Daniel Lanois and His Gospel of Grit

A masterful musician and acclaimed producer talks craft, creativity and a career dripping with Grammy gold

Daniel Lanois 2021 (Art: Ron Hart)

If Daniel Lanois suddenly decided to pack in his career at this point, he’d still be able to point with pride to the many accomplishments he can claim at least up until now.

Indeed, he’s helped shape the sound of an innumerable number of  iconic artists — Bob Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, Peter Gabriel and Brian Eno, among the many. In each case, he’s left an indelible impression that absolutely illuminates his very own specific signature style — a blend of atmosphere and ambiance that allows that provides a distinctive change in trajectory. The eleven Grammy nods he’s won along the way not only testify to his talents, but also to the fact that in an industry dominated by proficient producers, Lanois has managed to still stand out from them all.

In addition, the 20 solo albums and soundtracks he’s released under his own aegis over the course of nearly 30 years help further define his aptitude and ability. Indeed, his latest effort, Heavy Sun, finds him and his colleagues — Rocco DeLuca (guitar, vocals), Johnny Shepherd (organ, vocals) and Jim Wilson (bass, vocals) — sharing a return to his roots, a sound informed by gospel, reggae, electronica and spiritual sentiment. Not surprisingly, the music frequently brings Bob Marley to mind, through both its craft and conviction.

The soon-to-be 70-year-old Toronto-based musician and producer readily admits that comparisons aside, his new album does boast some special significance.  It brings to mind his earliest studio endeavors, a period of time when he was mostly focused on recording gospel groups that were touring Canada and including a session at his studio as part of their itinerary. 

“As a youngster, I got to hear the excellent intertwining of vocal parts and and how the harmonies serve the melody, and so on,” he says now. “So I’ve always had an interest in this kind of music. And then, when I met Johnny Shepard from Shreveport, Louisiana, it was really kind of a benchmark. I thought, ‘Okay, let me work with this young man, and we’ll see what happens.’ Likewise, Rocco DeLuca is one of my best friends from L.A. and we always wanted to do something like this. Jim Wilson has toured with me a lot, so being with all these guys presented an opportunity to gather and do some harmony singing to which everybody contributed.”

Daniel Lanois Heavy Sun, Maker Series 2021

It wasn’t only practical, but purposeful as well. Recorded just prior to the pandemic, it shares an uplifting attitude that’s especially needed now. 

“The times that we’re in have been marked by division and discord, and that was kind of the motivation for the songs, kind of a way to bring people together,” Lanois suggests. “It’s uplifting, music, sort of what we need to hear these days. As Johnny says, ‘Happiness is one thing, but joy is the best.’ And so, if we can bring a little bit of joy to the people’s lives in these times, it’s all for the best.”

Not surprisingly, the input Lanois offers others is often reflected in his own work as well. It’s not unusual that an element he’s infused into someone else’s production reemerges in a solo session. It’s a practical example of give and take.

“That certainly happens just by proximity and osmosis,” he suggests. “When you work with people, you pick up lessons. I may not do an identical thing to what I’ve already done with someone, but the lessons do jump up at me and may bring me back to another body of work I was involved with at any given time. In a four year block of time, I did plenty of ambient records, especially in the early 80s. And then I went to New Orleans, and I did Dylan and the Neville Brothers. That’s a little block of time and a block of work. Those are chapters that ramped up my enthusiasm. After I did the Neville Brothers Yellow Moon record, I had a better understanding of rhythm. It’s like being a sponge. I study in the school of life with my work in the studio. Imagine standing next to Aaron Neville, as he sings ‘With God on Our Side.’  I’m in tears, and no amount of tuition money could have paid for that.”

 

 

Clearly, he finds a mission through his music, a means to progress as well as to prosper.

“For me, there’s always been a criteria and a quest, and that’s to take things into the future,” Lanois insists. “We all grew up as traditionalists in the sense that we got into this arena because we loved what somebody else did before us. And that’s fantastic. I love the safaris, but I don’t want to fall into the sand trap or the tar pit.”

