Photo: Ward Robinson
Daniel Lanois On Why A 1,000-Year-Old Tree Informed His New Album, 'Heavy Sun' & Working With Bob Dylan, U2
Some people think of a producer as someone who stays behind the board and doesn't join the band, but that's not what the seven-time GRAMMY winner Daniel Lanois is about—and it never has been.
On a bunch of records—even the ones the non-music fan in your life probably owns—Lanois has not only produced but sang, played and consulted. He added spindrifts of pedal steel to Brian Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks, belted along with U2 on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and played guitar all over Bob Dylan's devastating Time Out of Mind. And on Neil Young's craggy, cavernous 2010 album Le Noise—an album cheekily named after Lanois—he even vetted Young's lyrics and made suggestions for improvement.
That said, even his work with those musical titans doesn't encompass his self-expression as a music-maker. Since the late 1980s, Lanois has also released his own records, including one with his Black Dub project and another with the electronic artist Venetian Snares. His latest, Heavy Sun, which arrived March 19, is a nod to the organ players Lanois grew up listening to, like Jimmy Smith. The tunes therein, including "Tree of Tule," "Tumbling Stone" and "Angels Watching," hinge on naturalistic, archetypal images.
"I think there's just something very human about it," Lanois says about the feeling of small-room organ music. "It has neighborhood; it has congregation."
This is why he sang Heavy Sun in tandem right at the console with his collaborations: "When we harmonize together, we're not thinking about standing out. We're thinking about blending," he explains. "So we all have to blend as singers, but I think the congregation has [that] blend in it. You leave your troubles on the street and you come to the place of worship."
Turn up the joyful Heavy Sun, and you might feel your troubles lift. GRAMMY.com gave Lanois a ring about the process that informed the new album, why a millennium-old tree inspired a song, and the stories behind the classics he made with U2, Dylan and Eno.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Gospel and organ music are big influences on you. Which artists from those spheres are foundational for you?
On the road, I visited a few nightclubs. This was back in the day, in the '80s, in the south. There was a promoter that was dragging us to a few stops, and we ended up in a couple of late-night spots. I don't even know who was at the organ, but they were local heroes. I remember being in these greasy little spots and hearing a kind of nighttime organ playing. I went, "Oh my goodness." It felt really fabulous and it was welcoming and dangerous at the same time.
I grew up listening to Booker T. and Jimmy Smith. And then, more recently, I bumped into Cory Henry. Do I have that right? I believe so, yeah. He's a contemporary organist. I was introduced to him by Brian Eno. [We] were at a festival in New York and Cory was playing. I was really touched by his playing. And, of course, our great Johnny Shepherd [who] is in the band. He's a master church organist.
I just love organ records. I think they're a pure form and the bass is always in tune. [chuckles]
Heavy Sun gives me that sense of uplift I feel from Bob Marley or The Impressions. Or, as per those organ records, Jimmy Smith. How would you describe that ineffable something that lifts these gospel-inspired records?
Well, that's a lovely compliment to have any kind of association with the masters you mentioned. We've got a line in one of the songs, "Under the Heavy Sun," that says, "An imaginary nightclub that you go to, somewhere in outer space/ Where you get to leave your ego hanging at the door."
There's just something very welcoming about the sound of organ music and a sense of joy that rises up from that. Maybe it's because we're accustomed to associating the Hammond organ as a sound that comes from the smaller churches—the Baptist churches, the ones that couldn't afford the gilded ceilings and pipe organs.
There's something a little bit "street" and "neighborhood" about that sound. Even the little pump organs in the smaller chapels where I grew up, some of them didn't even have electricity—that's how far back it goes.
A massive burl in the Tree of Tule.
I noticed some archetypal images in the lyrics—stones, trees and angels. Were you reaching for something encompassing and timeless?
Well, angels never go out of fashion! Even an atheist likes an angel. Maybe it's the tap on the shoulder or that inner voice that allows you to make a good decision at a certain bend in the road.
But, you know, we've got a thousand-year-old Tree of Tule, so that's a good one. Tule is a little village I visited when I was driving through Mexico sometime back. I drove from Mexico City to Oaxaca and came upon Tule, and they had a thousand-year-old tree. It was in parquet and people were praying under the tree. They were not praying to the tree. The tree was a place of congregation.
So, there's something timeless about something that's lived for a thousand years, that came up out of the ground in the absence of technology. I guess those kinds of tonalities on the record remind us that [while] we are living in fast, high-tech times, some of the things we like and respond to have always been there.
What's your favorite tune of the bunch, if you have one?
I like "Way Down." We listened to "Way Down" last night and I realized it's a little jewel of sorts because it talks about an imaginary place that we might get to, geographically or otherwise.
There's a term [from] when I worked with the Neville Brothers. Art Neville used this term: "Oh, that's an old-folks-and-babies song." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "That song will touch everybody, somehow." So, we've had lovely comments on that song from grandmothers, from little kids, from hip-hop people. They say, "I like that song!" So, that one's one of my favorites. I think it's got a universal spirit.
