Songwriting is always the guiding light: An Interview with John Henry
Currently there is a large group of talented musicians in St. Louis interested in creating and playing their own music. Varied and wide-ranging, the local scene contains musicians playing in an array of different genres and styles.
One of the musicians working with the genre of Rock 'n Roll is John Henry. He has worked hard over the past few years with his band John Henry and the Engine to develop a loyal following and write good original material. The band has toured around the Midwest and played as the opening slot for several national artists here in St. Louis.
I spoke to Henry by phone as he and part of the band drove back from working on some new songs in Nashville. We discussed part of his background, the new material he's currently working on and his songwriting.
Scott Allen: What first got you interested in being a musician?
John Henry: As far back as I can remember, growing up in a household where no one was a musician, music was played a lot. I remember I was interested in writing my own stuff right away. I remember writing songs while I would play chords on the guitar. I played in front of the mirror like everyone did when they first learned how to play guitar. You turned on your record and CDs and played in front of the mirror.
What did your parents listen to?
They listened to classic rock and a little bit of country. It was Joe Cocker, Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, The Judds…pretty much all of that. I also heard some James Brown early. It was pretty eclectic. They were listeners, as we're not a musical family in the instrument sense, but there was always music being played.
Have you taken any formal music training or are you self-taught?
I took lessons when I first started learning how to play guitar. I had a really good teacher in the city that showed me some of the basics and after that I really got into learning by ear and figuring out patterns. It's kind of like a maze where you know you have to figure your way out of the song and there are clues that lead you to the next chord. At first I learned with lessons and became my own teacher after that.
That seems like a typical process for most musicians even for people that don't try music on a professional level.
Yeah, with piano and drums I was completely self-taught. I never took any lessons with that. I think this is part of developing a unique style of playing. Everybody makes a different sound. I've always been the type of musician who's been drawn to unique playing as opposed to the fastest or the most. Neil Young is a great example of how his guitar solos are just so him. It's the tone he gets from his hands. That was always more interesting to me that speed.
Right. You weren't trying to emulate Eddie Van Halen or Steve Vai.
Exactly. I've never wanted to be the guitar hero in that sense -- the guitar god that can really shred. The reason that always appealed to me was it was always the Steve Cropper type guys, or Mike Campbell or George Harrison type stuff where it's a lot simpler, but it's beautiful and powerful at the same time.
There's a nuance that those types of players have and they all have a signature sound. If you hear Steve Cropper on a Wilson Pickett record or George Harrison with the Beatles you can pick it out.
That's something that in a lot of ways in popular music that's become a little more of a lost art in my opinion. Where now a lot of things sound pretty homogenous and when you find a unique player that can bring those sounds out of his instrument to me that's something should be valued a lot more than it seems to be in popular music.
What artists have influenced you as a musician and songwriter? Are there artists you go back to over and over again?
I definitely go through phases. Growing up I think you're drawn to simple music. I remember hearing Green Day and wanted to learn how to play guitar. That's still a band that I love. But, as I got older and the consciousness of music started to expand I had a big phase of Bob Dylan. He is one of those songwriters where I had to be a little older to fully understand. Not that I have him all figured out now because he is such a dense artist.
I'm really drawn to Otis Redding. I went through a big Hank Williams phase too. Obviously, Bruce Springsteen is a huge influence on the music, and the vision that he had made sense to me at a pretty early age. The whole work ethic of the shows being marathons, and the songs being very precise resonated. Now, there are a lot of modern songwriters I'm really into. There's a guy named Joe Pug who I really like now and I really like Jason Isbell. One of the things that I think has been really helpful is XM radio; it's really great. It's almost like having 200 KDHX channels with unique stuff that you may not hear. But also stuff that you do hear, but it's still good music.
I was just reading an interview with Dave Grohl in Rolling Stone before we started talking and he was talking about radio – "It's obvious that rock radio has been suffering from some kind of formulaic-playlist syndrome over the past 10 years. … But for the last time: Rock & roll doesn't need to be saved."
