joshua henry
Photo: Rengim Mutevellioglu / Press

Joshua Henry

I am not introducing Joshua Henry to the world. He has been in eight Broadway shows and has been nominated for three Tony awards. I am, however, introducing him as an artist through a different medium, his own solo, written, and recorded music. On his debut single, “Hold Me,” Henry croons like he’s channeling a combined spirit of Bobby Womack and Leon Bridges. He emerges with a modern pop reinterpretation of a classic soul sound that differentiates him from, dare I say, a lot of other attempts by Broadway artists, making this transition into a different form of artistic expression. 

After speaking with Henry, I realized a natural ability in pop/soul recordings should be expected from him, as music was truly his first love before the acting bug also bit him. Raised in South Florida, he played guitar in cover bands and at his church while also belting out resounding notes with fervent passion. He’s maintained an impressive vocal range to this day and uses it deliberately on “Hold Me.” The pitfall of actor/singers flipping to studio musicians is they fail to understand that the tones exist in different pockets. Henry’s upbringing and early infatuation is something he has wanted to return to for some time. Thus his affinity for this specific tone is only a result of that yearning. He lets his voice fully express itself, but innately knows how to keep the sound contained to come through smoothly on record.

We spoke over Zoom about everything from how he got to the point of releasing this single and eventual Guarantee EP in February, to how he thinks other live performers like himself must adapt to this uncertain time.  

What spurred this decision to record and release this single and then eventual EP?
For me, it was a long time coming. This pandemic put everything in perspective and made me think about what was the most important thing to me. Before I got into musicals, I’d always been into music. I played in a band with my brother, and we called it Peanut Butter and Jam Session when we were kids.

All through my 20s, I was in a musical, but I’d always be writing on the side. In this pandemic, my wife was like, “You need to put everything aside. Babe, this is what you’re here to do, focus on the music.” It’s been just me in this little room and my producer Neff-U in LA bouncing ideas back and forth. He would say to me, “Josh, use your full voice.” I thought I had to be a pop star or R&B singer, but you know I got a really big range. He encouraged me to really use the fullness of it. On this album are many different colors. The sounds go from deep in my chest voice to super-high Maxwell falsetto. In this pandemic, the album just came together. I wrote the majority of the songs in the last six months. 

How long have you been playing guitar? Did you play on the recently released “Hold Me” and the rest of the EP?
I’ve been playing since I was 11 in church and cover bands growing up in South Florida. On this record, yes, I played guitar. It was just me and this Taylor going into this little microphone and a little micro keyboard. Everything that you hear is my orchestration, but Neff-U, my producer, really amped it up.

On “Hold Me,” some of the guitar parts I put in, he beefed up with EQ. Then he may have gotten another guitarist to put a little twist on it. But the mainframe of the idea came in this room. Every song on this album except one was my musical idea. In 2012 I really started writing words for songs. I really respect the art form. I talked to some of the best writers out there, like Sebastian Cole, Ross Golan, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, who do a good job of straddling that line from musicals to the pop world. It feels good to study them and come into it like a student. 

Do you feel like there are differences in recording your own music versus singing on stage or recording a cast album?
A hundred percent. The biggest difference is the time that you have. A cast album is maybe a day, which is crazy. With my music, there are some songs that I wrote in a day or even in 20 minutes. But with this process, I go through each phrase with a fine-tooth comb and think about the emotional impact. It’s all from me. I wasn’t putting on a character. I’m in a new season of openness and vulnerability. I’m gonna say exactly how I feel about something. I’m a really spiritual dude, but I also like to have fun. I’m also a father. I love my wife. I want to talk about all of those things. The process flows when you talk about who you are. That’s why it came together so quickly.

Do you think any of your acting training or professional experience with that craft either helps you or gets in the way of you making your own music?
I think part of my training in musical theater helped me in terms of technique and storytelling. Doing my own music, I found new ways to approach different pieces of my voice. One thing I appreciate about musicals is it’s all about a cohesive story.

Whether it’s a two-hour musical or three-minute pop song, I’m thinking about where the listener is going on this journey. One thing, though, when I’m on stage, I’m going for the rafters. When I’m recording, I find that doing that gets in my way. I have to close my eyes and go internal. 

Your solo music has a lot of classic soul sounds. Are there any artists in that realm you draw from? Or how about newer artists?
Curtis Mayfield was big for me. I love how his guitar is just so free. I’m a huge Stevie Wonder fan. The ’70s. The soul of Marvin Gaye and Donny Hathaway. Now, I love the soul and spirit of India Arie. I love that Childish Gambino can on one album have so many flavors. I love Anderson .Paak. He’s one of the most prolific writers out there, but when he wants to smile, he smiles. He’s a musician. I like artists that are multi-faceted. Lauryn Hill for someone who can sing but also spit, which I did a little bit on this album. I can’t leave D’Angelo out. 