I also like "Dance On." It seems at first like, "OK, you feel like you want to dance, dance on." But then as it unfolds, Johnny really goes for it. I like that he breaks on through to the other side. And this is what we look for when we make records: we get to a place we don't even know exists.
We call them "lift-offs." And if we're lucky enough to hit that magic point where lift-off happens, then we thank our lucky stars and we try to include it on the record. I believe "Dance On" has that in Johnny's delivery.
So you were sitting around listening to the record last night?
Last night at the studio, we put on a couple of tracks because I hadn't heard the record since I mixed it. I had a couple of friends over and we were reveling in the glory of finished work [chuckles]. We found the soul-ometer went on a couple of times. I felt pretty proud as a papa.
I believe that's what people respond to ultimately in music outside of the stylistic specifics. We want music to touch us, raise the spirit and take us someplace. I think we brought it to that place a few times on this record, I hope.
And the likes of you, people like yourself taking an interest in our work, who might help spread the gospel and get it on the airwaves. If somebody feels a little bit of joy and maybe they want to start living a better life, being a better person from hearing a few notes, then: Job well done.
I wrote down a question about peoples' response to the record, and if they felt that warmth and camaraderie during this period of isolation. From what you're describing, they absolutely did!
I've been getting comments that way. People are thankful that this was made. This record was largely made before the pandemic, and everyone's feeling isolated now. I think it's been quite a reset button for everybody. So if there's something in this music that resonates with people that way, then I'm very pleased that it is.
But we wanted to say a little something about a kind of freedom that we'd like to get to, as people. "Tumbling Stone" has that in it. I said, "Johnny, how are you feeling, man?" because Johnny's from Shreveport, Louisiana, and he came to Los Angeles to make this record with us. It was hard for him to leave home because he's a choir leader, a church organist and a church singer. So he had to leave his church.
And I said, "Johnny, but you still have the church in you! We're operating in a church with no walls. We get to be traveling ministers of sorts and if we can touch a few hearts along the way, isn't that a great way of spreading the gospel?" So we wrote about it: "I left my home on a pilgrimage/ A church with no walls," and all this.
I thought we addressed our own experiences and put them in songs. I think the listeners respond to songs from a truthful place from the writers.
You cited "freedom" as an operative word. What stands in the way of freedom for people? When you think of that concept, what comes to mind?
I see a lot of confinement. Oftentimes, self-confinement. In the neighborhoods I grew up in, a young man is a man when he gets a student loan and applies for a mortgage, and then is shackled by that for a very long time. So there might be a more bohemian point of view, to sidestep these shackles and chains.
It could be that a world could be entered that is not so driven by the usual pressures of loans and mortgages. Maybe there's something to be learned from the traveler, or the person who does not embrace those kinds of expectations—[who chooses] not to be living on credit cards.
Maybe the pandemic is chasing us in that way of enjoying the growth of your own food, and appreciating where they come from, and how to be wiser with your spending and think about the impact we have on our neighborhoods and our planet.
To take it back to Heavy Sun a bit, what can you tell me about how you built these tracks from the ground up, on a technical level?
[Some] of them were built with a beatbox beginning. For example, "Way Down" has a little rhythm box that we played the song to. It was very layered. I started with my acoustic guitar—my little Guild acoustic guitar with a magnetic pickup on it—and the beatbox allows us to use echoes. So, I had a nice little triplet echo on my Guild acoustic and I laid down a couple of those.
Then, we put on the organ. The organ plays the bass line, to get back to what we said earlier, how the bass is always in tune when it comes from the organ. So we have the luxury of a very nice bottom end on that. And then we decided we would split the verses, so Rocco DeLuca—my good friend and a great singer—joins me, and we sing the first verse in tandem.
And then, the whole group comes in on the chorus, and then Johnny on the next verse. Something I always liked on records by The Band in the '70s—Robbie Robertson and The Band—was splitting vocals. So we revisited that idea to give it that feeling of a group of four singers.
Other things were more freewheeling. [For] "Dance On," I had an invitation [to play] from a dancer friend of mine, Carolina Cerisola, a great Argentinian dancer. She was at a little dance club, and she said, "I don't have a song and I don't have a band." It was a solo number she was invited to do.
So I said, "Well, let's go down. We'll pay you a visit and we have a song called "Dance On," funny enough." And so in live performance, we recorded that version for her night and that's the version I got on the record. We hear them by hook or by crook. Ultimately, whatever provides the most magical feeling is what we go for.
All the singing was done right at the recording console because I do all my own punches and running back [and forth]. I invited singers to join me at the console and we sang to the speakers—no headphones and no vocals in the speakers. You can think of it as kitchen singing.
A lot of producers I know bang the drum of analog—analog this, analog that. So, I'm interested in how you blended analog and digital textures.
