Daniel Lanois

by Greg Prato

On his album Heavy Sun, and the inside stories of songs he produced for U2, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan.

Few producers have left their mark on popular music as strongly as Daniel Lanois, who Rolling Stone called "the most important record producer to emerge in the '80s." In his stellar career, he co-produced or solely produced such landmark albums as U2's The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby, Peter Gabriel's So, and Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy. He's also worked with Brian Eno, Robbie Robertson, The Neville Brothers, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and many others.

During one of his most productive periods, Lanois also found time to launch a solo career, which gave us such celebrated releases as 1989's Acadie, 1993's For The Beauty Of Wynona, and the soundtrack to the classic 1996 film Sling Blade. In 2021 he released Heavy Sun, a solo effort that combines his studio mastery with his astute songwriting. It reaches for the divine: Johnny Shepherd, one of his collaborators on the project, is the music minister at a Baptist church in Shreveport, Louisiana, which is where Lanois discovered him.

The 11-time Grammy-winning Lanois spoke to Songfacts around the time of the release of Heavy Sun to discuss the album and offer his thoughts on some of the classic tracks he produced, including U2's "With Or Without You" and Dylan's "Man In The Long Black Coat."
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How different is the songwriting process for you if you are writing an ambient song or a more traditional song?

Daniel Lanois: Well, an ambient song would be very private, and probably something I'd bump into through studio experimentation.

I spend a lot of time in the studio, and if we're lucky enough to bump into an exciting sound, it doesn't take a lot to keep the engine going. And then we might get to a very fascinating place, whereby a listener would be transported by the sonics and the beauty. So, that would be its engine.

But if it's a singing song with lyrics, then that's very different, because now we're talking about a subject matter. And that may be a true story, something that happened to me. I wrote one for example, "Jolie Louise,"1 from my dad's perspective when my parents split up. I thought that would be an interesting way to address what happened, and I decided on perspective on all that. So, you have to think about all those details - how you're going to tell the story. That's the main difference.

Songfacts: What is the lyrical inspiration behind your new track, "Power"?

Lanois: "Power" has a very simple message in it and it's a very used-up one: "people got the power" or "power to the people."

I thought it would be OK to revisit that as a suggestion that is not about necessarily a revolution - it might be a revolution looking at a person in the mirror, and what we have the power to do with the man in the mirror.

We have an opportunity to stay fit physically and mentally, to consider kindness in one's life and to make a difference to the house, the street, the neighborhood, the state, the country, the world. But it starts with the person in the mirror. And I just want to remind everybody that that is still intact, and still something we can operate by.

Songfacts: Also, what is the lyrical inspiration behind "(Under The) Heavy Sun"?

Lanois: "(Under The) Heavy Sun" talks about an imaginary place you might get to if you leave your ego hanging at the door and you walk in and you leave yourself open-hearted. It might be that magic place where you discover another dimension.

John [Shepherd], who sings the lead, sings, "I know a place where the spirit rises from the ground, from hurt to glory." Because in fast times and in hard times, it's easy to fall into demise thinking you can't wiggle out of a problem.

But if you manage to get yourself to this particular nightclub - and the setting could be in outer space or another dimension - when you enter that room you will find like-minded people who are also happy to be there and are looking to embrace the next chapter of life in an open-hearted way. It's just a fun ride in a '99 Cadillac - Johnny, who sings the lead, has a '99 Cadillac. We all get in the Cadillac, and we all want to drive to joys untold.

Songfacts: One of my favorite productions that you've done is your 1993 solo album, For The Beauty Of Wynona.

Lanois: For The Beauty Of Wynona was a tough record for me, because my first record [1989's Acadie] was very embraced and people found a truth in it that resonated with them - probably because the songs were about personal experiences. With a second record you don't have a lifetime of experience to draw upon, so I was a little confused as to who I was and what my responsibilities might be to myself and to an industry. So there was struggle in it for me, but in the end, whatever strains there might have been, I think they came out looking fine within the tapestry of sonics. As I hear that record, I now hear the depths I went through to look for new sounds.

