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Old 02-24-2002, 01:19 PM   #1
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Daniel Lanois article

The man behind Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, The Neville Brothers, U2 ...
Multi-talented producer Daniel Lanois boosted these artists' careers. Now he's gone back to the music his own
Greg Quill
ARTS WRITER

Nudging 50, but still projecting a waif-like, lost-boy vulnerability, Daniel Lanois squirms with embarrassment when he contemplates yet more Grammy nominations. He's up for Record of the Year and Album of the Year on Wednesday for his work on U2's All That You Can't Leave Behind, plus he is to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Juno Awards in April.

The multi-award-winning Canadian music producer is arguably the most influential and sought-after recording studio auteur of his time, with a list of credits that includes the best work by U2, Peter Gabriel, Willie Nelson, Robbie Robertson, the Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris and an assertively reconstituted Bob Dylan.

At a stopover in Toronto on his way to a business meeting in Montreal earlier this week, the intense, contemplative singer-songwriter in his own right is rehearsing a couple of his own songs in a downtown hotel room in preparation for a live-to-tape performance later in the day at MuchMusic. Large sheets of paper with carefully blocked lyrics and chord notations are strewn around his feet. An ancient Gibson acoustic guitar, a sorely abused instrument with a cracked deck rescued from a pawnshop in a town Lanois can't remember, leans against a chair. Several times in the next hour, he'll pick it up and strum it affectionately.

"I can only accept it as a compliment, as encouragement, and that's great," Lanois says of the looming Junos lifetime achievement nod. Big, black eyes and a self-conscious smile shine from beneath a toque drawn tightly over his head and ears, down to his eyebrows.

"But ... well, I thought I was just getting started."

There's not much of a scheme in Lanois' meandering career. All he ever wanted to be, from his early childhood in Hull, Que., was a guitar player, he says. But his curiosity about how music works and the ways sound can be manipulated to create "emotional documents" sidetracked him in his teens, when he started recording gospel music for his mother's church friends with his brother, Robert, in the basement of their home in Hamilton where the family had moved in the late 1960s. A decade later, the brothers were running their own small recording outfit, Grant Avenue Studios, something of an anomaly in a city where steel production and auto manufacturing were the major, maybe the only, occupations.

Because their rates were lower than those imposed by big-name studios in Toronto, and because word spread among the musical community that the Lanois brothers had set up an organic, creative cocoon in Hamilton, Grant Avenue soon attracted more than its share of local talent. Parachute Club started there, as did Martha and The Muffins, roots rocker Ray Materick and children's music star Raffi.

Diverted from his own musical path by the mechanics of recording, and disdainful of doing things the way they had always been done, Lanois began experimenting with the guts of his recording apparatus, "putting components together in defiance of manufacturers' recommendations, coaxing the equipment to behave in ways that weren't intended," he says. With Parachute Club drummer/composer Billy Bryans, he began creating the layered, resonant landscapes of "ambient sound" that would later become the Daniel Lanois trademark.

When one of those tapes found its way to avant-garde British composer/producer/ Brian Eno, who took Lanois on as engineer on a project he'd begun with fledgling Irish rock band U2, his reputation as a producer/engineer with extraordinary patience and intuition shot him almost overnight into the rock 'n'roll stratosphere. His dream of being a musician and songwriter was pushed well and truly aside for almost two decades, notwithstanding two solo albums (the folksy Acadie and For The Beauty Of Wynona) and several evocative movie soundtracks (Sling Blade, Birdy, 9 1/2 Weeks, Blown Away and Trainspotting).

Then suddenly, a couple of months ago, Lanois announced in the Los Angeles Times his decision to turn down producing work for the foreseeable future. He's making another album of his own music, his first since 1993 "maybe I'll do two or three," he says before he'll work again for other artists.

"I'm a musician first. I can never get that out of my system. Songs are forming in my head all the time. And when they're ready to be heard, that's when I have to get them down on record, get out and play. And I can't do that while I'm producing someone else for two years at a time."

It's a formidable step. As a performer, Lanois is a relatively unknown quantity, though his solo albums, as simple and uncluttered as his productions for others are often complex and expansive, have received universal critical acclaim. He has shared stages with such luminaries as Sting and Elton John, and has moved shell-shocked rock audiences with his understated delivery and subtle, delicate songs, many of them flavoured with nuances of Quebec folk music and patois. But he's no concert star, not yet.

"I've been the extra band member in just about every session I've ever produced," he explains. "My method is to learn to play the songs, to get into the arrangements, understand how they work, and, in most cases, to play extra guitar parts. I've been learning as I go. It's time to make a move on my own."

