and political context. Henry writes that:
.... songwriting for me has absolutely nothing to do with self expression and everything to do with discovery. I write to find out what I am writing about. I may, after the fact, discover that something personal and known to me has indeed been expressed but the desire to do such is not what propels me forward, nor would personal fact, inadvertently revealed ever be part of what might make a song successful in my estimation.
A clip of the song Our Song is here.

For those interested Joe Henry's own website is here and here is a link to a blog specifically about the man and his music.

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