The Joe Henry song “The Yearling” begins, “I left behind all that I could, took what I might need, walked myself into the wood where the mountains grow to seed. There, yearlings tumbled at my feet, rolling on their way, back before this all began and far beyond today.”
The listener can guess that the yearlings in this poignant song—realized with evocative violin parts by Tony Trundle interweaving with Henry’s guitar playing, Floriane Blancke on Celtic harp, and vocals by Henry and Lisa Hannigan— represent purity and innocence found in the natural world, at the beginning of life.
Most of the tracks on the latest Joe Henry album, All the Eye Can See, are similarly reflective. He wrote in his notes about the songs, “I hear them in part as springing out of our shared and traumatic experiences of the recent past, sure, as well as our present-day responses to them; but if I am honest, I know that I have never allowed myself to write and release songs as personal as these now feel to me.”
Henry had the other side of cancer treatment in his sights when the pandemic closed every door that he thought was about to open. Like many, he felt blindsided, and he took a lot of solitary walks. Songs eventually emerged from the quiet.
“This happened five, six, seven times,” Henry explains. “I had a full song in my head essentially written. I would walk in the door and quickly scribble down the words that had been cycling through my mind so I wouldn’t forget them, and then I’d find a guitar and figure out how to support what I had just been singing on my walk. Then I would immediately record my part of it, trying to keep it as raw and immediate as I could.
“As soon as I had a version of myself on acoustic guitar and vocals sketched out, I would send that to somebody, most notably my dear friend keyboard player Patrick Warren, who was living just across town. And he would not only send back comments but also he’d return the session files with contributions—maybe a couple of cellos and a pump organ and an upright piano. Then I would see who else needed to get this song, and continue to pass it around to people.”
LEARNING TO RECORD
For a producer and musician who has always preferred the interplay of a live band, this process was born of necessity. “I knew that what I needed was not to sulk at home,” Henry says, “but to throw myself into learning to record myself viably so I didn’t have to stop my creative life or lose connection with the people that I make music with, who are also my closest friends. I immediately started to learn Pro Tools.
“In the past, I’d always waited until I had a full album’s worth of songs written before giving thought to how I might record them, how they might be articulated,” he continues, “but in this case, I was excited about learning to record and feeling an urgency around it as soon as a new song would arrive. I was writing with a sort of fury that I hadn’t experienced before, and I was really learning in the real-time of recording this record.”
Henry had everything he needed, of course. Over the years, he’d amassed an impressive collection of equipment for his Pasadena, Calif., studio, Garfield House. He was well-versed in the sound and capabilities of his gear, but previously he’d mainly kept his hands free, to focus on his responsibility as a producer, while talented engineers like his frequent studio partner Ryan Freeland were there to capture it. But that was before COVID.
“For the earliest songs on this record, I used my RCA BK-5B microphone [for vocals],” Henry says. “Later, I started using an AEA A440 for vocals a good bit—something I learned from Ryan Freeland, who frequently will pair the A440 with an old [Neumann] M 49. An M 49 is probably my favorite go-to microphone; it gives me the clarity of a tube mic plus a lot of the textural characteristics of a ribbon. I also have a [Shure] SM7 that I use whenever older or more finicky mics don’t have a good attitude.
“All of my vocals and guitar happened at the same time,” he continues. “In the early days, when I was using my RCA BK-5B, what I was using on my guitar most was a Royer R-122. When I was using an M 49 for vocals, I started using the AEA A440 and an old Gefell M7 tube mic [on guitar], with the AEA placed a little in front of me so that it was picking up some vocal characteristics as well. Then I would put the Gefell M7 lower to get some bottom-end warmth, so that it wasn’t just strings and attack I was hearing; I really want to hear the body of the instrument.”
Henry is joined on the album by many of his frequent collaborators: drummer Jay Bellerose; bassist David Piltch; keyboardists Warren and Keefus Ciancia; guitarists Marc Ribot, John Smith and Bill Frisell; and his son Levon Henry on clarinet and sax. Also, the sky being the limit to remote collaboration, guests include Daniel Lanois, Allison Russell, JT Nero, Madison Cunningham, Rose Cousins, Francesco Turrisi, the Milk Carton Kids, Tyler Chester, Tony Trundle, Floriane Blancke and Lisa Hannigan.
