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Music becomes medicine as singer Joe Henry battles cancer

Singer-songwriter Joe Henry was still absorbing the shock of confronting his life-threatening illness when he climbed into bed early one evening with paper and pen, his instruments for therapy.

He then wrote a song, his first since being told he had stage 4 prostate cancer. He knew composing would help him heal.

“The way I process anything significant is by writing,” said Henry. “I said, ‘I feel like I’m going to have to write my way through this.’”

From the specter of death, an album was born.

“I came here for the funeral of all sorrow,” went the first line of that first song, “In Time for Tomorrow.” The tune’s remaining lyrics came quickly.

“I wrote it literally as fast as I could have written it down had I been taking dictation,” Henry said.

Music became medicine, and soon Henry had enough material for his 15th solo studio album, “The Gospel According to Water,” where he reflects on the love of life, what comes next and the role spiritual solace can play when facing our mortality.

“The songs tumbled out one after the other, much faster than I have ever experienced a body of songs arrive,” he said.

The Los Angeles-based Henry, 58, isn’t quite as well-known as his sister-in-law, Madonna. He enjoys the sort of small, devoted following that believes it shares a great secret, and he’s the kind of musician who’s popular with musicians.

John Prine, Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne are among those to hail “The Gospel According to Water.”

“I love Joe Henry,” tweeted Prine, himself a cancer survivor. “This is an important record.”

During a 45-minute conversation to discuss “Gospel,” Henry referenced The Band, Charlie Parker, Frank Sinatra, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Duke Ellington and Marvin Gaye. His music has long been built on such disparate, impeccable influences, and “Gospel” is Henry’s latest eloquent argument for albums, that endangered species, as art.

Happily, his own health outlook is much improved. The record will be released Friday, the first anniversary of his diagnosis.

Henry was initially told he likely had three to seven months to live, but he’s now in remission while continuing treatment. His oncologist at UCLA said his case is not terminal, but a matter of chronic disease management.

Henry, a three-time Grammy winner as a producer, recently decided he was ready to resume taking on projects in that role. He also plans to tour in support of his new album.

“I’m doing really, really well,” he said. “It was many months, I would say, before I really found myself in my true secret heart picturing a significant future. For that I’m grateful. It was really hard to live when I wasn’t sure I believed in the possibility of my healing.”

For “Gospel,” Henry went into the studio in June planning to record demos with several other musicians, including his son, Levon, who has played woodwinds on his dad’s albums for the past decade.

“There wasn’t any weightiness around the session,” Levon said. “It was sort of like him getting back in the game and returning to the things that are important. The music was sort of like opposing the weightiness of the moment.”

There’s joy particularly in Henry’s acoustic guitar playing, which is more prominent than usual, and the album might be his most melodic. Humor shines through — one of the best songs is titled “General Tzu Names the Planets for His Children.”

Those involved quickly realized the session was producing more than mere demo material. Most of the album was finished in two days.

“It was a pretty amazing session,” said keyboardist Patrick Warren, who has played with Henry for more than a decade. “I knew we were onto something. There was something about his voice and his guitar playing that I had never heard before.”

Henry said he doesn’t want his audience to think of “Gospel” as his “cancer album,” because the songs are about much more than that. And mortality is not a new topic for him.

“I’ve been writing about it for decades,” he said. “It’s not new for me to be pondering such. At the same time, there has been a wild shift in my thinking. I feel like somebody who has been abstractly writing about the moon, and then found himself standing on top of it.”

The 13 songs are sung by a singular character. Henry said it’s not him, even on the final tune “Choir Boy,” which ends each verse with the entreaty, “Pray for me.”

“It’s more like, ‘Stand with me in community. See me. Don’t leave me alone. I need you to be aligned with what I’m experiencing, and I need to feel your closeness,’” Henry said. “It’s the character.”

But it’s Henry who put the plea to paper as he wrote his way out of trauma. He believes he understands why the songs came to their composer so quickly.

“I was cracked wide open,” Henry said. “In our brokenness is where illumination happens. I think I experienced that.”

The morning after Henry wrote the lyrics to the first song, he said he quickly put them to music, singing as though the melody had already existed. He was in the car, the terror that initially accompanied his cancer diagnosis in the rear-view mirror.

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