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Joe Henry On 'The Gospel According To Water'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

About a year ago, Joe Henry was told he had prostate cancer. And out of what he calls the black earth of that experience came a flowering of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOM")

JOE HENRY: (Singing) There's little we can leave behind that will truly mark this earth. But treachery and love are ours to keep for all their worth.

SIMON: Joe Henry's album "The Gospel According To Water" was released yesterday. It is the 15th studio album from the Grammy winner, singer-songwriter and producer. Joe Henry joins us from the studios of NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

HENRY: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And first, I guess we got to ask how you're doing.

HENRY: I'm doing really well, thank you. I am in remission. I don't get to speak the R-word out loud too often, but I certainly enjoy it when it's appropriate. You know, I feel in most ways better than I have in years.

SIMON: How did your diagnosis impel your songwriting?

HENRY: Well, you have to understand that when I am writing a song, for the most part, I don't think of it as something that I'm doing as much as it's something that's happening to me. And in the days, weeks, months that followed my diagnosis, you know, I was just a bit paralyzed with fear and hunkered down at the house. And songs, as they begin to arrive, were sort of, you know, an open window for me. They sort of invited me back into my imagination of possibility. I was really grateful to them as they showed up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE FACT OF LOVE")

HENRY: (Singing) My eyes are closed, but they are raised, keeping light both out and in. (ph).

JOE HENRY AND UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) I will cross the river. Days leave no trace of where I've been (ph).

SIMON: You said that the music on this album is not autobiographical, but there is a kind of theme that ties them together, isn't there?

HENRY: Well, I think there is, but I recognize it only after the fact. I don't have those thoughts when I'm writing a song or a cycle of songs ever. I start to recognize patterns, you know, sort of as I step farther back from them. And I think that I'm writing about what I've always been writing about, which is, you know, how do we live robustly in spite of the fact that we won't always?

SIMON: I want to listen to one of your songs, "The Gospel According To Water."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO WATER")

HENRY: (Singing) How else could go my gospel? Who else would not be saved without you as the water standing here behind me (ph)?

You know, water moves both powerfully and very subtly through our bodies, through our minds, through our lives, in our poetry, in our understanding of the ways in which we all have to be both strong and supple as we live, you know, if we're going to thread the needle and continue. That's probably no less vague than the song itself might've hit you, but I - you know, I do think that water is a really powerful image and helps us understand both the magnitude of life and the absolute essence of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO WATER")

HENRY: (Singing) I've come to waking early to watch the light extend (ph).

SIMON: Can I get you to talk about the way inspiration comes to you?

HENRY: Sure.

SIMON: Happens anytime, any circumstance, I gather.

HENRY: Oh, it usually happens in the least convenient moments. I mean, when my children were young, you know, invariably, you know, when there was dinner on and a carpool to drive, that's when a song would appear. It would never happen, you know...

SIMON: Oh, how convenient, I'm sure someone says, yes.

HENRY: Yeah. I mean, it never happened in the freedom of a late morning when the house was empty and I was sitting there with a cup of coffee and a notebook open - you know, never. But, you know, frequently what happens is a word, an image, a phrase will sort of chip through my mind, and I just will understand that it's kind of spring-loaded. And then if I show up with my attention, I'll be met there.

SIMON: You dedicate this album to your wife, Melanie. Look; one person gets the diagnosis, but an entire family and, for that matter, group of friends also live with it one way or another.

HENRY: That is true.

SIMON: What was it like for your family?

HENRY: Well, it was terrifying. I mean, I personally was just so paralyzed with fear and sadness that I was a bit immobile. My wife, Melanie, on the other hand, she was immediately in motion. She was in solution mode.

SIMON: Yeah.

HENRY: You know, she was the one at every appointment with the notebook open and all the questions. And she's got a science mind, you know? So she had a way to shift gears into the practicality of what needs to be done. And, you know, more than any particular doctor, you know, I think she saved my life, you know?

SIMON: Yeah.

HENRY: I'm not really sure that I have any other way to say that.

SIMON: Is there a song we haven't heard that you want to draw to our attention?

HENRY: Well, the song that opens the album that's called "Famine Walk," which I wrote sort of in meditation of my time with Melanie last fall. Right before this shoe dropped, we spent two months in a small village on the west coast of Ireland. We took a walk very frequently that the locals refer to as the famine walk because the famine victims were cutting this road through this barren, mountainous landscape. And it seemed a very apt metaphorical journey for me as I began to write.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMINE WALK")

HENRY: (Singing) The (unintelligible). The heart of God lies ever open wide (ph).

I call that song to your attention not only because I think it sort of carries the DNA of the whole record. I just really like the way I sing it, you know, to be honest. You know, we all want to be Sinatra. We just - some of us come much closer than others.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAMINE WALK")

HENRY: (Singing) But we need no light to see us home whichever way we go and call our own.

SIMON: You know, your voice is especially evocative in this song.

HENRY: See, it's growing on you, Scott.

SIMON: Yeah. May I call you Ol' Blue Eyes?

HENRY: (Laughter) Sure. I'll have them changed immediately.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOE HENRY SONG, "FAMINE WALK")

SIMON: Joe Henry - his album, "The Gospel According To Water" - thanks so much for being with us.

HENRY: Oh, Scott, thank you for having me. It's been a real pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOE HENRY SONG, "MULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.