Rosanne Cash and Joe Henry At Aloud, Monday June 20th 2016
On Monday night, the series Aloud, at downtown LA library, was presenting a special evening of music and conversation with leading artists Rosanne Cash and Joe Henry. It was a very interesting and brainy conversation, and I had the chance to listen to the two songwriters and authors talking about the mystery of songwriting, their southern roots and the fine line between songwriting and poetry.
Joe Henry is passionate, talkative and a deep thinker, while Rosanne is thoughtful and observing as she speaks with a more nostalgic voice. They were both very interested by the songwriting process, its mystery and whom we recognize as an artist in our society
‘We have a very narrow idea of who is allowed to sing, who is allowed to represent us,’ said Joe Henry remembering he was told by the nuns when he was growing up, that he had to move his mouth because he couldn’t sing. Then noticing that society acknowledges some of us and elevates them at the artist status.
Joe and Rosanne seemed to be in agreement on a lot of things, but especially on the fact that you don’t have to know what you are after when you are writing a song: The poetic mind is focused not on expressing something that has not been preconceived but is rather engaged in a process which is about discovery, explained Joe. ‘People would not write something terribly meaningful if they knew when they began what they are gonna say,’ he added.
And the mystery of songwriting lays there, in the act of finding what you are writing about. ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night you can only see as far as the headlights go but you get all the way home,’ said Rosanne quoting E. L. Doctorow.
Joe Henry told us he tries very hard at staying out of the ‘editorial mind’ to focus on the creative process, while never asking himself during the process of creation, ‘who is gonna like it?’or ‘will this make money?’ He even quoted John Cage who advised artists to not confuse the creative mind with the analytic mind…
Rosanne, who said she has an app on her phone to steal from Shakespeare, told us about her experience with painting that she compares to writing songs: ‘It’s like writing songs, the critic comes in and tells me I am never gonna be Picasso, so why am I doing this?’ But she also knows what to do when this inner critic comes in, she puts the critic in her service at the end of the process, to edit the work.
They also discussed about poetry, which can be an intimidating concept, as Rosanne admitted she was afraid of poets and poetry, when she had a residency at the library of congress and a conversation with the poet laureate. But Joe Henry, who is also a poet, explained he wants to stay in that ‘zone where language has a musicality beyond its literal definition’, where ‘lyrics paint impressionistically’, where there is some ‘discomfort about not knowing, ‘where ‘sound in itself has meaning’
‘Poetry is a musical form,’ he said, ‘My songs rhyme but I would not dream writing poetry that rhymes!’ If he recognizes that most people are afraid of poetry, ‘songs are ubiquitous’. But when someone tells you ‘You are not only a songwriter but you are a poet, it is a promotion it elevates you!’ he added laughing.
If both of them agreed on the fact that songwriters are real writers, Rosanne jokingly said she was told she was a real writer when she published her book ‘Composed: A Memoir’ in 2010. At the end, she did not see any difference between writing a book or a song, ‘you keep going until it’s done’…. But ‘a song is a complete story in 3 minutes, this is why songwriters are real writers!’ she insisted.
They also evoked their somewhat complicated relationship with the south, as Rosanne’s most recent album is about her relationship with this part of the country. She was born in Memphis TN, grew up in Ventura CA, and lived in NYC, but she went back to the south and loves its blend of beauty, violence and poetry, ‘At mid life, you want to know where you are from, where your people are from,’ she said. ‘You want to know where you come from before you leave’. Joe Henry was born in Charlotte NC, but he talked about what he called his ‘resistance to his Southerness’, until his wife told him he was a southern writer.
But the fascinating mystery of songwriting was one more time talked about during the Q&A,… do you hear the music first or does it comes spontaneously with the words?
‘Either way,’ said Henry, ‘it has to feel inevitable, as if you can’t separate words from music,’ then evoking the fact that some songs arrive intact, as if they had been ‘stolen from someone else’, as if you were taking some mysterious dictation, and ‘it’s a high!’ At this point, Rosanne cannot resist telling what Tom Waits told about this mysterious process of getting a song from somewhere else. He had one of these moments as he was driving at 60 mph on a freeway, and he screamed at the wheel, ‘Can’t you see I am driving!?’
During the conversation, they played a few songs. Rosanne played ‘The World Unseen’ from ‘Black Cadillac’, her 2006 album which contains ‘songs about death’ and ‘the landscape of loss’, written at a time of her life when a lot of people died. She took her inspiration from a visit of the exhibition Melancholie at the Grand Palais in Paris. She also played ‘Modern Blue’ of her 2014 album ‘The River & the Thread’. Joe Henry played a fairly new song ‘Believer’, which talks ‘about romantic love in religious terms’ and ‘After the War’ (from his 2011 album ‘Reverie’). They also both performed Hank Williams’ ‘I’m so lonesome I could cry’.