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Grammy-winning producer Joe Henry is one of the hippest figures in music

Published: Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 1:00 p.m. CDT

MINNEAPOLIS — Joe Henry, who has produced more cool albums in the past decade than anyone other than Rick Rubin, just added another hip entry to his résumé: co-author of the book “Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him.”

Henry has been so busy producing other artists and finishing the book that he hasn’t had much time for his own career as singer / songwriter. In 2013, he produced albums by Billy Bragg, Hugh Laurie and Over the Rhine as well as parts of the all-star “Divided & United: The Songs of the Civil War” and “Songs for Slim,” the all-star tribute to Minneapolis musician Slim Dunlap.

In the past decade, Henry has produced Grammy-winning albums by Solomon Burke, Bonnie Raitt, Carolina Chocolate Drops and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as well as critically acclaimed discs by Bettye LaVette, Rodney Crowell, Loudon Wainwright and the tandem of Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint. In that stretch, Henry also managed to release four solo albums but seldom toured to promote them.

In an hourlong interview from his Los Angeles studio, Henry, who turned 53 on Monday, discussed meeting Pryor and holidays with his sister-in-law, Madonna.

On gigging without a new album: This summer, Henry booked a solo acoustic show in West Hollywood to work out some new songs he was going to record for a solo album. “I found it shockingly satisfying,” he said. His album is finished, but still unreleased. Nonetheless he told his manager to book some shows in early December because “I’m a singer and I don’t want be lonesome while I’m doing it.”

On his Minneapolis connection: The Twin Cities area “was sort of like the very beginning of my professional life in earnest,” Henry said. “It was the working hub for me for a while.”

He recorded for Coyote Records, which, like Minneapolis-based Twin/Tone, was affiliated with A&M Records. That hookup introduced him to Twin/Tone’s David Ayers, who became his manager. Ayers connected Henry with the Jayhawks, who backed him on tour and then on three albums in the early 1990s.

On writing the book about Pryor: In 2000, Henry wrote a song called “Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation.” Intended as the first track on his “Scar” album, it featured jazz great Ornette Coleman on sax, but his label would not allow the song without Pryor’s permission.

So, through producer T Bone Burnett, Henry met Pryor, who loved the song. Then Esquire magazine asked Henry to write a story about how Pryor and Coleman inspired him. Pryor liked the story so much that he urged Henry to write a screenplay about his life. Henry’s brother David is a screenwriter, so they collaborated on a script.

Henry visited Pryor, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, four or five times before his death in 2005. “It was really sad. For somebody whose physicality was such a part of his delivery system, he was unable to speak or control his body. He was strapped to a wheelchair. He was mentally there. I was sorry that I was finally meeting Richard Pryor and I was doing all the talking.”

The Henry brothers had invested two years of work researching the now-dormant screenplay, so they decided to write a book instead.

On how producing has affected him as a recording artist: “The most concrete way is you get to work more,” Henry said. When he was producing his own albums, he’d make a record in perhaps three days and not do one again for two years. “That was like learning to swim in one day a year,” he said. “Working on various things helped me blur the genre lines permanently.”

On his most lucrative record: “I’ve never made any money selling my own records,” he said. Henry produced Hugh Laurie’s 2011 album “Let Them Talk,” which has sold more than 1 million copies. His biggest paydays have come from co-writing songs with Madonna — he’s married to her sister, Melanie, with whom he went to high school — including the 2000 hit “Don’t Tell Me.”

On Madonna as an aunt to his children: “She’s fantastic. I’ve known her since I was 15 and she was 17. I’ve sat across from her at the Thanksgiving table. (Not this year, though.) We do share holidays, our families together. I’m keenly aware that I’ve never once tried to press a tape upon her or ask her for a professional favor. When she sees me coming, she knows I’m coming at her as her brother-in-law.”

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