Jo Henley is the name of an up-and-coming Boston-based music collective that’s built around the singer-songwriter talents of acoustic guitarist Andy Campolieto and his fellow song collaborator Ben Lee – playing both electric and acoustic guitars. Rounding out the band’s five-piece lineup are fantastic mandolinist-fiddler Jordan Santiago, acoustic & electric bassist Jeremy Foti and drummer Mike Dingley.
So what kind of music do they play? Their recent appearance at Caffe Lena before an appreciative all-ages audience would suggest everything – including a fiery version of the Dave Brubeck jazz standard “Take Five” and even a dip into the Grateful Dead’s jam-worthy songbag to end the first set. But the highlight of their February 5 performance in Saratoga Springs was really their own refreshingly vibrant and well-crafted originals drawn from their brand new indie release, “Inside Out.”
Andy Campolieto recently spoke with Nippertown about the new recording, the special musical guests who joined them in the studio, the band’s current direction and style.
Q: There’s no one in your band named Jo Henley. So I guess the most commonly asked question you hear is, “Who is Jo Henley?”
A: Not surprisingly, this is definitely our most-asked question. We used to try to come up with a quick and different story each time like “Oh, Jo Henley is the body in the trunk” or whatever we could think up on the fly.
But the real story is that Ben (Lee) and I were in several bands together prior to Jo Henley, but at some point several years ago, we decided to strip it all down and start over in a more acoustic format. This really wasn’t a stretch for us because we’d always been quick to pick up our acoustic guitars and write our music that way.
Right away, we took a real liking to the new sound as a duo and wanted to get out there and see how our songs went over with audiences. Because most acoustic acts are solo artists – in a moment of cleverness – we decided to come up with a name that made us sound like one person. This way, when we were booked with other solo acts our name would fit right in.
I’d like to tell you that we thought it over for a long, long time, but the simple truth is that we took part of my middle name (Joseph) and Ben’s middle name (Henley) and came up with Jo Henley. We started to make a name for ourselves as a duo, but when we expanded to a full band we thought it would be unwise to change the name.
Q: You and Ben brought in some heavy hitters for “Inside Out”, your third CD outing. You collaborated with several guys from the Trey Anastasio Band (Ray Paczkowski, Russ Lawton and our own Nippertown bass hero Tony Markellis.) How did this all come about?
Ben and I grew up being huge Phish fans. So when Trey Anastasio (the front man and lead guitarist of Phish) formed a solo band, we jumped on that train, too. This was around 1999 or 2000. We thought Trey’s band was amazing. We were the young kids in the crowd who’d look up in awe on the stage and see Tony, Russ, and Ray playing. We could only dream that we could ever get to play with guys like that. Little did we know that one day we would!
Just as we started tracking our previous album “Sad Songs and Alcohol” – which recorded in Schenectady – we parted ways with our bassist. That left us with booked studio time and no bass player. Tim Lynch who runs the studio (The Recording Company) asked us if we wanted him to have Tony Markellis come and lay down some bass lines. We thought he was joking – we really did! But Tim explained that Tony lived nearby and that he had worked with him on a jazz project a year earlier. Tim dropped Tony a note and sent him some of our demo tracks.
Tony liked what he heard and agreed to come down and track four tunes. Afterward, we’d find someone else to finish the rest of the tunes. Things went so well that Tony ended up playing on the whole album. He even joined us on a bunch of shows, and we’ve all remained friends ever since!
Q: So now you’re going back in the studio to record your third album “Inside Out,” and it’s a career-defining project, so you bring in Tony again and…
A: Ben and I knew we really needed to go for it wholeheartedly if we wanted to make a real career out of this. We’d generated some buzz from our last album, and we really toured behind it. Things looked like they were finally starting to click for Jo Henley. We had a bunch of great new material, and we were ready to record. We knew in our hearts that we needed to make a big splash this time around.
Ben, our fiddler/mandolinist Jordan (Santiago) and I got in touch with Tony again. We’d all been looking for a chance to work with him, and we’d met Russ briefly once. He’d heard good things about us from Tony, so when we decided to approach him, he was happy to get involved. Ben and I were ecstatic because this was more than we could have hoped for.
