INTERVIEW: Henry Wolfe

EDITORS NOTE: Kevin here. We'd like to take a minute real quick like to welcome Aubrey to the ChunkyGlasses team. From the depths of the Twitterverse, Aubrey rose up and wowed us with not only her writing talent, but her keen insights on modern music and the people who make it. This is her first piece for us, but expect to hear a lot more from Aubrey here throughout the coming year.

On January 18th, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with L.A.-based musician Henry Wolfe, when he and his backing band came to DC to play at DC9.  Wolfe’s third album, Linda Vista, came out last April.  Wolfe and his ensemble have been touring with fellow Los Angeles band “He’s My Brother, She’s My Sister” in the meantime.  

After pleasantries were exchanged (Henry is an incredibly nice and down-to-earth guy), I set about to ask him a range of both typical musical interview questions to learn more about his creative process, and a few more non-traditional questions to lure out some of his personal stories and personality.  

One of the questions I asked Wolfe was about the first concert he’d ever attended.  As he is someone inspired to share his music live in front of groups of people, I was interested as to whether his first musical experience was a formative one and whether it had motivated him into the spotlight.  Wolfe revealed that the first concert he ever saw was a show on Michael Jackson’s “Bad” tour in Sidney, Australia.  He didn’t elaborate on how this shaped his future career, but perhaps the black skinny jeans he wears are Jackson-derived.  He went on to share a story about his second concert, which merits repeating:

“Second concert I went to was the Rolling Stones, and all I cared about was seeing Guns n Roses—they were the opening act.  It was at the LA Coliseum.  And we were late.  And we missed Guns and Roses.  And I was so mad at my parents that we had to sit through this boring band I’d never heard of; the only song I’d ever heard was “Satisfaction.”  It was like I could care less.”

It’s worth mentioning that the parents Wolfe refers to in this story are actress Meryl Streep and sculptor Don Gummer.  The creative abilities of his family may account for Wolfe’s engaging stage presence, the likes of which is rarely seen from opening bands at shows of this size.  DC9 was full when the band started playing, many people in the audience having come to see Wolfe specifically, not just for the main act.  

Henry Wolfe: Songwriter. Fire road walker.I next asked Wolfe if he could go on tour with anyone, living or dead, who would it be and why.  He answered:

“I think I’d like to open up for Neil Young, so I could watch him every night from the side of the stage…and I’d love to have toured with Harry Nilsson considering he didn’t tour or perform live.  Or the Beatles for that matter, although I think it’d be difficult with the Beatles because their fans would have gotten so crazy that they would have booed anyone else off the stage.”

Listening to Wolfe’s music makes me think he would in fact be a good opening act for Neil Young.  Both employ simplistic lyrics that highlight everyday events or relationships with a certain poetry.  Unlike Neil Young and many other folk artists, Wolfe’s voice is polished and smooth like a 50s-style crooner, not yet subject to the ravages of hard living and whisky.  

I asked Wolfe where his ideas for songs come from—are the characters people from his own life?  Are they from stories he has read?  He explained that he usually doesn’t write about characters from other peoples’ stories, but that the songs that he writes are more situational or about relationships:

“Whether the relationship, like in my song ‘Someone Else,’ one person who’s feeling like their sense of identity is splintering, they’re having a manic episode, and they’re almost singing to their other self.  Or, there’s a song of mine called ‘Little Room,’ it’s a love song about a character’s space, his room.  The songs I write tend to be pop songs with a lyric hook—they’re short, they have verses and sometimes choruses—those kind of songs seem to accommodate lyrics that are about love or about relationships in general.  So, that tends to be the context for my lyrics.  But, I would equate the style of writing that I do to country lyrics, where it’s kind of plain-spoken language, it’s direct, and a lot of the time it’s about love or heartbreak.  But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s about my love or heartbreak.”

Wolfe goes on to explain that he doesn’t come up with characters or stories first, and then feels compelled to write about them.  Instead, he starts out with a single line, and will elaborate on it until it’s a full song.  And, before the lines, come melodies, which he explains that he hears in vowels.  To explain, he sings a melody through the letters, “A-E-I-O-U,” which he says he hears in his head and then adds lyrics.  These vowels become the lyrics, “Stay a while, won’t you?” which then evolves into a song about someone asking another person to not to leave.  

Wolfe says that he does his best writing in his home office in Los Angeles or in the house he grew up in the Berkshire Mountains.  His music is very influence by setting.  Linda Vista, named after a community in San Diego literally meaning “pretty view,” was inspired by “the people that are drawn to living in that place” and informed the direction he took musically on the album.  When he was thinking about naming the album, he “wanted it to be named after a local landmark that had personal significance because [he] felt like the songs were so rooted in where [he] was when [he] came up with them.”  Similarly, his first EP is called The Blue House because it was recorded in the house in Connecticut that he was staying in during the winter of 2007 before moving to L.A.  

With his music being so largely influenced by place, it makes one wonder if Wolfe would consider a future move to somewhere in the South to develop the country-feel of his music, or even perhaps to Neil Young’s Canadian prairie home.  He plans to stay in Los Angeles for the foreseeable future because “there’s a thriving scene in L.A. of people making organic-sounding music.  It’s played with instruments; it’s about the chemistry of the players responding to each other, at least in the live context.  It also tends to be influenced by folk rock.  L.A. is a great place to be for that.”  

Wolfe in the studio at the Stonehenge Recording Complex in Atlanta, GA

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