Interview: Henry Jordan Smith of Henry Hank

Name: Henry Jordan Smith
Current location: Ozark, Missouri
Project: Henry Hank
RIYL: Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Spellling, Juliana Barwick, Panda Bear, Phew
On tour now–show list at https://henryhank.bandcamp.com/

Henry Jordan Smith is an artist, composer and producer. Under the moniker Henry Hank, he self-released a gorgeous, can’t-miss album, The Weight of Eternal Self-Love, on February 21. The album is a stand-out 2018 release thus far, both sonically and conceptually. Weaving ambient cascades of ethereal vocal layers, textural synth melodies, and pulsing minimalist beats, Smith’s compositions gain depth with each listen.

The Weight of Eternal Self-Love documents and incorporates Smith’s journey of transitioning, inviting the listener to embrace vulnerability and truth. This is an album that needs to be heard, and this is an artist who needs to be known.

Digital Wheat Paste spoke with Smith about the new album, creative process, and personal journey. Feature photo by Zack Neuman.

DWP: You composed, produced, and recorded this album on your own. How did you approach this new body of work throughout the process?

HJS: The approach I took for making these songs was a lot different than what I’ve done before. With my past projects, I was really just learning how to use everything–like all of the programs and instruments were relatively new to me, so I sort of just improvised and recorded until something came together. With those pieces, my voice was the only tool I was totally familiar with. This EP is different because I know, for the most part, what the knobs and buttons do, but my voice has started changing due to testosterone. So the initial drafts of the songs, recorded before the voice drop, were very natural and improvisational, but the final drafts required a lot more thought than anything I’ve put out in the past. I really wanted to take my time and accommodate the limits of my changing voice.

DWP: Your new album is titled The Weight of Eternal Self-Love. Explain what this means to you.

HJS: This album unintentionally had a lot of themes revolving around fear and the emotional heaviness–weight–that fear creates. I had wanted to make an album that was more about me than anyone else, because my last releases felt more romance-centric. However, it became apparent pretty quickly that I was afraid of myself, and afraid of being alone with myself. So I got sort of obsessed with self-appreciation and self-love for awhile to try and counteract those fears, and externally I was showing all the signs of embracing who I am, but inwardly I was just freaking out and letting the weight get heavier. Through these songs, I worked on chipping away at that weight. Once I really looked at what I was saying, I was able to appreciate my own thoughts and needs and look at them more objectively, and sort of go from there. In that way, the theme of self-love is just as clear to me as the themes of heaviness and fear, because I made a lot of love-related breakthroughs when I started paying closer attention to the scary stuff. I tacked the word “eternal” on there because, though I do feel like I’m healing, there is still an overwhelming sense of “Oh my god can’t I just give myself a big hug once and be done with this?” Self-love is a deceptively massive undertaking.

DWP: This album is dedicated “for Lydia.” Describe the decision process of the dedication and to record this album over an extended period of time as your vocal register was changing during your first year on testosterone.

HJS: I chose to dedicate this album to Lydia, my birth name, because I couldn’t identify with or love that part of me for a long time. When I initially wrote these songs, I wasn’t planning to record them with a changing voice. In fact, the decision to sing over some of the first vocal drafts didn’t come until the initial nearly-final revisions were made. I was becoming so frustrated hearing my higher voice while doing the final masters, feeling pretty helpless with my lower voice, and I was about to give up releasing the pieces all together because it just felt… weird. I tabled them for awhile until it hit me: there needed to be some reconciliation between pre-transition and present-day me. When people come out as trans, there can sometimes be pressure from society to treat our younger selves as a separate person, or a bad version of ourselves, or, my least favorite, dead. I didn’t want to kill Lydia off, so I thought we should work together. I made new arrangements of the songs to suit both voices, sort of as a way of bridging the gap and saying “Hey, I appreciate you for what you were and what you still are.” I sort of think I saved my relationship with my younger self by doing this.

DWP: What materials were used to make The Weight of Eternal Self-Love album art? Explain concepts behind the work as a complement to the album.

HJS: The photo was taken by my good friend Zack Neuman. The big stuffed head is me, kind of. I tried to make it represent of a part of myself I was pretty afraid of losing when I initially came out: the squishy, vulnerable side. I was simultaneously trying to protect and kill off that part of myself, as a result of a lot of internalized garbage, and the art is sort of a play on that.

DWP: Describe your composition process.

HJS: I tend to write my songs in a very linear fashion, just following a path from beginning to middle to end, and add in sounds as they feel needed. A lot of my stuff has a slow build to it, and I think that momentum is a result of just tracing the pathway and allowing the progression to occur naturally, in accordance with my feelings at the time of writing. Usually, I’ll start with a synth lead and sort of mutter some filler words until a word sticks, and from there I’ll get the lyrics going, and so on. I definitely don’t think about the arrangement too much as I go, and usually the best way to arrange things doesn’t come to me until I’ve ruminated on the initial draft for a few weeks or months… or years, in the case of this EP. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t have much of a process at all. I like to aim for process, but usually I just wing it and hope for the best.

DWP: You’re based out of the Midwest. How does this influence your work?

HJS: For this most recent EP, in which I really tried to explore my transness and my relationships as a trans person, I think the Midwest influence was pretty heavy because the people here who dislike trans people make it really clear that they dislike trans people. The pain from that sunk in a lot before I came out, and I had a lot of fears of being seen and hated, of my art being hated because it was created by a trans person. I think those pains translate into some of my stuff. Ultimately, though, I think being from where I am from and hearing the kinds of things I heard about queer and trans people growing up helped push me to learn how to love myself more and make things that could help me and other people in a similar situation heal. Plus, the people around here who love themselves and love others are just as loud, if not louder, than the people who are afraid of queerness and art and expression and self-love. If I hadn’t grown up with so many fears about being who I am, I may not have found the love from within and the external push from people who love me to make this kind of art right now, art that makes me feel good about myself.

DWP: Describe your musical history.

HJS: I was heavily involved in choir throughout my school years, as well as dance and piano, and I think all of those things gave me a taste for performance and music. My parents are both musicians, too, so their constant practicing and playing and encouragement made me feel confident when I started playing shows with my ukulele when I was 15. I didn’t start goofing around with synth, really, until I was maybe a junior in high school. At that point, I began experimenting with the kind of stuff I do now. I don’t think I’ve touched a ukulele since.

DWP: Which artists have inspired and influenced you most?

HJS: Dang, speaking of the Midwest! A lot of the artists who influence me most are friends of mine who are based out of this same part of the country. I was really moved by Terror Pigeon and Little Ruckus (now Real Dom) when I first saw them perform at a DIY venue here in town when I was like 17. Watching them, I remember thinking “Wait, you can… do that?!” That was one of the first times I felt like I was connected to a band instead of just standing on the sidelines, and that night has carried me through a lot of my own performances. I have a few pals in my life who just bleed authenticity and inspire me so much–so that’s just one example–but it was a pretty powerful experience for me to have at that age and in my own hometown.

DWP: How does your live performance differ from composition sessions?

HJS: My live performances are a lot… sweatier. Usually louder or more beat-driven, but not always. Sometimes I like to improvise my live sets, and I think that creates a more ambient and peaceful atmosphere than my recorded music does. Something about being in a room with the right people makes me feel even safer to experiment than being in a room by myself.

The Weight of Eternal Self-Love by Henry Hank is available for streaming and purchase through bandcamp, and cassettes will be available for purchase on tour.

–Em Downing 

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