HENRY DOSS INTERVIEW
An incredibly gifted American singer-songwriter who hails from North Carolina, Henry Doss is a former banker who ‘returned’ to music in 1999 after thirty years ‘away’. The proud bearer of two astounding albums, ‘Remnants of a Conversation’ and its ‘Floating Islands’ follow-up, Henry’s music is liberally laced with elements of Country and Rock, underpinned by upbeat melodies that are consistently easy on the ears.
Having corresponded with Hull singer-songwriter Emma Rugg in 2003 via the BBC’s hugely popular ‘Raw Talent’ show, Henry invited her over to the US so they could work on some music together. It was the start of a hugely productive friendship, and come 2007, they hit the road together in the USA.
Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Henry chats candidly about his favourite songs from his critically acclaimed debut album, his unabashed adoration for the authenticity in Emma’s emotion-charged music, how he first got in touch with her live on-air, seeing weird lights in the night sky near the state boundary between North Carolina and Virginia whilst they were on tour, and an extra-special night spent at ‘The Galaxy Hut’ on what was the 20th anniversary of his wedding…
Hey Henry, how are things?
Things are great, complex, challenging, interesting, scary, new, old, and always changing.
As an American singer-songwriter who returned to music after a thirty year hiatus, what was it that re-inspired you to pick up your guitar?
I wish I knew, but I don’t. I stopped on the spur of the moment one day in a music store and just bought a guitar and amp and took it home and banged out an ‘E’ major chord, the foundational sound of all rock music. The resolution chord. And I just kept kind of banging away. The thing that kept me “in the game” was always writing. I’ve never felt comfortable playing or performing, but I think I might have written a couple of nice songs along the way. For me, that’s what it’s all about: writing.
With so much quality life experience under your belt, did you find that ideas for songs came easily?
I think that I’d had as much “life experience” by the time I was nineteen as I did at forty-nine. You are always experiencing the world, no matter your age or years, and all experiences are equally “authentic” and meaningful. The difference, for me, might have been that it took me longer than most people to get up the courage to try and capture some experiences in a song and put that song out there to be heard. So I guess it wasn’t so much the “life experiences” that had accumulated as much as the urge to try, and it just built up to the point where it “had to be done”.
Your first major release was entitled Remnants of a Conversation. Do you have any favourite songs from the album that you never tire of listening to or playing?
Yes. “Lies” was and continues to be a favorite song of mine. I never, ever get tired of playing it. Three chords, eight lines of lyrics, and it lasts about six minutes. It was my most successful radio tune. For some reason, it just works. I also like “Just Another Morning”, because everyone thinks it’s my point of view about “business” and the ennui that often infects people in the corporate world. In fact, it’s not about me, but about someone who used to work for me. I enjoyed my years in the “corporate world” and have many fond memories of the people and the challenges from those days. But I digress. I also like “Remnants of a Conversation” and think it may be the best love song I ever wrote.
You made contact with Hull-based singer-songwriter Emma Rugg in 2003 through the Raw Talent radio show. What was it about her music that motivated you to make contact?
Somehow, Alan Raw got an early demo copy of “I’ve Been Thinking”, and he played it on “Raw Talent”. Emma heard it and sent me a nice email saying she liked the song. At that time I had never had any feedback – except from friends and family – about my music, so I was as excited as a kid. I wrote her back and then checked her website and got a copy of “Isolated Impression”. Listening to that, I was just blown away by the writing, the vocal quality, and the production values. Remember, Em saved up her money, went into a studio and did all that work herself at a very, very young age. In any event, I thought her music, voice, and style were just fantastic. I was a fan, and had no idea about “collaborating” or working together. Frankly, I wouldn’t have seen myself in the same league as Emma. Anyway, we ended up connecting in an on-air interview with Alan. The idea of collaborating just popped up… and I said “sure”.
Were you not worried that you might have musical differences when you began to work together?
Of course. But it’s differences, and contrasts, and tension, and collaborative conflict that contribute to growth. My notion was that there was everything to gain and nothing to lose. So Chris, my wife, and I both thought “why not?” and invited Emma over to record and visit. It was one of the better impulse decisions of my life!
Fortunately, you and Emma forged a strong friendship, and you went on to tour together. What are your abiding memories of hitting the road with Em?
Emma will remember this… one of the eeriest things of my life. We were driving back from playing in Arlington, VA, and heading all the way back home. We left Arlington about 11:30 p.m., and it’s about a six hour drive. At about maybe 5:30 a.m., while still very dark, we were driving down some mountain just north of the line between North Carolina and Virginia and – I’m not sure how to describe this – Emma and I both saw a “weird light” that came into the woods and moved around in ways that just defied common sense. This lasted maybe five seconds, and it was profoundly “real”. Chris was asleep, and we woke her up to tell her. But, of course, within just a few seconds the whole “memory” of this event had begun to fade and it seemed “unreal”. I am decidedly not a believer in non-empirical events or anything like that, but I do know that this was the only time in my life when a “weirdness” occurred that was experienced by someone else. A lot more important than that, I remember one of our house-concerts where somehow everything seemed to come together in the “right” way – sound, mood, people, friends. It was beautiful. But the best memory of all is this: the night we played ‘The Galaxy Hut’ in Virginia was my and Chris’ twentieth wedding anniversary. Emma made us a wonderful set of hand-drawn cards for our anniversary. It still has a place of honour on our bookshelves and is one of the best “cards” I’ve ever gotten. Chris, too.
Did you find it difficult to adapt your sets in order to accommodate Emma’s style of singing and playing, or did everything coalesce organically without stress-inducing incident?
It was not really difficult because Emma took the lead. One of the most important things to know about Emma is that she naturally “takes charge”. So, Emma had the leadership role in setting up how things would work. Emma’s creative judgement is very, very good; as a rule, if she felt strongly about something, I would just assume she was probably right. So our collaborative sets were fairly easy to put together. For example, on the song “Your Last Moments”, Emma showed up with this great intro that she had worked on prior to getting to the states. Perfect. And she was also very rigorous about rehearsing. When Emma arrived, we had two days to practice before our first “trial run” show. We had to just kind of dive into things. The hard part for me was doing my solo songs.
What is it about Em’s music that you find so endearing?
Authenticity. Anyone who listens knows that she writes great songs, has a wonderful voice, very unique voicing, and a deep talent for “the song”. The thing for me that distinguishes her – musically, personally, and as a human being – is that she is authentically who she is. In the world of the “singer-songwriter”, there’s an awful lot of pretense, and posturing, and adolescent silliness. But Emma, from the beginning, has been profoundly herself. In everything she does. It’s easy to forget that Emma has other dimensions besides a singer-songwriter. She’s a visual artist. A poet. And she is creative in all aspects of her life. And Emma is a “leader” in the sense that she has the self-confidence and the perspective on the world that gives her the ability to “take charge”. Every time I listen to “Depart”, I hear something new. Somehow, that “something new” is related to Emma finding some kind of authentic insight in experience. Words are not very good tools to explain this, are they?
Finally, what’s the best way for people to keep up-to-date with future shows and releases?
Meanwhile, for more information about Emma and her music, be sure to visit…
(Questions by Steve Rudd; Answers by Henry Doss)