Joe Henry went deep for his latest album, so, so deep, but don’t you dare call it his ‘cancer album’

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“The Gospel According to Water” is not Joe Henry’s cancer album, even though he released it a year to the day after he was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer, and given months to live. “Cancer did not create the music,” Henry, 59, says in a phone call, “and cancer is not the subject of any of the songs.”

Henry is a perennially undervalued songwriter, singer and producer whose extensive catalog features excursions into everything from alt-country to jazz. “Water” is a stripped-down, bare knuckled album he thought might be his last. “Those songs were pure light for me when they showed up,” says Henry, who is now in remission and doing well. The following is an edited transcript of that conversation:

Q: This album came out of a bad period, to put it mildly.

A: It did, and I wrestled in the preamble of releasing the album how candid I wanted to be about the black earth out of which these songs grew. I realized that I had a responsibility to be candid in a different way than myself as a writer being true to the work. There’s my job as a performer that needs to be true to an audience, and I realized the only reason I wouldn’t be sharing the context is out of fear, and I can’t really abide that. Having said that, I blanch at people wanting to think of this as my cancer album. It’s really no such thing. The songs have to speak for themselves, and I hope that they do.

Q: You were putting an album together before you actually knew it.

A: Oh, absolutely before I knew it. … I recorded these songs over two days, with real abandon, and did not really understand ‘til I got home that I had something more than reference demos. Every musician in the room told me after the fact that they all knew there was something more happening, but it’s like a pitcher with a no-hitter going, you don’t say that out loud. We just pressed on.

Q: Before you do this album, you play a show in Los Angeles, and you tell everybody.

A: My friend Joey Ryan, who is one half of the Milk Carton Kids, in the really early days of my diagnosis planted this idea that I had a responsibility to talk about it from stage. I remember saying to him, “There’s not one chance that I stand on the stage and talk about my diagnosis.” And as soon as I heard myself say this, I knew for a fact I was going to. I had made a pact with myself in the first hours of my diagnosis that the one thing I would not do is hide and become isolated, or ask people not to talk about it. … I also knew for a fact that if I stand in front of a theater full of people and share what part of my journey that I could, that there would be many people in attendance who were either going through something similar or had someone dear to them going through something similar. And by making community, this is how we carry on.

Q: People look at you differently once you announce something like that.

A: For a little while there, you walk into a room, you get a certain sort of a look. But you hope that enough time passes, and that’s not the news of the day any longer. My wellness is the news (now), not my most fearful, trembling moment.

Q: It sounds like you’re doing amazingly better.

A: I’m doing really well, I’m doing better in most ways than I have in years. I’m just reclaiming parts of my life that I set down for a moment while I took stock, and found out how I would respond to treatment. I’m fortunate that I was immediately responsive — not everybody is.

Q: Once you go through something like that, do you think ‘I wish I could have my old life that I didn’t appreciate back’?

A: You’re not wrong. Those thoughts do flash across my mind, but I also say that there’s so many great things that have come out of this part of my journey, I can no longer say to you that I wish it never happened.

Q: Really?

A: Anytime something dramatic falls across our path, it’s an invitation to take stock and think about priorities. I’ve made changes in my life that I needed and wanted to make. It really isn’t a fantasy about going back and having the life I had before the shoe dropped. I might as well wish I was in junior high school. I like my life better now. Even though there are aspects of it that are difficult, I really feel blessed that I’ve been able to hold what I have, and come through to some kind of healing that allows me to build on my experiences. I think we’re supposed to.


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