Lanois claims that those instincts come naturally. “I’m self taught. I never went to school. People look at me and say, ‘how do you even know how to do it? You never went to school.’ And I say to them, this is the thing that you cannot learn in school, you feel it deeply inside, and you take responsibility. Am I going to make a regular Bob Dylan record? Not a chance. If I’m on my way to making a regular record with Bob, I’ll say, ‘Bob, thank you for the invitation but I can’t help you. I’m going home.’ If you want to make records that are going to be viewed as original, you’ve got to walk a different walk.”

Still, Lanois admits that getting an artist to veer in a new direction sometimes takes patience and persistence. It’s a process he’s grown used to from past experience. 

“We have philosophical exchanges,” he explains. “When I work with people, we were not just in the studio all the time doing the session. We talk about things and imagine what it could be. An awful lot comes from those exchanges. And maybe that’s the psychologist part of the process. You’ve got to figure out what’s hidden under there. What’s really the driving force? Why are these people even here? What are they trying to do for themselves or for other people? These are the kind of questions that come to mind. And I think that the answers to those questions make their way into the work. Again, you can’t go to school to learn this kind of stuff.”

Naturally then, there are times when there’s some negotiation involved, and Lanois admits that it’s not unusual to find him and the artist working through their differences.

“We all hit brick walls, but that’s how we turn around and find the right road,” he insists. “There have been struggles, I won’t deny that. With Emmylou and the album we did together, Wrecking Ball, we weren’t sure exactly sure what to do at first. But we had to trust the process, so we figured we’d get started and see what happens. And we hit on a sound quite early on. We brought in an upright saloos-type piano —not a beautiful grand piano, but a nice funky upgrade. Emmylou had a nice assortment of dulcimers in her house, and I had my my electric mandolin and my 12 string acoustic Martin with a pickup on it. I started hearing this kind of interplay of those strings and I decided to run with it. I was hearing Darlene love. I was hearing what the Crystals had done back in the day, records that we grew up with us as kids. It was just jumping all over me. I was hearing all of it. I had never heard that in my work before. I ran into the control room and Malcolm Burns, who engineered the record, said to me ‘Don’t touch a thing. We’ve found the sound of Wrecking Ball.’ We had the orchestra we needed behind Emmylou and I was so excited. We had found the sound to accompany her soaring voice and her beautiful talent. And I thank God that it came my way. It was her minute. She had a welcome new sound for herself. She rolled the dice in the hope that I would bring a new sound to her to her world.”

 

 

That said, Lanois insists that a hard sell isn’t always necessary. “People are always looking for something special and they’re never really gonna say no to something special,” he muses. “Everybody strives for something special.”

Even so, one has to wonder what it was like working with Bob Dylan, and if he ever felt intimidated, even in the least. Here again, Lanois is philosophical.

“I was a small fry from a small town, and being French Canadian, I didn’t speak English until I was 12,” he recalls.  “I grew up in Hamilton, Ontario, which, like Pittsburgh, is a steel town. So with that kind of background, you get used to boxing your way out of the corner. Will I always be the small fry? Yep. And will I always be insecure because of it? Yep. And might those restrictions be fuel to making things better? Yeah. But you know, Bob Dylan’s also a small fry from a small town. The first time I met him, he stopped in on the Neville Brothers Yellow Moon sessions in New Orleans. I think Bob just recognized that I was interested in getting to the center of the songs. I didn’t want a lot of razzmatazz musicians around us. I just wanted to focus on getting his voice just right. Bob got a little nervous partway through — like what the hell are we doing here, there’s no musicians around. And I had to explain to him that I was interested in putting him in the center and I didn’t really care about the framing just yet. We’ll get to the framing, I told him, so don’t worry. And that record kept that idea intact. The center is really powerful and the framings are dark and beautiful. We really captured something special on that record because of that approach, and because I didn’t want a lot of people around. I just wanted to really concentrate on Bob. We recorded around 20 songs, and, in the end, my responsibility was to be the curator and to say which songs tell the story the best. And that’s what I did.”

 

VIDEO: Daniel Lanois “(Under The) Heavy Sun”

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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