With a string of hits behind him, studio wizard Daniel Lanois goes solo again

Brian D. Johnson April 14 2003


With a string of hits behind him, studio wizard Daniel Lanois goes solo again

Brian D. Johnson April 14 2003




With a string of hits behind him, studio wizard Daniel Lanois goes solo again

DANIEL LANOIS remembers the first time he met Bob Dylan, and ended up cutting a record with him in a kitchen. It was 1989. Lanois was recording the Neville Brothers’ album Yellow Moon in a studio he’d built on the top floor of a five-storey apartment building in New Orleans. Dylan needed a producer for his next album, and Bono had recommended Lanois—who had put U2 on the map with The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. As Dylan took a seat in the control room, Lanois pushed the playback button, and out came Aaron Neville’s ethereal falsetto—singing Dylan’s own With God on Our Side, complete with a new verse that Neville had written. When it was over, Lanois recalls, “Bob turned to me and said, ‘That sounds like a record.’ A very big compliment from Bob. He’s a pretty smart cookie, and I think he could sense he was getting me at a good time. He knew something was on the boil.”

Lanois suggested Dylan record his album in New Orleans. “I said, ‘I’ll take care of everything. For $150,000 [plus royalties], I’ll rent a building, build a studio, get all the musicians.’ I rented a house in uptown New Orleans, a nice, kinda Victorian place and just set up in the kitchen. Songs often sound good in kitchens.”

The album was Oh Mercy. As if steeped in the humid air of the bayou, it was ripe with the spooky atmospherics that have become Lanois’ signature. And something about it must have stuck. Eight years later, when Dylan came to record Time Out of Mind, a late landmark in his career, once again he turned to Lanois. They split the sessions between Miami and an old porn theatre in California. Lanois has built studios in a barn, a castle and on a Mexican mountaintop. Now, after producing hit albums with artists such as Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Robbie Robertson, the 52-year-old producer turns the spotlight on himself as a singer-songwriter with Shine, his first solo CD in 10 years.

Cradling a 12-string guitar, Lanois sits on a white leather couch surrounded by 5,000

The producer can usually tell early on if a song’s going to be a hit-‘You can’t try to get them. They just put up their hand and say, I’m special, feed me.’

sq. feet of hardwood floor. This freshly renovated loft—an undivided room bigger than a basketball court—is his Toronto pied-àterre. It looks like the ultimate bachelor pad. At one end is a pool table, an old upright piano with the cabinetry stripped away, and a pedal steel guitar. The kitchen, where an assistant prepares gourmet snacks, is a small atoll of Jenn-Air appliances and slabs of butcher block. In a far comer, flanked by tropical plants, is a claw-foot tub on an oasis of black sheepskin. The loft’s factory windows have roller blinds made of orange and blue gels used for stage lighting.

Lanois has come a long way from his mother’s basement in Hamilton, where he built his first studio at age 19. A nomad on an endless search for the perfect room, he now considers his home Jamaica, where he rents a cottage at Goldeneye from Island Records legend Chris Blackwell. His “business base” is an Italianate villa overlooking Silver Lake in Los Angeles. As for the Toronto loft, it’s new, and Lanois is not sure what to do with it yet. “ft may very well turn out

to be an experimental workshop for me,” he says. “Eve got a homemade film that I’ve been working on for a few years. I may start showing it here; this could be my cinema. I like the idea of saying, ‘I’ve got my own movie and I’ve got my own audience.’ ”

Lanois could pass for a filmmaker, or a longshoreman. He’s dressed all in black, his thinning hair covered with a watch cap that he never takes off. He’s heavy-set, with dark features that point to a Québécois ancestry tinged with Native blood. “I believe it’s Mi’kmaq and Algonquin,” he says, “I think there’s a history of lumber camps.” He speaks with a cautious intensity, but every so often gives in to a shy, bucktoothed smile. Occasionally, he stops to sing part of a song from Shine, and as his fingers knit a circular rhythm from the guitar, his voice is surprisingly delicate, almost childlike. Especially for a former delinquent who grew up stealing cars and dealing drugs in Steeltown.