Yeah, I read that article too. We were actually talking about that on the way up here. He said that, "Radio is not warm milk. It should be moonshine." He referenced when Nirvana came out and how the most acceptable thing is not always the best thing. Sometimes it needs to be really abrasive. I certainly feel I agree with him on that part. I think a lot of things have become very staid and people are afraid to say things about the big issues, because the music industry has suffered so much. I still feel the job of the artist is to not loose touch and to be a voice for things. You shouldn't be afraid to say those things.
Over the past few months you've been recording material for a new album in Nashville. Who have you been working with?
The producer was Ken Coomer who was the second drummer for Uncle Tupelo and the first drummer for Wilco. The musicians that I recorded with down there were guys he was friends with. There were two things that turned me on about the recording process. You have a band and it's totally unique in the sense of you have a sound with the musicians that you have and that's something that I value tremendously. I think it's really good for musicians to go play with different people because sometimes you get out of your comfort zone a little bit. I've been really lucky the guys here in St. Louis who are actually going to be recording down here in Nashville too. So it's all kind of blending together. It's great to have the familiarity of the sound of the guys you're with all the time and you respect. Then, it's fun sometimes to go into a different situation out of your comfort zone with different musicians. I feel lucky to have the best of both worlds.
You mentioned you're playing with different musicians. Over the years you've played with the band for a long time. Were they disappointed when you let them know that you were doing this recording with a group of studio musicians and not them? How hard was that decision and how has it affected personal relationships?
It was very hard. I feel like it's one of the hardest things I've gone through because I care so much about them, but what I try to convey is honesty. Being completely honest doesn't mean that we're not going to play together. I love the way that they play and we have a special thing. This was just an opportunity that was the right thing to take at that moment. An opportunity that were any one of them to have as well that I would really think that they should do it. I think everyone was hurt to a degree, but it came from honesty. Now, the way things are going I’m with two of the guys from the band coming back now. We were just in Nashville and they are considering the move and playing with people down there and making connections down there. So, it's one of those things in a relationship that the easiest thing is not always the best. By breaking it down a little bit when you come back it becomes stronger. I think that's what it's become. It's made opportunities for all of us that will help us all become better musicians and only make what we have better not worse. There were a lot of sleepless nights, but I think in the end everything has turned out okay.
I see that as the ultimate goal: to make the band better. If it pushes somebody to work a little bit harder or take a little more time with practice or whatever needs to be done to make that bond stronger that can only be a good thing.
Yeah, and I don't think I've stressed this enough, but overall they were very supportive of the whole process. That really helped. I felt very fortunate. It's certainly not a conversation you look forward to having, but I think when we look back on it it's going to be something that made everything better in the long-term.
Do you have a title for the record yet?
No, what I did down there was [record] four tracks and I've done a lot of co-writing to try to expand and make those skills better. The songs that I did in Nashville are going to be shopped and once that gets going we're going to focus on making the full-length album. These are just four songs that Ken and I thought were really strong and we worked really hard on. I look forward to making a full-length with the guys in the band, because a lot of [the songs] that are new are really going to suit the way we play together.
That makes it become an even stronger decision because if you're shopping your work to labels or trying to get a deal and you're using those professional musicians to get your foot in the door and wait for it to happen when you've got the songs necessary to record that full-length album. That's given the band some time to practice a little hard and come back to say, "We're ready to make a record."
A lot of what went into this decision that in the long-term it would be beneficial to all of us. It wasn't just me wanting to have my name up in lights as the solo performer. I've always loved the idea of being in a band. I just like the flexibility to do things outside of that context. It will lead to a stronger relationship and hopefully a longer career with our band. The goal of this to try to write the best songs I can possible write and become the best band we can possibly be.
How are you recording – digital or analog?
We went to tape and used digital for some of the overdubs, but all basic tracks were recorded live to 2 inch tape.
Did you have a lot of takes during recording or did you get through it quickly?
It was very, very fast. We sat down in the control room and I went through the tunes. We had five that we picked to do as full band and I did one with a friend who plays lap steel and tours with Will Hoge. We recorded that one completely live – vocal and all.