MIXING WITH OTHERS
Henry’s songs were in various stages of completion when he received an email one day from North Carolina-based engineer Jason Richmond—just a friendly check-in.
“I started telling Jason about this record,” Henry recalls. “I had toyed with the idea of mixing it myself, just in the spirit of doing more on my own, and I asked him if I could send him a mix for his honest, critical ear. I sent him something that I was really confident about, and he wrote me back, ‘Since you’ve asked me to be honest, the song is great, the performances are great, but as a mix, this feels flat to me. I think you’re losing a lot of your dynamics in how you’re approaching this.’
“He very generously said, ‘Send me the session files for that song, and I’m going to mix it and see if I can show you what I think might be missing from what you’re doing.’ When I got that song back, I understood instantly that I would not be mixing this record.”
“We decided I was doing the whole record at that point,” says Richmond. “I mix a lot of home recordings, but this one was different in the sense that there’s so many different musicians, all recording in very different locations. There were very clear room tones on certain people’s instruments, and it was my job to get everything to sit together in a cohesive space.”
Richmond mixed the Pro Tools sessions in his personal studio, which is equipped with Amphion One18 and ProAc 100 monitors. He ran everything through Pro Tools and Apogee Symphony converters, his Roll Music Folcrom summing mixer and BAE 1073 mic pres. “For the most part, everything also ran through my 2-bus API 5500 and a D.W. Fearn VT-7 compressor. The VT7 is subtle, but it gave the record a bit of glue,” Richmond says.
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“I realized, if a specific instrument had a really clear room tone on it, I probably wasn’t going to be able to get rid of it,” he continues. “So, instead I would push everything else in that direction. The song ‘Small Wonder’ was one where Jay Bellerose’s drum sound is somewhat raw, so I made everything more raw in a way to fit that drum track. Or on ‘Red Letter Day,’ there’s a lot of atmosphere that is mostly built around four or five different delays that are processed with some modulation, so everything sounds closer together.”
Richmond’s go-to plug-ins on this project included SoundToys Echo Boy, PrimalTap and Tremolator, plus a UAD Galaxy Echo plug-in. Hardware processing included Retro’s 2A3 (especially on guitars and keys), Crane Song IBISwith Chandler LTD-2 (drums), and on lead vocals, an ADL 1700 parallel processor through LaChapell 583E and Chandler TG2 preamps.
BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
“A large part of this record was built around different delays,” Richmond says. “I would pile delays on and tuck them down, and then put some of those delays through a reverb. I found that I could calculate and add those to the vocal or guitar parts and sync everything closer to what the drums sounded like, for example.
“To get Joe’s vocals to sit forward in the mix, I used 1176 compressors running parallel through tube pres like the LaChapell,” the engineer continues. “Also, there were a couple of times when some tracks were re-amped, and I’d tuck that underneath his original vocal. In some cases, there are multiple levels of parallel processing under his vocal to pump it up without it overriding everything else.”
Richmond also mastered the album, this time working in The Kitchen Mastering, using WaveLab as well as Manley Variable MU, Terry Audio CEQ, Millennia NSEQ-2, Shadow Hills Mono Optograph and FabFilter processing.
Amid all the disparate parts coming together, Henry made a change that he says was a long time coming: He and his wife packed up and moved from Pasadena to Maine. There’s that line from “The Yearling” again: “I left behind all that I could, took what I might need…”
Having grown up with four seasons, Henry says that in L.A., “I was always waiting for this other thing to happen, which I found deeply romantic and important.” All the Eye Can See marks a transition for this artist/producer—one of the ways he has chosen to move forward.
“To borrow from Woody Guthrie, this train is bound for glory,” Henry writes in his notes about the album, “and I’ve come to learn that that speaks—always and forever—to journey, not destination.”