Recording and Reunion

Once fellow students, Lee Henke and Gena Johnson are now artist and producer

In 2018, The Last Revel were a Minnesota trio of barnstorming, high-energy bluegrass players touring the country and giving standing-room-only shows in their home state.

Founding member Lee Henke knows full well that going from bar band to festival favorites in a few years would make most players feel elated. Instead, Henke’s depression and anxiety seemed to always stay several steps ahead of every upward move of the band’s. Despite everything, he was finding it impossible to stay happy.

Lee Henke found the ideal road was taking the solo route.

“My mental health was crippling during my last two years with the band,” he said. “I was pretty well gone by the end.” Seven years after starting the group, he announced he was leaving. And though he was hard-pressed to draw a direct line between the music and the pounding depression, he knew instantly when he made the right move.

“The moment I left,” he said, “I felt better.” That’s when Henke officially went solo, taking a literal and metaphorical road toward his goals of deeper connections with people and with his own music.

“I didn’t get into music to play to the biggest crowds,” said Henke, a 2012 University graduate. “I got into music because I wanted to connect with people in a genuine and honest way.”

Henke is awaiting the release of his new album “Captain of the Ship.” It was produced in Nashville by his former music industry studies classmate Gena Johnson. It’s a collection of songs that are informed by nothing less than a new life as he performs in venues across the country on his own terms and his own comfort level.

 “There are things about the band and having management booking that I absolutely miss,” he said. “But overall I’m much happier and healthier. I finally got to a place that feels very sustainable. I’m not burning myself out.”

Many of his performances are accompanied by Nashville singer-songwriter Ira Wolf. He cites his relationship with Wolf, personally and professionally, as proof that he’s on the right track of living in a way that’s important to him. The two became engaged in early summer.

Henke and Gena Johnson teamed up on Henke’s album, “Captain of the Ship,” as artist and producer, respectively.

Wolf sings and performs on the new album, and said she enjoys seeing and hearing the effects of Henke’s direction.

 “I think it’s kind of a special thing for him to be able to express himself when it’s just him,” Wolf said. “Not having anyone else to lean on or to impress. Kind of a different dynamic.” 

In the studio, the back-and-forth between Henke and his former music industry classmate at Minnesota State Mankato was enlightening, he said.

“We went through every song with a fine-tooth comb and worked on how to support what I was trying to say,” he said.  “It was different for me than any recording process I’ve done in the past. With her, every take was a new thing. We’d get done and she’d say ‘Ooh – I think the chorus needs to be louder or longer. Or ‘here’s the tag at the end, let’s try it that way.’ So none of the takes were the same.

“We were both completely open to anything.”

A live version of “Take Me to the Movies,” from Henke’s “Captain of the Ship.”