The time is right. A year ago Lanois divested himself of the Kingsway Studio in New Orleans, a sprawling old-quarter mansion that he has called home for the past decade, and which was a recording mecca for dozens of artists who have testified to its mystical, voodoo vibe. He sold off his lease on the proscenium cinema in Oxnard, Calif., where he recorded Willie Nelson's revered Teatro album named after Lanois' "favourite workshop" among others, and moved late last year into a rented 1910 Spanish-style house in Los Angeles to record his own songs.

"If I'd never bought Kingsway, if I'd just travelled to wherever I was needed with my tools in a suitcase, I'd be a much happier man today," he says. "I never wanted to own anything, especially another studio. It's not the kind of work I want to do."

Besides, he adds, he's sick of hearing the "Lanois sound," the wash of electronically textured organic instrumentation for which he has become famous, and which is now ubiquitous.

"Maybe it's Bob Dylan's influence. He doesn't like what he calls `broody stuff,' lots of echo and effects. People have begun expecting me to make music in the predictable manner. I don't want to do what's predictable."

A reclusive loner, unmarried and childless, Lanois values his independence above almost anything.

"I'm an idealist," he says, looking out the hotel window and nodding south, toward Queen St. "Teresa Roncon (former Citytv news and entertainment reporter, now host of YTV's Kids@Discovery) was the love of my life for a long time. She wanted kids and a home. She couldn't wait for me....

"There are a couple of women in Toronto I wouldn't mind looking up again."

Not on this trip. Lanois' schedule is punishing. He's hoping to squeeze in a meeting in Ottawa with federal Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, whom he knows from his Hamilton days, to discuss an idea he has about improving the lot of Canadian musicians on radio. He sees little benefit in the mandatory 30 per-cent Canadian content that still burns commercial broadcasters after almost four decades, and has produced little for the international market that is distinctively Canadian. Instead, Lanois would like the federal government, via the Canada Council, to finance a national radio network featuring only Canadian artists from all genres and generations.

"I'm pushing to reshape the content of radio in Canada, to celebrate Canadian musical legends and heroes. I don't know if Sheila will go for it, but I think it's a great idea."

For all that, there's a comforting practical streak in Lanois' nature that has allowed him to procure performances that are superior for their emotional honesty. Unlike most producers, who are obsessed with innovations in recording equipment, the toys of sound processing, and with making grand sonic statements, Lanois sees recording as the means of securing "an aural photograph of an emotional or spiritual condition.

"The secret is being able to spot the magic and never lose sight of what it was about a song that excited you in the first place."

Some songs don't begin until they're finished, he says.

"On the last U2 album, we'd just about finished one whole piece, when The Edge started blazing away on his guitar, making a sound like shattering metal, while Bono was ad-libbing over the end section of the song. Suddenly, Bono shouted out, `It's a beautiful day!' and in an instant, a minor fragment of improvisation at the back end of one song became something much bigger and more important, more emotionally powerful than what had gone before.

"We dumped the original song, built another one around that fragment, and re-cut it. And `Beautiful Day' became an anthem.

"Recording technology doesn't have as much to do with the personality of a record as all the other links in the chain. Fancy tools can be a distraction.

"I keep all my old tools, and haul them out of the box whenever I need them. These are remnants of discarded technologies that still have value. They may be less convenient, a bit more trouble to work with, they may have more knobs, but they also have a lot of personality.

"I asked Bob Dylan in our first session on Oh Mercy why he chose to play one piano over the other three in the studio.

"`Because that's the one with the stool in front of it,' he said. That's the school I belong to."


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Old 02-24-2002, 01:23 PM   #2
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The article states Lanois is turning down any producing roles in the near future in order to concentrate on his own work. So I would assume this means he won't be producing the next U2 album. Any ideas about who will?
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Old 02-24-2002, 01:45 PM   #3
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Yay Daniel....I mean Mr.Lanois.
A well-deserved accolade fro a hard-working and gifted man imho.
"Thanks for the push"
You know one thing that stood out for me in that article. He "rescued" a guitar from a pawn broker shop. I remember copping a blast from someone here for saying I had bought effects pedals from a pawn broker store. Makes me feel better to know Daniel checks them out too.
What is it with Canada and music?
Go Canada!!
"nudging 50" I like that too
Brilliant news/article candyfloss. Thanks for sharing.
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Old 02-24-2002, 01:48 PM   #4
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I've seen Daniel Lanois perform three times--absolutely stunning. One of the best guitarists out there. And I've missed him. I need more DL music asap.
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Old 02-24-2002, 02:34 PM   #5
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Great article, and some solid writing. (I wanna hear that new album of his!) Can you give us the source, please? Thanks...

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Old 02-24-2002, 05:51 PM   #6
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I think Daniel Lanois was also listed in Macleans as one of the 50 most influential Canadians.

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