It's always part of my criteria to do something sonically that has never been done before, and I hear it in that record. I say, "I can't believe it sounds naïve, because I didn't feel naïve at all." Like I was struggling. But quite a few people have said nice things about that record. There's a track on there called "Death Of A Train," and I think what I was trying to address in that beyond the specifics of the train was the change of an era and the things we have to leave behind to discover what might be coming around the bend that's fresh. I really feel a lot from that song, that way. And the bends in the road, they keep coming. I'm at one right now. What am I going to do now? [Laughs]

Songfacts: What was your favorite collaboration of your career, and why?

Lanois: I consider my record productions "collaborations" because I'm firstly a musician, and people bring me in because they're interested in my opinion. I love all my children, so, favoritism might get me in trouble, but I do appreciate the collaborative feeling that we had on Achtung Baby, which is a U2 record we made in Germany. And what was great about that was there were a lot of very talented, smart people in a room wanting the very best for everybody. That is the true meaning of collaboration.

Songfacts: I'd like to get your thoughts on some songs you worked on that have really endured, starting with Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer."

Lanois: "Sledgehammer" was a very fun song that represents where we were for that time. When I say "we," that's Peter Gabriel, myself, and a fellow named David Rhodes who plays guitar with Peter. He lives just around the corner from where we made that record [Ashcombe House, in Swainswick, Somerset], and we decided that we would establish a regime, like a work ethic. So, we had a bit of fun with the idea that we were turning up for work as if we were constructions workers. We'd wear these yellow hardhats!

We'd show up for work wearing the hardhats, and I'd always say, "Let's hit with a sledgehammer!" We'd get through the work day, and there were a lot of references to the sledgehammer. I think that's where Peter got the title. So, we had fun and work, combined.

Songfacts: U2's "Pride (In The Name of Love)."

Lanois: "Pride (In The Name of Love)" was an extension of how Bono was seeing the world at the time. Obviously, being Irish young men, they were aware of The Troubles of Ireland. They had written about that in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day." Terrible things had happened in Ireland. And "Pride (in the Name of Love)" was a continuation of his interest in justice and equality. He wanted to talk about that as if to say, "Martin Luther King was quite willing to sacrifice his life for what he believed in." It was very touching to that young man at that time, and he wanted to sing about it: "One more in the name of love."

It took us a while to get that track. We tried it in a castle, we tried it in a rehearsal room, and in the end, we got it at a studio called Windmill Lane in Dublin.

I don't know if I was right about this or not, but Windmill Lane was a conventional studio - very nice place - but not very cavernous with its drum sound, let's say. You hit a drum in the room, and it wouldn't be that inspiring. I invited the U2 crew to build me a concrete wall, so they built this cement-block wall behind the drums so we could get a little bit of punch happening. That's how extravagant things got! And in the end, we had a pretty good drum sound, but the drum sound comes from the drummer himself. So, bless his heart, Larry Mullen delivered a fantastic drum part on that. "Machine Gun Mullen." Thank you, Larry. [play the clip to listen]

Songfacts: Bob Dylan's "Man In The Long Black Coat."

Lanois: "Man In The Long Black Coat" was very much an example of how inspired we were in New Orleans making that record [Oh Mercy]. If I have this right, Bob wrote that song in New Orleans. The record started developing a "nighttime feeling" as we went along, to the point where Bob said, "We're only going to work at night on this record."

"Man In The Long Black Coat" has little bits we all came up with. Like, we might run away with the circus, and you might just find a new life if you flip up the switch. So, running away with the circus always had that in it.

The character in the song is looking for reinvention and some way of going someplace else and running away from convention, and she decides to do it with a man in a long black coat. I think it's not specifically about the man in the long black coat, but it's about that inclination that we have to find something new. Even if that means going into outer space and finding that club where you leave your ego hanging at the door. [Laughs]

Songfacts: U2's "With Or Without You."

Lanois: "With Or Without You" has a lot of "yearn" in it. You'd have to ask the man himself [Bono] what it's about, but what I get from it is you're ready to accept but you're ready to leave something behind, much like life itself. Something comes your way but there's a sacrifice and you have to leave something else behind.

But the making of that started with a beatbox - an available Yamaha beatbox that we had [sings the beatbox].

Then we came up with a chord sequence. Adam [Clayton] played a lovely bass part.

