“The most potent way to tell a story is first, to have lived it. And if you’ve lived it then you’re speaking the truth. And when you speak the truth, a listener will feel that it’s true. Therefore, your story will be more contagious.” — Daniel Lanois
Daniel Lanois is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and record producer who has helped create some of the most memorable and significant albums of the last 30 years. His music has had a profound effect on my own relationship to music.
In his world travels, Lanois has sought inspiration for his art through culture and connecting to the emotional openness of the human spirit. His craft is born out of experiencing melody, harmony and rhythm by constantly surrounding himself with musicians.
Lanois has offered unparalleled contributions to modern music through linking the musical roots of the past with his desire to forge ambient sounds of the future.
Music has always been a part of Lanois’ life. Born on September 13, 1951 in Hull, Quebec, Canada, he spoke only French until the age of ten. Music was a strong presence in his community and household; both his father and grandfather were fiddlers.
The melodies of French-Canadian folk songs were a part of Lanois’ childhood and provided the musical foundation for the many melodies he would later create.
Psychedelia and Soul
A move to Hamilton, Ontario in his teens set Lanois amidst the psychedelic explosion of the 60s. “The first time I heard Hendrix, I was in school and it made me want to quit school,” he says.
Now focused on the guitar, he began playing with some of his first bands in an abandoned YMCA building. Radio of the 60s was a transformative force for Lanois. Fueled by the radio waves emitting from nearby Detroit, Lanois was hooked by sounds of southern R&B and soul music.
“I think there is a quality that has never gone out of fashion or has been given stylistic boundaries, and that is having soul,” says Lanois.
Lanois and his brother Bob also began to experiment with recording and production tools in a makeshift studio in their mother’s basement. The duo started recording local bands and the international choirs that traveled through Hamilton.
Recording these choirs, Lanois found himself surrounded by musicians from around the globe and learned the importance of complimenting the essential musical elements of melody and harmony.
Enter Brian Eno
With local success came the need for a larger recording space. A move to a new facility, which Lanois named Grant Avenue Studios, paved the path for the life-altering steps to come. His early production work for Canadian artists such as Bernie LaBarge and Martha and the Muffins caught the attention of British producer and musician Brian Eno.
Originally a keyboardist for the 70s art rock group Roxy Music, Eno shared the musical and production sensibilities of Lanois. This common ground would lead Eno to work with Lanois at his Grant Avenue Studios.
The work that transpired included some of Eno’s groundbreaking 80s ambient recordings. Eno would act as a mentor for Lanois, providing him with the opportunity to hone his skills in sound manipulation and recording. The collaborative efforts of Lanois, Eno, and Harold Budd yielded the album The Pearl in 1984.
This creative process saw Lanois experimenting with sound treatments on instruments such as the piano. Through hours of turning knobs and innovating in the studio, Lanois was blending the borders between melody and sound texture.
A Call to Ireland
Eno eventually returned to the UK after a few years of work with Lanois in Hamilton. Upon his return, he began receiving calls from major artists who wanted to collaborate. David Bowie was one of these artists.
However, it was a call from the rock band U2 that would lead to an invitation for Lanois to join Eno on a co-production effort for U2’s fourth album, The Unforgettable Fire. U2 was seeking a more modern sound — and Eno and Lanois were on the cutting edge.
A few years later, Lanois produced the defining So album by Peter Gabriel. The following year, a second invitation from U2 led to Eno and Lanois producing what would become one of the most successful albums of all time, The Joshua Tree.
One of Lanois’ many unique strengths as a producer is his ability to connect on several levels with the artist he is recording. In a broad sense, the role of a producer is to guide and manage the creation of a record. Lanois pours himself into every project in which he is involved, drastically exceeding the standard role of a producer. Because he is a musician as well as a producer, he can freely communicate musical ideas, often joining in the creative process.
By keeping his instruments plugged in at the studio, Lanois’ prepared approach provides a fertile environment for musical spontaneity and creation. Coupled with his open and caring nature, a large part of his creative process is an exchange of ideas, be it emotional or philosophical, with his artists.