Obviously, we move with technology. I use a digital recorder. But to use a photographic analogy, we don't throw away our old lenses. We might have a digital back, but we still find a way to still use our old Carl Zeiss lenses, let's say. If a ribbon microphone sounds better on the voice, then let it be. That doesn't mean to say if we have a brand-new, shiny, sizzly mic [that we won't use it].
We appreciate that certain pieces have stayed with us. My echo machines are the same ones I've been using for a long time, for example. But we're not afraid of technology. I have this process called dubbing. I extract from an available ingredient in the multitrack, sample it and then spit it back in once I've processed it.
You may hear some orchestral tones in the distance on some of these tracks, and we didn't have an orchestra in, obviously. Some of that sound comes from my stereo technique and my dubbing technique.
Lucinda Williams and Daniel Lanois perform at The GRAMMY Foundation's "Music In Focus" in 2009.
When you consider the totality of your self-expression, where do your solo records sit as opposed to your production work?
It's all bleeding together more than ever. In regard to my solo work and production work, let me clarify that for any record I produce, I'm a musician in the room with the artist, usually. I'm a musician first, so I've always felt that kind of exchange with people I work with, including Bob Dylan and U2. They always welcome me as a member of the orchestra.
My contribution to production is largely my musicianship. There's plenty of people that do great work with technology and probably some better than me. But in regard to my aesthetic and my taste and what drives me, it all comes from a musical place. Every record I work on I learn from, and I take those lessons and bring them to my own work.
But when I'm working by myself on my solo recordings, I'm surrounded by people who I trust and are good mates. So they become producers, really. I can take that hat off for a minute and listen to good advice from my buddies.
You brought up Dylan and U2, and it might be elucidating for readers to hear a couple of stories about your production work. Can you narrow that down to three records you consider the most memorable?
I love all of my children, but I have fond memories of some of my work with U2. The Joshua Tree was done at a very potent time of devotion. We were very interested in experimentation with sounds and mixing technology with hand-playing.
The Joshua Tree had that in "With or Without You," which became a very popular song. We started with a little beatbox, for example. We put the drums on after. But more importantly, we were really focused, in a lovely setting in a beautiful farmhouse outside of Dublin. We had nowhere to go. We just rolled up our sleeves and concentrated on our work.
Then, winding the clock ahead to Germany and making Achtung Baby with U2. Monumental time. The wall [in Berlin] had just come out. It was winter; it was rock 'n' roll, but it was bleak. And the bleakness of it kept us in the warm studio. And, again, the limitations were very much a part of what we were doing.
Daniel Lanois in 1993.
Let's move over to Time Out of Mind. That record was started in Oxnard, California, in a little Mexican theater. Ultimately, we went to Miami, to Criteria, to finish the next chapter of the record. Bob wanted to assemble a large band this time, unlike the record I made with him called Oh Mercy, which was a very private record—just me and Bob in two chairs, mostly. This assembly of people made it such that we were afforded broader landscapes.
Jim Dickinson provided us with these very sophisticated musicians who provided us with the most amazing scapes—landscapes and skyscapes. It took us to a [magical] place a lot of times. We had the advantage of really greasy electric guitar work, but sophisticated details from Jim Dickinson. When you have 11 people in the room, you get a lot of results fast.
As a secret weapon, I had prepared these drum loops in New York from my friend Tony Mangurian. We had played along with some of the old blues records Bob wanted me to listen to—Charley Patton, Little Walter, Little Willie John. We did some backyard jams and I chose maybe a dozen loops of our best playing. I didn't include the original records; we just played along with them.
I vari-sped them at different speeds in anticipation of providing them to the two drummers in Miami—Brian Blade and Jim Keltner. The reason I'm saying all of this is that we were making a blues-based record and I wanted to have an insurance policy in case we fell into average blues, which I didn't want to do for Bob. I wanted to make sure we flew over the cuckoo's nest of barroom blues to take it to the future, at least emotionally.
So I used these loops four, maybe five times on the record. I fed them to the drummers in their headphones; Bob wasn't hearing them. When people came back into the control room to listen to the playbacks, they fed these loops in with what they played. The loops were magical to begin with, so it added this layer of magic to something that might have been more commonplace. I spoke with [some of the players] at one point and said, "Please leave expectations at the door. I don't want to hear any familiar guitar playing on this record.
I'm [also] fond of the record I was asked to work on with Brian Eno, Apollo. We made that in Canada back in the day. We worked on a lot of ambient records together. That's another record that really transports a listener. It's the record that caused me to take my pedal steel guitar out of the closet.
There's a track on there called "Deep Blue Day." If you ever saw the film called Trainspotting, "Deep Blue Day" shows up during the toilet bowl scene. But it's a record that takes you somewhere, and isn't that the job of art? That it would lift you out of your skin and take you someplace? It might just change a little something about your life for a minute.