INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Sunday Age MAY 11, 2003 - by Larry Schwartz
THE SHINING SPIRIT
Ten years after his last album, Daniel Lanois has once again commanded the critics' respect. He talked with Larry Schwartz.
When Daniel Lanois talks of the power to receive information, he's not alluding to phone, fax or email, let alone the wings of a carrier pigeon.
He says great artists are those folks that become the voice of a generation and have the ability to see the future, receive information, be channellers and, on a small scale at least, be part of synchronicity.
Not so immodest as to put himself in that hallowed category, he nevertheless explains his use of the word, shine, as the title of his long-awaited third solo album as a sort of channelling of energy that we all have. It's probably the thing that keeps me [supplied] with ideas and chasing after dreams and [is responsible for] ...my ability to see the future, he says.
You know, I'm going to try and move fast now, he says. I'd like to put something out, like in eight months' time. I'm not going to wait long any more because, hey, there's only so much time on the clock... I have a lot of music stockpiled over the last few years. I have probably twenty albums' worth of music.
At fifty-one, Daniel Lanois has been a ubiquitous figure. Even if you haven't heard the solo albums or soundtracks, including Billy Bob Thorton's 1996 film Sling Blade, you're bound to have come across his distinctive production, bridging state-of-the-art technology on albums for Dylan, Emmylou Harris, Robbie Robertson, Willie Nelson, The Neville Brothers or Peter Gabriel.
The beginnings of this uber-producer, though, were humble. He started out by setting up a studio with his brother, Robert, in the basement of the family home in Hamilton, on Lake Ontario, in Canada.
In 1979 he got his big break when he was approached by Brian Eno, with whom he began a series of collaborations including U2's The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree. The U2 relationship has endured through the years, with Lanois going on to work on Achtung Baby in 1991 and All That You Can't Leave Behind in 2000.
His influences are diverse. He cites steel guitar player Santo Farina in the duo Santo And Johnny, who had a big hit in the late 1950s with the instrumental 'Sleepwalk'. Lately, he's been listening to live recordings of the jazz great Charles Mingus.
Lanois' 1989 debut Acadie was hailed by Rolling Stone as sonically gorgeous - warm, immediate, bell-like. Four years late, Wynona received similar praise; now reviews of Shine suggest it's likely to feature prominently on end-of-the-year best-of lists for 2003.
Lanois' speaking voice is soft and measured. I do have my ups and downs, he says. I do have waves of insecurity, maybe on the edge of depression. So I just kind of counteract it by doing more music and more work. It's probably prolonging the inevitable surface agony. We all have something to deal with.
As a singer, though, he regrets his vocal limitations. I work with powerhouse singers and it makes it difficult to look at myself in the morning.
Enthusiasts reassure him: My supporters (say) your perspective, your soul, your angle, your originality, your way of dealing with instruments, they sound uplifting to someone else, and that's enough to go on.
About eight hundred people turned up to hear him at the Amoeba music store in Los Angeles days before our interview. It's a massive place and they sell everything, including used records, vinyl, and it's a lovely congregational setting, he says.
People in there are bohemian folks. They love records. They're living, breathing, eating records. It's an American thing to embrace the street and build it up with commerce. That's what I love about America.
He has a studio and office in Los Angeles and homes in Jamaica and his native Canada. Much of the new album was recorded in Mexico. I wanted to keep going south as a Canadian kid, Lanois says. We're great storytellers and there's been a lot of great artists and singers and songwriters out of there (Canada). But in regards to the bass - quite literally the bass guitar (or) bass drum playing - it's better in the south.
So I went to New Orleans to learn about that. I was there for about ten years and then I was fascinated with the Mexican culture for similar reasons. The Mexican records sound best on the jukeboxes. They've got the best bass and I just wanted to be exposed to that.
He recorded some vocal tracks for Shine in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca and near Baja, in the north-west, also because I wanted to be in a culture that wasn't so much in a hurry... I wanted to give my brain a break.
Lanois' recent travels have taken him to Dublin for yet more work with U2. He may feel a need to roam but, asked to name artists he'd like to produce, he cites fellow Canadians. I've worked with Neil (Young) sporadically, he says. He was a guest on the Emmylou Harris record Wrecking Ball (in 1995) and for years I thought we would be made for each other. But maybe not. I never got a call... I'd still like to have a chance to work with Leonard Cohen.
He has a reputation for being a hard taskmaster. With all records there comes a time when people get a bit lazy, because it's a tiring and unnatural process, he said after work on Dylan's 1989 album Oh Mercy.
He had resisted Dylan's call to bring in session musicians and pushed him to commit himself to the project.
Ironically perhaps, he's resorted to using Emmylou Harris (a very transcending voice) on the opening track, I Love You, of his new album, and has U2's Bono singing along on the second, Falling At Your Feet.
We co-wrote that song for Wim Wenders and it turned up in that film, The Million Dollar Hotel, but I thought that song deserved another life and I cut my own version and used one of Bono's outtake vocals.
As a kind of private joke, the name of a legendary bluesman Charlie Patton, now dead almost seventy years, is listed as a contributing musician on Shine, Lanois in fact recorded himself while playing guitar along to Patton records, then deleted the original and used his own Patton-style samples on three Time Out Of Mind tracks.
For Shine, he sampled a leftover Patton track from the Dylan sessions on the song As Tears Roll By. It's the opening riff that goes jing jing jing jing, he says, mimicking the propulsive strum of the small man with a big, harsh voice who recorded from the late 1920s and played his guitar from between his legs or behind his neck, Hendrix-style.
The second of four children in a French-speaking Canadian family, Lanois' parents separated and his hairdresser mother put the children in a 1955 plymouth sedan and drove five hundred miles and that was it.
He heard the call to a vocation early. I was about eleven years old and I delivered the morning paper, he recalls of his first few years in Hamilton. You had to get up at this ungodly hour, four in the morning or something, do deliveries for two hours and there's nobody around at that time and my imagination started growing.
It's at that time I just decided that I wanted to do something special.
His fans will tell you he's still delivering.