Joe Henry’s high school guidance counselor asked him one simple question when the teenager declared he was going to be a songwriter.

“Have you written any songs?” the counselor asked. “No, but I’m going to,” was Henry’s confident reply.

In the more than 40 years since then, Henry has written and recorded about 200 of his own songs, gaining acclaim from critics and fellow musicians for evocative lyrics and a poetic vision. He’s also written or co-written songs recorded by others, including Roseanne Cash, Bonnie Raitt and Madonna – who happens to be his sister-in-law. He’s used his songwriter’s ear in his work as a record producer, winning Grammys for albums by folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, soul singer Solomon Burke and The Carolina Chocolate Drops.

“I don’t remember thinking that I was anything else but a songwriter, even as a child. I just thought about it as this is who I am,” said Henry, 62, who moved to Harpswell in 2021 with his wife, Melanie Ciccone. “My wife has said to me many times over the years, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are that you’ve never struggled with who you are and what you are supposed to be doing.’ ”

Henry’s most ardent fans include many veteran musicians who admire the way his lyrics can paint vivid pictures as they tell a story, but like a good novel or poem, can hold a listener in suspense as well. Former President Barack Obama listed Henry’s “The Fact of Love” as one of his favorite songs of 2019.

“I think Joe’s strong poetic sensibilities are what set him apart from the pack. His songs can be mysterious, even cryptic at times, but you can still feel what it is he means to say,” said singer songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, who collaborated with Henry on the soundtrack for the 2007 comedy film “Knocked Up.”


Henry has been touring this spring to support his recent album, “All The Eye Can See,” which came out in January. He recently did two shows close to home, May 13 at Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield and May 20 at One Longfellow Square in Portland. While performing at One Longfellow Square, Henry told a nearly full house that he typically doesn’t know where his songs come from, that he’s less interested in self-expression than he is in discovery.

Joe Henry performing at One Longfellow Square with his son, Levon Henry, on May 20. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“I really do write to find out what I’m writing about,” said Henry. “I don’t ever want to steer a song anywhere, I just want to be seduced.”

“Our Song,” which Henry sang at the show, is an example of how vividly he creates images with his lyrics: “I saw Willie Mays/At a Scottsdale Home Depot/Looking at garage door springs/At the far end of the 14th row/His wife stood there beside him/She was quiet and they both were proud/I gave them room but was close enough/That I heard him when he said out loud/This was my country/And this was my song/Somewhere in the middle there/Though it started badly and it’s ending wrong.”

Joe Matthews, a truck driver from Auburn, Massachusetts, came to the Portland show to see Henry live for the first time, after listening to him for years on public radio during long hours in his truck. Matthews said he was drawn to Henry’s music because it was “atmospheric” and because “the lyrics stick with you.”



Henry was born in North Carolina and moved several times while his father pursued a career as an engineer with Chevrolet. He was drawn to different kinds of music wherever he went. While living in the South, he listened to soul and jazz and country, including songs by Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams and Glen Campbell. While living in Ohio, he listened to rock and folk and remembers the day his older brother, Dave, traded a Steppenwolf album to a friend for Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 2, “and that changed everything for me,” Henry said.

By the time he was in high school, his family had settled into the Detroit suburbs, where he discovered the artists of Motown. His singing style seems to blend the styles he grew up enamored of while living different parts of the country. At times, he shows the power of a soul singer and the quiet warmth of a folk singer, while his phrasing hints at jazz.

Joe Henry, besides recording and writing songs, has won three Grammys as a producer. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

It was at Rochester Adams High School outside of Detroit that Henry met his wife. He had met one of Melanie’s older sisters first, Paula. Later, he met another older sister, Madonna. During a high school play, Madonna portrayed the wife of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry played her son. He says everyone in the Ciccone family loved music, and he remembers loaning Madonna a Tom Waits album when they were both teens.

Henry taught himself to play guitar by listening to albums. He began writing poems, inspired by William Carlos Williams, a leader of the imagist movement. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of Michigan, where he was an English major. He had never learned to read music, so he couldn’t be part of the music program, he says. He started playing places around Ann Arbor and eventually hired musicians to back him in a studio, so he could create demos.

He was signed to Profile records and released his first album, “Talk of Heaven,” in 1986. His third album, “Shuffletown,” was produced by T Bone Burnett, who became a mentor to Henry and helped him begin producing other people’s albums, something he’s continued.

Henry’s career began a few years after Madonna had achieved pop stardom, and they didn’t have much chance to talk about the music business except occasionally “across the Thanksgiving table,” Henry said.