But there was problem. We already had a drummer and a bassist who had been expecting to play on the new recording. Telling them we were going in another direction was not fun. Professionally, this was a no-brainer. But on a personal level, this was an agonizing decision to have to make. They took it okay, and we all continued to play out together for a while, but things never quite recovered. We parted ways soon thereafter. We now have added Jeremy Foti on bass and Mike Dingley on drums, and things are better than ever. It was the right move to make.
Ben, Jordan and I cut some really rough demos of the new tunes and mailed them to Tony and Russ. Afterward, all five of us spent a long – but really fun – weekend together in a studio outside of Boston with producer/engineer Rob Loyot recording the basic tracks to “Inside Out.”
The sessions were amazingly smooth. Most of the takes are first or second run-throughs. Once in a while, we’d ask for a couple more takes just so we could play more music together. When we asked Ray if he was interested in adding piano and organ, and he said yes, well, we were happy campers.
This wasn’t just about us making an album with our heroes. This was us making the best possible album we could. Stylistically, we knew just what we wanted – an album that mixed that tight, in-the-pocket jam-band groove sound with our own Americana pop-roots sound.
To my ears “Inside Out” sounds exactly like what our core Jo Henley band sound is – but backed by the Trey Anastasio Band. It’s less twangy or folksy than our last two albums, but it’s got more twang than anyone who is used to hearing Trey’s band. I think it’s an excellent record, and it’s one all of us are really proud of.
Q: You and Ben have a musical collaboration that goes way back. You are the primary music writer, and Ben has collaborated with you on some songs. What’s your approach to writing? And what’s your musical background?
A: Ben and I used to write most of our songs together for the simple reason that we were room mates together for many years. We had that common singer/guitarist relationship – like Page/Plant or Jagger/Richard – where I’d take a guitar riff or chord progression from Ben and put a melody and lyrics to it. Afterward, we’d work up an arrangement together. For example, the song “Gonna Make it Right” off the new album came about that way.
But since we don’t live together anymore the writing process has evolved. Now, I write songs or rough drafts of songs and then drive down to Ben’s house, and we polish them up. If he doesn’t like something, he’ll say so, and we arrange the songs together. I always like to say that I make basic black-and-white sketches, and Ben and the band color them in to make them murals.
Q: You mix a lot of different influences and musical styles. It’s hard to categorize the Jo Henley band, which is good. What are your personal musical leanings? Who are you trying to reach with your music?
A: The closest genre we come to is roots-rock. We are more than happy to fall into that category. I think roots-rock casts a wide enough net to include everything we try to work into our sound.
Our main focus is on traditional American music: rock, folk, bluegrass, country, jazz, blues, etc. But we also are not afraid of pop, funk, reggae or anything else. The fact that I don’t sing like George Strait – I grew up in Schenectady, after all, not Texas – means we’ll never be true-blue country or bluegrass, as much as we might try to be. That’s fine. We jam a lot and can go from bluegrass to funk to reggae and then back to a ripping fiddle solo over a two-step beat.
If you’re looking for club music, hip-hop, quiet finger-picked folk, punk rock, death metal or anything extreme – you’ll probably hate us. But one of the things I love most about Jo Henley is that we win over crowds who all they like is country, and we win over crowds who usually hate country.
Q: You and the band live in Boston. There are a lot of great musicians living there. There are a lot of great schools including Berklee, New England Conservatory, etc. Do you see living and working there as a challenge or a blessing?
A: These days, if you want to make a living making music – especially playing the type of stuff we do – you need to get out there and hit the road. We always enjoying performing in Boston, and we have a loyal following there, but you’re right – it’s a musicians’ town. The folks who like our style of music most are other musicians.
We try to get down South as much as we can. The fact that we are doing something fresh and new with country and roots music works to our advantage there. We’re always well received in the southern states and in California, too.
In a way, Jo Henley was almost tailor-made for Northern California. We have that hippie cowboy thing going on that plays well in the greater Bay Area and that has made for some terrific shows. If only it wasn’t so far away we’d be out there all the time!
Story and photographs by Andrzej Pilarczyk
TOMORROW: Check back at Nippertown.com tomorrow for Andzej’s interview with Jo Henley (and Trey Anastasio) bass man Tony Markellis.