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Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson is Unlocking the Right Doors

Kevin Gibson

Louisville singer-songwriter Joel Henderson sips a bourbon shot poured over a single ice cube and admits, "I didn't like (bourbon) until I moved to Kentucky."

Seems wherever we go, if we stay long enough that place will find a way to implant itself in our likes, dislikes and emotions. And Henderson has drawn from a wide range of places he called home. As a child, he moved with his family from Atlanta to Chicago, and later found himself in central Indiana. Now a Louisvillian, he understands that like his daily life, his music is filled with remnants of all the stops he's made and the things he has experienced.

His new album, Locked Doors & Pretty Fences, chronicles life through his eyes in such a way that pretty much anyone can find a piece of themselves in the finished product.

"When I do a record," he said, "I sort of write thematically. I won't put a song on a record that doesn't fit. It has to fit the theme. And every song on this record has to do with the barriers that we have in our lives. Whether they are self imposed or in the case of, for example, someone with a disability and it's something they can't help. Or maybe it's just the life you chose, or maybe it's just happened to you."

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Joel Henderson

Photo By Paul Moffett

Joel Henderson Joel Henderson

Henderson had a personal barrier or two in mind when he wrote the album ironically, or perhaps fittingly, it refers loosely to the barriers he created that prevented him from moving his music forward.

"If you break it down to its essential meaning," he said, "over the last decade … I have constantly fenced myself in by choices I've made, and not being intentional about my passion. Not following what I want to do."

Another irony at work here is that he makes his living doing social work for Goodwill in Southern Indiana. "In my day job, part of what I do is to tell people to follow their passions I kind of need to do that myself," he said. "I would rather have one year of life playing music on the road than 40 years of not being passionate about what I do.

"You just gotta do it. You gotta break down those walls and fences."

BARRIERS TO MUSICAL PROGRESS

Back in 2006, Henderson released a local EP titled High Risk; this was to be a launching pad for more releases that would come quickly. It didn't work out that way, due to barriers.

"I had intended to follow that up maybe a year-and-half, two years later with a full-length record," Henderson said. "And in that time frame, you grow up and things happen, the money you saved gets spent somewhere else. Over time, those [musical projects] just start slipping away."

Fortunately, he ended up moving into a house that afforded him the space to record songs at home. That got him kick-started again.

"Time progressed, and I found a guy in Nashville who could lay some drums down for me in his projects studio," he said. "It sounded great. I had a friend come over who heard it, and he said, 'Let's take this and bring it to a producer.'"

That producer was Paul Mahern at White Arc Studios, located in Henderson's old stomping grounds in Bloomington, Ind. "We laid it in his hands, stripped away some of the stuff I did, and rebuilt things," Henderson said, "and through his vision [we had an album]."

That friend was Jeff Grantham, and Grantham is still working with Henderson to get Locked Doors & Pretty Fences promoted properly, creating TroubleCure Records and beating down doors to get the record heard. There's good reason for that the album is a tender and haunting collection of eleven songs, performed and recorded with a nearly flawless precision by a group of excellent professionals.

This is where the barriers really began to get pulled down urged on by Grantham, Henderson took the risk he hadn't taken previously, presenting his work to a producer. Through it, he found himself working with musicians with resumes boasting some pretty notable projects.

To put it simply, Mahern brought the big guns. The studio musicians who appear on the album include bassists Byron House (Robert Plant's Band of Joy) and Scott Kellogg; guitarists Jason Wilber (John Prine), Ric Hordinski (Over the Rhine) and David England; drummers Devon Ashley (The Lemonheads) and Jake Burton, and backing vocalist Heidi Gluck (Some Girls). Throw in performances by Bill Mallers on Hammond B3, Fender Rhodes and piano, and Mick Sullivan's banjo picking, and you've got one pretty impressive guest list.

Henderson said he is "humbled and honored" to have those musicians on his album; and a few of them are playing the live shows with him as well. "I'm really fortunate they have agreed to play with me. The best part of it is that we've had a blast. These are among the finest human beings I've ever played with, in addition to being incredibly skilled at their craft."

Of course, part of the intent was to make a record that sounded as professional and consumable as possible Henderson hoped to create something that would help him pitch his songs for publishing purposes.

"As it turns out, I'm not having to pitch songs people are actually liking them on their own and buying the record."

Distribution is fairly DIY, though primarily it is done via the magic of the Internet, Henderson said, "or out of my truck."

"It's really tough for independent labels to get physical distribution," he added. "And I'm not even sure it's worth it."