But that changed in the late ’90s. Henry wrote a song very quickly just because he wanted to have something to record on some new home studio equipment he was trying out. He was proud of his new set up, so he called Melanie in to hear what he had recorded, a song he called “Stop.” Melanie thought it sounded like something Madonna should sing, but Henry said he couldn’t hear it. But he trusted Melanie. She pitched the song to her sister, who almost immediately told Henry she wanted to record it. Retitled and reworked, the song “Don’t Tell Me,” was released in 2000 and became a hit. It’s one of several songs that Henry and Madonna have collaborated on.


A few years ago, Henry and his wife realized they had grown “very weary” of life in Los Angeles, even though there was much they loved about the area. They raised two kids there and had many friends. But the traffic, congestion and rising temperatures became too much for them. They missed having four seasons more and more over the years.

The couple had been “scheming” to move somewhere in the Northeast for several years, looking at real estate online in New England and New York. They began hearing good things about Maine from their son, musician Levon Henry – named for Levon Helm of The Band – who had visited a friend’s family’s farm in Topsham several times. During his recent Portland show, Henry introduced Levon as a longtime collaborator and the person “whose opinion about what I’m doing carries more weight” than anyone else’s.

Joe Henry at his Harpswell home studio, above his garage. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Henry and his wife came for a visit to Maine during peak foliage, in October 2019, and spent time walking around Portland, becoming enamored of the city’s historic charm and culinary delights. Henry says his son teases him that a big reason why he chose to live in Maine was his love for Tandem Coffee in Portland.

Henry and his wife were looking at properties around Portland around the time the pandemic began and soon found themselves priced out of homes they were interested in, as more and more people started moving to Maine. A friend from California, who had a good friend living in Harpswell, recommended the coastal town to Henry and his wife. They found a piece of land, with water views, and decided to build a home. They rented a home in Bath while their Harpswell house was being built and moved in during the summer of 2021.


“Rather than live in town and drive to beauty, we decided to try living in beauty and driving to town when we needed to,” said Henry, sitting in his studio at his Harpswell home, which is above the garage.

Henry and his wife had already been looking for an East Coast home in the fall of 2018 when Henry was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He was told the cancer had metastasized – spread to other parts of his body – that it was terminal, and that “I should put my things in order.”

Instead of surgery, chemo or radiation, Henry opted for hormone deprivation treatment. He says it saved his life. He’s not symptomatic anymore, but continues to undergo treatment, both with an oncologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and with an “alt doctor” in St. Louis.

He says his experience with cancer has been “transformative” and is sure it’s affected his work, even though he can’t point to specific songs to show how.


Henry said he was buoyed during his cancer battle by his friendship with critically acclaimed singer songwriter John Prine, who he had met only a few years earlier. Prine had fought cancer himself and had surgeries on his neck and a lung.


Henry said Prine and his wife, Fiona, “were there to pull me close” when he was first diagnosed. He said he was heartened by Prine’s example, continuing to write songs and perform in the face of the uncertainty of his disease. He said Prine seemed to be “relishing his opportunities as he had in no time before.”

When Prine died in 2020, succumbing to COVID at the very beginning of the pandemic, Henry was “bitterly sad.”

“But the positivity of his spirit – his encouragement of me as an artist – loomed larger and continues to. I miss him, and think of him often, and still take heart from the lessons I learned from him, both musically and personally,” said Henry.

Joe Henry performing at One Longfellow Square May 20. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Sitting on a stool with his guitar, his son playing piano and several wind instruments to accompany him, Henry punctuated his 90-minute set at One Longfellow Square with stories about his songs and his writing process. He told the crowd he thinks all songs are about love, no matter how much the lyrics might seem to stray from the topic. He told listeners that if they got confused at any point in the evening about what he was singing “and you just well might,” they should remember all songs are about love.

His song “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation” is about Henry’s love for the groundbreaking and controversial comic, even though he didn’t realize that at first. He says that watching Pryor on TV in the early ’70s “changed my life, changed the culture in which I was living.” More than 30 years later, he was writing down a lyric that had come to him, in the first person. When he started singing it, he says, he realized it was Richard Pryor’s voice, not his.

“Sometimes I think I’ve almost fooled myself/Sometimes I think I’ve almost fooled myself/Spreading out my wings/Above us like a tree/Laughing now, out loud/Almost like I was free.”

The song led to Henry writing the 2013 book “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him,”  with his brother, David Henry, a screenwriter.

“On stage, he was able to share the deep hurt of his humanity, and he talked about everything – sex, God, love, death, race. Even the stuff that was brutally difficult, he presented in a way that we could accept without self-loathing or judgment,” Henry said of Pryor. “I felt like he was giving me a way to accept the things of myself that were difficult and that I might not have been completely proud of, but nonetheless were a true part of my humanity.”

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