He was born in Hull, Que., the second of four children in a French-Canadian working-class family. His father, a carpenter, played fiddle, and his mother has always been “a kitchen-sink kind of musician,” says Lanois. “She’s got the force. That’s where the gene comes from.” When Daniel was 10, his parents separated. “My mum just threw the kids in the car, drove to Hamilton and said, ‘I’m not coming back.’ My dad was an alcoholic, a pretty old-school French-Canadian macho character, and there was probably some violence involved. He stole us back for six months. Then my mum stole us back again, ft was a very bad scene. They never spoke again.”

Lanois’ mother worked as hairdresser to support the four kids. “There was no money around, unless I made it for myself,” he says. “I was pretty resourceful.” As a young teen, he sold Methedrine and LSD downtown, and stole the odd car. “My values got a little out of whack for seven or eight years. But music saved me. I got sick of the underworld and seeing a lot of losers.” Lanois played guitar in garage bands, strip joints and northern Ontario bars. In 1970, he and his

older brother, Bob, opened a studio in the basement laundry room. Gradually they expanded their technique, and equipment, finally opening Hamilton’s Grant Avenue Studio in 1980. It would host artists ranging from the Parachute Club to Raffi. And that’s where Lanois began to work on ambient sonic textures with producer Brian Eno.

It was Eno who brought him to Ireland to co-produce U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. Forging a career-long chemistry with the band, Lanois went on to produce The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby and All That You Can’t Leave Behind—Lanois’ U2 oeuvre has won a combined total of 10 Grammies and sold over 40 million copies. “With U2,” he says, “we’re always flying by the seat of our pants. They’re very spontaneous and inventive people. If the room is vibrating with music, Bono will grab a mike and come up with a melody. I keep my notes and try to spot every piece of magic that goes through the day. It’s up to me to keep things tidy.”

In Lanois’ studio, the tape is always rolling. “I like to print my processing as I go along,” he says.“If I’m working with a piece of music and the blend is interesting that morning, I stop everything and print that feeling we’re hearing. I will not trust that I can ever come back to it, or that on the day of mixing, everybody’s going to be a genius. It’s up to a very smart guy to harness the genius as it comes and stack it up. Genius is like bricklaying. I have a builder’s mentality. I’m the opposite of an architect. I build in the absence of a blueprint.” Lanois says he can usually tell early on if a song’s going to be a hit. “You can’t try to get them. They just put up their hand and say, ‘I’m special, feed me.’ ”

One thing Lanois has learned is how to capture presence on tape. He calls it “soul-mining,” and he likes to go deep. That’s why Dylan sought him out for Time Out of Mind. “Bob called up and said, T think we got something left to say,’ ” recalls Lanois. “You never know what’s going on in Bob’s head. He’s a bit of a punk. I met him in a hotel in New York and he read me the lyrics to all the songs non-stop, back-to-back. He also talked about his love of the sound of old records.” With old technology, straining under the weight of early rock ’n’ roll, Lanois explains, “you got that overdrive, and it’s almost like hitting the lens with too much light—you get a flare.” The producer tried to simulate that in the studio. Dylan also insisted on a live sound. “Bob wanted a lot of interplay. We

had 11 people in the room at one time, with two drummers. Even without overdubs, there’s a lot of depth of field to that record.” Depth of field. Lanois talks like a filmmaker, one who’s not only trying to capture the moment, but also to photograph sound as a dance of shadow and light. No wonder directors such as Wim Wenders and Billy Bob Thornton have used him to create movie soundtracks. “Daniel’s productions are very visual, emotionally visual,” says Emmylou Harris, who had him produce her 1995 album Wrecking Ball. “He’s the guy that has the night goggles,” she told me. “He is able to see the centre. No matter how much is going on, he’s always focussed on the action.” Assembling an eclectic band—from U2 drummer Larry Mullen to Nevilles bassist Tony Hall—Lanois brought “turbulent rhythms to seemingly traditional things,” she adds. “Of course, he ended up playing on almost everything. I thought of my voice as another instrument weaving in and out of this landscape. And he pushed me as a singer. He gave me the opportunity to