GROWING UP IN MUSIC

While Henderson was growing up and moving around, he was also growing in his musical interests like any musician and moving from place to place. Now 38, he lights up like a little kid when talking about it.

"I feasted on music as a kid," he said. "I had two older siblings and they were both popular kind of girls. One listened to Elton John and Billy Joel 10 hours a day. The other one listened to band like REO Speedwagon, Journey, Kiss and those types of things. I did not gravitate toward that but as a kid I loved it. I think my first favorite song was 'Hot Blooded.' I was not a particularly cool kid but singing 'Hot Blooded' for my friends was a lot of fun for me."

He said Elton John's Tumbleweed Connection record specifically influenced him. It helped deepen his interest in music, and helped lead to him branching out.

"Not very much later, I discovered Springsteen through some other family members," he said. "I would say from the age of 8 to 18 I lived, breathed, ate, shit, everything that was Springsteen while all my friends were listening to R.E.M. There was something about Springsteen's music that was incredibly interesting to me as a kid. I was made fun of a lot for my love of Springsteen."

Specifically, Henderson was drawn to the stories Springsteen told in his songs. "He painted really cool stories of streets and gangs and love and sex, all the things I didn't know as kid."

And after Springsteen came Dylan. And later The Band. And more.

"I have a fascination with the early '70s country and early '70s rock 'n' roll; I'm a huge Gram Parsons fan. My new record, I think, speaks to lot of that. If you are knowledgeable of that era of music you might see the influence."

He said a reviewer made fun of the album's lead-off track "Growing Up (Is Hard to Do)" for sounding a bit like the Eagles. "It has that 12-string, sort of eighth-note strum kind of thing. And I love that! Always been more of the country side of rock 'n' roll."

He ended up writing his first song at around age 10, based on hearing part of a Ratt concert that was being played near his then home. And he wrote it on drums. And his first public performance was singing "She's Like the Wind" during an eighth grade talent contest. "It was the 'Dirty Dancing' era," he said.

"I sang it with one of the hottest girls in school. She was made to sing it with me. I'm pretty sure she didn't want to sing it with me, but I sang it with her anyway. But it was as good as sex at age 13, or whatever. And that you can print."

Talk about breaking down barriers.

HOME IS WHERE THE MUSIC IS

Henderson has been in Louisville now for about seven years; his next stop, if he has his way, could be Nashville. Meanwhile, however, he has a record to promote and a day job to tend to. He and his band have played Nashville, done a 'Live Lunch,' and he and Grantham will continue to push forward.

"I have to say, you have a day job, between that and the [label] administration … I work 80 hours a week without a doubt," he said. "I'm constantly working. Now, to be honest, I understand the appeal of having a label more than I did before. I used to think, 'What do you get for the fifty percent you are giving away?' Now I understand."

Asked about his goal with Locked Doors & Pretty Faces, he responds: "Goal? To be able to make another one. And another one after that."

He then shifts gears and adds, "Ultimately, my goal is to be the best songwriter I can be. Ultimately, I'd hope that through time I would get to the place where I could write songs for others [to record]."

The way the songs on the new record breathe and reach out to the listener, he's not a bad bet to reach that goal. Asked what his favorite song on the album is, and he gets that enthused-little-boy look in his eye again before gushing about "I'll Be Waiting," a gentle, stripped down recording that is track nine in the playlist.

"It is the least-produced song on the record," he said. "What's so fun about that song for me is that it was totally cut live with just me and one other person, one microphone. It was really intimate; there was just a real special moment there. I had just written the song.

"To me, that's the essence of making a record you just wrote a song, you have a real special moment with another person you are playing it with, and it's magical."

Another aspect of the song he likes is that it is universal while also being specific. "It's intentionally about anything you want it to be," he said. "It's about something specific to me, but it's intentionally vague enough that it can be interpreted in many different ways. I will never let anybody know what that songs means."

Henderson doesn't plan to wait so long to release another record this time around. He'll continue to promote this spring and summer, but there is more to be done.

"Later in May or June I will be doing some writing and maybe recording in Nashville," he said. The new connections and friends he has made through the process of recording Locked Doors & Pretty Fences may indeed be proof that the old barriers have come down. And he's not about to look a gift connection in the mouth.

"These are connections I whole-heartedly admit are just because I have been in the right place at the right time, and I guess they have liked with I have done," he said. "There are a hundred guys better than me."

Maybe those guys simply haven't unlocked their own doors yet.