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Historical home studio

Joe Henry records himself and others in a South Pas home designed for President Garfield's widow.

December 02, 2011|By Don Waller
  • Rock musician and producer Joe Henry in his home and studio in South Pasadena on Tuesday, November 15, 2011. His home, a Greene & Greene home built in 1904 for former President James Garfield's widow, is the location he used to record several great artists, and his recent new album called "Reverie" released on Anti-Records. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
Rock musician and producer Joe Henry in his home and studio…

Like most professional musicians these days, singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe Henry has a home studio where he produces records for himself as well as other artists, which — unlike most at-home recordings — include recent Grammy-winning albums by veteran troubadour Ramblin’ Jack Elliott (2009's “A Stranger Here”) and string-band revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops (2010's “Genuine Negro Jig”).

Even more unlikely, these discs — plus albums by such diverse artists as Mose Allison, Aaron Neville, Loudon Wainwright III, Rodney Crowell, Over the Rhine, Michelle N'degeOcello and Mary Gauthier — were all recorded in the basement of a home that's listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places as the Garfield House.

Located on a leafy South Pasadena street, the house was designed by famed architects Greene & Greene as a winter home for U.S. President James Garfield's widow, Lucretia, who died there in 1918. Henry has owned the house since 2006, and his last three albums for L.A.-based independent Anti- Records — 2007's “Civilians,” 2009's “Blood From Stars” and the just-released “Reverie” — were recorded there.

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Citing Ray Charles as a primary musical influence, Henry distills folk, country, blues, jazz and the traditional pre-rock sounds of singers such as Frank Sinatra into a heady, moody brew that's distinguished by Henry's character-driven (as opposed to confessional) songwriting, and by sparse, casually virtuosic performances from the same select group of musicians that never overshadow the songs. And it's this songs-first, sympathetic arrangements-second approach, combined with Henry's broad musical palette and relaxed studio demeanor, that's made his production services so attractive to such a wide range of artists.

On “Reverie,” Henry and his longtime engineer Ryan Freeland placed microphones at the basement's open windows and captured the sounds of chirping birds, barking dogs and passing traffic, all of which were funneled into the musicians' individual headphones while they were recording the songs and can be heard throughout the resulting album.

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