flex vocal muscles I’d never used before.” Producing is an obsessive craft. And in the mid-’80s, Lanois was almost consumed by it. He was in London, producing Peter Gabriel’s hit album So. “I was living in the bell tower for a year,” he says. “No social life. I kept very elaborate journals of every thought, every bit of processing. When I study those diaries now I realize I was actually ill with dedication and arrogance and single-mindedness.” But drugs were not involved, he adds. “After my teenage drug years, I became a priest, a work-dog priest. My medicine cabinet was blank for years. I didn’t drink one drop of alcohol, smoke anything, take anything. My drug is still the work. But now I can go to Dublin and hang with the best of them four days straight.” In the late 1989, the nomad producer put down stakes in New Orleans. A warm voodoo breeze crept into his sound, from the scything sound of crickets on Dylan’s Oh Mercy to the Cajun accents of Lanois’ first solo album, Acadie. After the sonic melodrama of Gabriel and U2, the spare acoustic ballads ofAcadie showed another side of Lanois, the folk troubadour searching for his roots. It’s an album about migrant souls. In Jolie Louise, which ping-pongs between English and French, a Quebec mother just like his leaves an alcoholic dad and drives off to Ontario with the children. In Still Water and The Maker, migrant souls cry out across a great, dark divide. And with 0 Marie, rhyming “Marie” with the jouai profanity

He’s the guy that has the night goggles. He is able to see the centre. No matter how much is going on, he’s always focused on the action.’

“hostie,” he crafts a Québécois folk song about tobacco workers.

Acadie is a classic; it has the intimate beauty of an inspired first novel. Lanois’ second solo album, For the Beauty ofWynona (1993), is a more tortured affair, with a dark, serrated edge. But his latest effort, Shine, aims for a quiet warmth reminiscent of Acadie. He recorded some of it in Mexico’s Baja peninsula, under the thatched roof of a terrace carved into a mountaintop overlooking the sea. “I spent a year in Mexico,” he says. “There’s a mysticism down there that I like, and a sense of the psychedelic. They live closer to death. It’s celebrated, a bit like the way it is in Ireland.”

On Shine, exploring the subtlety of the pedal steel guitar, Lanois strikes a chord of naive incantation. Buffeted by harmonies from Emmylou Harris, I Love You is a ballad that floats over big, overlapping swells of sound. With a nursery-rhyme cadence, Falling at Your Feet, which Bono co-wrote, yearns for a “simplicity,” away from “all the big ideas/all the radio waves/on electronic seas.” And in As Tears Roll By, visions of downtown despair are buoyed up by a folkloric lilt. In fact, much of Lanois’ music is inflected with the circular, see-saw rhythms of old Québécois folk songs. “I grew up with those melodies,” he says, “and that stuff really sticks with you.”

Lanois admits, though, that his French isn’t fluent. “But with a French girlfriend, it comes back quickly.” So he has a French girlfriend? “I’m not going to tell you who she is,” he says. The nomad has never been married. Girlfriends, like studios spaces, come and go. Looking forward to a club gig in Toronto, he says, “There’s a good 20 girls I’ve known who I think are going to be there.” Laughing, he strums his guitar. “I’ll do that Willy Nelson song—‘To all the girls I’ve loved.’”

I catch Lanois performing in Montreal, at a small concert in a club on St-Laurent. “This little place reminds me of some of the old opera houses in the south of France,” he says, addressing the audience in English. Lanois is accompanied by just a drummer, a jazzman from New Orleans named Brian Blade. He discovered him while strolling through the city with Iggy Pop—“we heard this thundering sound come from a café.”

Onstage, Lanois is shy, almost awkward. His voice, which is not strong, tends to get lost in the strafing of his electric guitar. Constantly fiddling with the controls, he seems

to be producing his own performance, like a man at war with himself, eviscerating each song until it has nowhere left to go. But the audience treats him like a homecoming hero. When he sings the French lyrics of 0 Marie —“nobody ever put hostie in a song before,” he boasts—they sing along with every line. Midway through, he bombards the song’s gentle folk rhythms with a rolling assault of industrial guitar, and it’s like watching the

Quiet Revolution find its voice in the space of a few bars. The crowd goes crazy as only a Quebec crowd can. Even when Lanois resorts to shameless shtick—having a takeout order of poutine delivered to the stage—he can do no wrong. Five minutes after the last encore, as the roadies tear down the equipment, the fans are still on their feet, cheering for more. In the home he never knew, the nomad is embraced as a native son. ful