You obviously get a lot of spontaneity with recording like that and I think that's something that a lot of musicians have pushed aside in the last 10 years. Those are the type of performances that I hear on the records that I've loved for 20 or 30 years. They are recording multiple takes to get the right one, but it's nice that they're live and not a digitally stitched together.
To me records are meant to be moments in time like a snapshot of where you are. Sometimes mistakes are not really mistakes. Capturing human error makes things better. On some of these new songs we reached a certain point where we weren't sure how we were going to end it so we just kind of played out and some really neat things were captured.
The songs you're recording now, are they completely new or have they been floating around for a while and needed some tweaking?
It's a combination of both. One of them had been floating around for a while. One thing I try to do is never give up on a song that I believe in. If something's not working then you just set it aside. I never forget about it if it means something to me. The ultimate goal for me is to write a great song and have a record of great songs. I think that songwriting is always the guiding light. You have to have faith in your journey if you really like something. You know, there's a song that we're playing now called "Spinning Wheel." Essentially the melody line of that song was taken from an outro of another song that wasn't as good. The one part that I really, really felt strongly about ended up making an entire song out of that one piece. It's kind of like taking parts from something and putting it into something else. You take the things that stand out to you. When talented people surround you it adds a dynamic to it that you don't get sitting at my desk writing. It takes on a whole new life and I feel very fortunate with that aspect about the guys that are in the band now.
You mentioned you're working on a certain number of songs, but you also said you're writing even more songs and even some as collaborations. What's inspired this recent batch of songs? Do you find a theme running through the lyrics or the music?
Yes, I do. There is a theme that I've been focusing on lately that I'm calling "Dark City, Dark Country." It's sort of a juxtaposition of the good and the evils that happen within the city and the country as well. A lot of times it's a matter of perspective of what those difficulties or evils are and what those happy moments are. For instance, I've spent a lot of time in a small town because my girlfriend is from the country. The people there always say, "You live in the city. There was just a murder last week." My response is, "out here people just overdosed on heroin last week too." It's really just a matter of those things being seen through the eyes of wherever you're from. I've been focusing a lot on and that seems to be a direction for the new full-length.
Is there a catalyst that puts you in the mood to write or do you just sit down at a certain time and work?
I do both. The one thing about Nashville that's really cool is people treat the art of writing as a profession. I had four writing sessions over the last three days. They are really professional artistic, but it's like, "we're going to try to bang out a song here." The other thing that's really interesting that I work from titles a lot. You might see something in the news or have an idea or phrase that comes into your head. The iPhone helps because you can talk right into it real quick and write lyrics real easily; definitely an instance of technology helping.
You’re playing a headlining date at Cicero’s on Saturday. Is there an overall goal in place for the rest of the year?
The goal this year is to take the next step of reaching a wider audience, whether that is a label interest or management. We'll play a lot harder in the second half and once spring gets going we'll continue the progression of writing and establishing more roots in Nashville. Some people think that in that town everybody is walking around in cowboy hats and sequined suits, but the rock scene down there is really big right now. There are a lot of opportunities to make music, record music and write songs. For this band establishing more of a foothold there is a big goal.
Do you think that a town like St. Louis can only take you so far?
I feel that if the songs are good enough or if your band plays well enough it doesn't really matter where you're located. In a city like Nashville, I certainly think that there's more opportunities to meet people who can further your career. That's something that we're drawn to where everything is a lot closer. You can have a beer with a manager or agent every night of the week in Nashville. That's just something that's not there in St. Louis. That being said it is great to be from St. Louis.
What has been the most challenging thing about working toward your goal over the past few years?
I feel like the thing that makes it the hard is that there's so many bands. With the Internet it's very easy to get your music out, but harder to stand out because people are flooded with information and news. The hardest thing is learning how to write really good songs and learning how to play them really well with a band. I think that's the most important thing period. Everything is about the song and nothing can be more important to me than that aspect. Getting people's attention and being able to stick out and create music that's compelling is hard right now.