And then we had a little secret weapon. It was called the "infinite sustain guitar," invented by my good friend Michael Brook, a Canadian associate. Michael had invented this instrument where you didn't have to use your right hand on the guitar. You just held a note with your left hand, and he had a little self-looping system built into the instrument, which caused it to go into this [sings guitar part].

But as you went up higher on the guitar, the infinite sustain just kept going into the stratosphere.

So, that sound that you hear, I was taking the infinite sustain guitar out of the box and plugging it in to see what it did, and it started making that sound. The Edge was really just testing the guitar to see what it could do. He did a take, and I said, "That sounds pretty good. Can you try another one?" And then we did a second one, and that was it. We did a little "best of the two performances," and then it became that signature, high-frequency stratospheric sound on "With Or Without You."

I should add that this was a time of great concentration - we really wanted the best for everyone, much like Achtung Baby. We were all kids and we wanted something special to happen. So, our ears were wide open in case magic came our way. Thanks to The Edge for playing that guitar, and thanks to Michael Brook for inventing it.

Songfacts: Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes."

Lanois: "In Your Eyes," Peter had this idea that by looking into someone's eyes, you would see, quite specifically in the lyric, the doorway to a thousand churches. And maybe there's some relationship to what we philosophically thought about making the Heavy Sun record: "Yeah, you can stand in a church and it might have a gilded ceiling and statues, but you might speak to God by looking at someone's eyes who loves you, or you love them." I think it's as simple as that - the power of commitment and care and love will be stronger.

Everything on that record was cut to a beatbox initially, as was the case with "In Your Eyes." And Manu Katché from Paris - a great drummer - played that beautiful drum part.2 So that "down push," it's an old carnival beat - it keeps it motoring along. Even though it's quite a contemplative song, it has a little bit of carnival in its engine that keeps the zip in the step going and keeps you interested in the lyrics.

Songfacts: One of my favorite rock albums of all-time, Blind Melon's Soup, was recorded at your former studio, Kingsway, in New Orleans. Are you familiar at all with that album?

Lanois: I am familiar with those guys and I know they were down there, but I don't know the record enough to talk about it in detail. But isn't it great that something was made in that location? I rolled the dice on that building and I went to that city and I was able to create an arena for such a record to happen in. So, I'm a proud papa, even if I'm standing in the shadow.

Lanois built his first studio with his older brother Bob in the basement of their family home in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1968. Their mother, an indomitable woman who lived to 90, allowed it even though the drum booth was below her bedroom. In 1976, they set up Grant Avenue Studio, also in Hamilton, where they recorded Gordon Lightfoot and Johnny Cash. In the early '90s, Daniel set up Kingsway Studios in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where R.E.M. recorded Automatic For The People and Monster, Emmylou Harris made Wrecking Ball, and The Tragically Hip did Day For Night. Lanois' latest studio is in Toronto in what used to be a Buddhist temple.
Songfacts: How did you find Kingsway, and what made it unique when you owned and ran it?

Lanois: First of all, I wish it had a better name than "Kingsway." I think it was named by my accountant, because it was an available name in a database somewhere. "This name is available and it's cheap to buy." And I said, "OK" - it was one of those. I had finished what I call "the trilogy" - being Yellow Moon with The Neville Brothers, Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy, and then my first album, Acadie. I thought the city had something in it for me. For a Canadian kid, I appreciated that I was in the very city that a lot of music that I grew up with and loved had come from, and I felt that there was more exchange to be had. I think collaboration is in there and the city had a lot to offer, and I felt I had a lot to bring to the city.

So, I fell in love with the architecture and I thought, This fantastic building in the French Quarter has something in its walls. Let's build a recording studio. I had just acquired this beautiful API console from the Record Plant in New York because they were closing. It was a battleship of American technology - a beautiful piece. I thought, Let's carry on what the Record Plant built. Let's bring that to New Orleans, and see if we can make records here that will complement the devotion that the Record Plant had on New York City. So, that was part of the driving force on all that.

I was really on fire in those days with that kind of thinking. It was as simple as that. I thought it was a beautiful monument of architecture and a beautiful monument of American technology with that fantastic, custom-made API console - the best in the country. I said, "We're going to put it in this building and let records be made."

Songfacts: You just mentioned the API console. What were some of your other favorite pieces of gear in Kingsway?