“I think the emotional makeup of people is actually what gets on records and it’s what people like about records,” he says.
Lanois has proven that he can capture emotional truth, whether working on his solo or collaborative efforts, or portraying that truth sonically through a rich musical landscape of the past and future.
Southern Heat in New Orleans
Soon after the success of The Joshua Tree, Lanois set his sights on moving south. With a desire to absorb the blues and funk rhythms of the southern United States, he established himself in New Orleans.
“I’ve always had an appreciation for the south. In fact, some years back I took a train from Canada to New Orleans to be in the environment where a lot of the music I love comes from. When I got there, I noticed the music comes from the neighborhoods, churches, people’s houses, parades, it was all part of the culture.”
By the early 90s, he had created Kingsway Studio in an old mansion he purchased. This proved to be a very fruitful period for Lanois as his extensive production list continued to grow. During his time in New Orleans, he produced records for artists such as The Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan. Lanois helped create two Bob Dylan records, Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind.
In 1997, Time Out of Mind went on to win Album of the Year at the Grammys, essentially re-kindling Dylan’s career. Lanois was intrigued and honored to work with Dylan and cherishes fond memories of that time. That sentiment was shared by Dylan who, in his 2004 memoir, Chronicles Volume One, describes the challenging but rewarding process with Lanois.
The Solo Artist
During his incredible journey of creation and collaboration, Lanois has also released six solo albums. When I was first introduced to Lanois’ music as a solo artist, he was touring in support of his Shine record in 2003. At the time, I had heard very little of his music directly.
The show I attended was in a church sanctuary that had been converted into a performance hall. Lanois’ rich guitar tones and vocals were accompanied by the unbelievable rhythms of jazz drummer Brian Blade. I was also treated to Lanois’ pedal steel guitar work, which beautifully filled the room.
“The pedal steel guitar is my favorite instrument,” he says. “It takes me to a sacred place. It’s like my little church in a suitcase.”
Although my seat was in the upper level of the venue, I could hear everything. I could hear footsteps on the maple hardwood floor and scraping of the guitar pick across the strings. The show was so personal, it was like having the band in my living room.
When I walked out of that venue that evening, I felt incredibly inspired. After years of reflecting on the show, I now realize it was a gift. It provided me the chance to feel a new kind of music in a way I’d never experienced. The soulful simplicity and sonic magnificence in Lanois’ art changed the way I absorb and create music.
Daniel Lanois currently shares his creative time between his Toronto and Los Angeles studios. His latest release is the documentary and album Here Is What Is. In the film, viewers get a glimpse over Lanois’ shoulder in the studio and through his creative travels across five cities.
Currently, Lanois is working with his new group Black Dub. Their debut album is slated for a May 2010 release, followed by a summer tour. With drummer Brian Blade and soul singer Trixie Whitley at his side, this release is expected to deliver soulful rhythms accented by the stringed and vocal mastery for which Daniel Lanois is so well known.
Please feel free to comment and share your thoughts on the music of Daniel Lanois. What are some of your favorite songs or albums? How have they affected you? If you have seen Daniel Lanois in concert, please share some of your comments about the shows.
To experience some of Daniel Lanois’ music, seek out and have a listen to these select tracks, which are standouts in an extraordinary career. These songs are an excellent starting point for new listeners and a glimpse at his large body of work. Below that, you will find 2 excellent videos for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!
1. “The Maker” on Acadie
2. “The Messenger” on For The Beauty of Wynona
3. “JJ Leaves LA” on Shine
4. “Duo Glide” on Here Is What Is
5. “Man In The Long Black Coat” on Oh Mercy (Written by Bob Dylan – Production and Doboro Guitar by Daniel Lanois)
*Written by Bob Dylan – Production and Doboro Guitar by Daniel Lanois
“Daniel Lanois Main” 3Li55 @ flickr.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/melissa/2367790481
“Daniel Lanois 1” Kmeron@flickr.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/frf_kmeron/3928356197/
“Daniel Lanois 2” email@example.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/cinetech/1431154012/
“Daniel Lanois 3” AJ @ flickr.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/u2wanderer/3005102241/