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Cory Henry On His Deep Cut Heroes And His Joyful Return To The Stage

Written by on September 22, 2021

Cory Henry explores what he calls “future soul” on Best of Me — a grooving blend of influences from ’70s legends in the realm of funk, jazz, gospel, blues and R&B.

Grammy award-winning keyboardist, R&B soul singer-songwriter, producer and organist Cory Henry pays homage to those who came before him on solo album Best of Me, released Sept. 17. Following a touring hiatus, the Snarky Puppy alum is back on the road and stopped in Evanston’s Space on Sept. 20. Henry spoke to host of Reclaimed Soul Ayana Contreras prior to the Evanston set, and the two delved deep into Henry’s deepest musical heroes, favorite keyboards, what it’s like to be back on tour again and more.

Photos courtesy of the artist.

Ayana Contreras: So, congratulations on this new record [Best of Me]! It sounds amazing, as always.

Cory Henry: Really happy about it. I’m glad you like it.

AC: Tell me about the process for making this one.

CH: I made this record, really focused on it, in about a month. I had some sessions and writing sessions with some of my friends over the last year or so while working in L.A. just on various different concepts. But the month of June, I kind of just buckled down and wanted to find a vibe … something that’s going to inspire me to make music.

I’ve been listening to a lot of my favorite artists. That’s normally where I start. Stevie Wonder, Prince, Marvin Gaye. I wanted to make music that made me feel like the music I was listening to [does]. One record in particular was Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. I was really inspired by Stevie just playing all the instruments and producing and all that stuff, and I wanted to take that approach for this album.

Each song of [Best of Me] represents some kind of musical hero to me, in some sort of way. I kind of fashioned each one of these songs from my musical heroes. It’s 11 new tunes, and I’m excited about it.

AC: Some of them are probably more obvious than others, right? “Alone” sounds like Prince spit it out almost, but with your spin on it. Some of them sounds sort of Herbie [Hancock], some feel very Stevie. A few of them do, but “Best of Me” is probably the one that’s the closest. Who are some of the deeper cuts that people might not guess or pick up on?

CH: I feel like “In My Feelings” has a Dilla vibe to it. Jimi Hendrix, Sly and the Family Stone, D’Angelo. One more. Oh, Edgar Winter. That was a deep cut. I was influenced a little by Edgar Winter.

AC: Yeah, I would argue that’s a deep cut.

CH: Yeah, it’s kind of deep. I don’t talk about him a lot. But yeah, Edgar Winter is bad ass. You know about Edgar Winter? You know about that?

AC: I do. Is that “Frankenstein”? Is that them?

CH: Yeah.

AC: I picked up a couple of the records just because those covers are striking, and the covers are striking because he’s so striking. That’s kind of why I picked them up in the first place.

CH: Yeah, you’re like, “What’s going on here?”

Photos courtesy of the artist.

AC: So, you haven’t really been touring, right?

CH: No.

AC: Do you think that’s changed your relationship to listening to other people’s music?

CH: Not really. I feel like I go through cycles with listening to music anyway, but one thing that doesn’t change for me is listening to the heroes. I’m often listening to more of my heroes than I’m listening to anything else. I kind of have been digging deep into that. During the pandemic, even deeper into stuff that maybe I never heard before from some of my heroes. Or maybe if I heard it before, listening to it with a different perspective, different ear.

I’ve been keeping up with what’s current as well, too. But mostly, I’ve been in the studio. I feel like that is what has changed without touring. It’s like I just really put myself in the studio, and that’s all I want to do now.

AC: That’s a good point. When you’re touring, you’re in that mode, but then it’s like, “Okay, it’s time to finally take what we’ve been incubating on the stage and put it into a studio.” Whereas in this case, you’re spending probably a lot of this time incubating stuff in a studio space.

CH: Yeah, it’s way different doing it this way. Normally, we just go out and play and then go to the studio, but this record here is just made in the studio. We’ve played it [in concert] once or twice, and it’s been interesting, because it’s more of my chill stuff being played this time around. So, it’s nice to get people’s feedback and see how people are enjoying the music.

AC: Also, I noticed that this album is mostly instrumentals. So, you were able to really just vibe out. Although, I will say I enjoy your voice. Every time you sing, I’m excited. I will say that.

CH: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

AC: “Waterfall” is probably my favorite, so far. That’s my thing, though. I need two-step in my life. So, I’m always going to gravitate towards that sort of sound.

CH: “Waterfall” is one of my favorites, too. It features my good friend Mr. Talkbox on that particular one. He just killed it. He just kills it. I actually wrote “Waterfall” two years ago, but it just happened to make its way back in the studio. I said, “I never recorded this song.”

CH: So, had him on that and a few of the Funk Apostle buddies on that one as well.

AC: Cool.

CH: So yeah, I’m a two-stepper. That and the opening you got the two-step on that one.

AC: Right, that’s true. All in all, are you happy with the record and happy with this tour that’s going on? Because it feels different. It’s got to feel a little bit different.

CH: Yeah, I’m happy with it. The record is a concept album. I want people to just vibe to it the way I do late at night or something like that, because it has that thing, too.

I’m happy with the tour. The tour has been great so far. We played in Indianapolis, and we played Camden and Asbury, New Jersey. It’s been fun. It’s been fun just playing new music in general.

