The Globe recently visited Daniel Lanois at the place he hangs his wool cap while he’s in Toronto: a sprawling, funky former Buddhist temple in the city’s west end. We asked the musician/songwriter/superstar producer to discuss the songs that have meant the most to his career – a career to be saluted June 10 at a Massey Hall tribute concert, as part of this year’s Luminato festival. The ones that the Quebec-born, Hamilton-raised sound auteur selected represent material he wrote himself as well as tracks he produced for others. They were all linked by the emotionality, truth and soulfulness that thread through his work, whether on his own albums or those on which he has collaborated with artists such as Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan and the Irish dominators U2. “People feel something when they hear songs,” says Lanois. “If it came from a real place, people recognize it. And when the song feels the truth, then it lives on.”
The first track chosen by Lanois is An Ending (Ascent), recorded at his Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton in the early 1980s with fellow sonic adventurer Brian Eno. The title to the spiritual instrumental track (from Eno’s 1983 album Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks) alluded to both a conclusion and a liftoff, which was fitting enough.
The track An Ending (Ascent) is a standout for me, within that body of work which I was lucky to work on with Brian Eno. It’s the ambient chapter of my life, where for three or four years straight we worked on these instrumental, ambient records, Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks being one of them. An Ending (Ascent) went on to become a piece of music which got placed in a lot of films. I’m very proud that it has lived on in that way, because it has touched a lot of hearts. I see it as a point of reference, and very much ahead of its time, and it has created a lot of open paths for a lot of other ambient artists.
After their ambient collaborations, Eno and Lanois went on to produce U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, a 1984 album that hinted at the rich sonic grandeur of the band’s breakthrough 1987 album, The Joshua Tree, also produced by Lanois and Eno. The association with U2 (and Peter Gabriel) boosted Lanois’s profile and led to projects with other major artists, including Bob Dylan, for his 1989 comeback album Oh Mercy and the song Most of the Time.
I first heard Most of the Time at Bob’s house, where he played it for me on the piano and sang it. It stood out to me as a very powerful expression of love. I was determined to frame that song the best I could. The core of the song was Bob and me, sitting close to each other in two chairs. It was essentially recorded in my kitchen in New Orleans. I used a Roland TR-808 beat box piped through a stage monitor, so I knew the song could be rhythmically viable because it had metronomic time; I could add instruments to it. I asked Willie Greene to come in and play drums, and I came up with the little bass hook, which was a nice response to Bob’s vocals. I wanted something symphonic as well, but I didn’t want to use a conventional orchestra. So I used a Les Paul Jr. from the fifties through a Vox AC30 amplifier, full volume. In the absence of Bob, I overdubbed five guitar parts, all using single lines. It created a distant string ensemble, with Bob’s vocals very much in the foreground, and it complemented the emotion that he had built into the song fundamentally. It’s a good snapshot of what I had been through up to that point in my career.
Up to that point in his career, Lanois had done very little in the way of songwriting. That changed with his debut album, 1989’s Acadie (also recorded at his home studio in New Orleans) and the spiritually themed song The Maker.
I had never thought of making my own album at that point. I was happy enough to be a record maker for other people, and I was a guitar player for a lot of people in Canada. But I thought that the time was right. I had knocked out a couple of U2 records by then, and I had some tips from the Edge that related to an echo box he was using. It became part of my sound as well. I think the song The Maker is quite elementary in its poetry, but its stance is undeniably true. Other people, including the Grateful Dead and Willie Nelson and Dave Matthews, ended up covering the song. I think people are responding to the fact there’s some truth in it. I had put so much work into other people’s records; I poured my soul into everything I ever did. So when I made my own album, I think the stone had been thrown in the water so many times that the ripple finally came back to me. And when it came back, it was speaking the truth.
On Acadie, Lanois explored both his anglophone and francophone heritage, singing in both of Canada’s official languages, sometimes on the same song. As was the case with the autobiographical folk-rocked Jolie Louise.
It’s a very personal song, Jolie Louise. I wanted to write a song about my parents, from my dad’s perspective. Our family moved from French Canada to Hamilton, so I thought the story should be told in two languages. It sounds like a simple thing, but I don’t think it had been done much before. I worked with Peter Gabriel, and he told me he thought it was a very original thing to do. Not just mixing two languages for the sake of it, but the fact that the story involved the change from one geographical location to another and one language to the other. So, Peter Gabriel thought, “This kid is pretty good with the ambient stuff, and then he comes up with the smart songwriting angle.” He thought I had more in me, and that was a boost in my confidence.
In 1990 and 91, Lanois once again worked with U2, this time for Achtung Baby, a revolutionary, self-reinventing rock album partly recorded in Berlin, and inspired by European dance and industrial music. The band felt frustrated artistically at the time, and the Achtung Baby sessions initially progressed fitfully. Lanois talks about One, a song that sparked U2’s creativity, renewed their faith, and suggested that more good things would come.
It’s a big song, but One was kind of a slow burner. Everybody thinks of it as a hit, but it never really was a smash hit. It has a lot of soul and heart and passion to it, though, and it’s something that has really lived on. I worked on it very hard with my mates, including Flood [engineer Mark Ellis] and Brian Eno and obviously all the members of U2. It’s a nice representation of one of the peaks in the graph of our collaborative efforts. Everybody had their sleeves rolled up. We tried it this way and that way and we turned it upside down. It was very much a studio composition, and then Bono came in with a great lyric. I believe all great records have four pillars to stand on. And One came at a time when we needed a pillar.”
Sleeping in the Devil’s Bed: The Music of Daniel Lanois, a concert produced by Hal Willner, featuring Lanois, Martha Wainwright, Emmylou Harris, Kevin Drew and others. June 10, 7:30 p.m., $45 to $150, Massey Hall; luminatofestival.com/festival/2014/Daniel-Lanois.
Also at the festival: TimesTalk Luminato: Daniel Lanois and Special Guests, June 8, 2 p.m., $25, MaRS Discovery District, 101 College St., Toronto; luminatofestival.com/festival/2014/Timestalks-Daniel-Lanois
This interview has been condensed and edited.