So for “Hold Me” the hook lyric is, “Hold me, just don’t hold me back.” What life conundrum spurred that statement slash question?
I think there have been a few. A lot of it was about my wife and I. We’ve been together for 15 years since the University of Miami. There have been times in our relationship, like any longterm relationship, that were really hard. As an artist, I have a really strong vision of where I’m supposed to be and where I’m supposed to serve. I’ve always had that in the back of my head.

There have been times where that vision of where I see myself going hasn’t matched up with how she sees us going. Some of those struggles and those moments were like, “Is this gonna be the end of us?” I remember writing about these things like, “Please, I wanna be with you, but I know where I’m going. Can you support me in this vision?” It’s about those close to you understanding that you need support. That’s the origin of it. Like I said, it’s a new moment of openness and vulnerability for me where I’m like this is what it is, “I need you right here / I need a guarantee / Hold me, just don’t hold me back.”

So do you feel like the pandemic allowed for you to have this more open expression?
Music is my first love. So having the opportunity to just dive completely into the music gave me this space to really get lost for the first time without having the expectation of doing stage work or tryna save my voice. I’m over here exploring with no worry. I dove into who I was and what my voice was saying. I just let it go. 

It’s interesting you said “Hold Me” at its core stems from your romantic relationship with your wife, because the visual tells the story of a mother and son. Was that yours or the director’s idea?
Because “Hold Me” means so many things, I thought, “What’s the best way to deliver the song in its most relatable essence?” One thing that’s really important to me is young artists. Trying to give them all the tools that have helped me. I didn’t have resistance the way this young me has (in the video), but I know that that happens a lot, especially right now.

There’s not an outlet to perform, and I talk to a lot of kids from a lot of conservatories, and their parents are like, “Time to try something else, homie.” The “Hold Me” in that aspect is, “Let me hold on to the vision I have for myself.” That was my idea as far as having the young me with the guitar, but Mateo, the director, brilliantly stitched that together. 

What’s the significance of Guarantee, which is the title of the EP?
There are so few guarantees in 2020. I thought the irony of this moment was really cool. Then the song “Guarantee” [on the forthcoming EP] was about what is a guarantee for a lot of us right now: our phones. I did so much of that in the pandemic. I was like, “I’m emotionally spent, but I’ma pick up this phone.” I wanted to talk about what that absurdity means. Hopefully, we think about the real guarantees in our life.

Speaking of something not guaranteed, if Broadway does open up at the end of May 2021, does the release of your EP potentially collide with rehearsals for a show?
Obviously, there’s no guarantee, but music for me right now is the focus. I am not done with Broadway, but I do know that this has been calling me for a very long time. I’m appreciative of my fans who embrace this music. If there was a Broadway show in May of next year, which there very well could be, or I could go tour with my album, I’d have a very hard decision to make. I will say it would have to be the perfect show situation to get me away from sharing my voice in music at this moment. I love growth, and I love change, and I feel like this is the new avenue for me to understand more that I don’t know. 

Have you and those Hamilton guys, who also do their own music, ever thought about doing a collaborative tour?
Bro, that’s a great idea.

I’ll take 10% on that.
We’ll give you five.

Those guys have been heavy into music for a while, before the Hamilton moment. We bout to get that super tour Anthony [Ramos], Leslie [Odom Jr.], Daveed [Diggs], and me. I think it’ll be well received. 

So last question. In this moment where, as we’ve talked about, live performing isn’t guaranteed for the near future, do you deem it necessary for Broadway professionals like yourself to find other artistic mediums where they can express themselves?
Whether you’re dabbling or experimenting with something new or you’re like me, where this has been on your heart for 20 years…Yes. Yes. Yes. I encourage folks right now to explore new mediums.

Even if you don’t have an album ready, pick up the guitar. Pick up your headphones and start messing around. Just see where it goes. Get in the practice of creating. Now is the right moment. Don’t be a one-trick pony. Even if you don’t have any new tricks, you can start developing new skills right now. I’m getting into producing now. I’m producing a docuseries. Pick up a phone. Start recording some content. Send it to a friend. Get embarrassed. Then come back and do it again.

If you’re really called to this, you’re gonna find a way to serve. I think about the business like a restaurant. Some of us are the hosts, some of us are servers, some of us are cooks, dishwashers, managers. If I believe in the restaurant, and I do believe in the restaurant, I’m gonna find whatever way I can to serve that. You got one life. Explore.