CH: It’s my first time being back out on a tour in two years, and that’s crazy to say. But yeah, it’s been good. I miss it, and I love it.

I’m just looking to put out a lot more music. I’m happy with what we did, and I’m already on to the next one. Trying to get more music out.

AC: What’s interesting about you is that you’re saying that you’re looking to put out more music, and yet I would argue that you’re probably one of the more prolific artists of our generation in terms of … Everybody’s always putting out a single, but you be droppin’ these albums. You know what I’m saying?

CH: Albums still matter. That’s what Prince said. Albums matter.

CH: I feel like okay, the singles are cool. I will do that. EP’s are cool, and I will do that. But it’s nothing like listening to an album to get an artist. I’ve listened to a few albums recently, and I feel like I know the artists better.

I listened to Yebba’s album recently. Yebba is a good friend of mine, but after hearing the album, I was like, “Man, I kind of understand you a little bit differently.” There’s all this time and space to get engulfed into the music, and I feel like right now we’re living in this space and time where because of social media and all these other influences, they got us on this one minute, one song short timeframe.

I don’t think that’s how we always have to listen to music. It doesn’t have to be about that. It could be about sitting down for an hour or two. It’s like eating dinner. Eating a good dinner. Three-course meal. Take your time and dissect it. I love albums. So, I’m going to continue to do that as much as I can.

Photos courtesy of the artist.

AC: Speaking of albums, you’re on Donda. There’s all this conversation about what made it onto Donda, what didn’t make it onto Donda, yada, yada, yada. When you found out that you made the final cut, how’d you feel? Were you excited to be a part of this album that everybody was kind of buzzing about for so long?

CH: Absolutely. I’m so excited that I made the cut. I was in the studio with Ye for I think four days about. It was just an amazing experience being able to sit with him, talk to him, listen, and making the cut. It felt so good. This is one of the most anticipated albums, I feel like, of the year if not the decade, because it’s a good while since he released a record.

I’m mostly proud of that I was able to do my thing, just play the organ, the thing I’m most comfortable with. To have that experience, to be called to just do my thing and not have to do anything else is the thing I hold to the most from this experience. I learned so much from it. I played on a few songs actually. I played on eight or ten, but two or three made it. So, I’m happy. I’m happy.

AC: Just to wrap things up, what are you most looking forward to for 2022? I think it’s hard to look forward, because we don’t know what exactly will be going on, but what are you looking forward to?

CH: In 2022?

AC: Yeah. Is that right? What year is this?

CH: Yeah, that’s crazy.

CH: I’m looking forward to releasing more music. That’s where I’ve been, releasing music. I’m looking forward to transitioning into TV and licensing and movies and video games. I’m looking forward to that type of stuff. I’m looking forward to being good in 2K. I know that’s kind of random.

Mainly just releasing more music. I’ve been sitting on so much music, and I’ve been so creative during this pandemic time that I’m really just looking forward to releasing music and letting the world hear these songs that I’m really happy about and proud of. So, get ready. About to flood the market.

AC: Oh, one more question. It’s a dumb question. Okay, you got all the money in the world to buy one more synthesizer, keyboard or electric piano, whatever.

Okay, let’s say some people would pick up a Jupiter-6 or something like that. You know what I’m saying? If you could pick up an OG keyboard, whatever you want, what would it be and why?

CH: There’s a few that I’d probably want. I have a Jupiter-6, though.

AC: Okay. Okay, that was a low-key flex.

CH: Little flex. Little flex. Little flex.

CH: Let me think. The next keyboard I want right now is a OB-8, the Prince keyboard. But I feel like if I was able to get one thing that I know it cost a lot of money, it’s the Stevie Wonder organ. What’s it? Yamaha. Was it the string organ? I wish I knew the name of it. I seen it in one studio in my entire life in L.A., but I think he did the Village Ghetto Land strings with that or whatever. It looks like an organ, but it’s a synth. It has a Leslie with it. I should know the name of it. I know Yamaha makes it or used to make it rather. It’s been discontinued. There’s only like four left in the world, but that thing is incredible. One of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen.

AC: I feel like I learned something new.

CH: Now we got to go on a hunt to find an actual … See if I can Google it.

AC: I dream about a clavinet, but clavinet seems like it’s too high maintenance for me, because you got to change those little pads and this and that. I’m like, “That sounds like a lot.”

CH: Yeah, the clavinets are great. It’s actually not that hard. It’s not like I change strings, but it’s not that hard. It’s not like the Wurlitzer or Mellotron.

AC: Because that’s the thing that they don’t talk about, the part where there’s maintenance. It’s not like a midi keyboard. There’s a lot going on with that.

I have an ARP Soloist and a Farfisa Professional. Yeah, I feel like that’s enough of my time just trying to keep those together.

CH: Crazy.

AC: The Farfisa is beautiful. I really enjoy that one.

CH: The Farfisa is great. I need to get one of those.

AC: Yeah, I put a wah wah pedal on it to soften its voice a little bit.

CH: Oh, word?

AC: Yeah, it lets me do a little play-play with it.

CH: I think the Yamaha synth I’m talking about was called GX-1, but yeah, you got to check that out. It’s crazy.

AC: Yeah, I’m totally going to look it up. It’s always nice to dream.

CH: Right.

Follow Cory Henry on Twitter and Instagram, and stream his latest album, Best of Me, on Spotify below.

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