Lanois: Kingsway had a beautiful assortment of musical instruments. I had a handpicked Steinway B - the "B" is a seven-foot Steinway that my friend Johnny O'Brien found and rebuilt for me.

It's a hundred-year-old piano - I still have that B to this day. So, we had a roaring Steinway B there. And the best of those are a little hard to find, so that was a very nice hand-picked instrument. People knew that and came to the studio partly for that reason.

But then I had my fabulous collection of guitar amplifiers and guitars. Continuing with my philosophical stance from when I was a kid, I decided that my studio in Canada would have a "house sound," so I started collecting instruments. A lot of the studios in the area had beautiful studios, but they didn't have any instruments other than one piano and one organ. I said, "OK, there's a window of opportunity. Let's do what they did in Motown in Detroit with a house-band sound." So, that's what allowed me to broaden my scope in Canada.

And I continued in New Orleans with that by having the best instruments. People might get to play that 1956 Les Paul even though they don't own one themselves. I made all of that available. I had some of the best gear, and everybody knew about it. I had Neve pre-amplifiers available as mic preamps, a nice mic collection, and all that kind of stuff. This was just before the digital explosion, so I had the best analog equipment we could find at that time.

Songfacts: What made you decide to sell Kingsway?

Lanois: After 15 years, I felt a new chapter was coming my way, and I went to Mexico. I had enough, and I felt that we had made enough records there and provided enough of a platform for a lot of folks. And I liked Mexico.

I kept going south. I found something in Mexico - a culture that really appealed to me. There was a term that I used at that time: "Where nobody has, and everybody gives." I appreciated that the folks I met down there didn't have a lot, but had some of the biggest hearts.

There was a term that [Brian] Eno used when I first hooked up with him: "Low baggage, high mileage." He said, "Having less can often bring you more." The rolling stone gathers no moss, so let it be Mexico.

I can get into other details and crazy stories - the water board presenting me with a $27,000 bill one month when it was leaching mains lined up in front of my building, as if, Let's make Lanois responsible for that. I was a little bit of a target down there for a while, but we won't go into the dark side.

Songfacts: What were some of your favorite albums that were recorded at Kingsway?

Lanois: I think Robbie Robertson did some good work down there. I appreciated that he came there and got to work with some of the greats that were still around with us at that time. I appreciated that Robbie and all his knowledge would decide to come to my place and garnish it with all of his research and development. He was another Canadian kid - a generation ahead of me - and he decided to investigate what was happening in Arkansas and some of the hidden corners of blues and rock and roll in America. We had a lot of American folks come through the studio, and I appreciate that, but for one of my Canadian heroes to come in and say, "OK Lanois, I'm going to work in your place. Thank you for setting it up," was big for me. So thank you, Robbie Robertson.

Songfacts: For anyone who is considering assembling a recording studio à la Kingsway, do you have any advice or suggestions?

Lanois: One thing that never goes out of fashion, you have to have really good power. So, no matter how beautiful the building may be, it's best to go with a modern electrical power system. And for the recording studio to be powered on its own panel and not be depending on old house power. So, that's a must. You have to get your power in order before you bring in the gear.

April 9, 2021

Here's the link to buy or stream Heavy Sun.

Further reading:

List of U2 Songfacts
List of Peter Gabriel Songfacts
Bob Dylan lyric quiz
Emmylou Harris interview
Ten Takeaways from Robbie Robertson's Testimony

Footnotes:

  • 1] "Jolie Louise," from Lanois' debut album, is an accordion-laced, part-French, part-English song about a Canadian man who turns mad after losing his job. It's loosely based on Daniel's father and uses his real name - Guy. (back)
  • 2] Peter Gabriel will scour the earth to find the right talent. Manu Katché is French; Youssou N'Dour, who sings on "In Your Eyes," is from Senegal. On the So tour, Gabriel recruited keyboard wizard David Sancious [from a less exotic place: New Jersey] and built in a section where he and Katché would improvise. Sancious also had to play the horn parts on songs like "Sledgehammer" by loading the samples from the actual recording into his keyboard and triggering them live. When he spoke with us, Sancious said Gabriel would have to stall for time while the floppy discs loaded. (back)

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Comments: 1

  • Steve Breems from Minneapolis, Mn, UsaGreat interview. Thank you. Learned some things I did not know about Daniel Lanois and his incredible journey.
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