Music has always been a part of Daniel Lanois’ life. He grew up listening to his mother sing, and to his father and grandfather playing fiddle music. As a teenager Daniel played in local bands. With his brother Bob he made a recording studio in the basement of the family home. To be honest, it was a cassette player/recorder in the laundry room - but hey, it was a start.
In 1974, at the age of twenty-three, Lanois built a real studio on Grant Avenue and began producing for local musicians in Ancaster, Ontario Canada. Although Ancaster has today merged with Hamilton, in Lanois’ boyhood the city was still independent. In fact, Ancaster is one of the oldest cities in Canada. The town’s convenient location at a break in the Niagara Escarpment caused commerce to flow as freely as the water, ensuring a bountiful life for the Ancaster area.
Daniel Lanois himself has had a career conveniently located to musical celebrities and megastars. Although he is an independent musician and artist with many albums to his credit, it is Lanois’ collaborations with famous artists that have brought him the most attention and awards. Of this he says simply, “It is in my nature to be helpful.”
He broke into the big leagues in 1983 when he collaborated with a gentleman named Brian Eno to create a soundtrack for a documentary on the Apollo space missions. Although Apollo: Atmospheres And Soundtracks has been hailed as an ambient masterpiece, Lanois recalled that the collaboration did not start well. He didn’t like the looks of Mr. Eno, and warned his brother Robert, “Make sure he pays cash.”
“We got very celestial,” Lanois recalls, “it was during the ‘ambient chapter’ in my life.” But not so celestial that Lanois could not give a musical nod to the Apollo astronauts. Hearing that the Texas based astronauts preferred country music , Lanois pulled out his pedal steel guitar to salute the space heroes with perhaps the only country tinged ambient song ever recorded, “Deep Blue Day.”
The rest of “Apollo” was decidedly ambient, with the spacious and beautiful “Always Returning” and “An Ending (Ascent)” highlighting the album. The following year Lanois and Eno collaborated again, this time for an up and coming Irish band named U2. Lanois came on the scene as the band prepared for its pivotal fourth album, a successor to the critically acclaimed War.
What emerged from the collaboration of U2, Lanois, and Eno was The Unforgettable Fire, a record featuring a very different sound for the band. Bono approved of the change. His great fear has always been that U2 would get musically stereotyped. No fear of that with Unforgettable Fire, an album Lanois describes thusly:
“The entire record has soft edges, but I suppose it can be viewed as...when you see great photographic images printed from film, the raw edges surrounding the portrait are part of the beauty. The medium presents itself, and therefore the restrictions become part of the dedicated work. I still love that about restrictions.”
Bono and his mates were so pleased with The Unforgettable Fire they invited Lanois and Eno to produce their next album, The Joshua Tree.
Of this effort Lanois recalls: “We just huddled up in a room and bashed it out.” The Joshua Tree was a mega platinum critical and commercial hit that broke U2 into mainstream American awareness (and wallets) to such an extent that it has been called “the U2 meets the US album.” The result was a Grammy for album of the year (1987).
The relationship between Daniel Lanois and U2 has continued over the decades. In 2006 Lanois helped produce another Grammy winner (Album of the Year) for the band’s How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. H More recently, Lanois produced and wrote songs for U2’s 2009 album No Line on the Horizon.
Somewhere along the way Bono recommended Lanois to Bob Dylan. The result was “Oh Mercy,” an album where Dylan and Lanois got up close and personal with each other. “It was a great honor to work with Bob Dylan,” Lanois says.
Dylan has always been a nightmare to produce (much less work with). Lanois, on the other hand, “wanted to make an intimate, soulful record that captured the feeling we had.” Then he remarks rather cryptically: “We sat down and concentrated. There was a moment when I thought we were losing concentration…”I’m not proud of the temper that I have.”
Later Dylan also remarked on the sessions he had with Lanois. Whatever happened between the two men, Lanois was able to summon a revitalized sound most critics thought was only part of Bob’s past.
To leave no doubt, Dylan and Lanois collaborated in 1997 for Time Out of Mind, an album that won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Around the same time Lanois collaborated with country star Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball, an album that – guess what? - won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.
Lanois’ magic touch was now eagerly sought out. He had his pick of musicians to record, and chose Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, the Neville Brothers, Willie Nelson, and Neil Young, to name a few.
So it was all good in the house Lanois until a fateful day in June 2010 when, on his way to the studio to work on Neil Young’s newest record, Le Noise, Lanois swerved his motorcycle to avoid a car and crashed. His injuries were significant: a cracked pelvis, partly collapsed lung, internal bleeding, and a bunch (ten) of broken bones. He was through for the year.
But by 2011, to the delight of his fans, Lanois was back in the studio. To the exasperation of his doctor, he was also back on his bike.
Today Daniel Lanois is pursuing a career as a musician, playing guitar for his band Black Dub. They have released several albums that have been critically acclaimed and commercially ignored. Black Dub’s sound is similar to many of the albums Lanois has produced: “a trademark blend of acoustic instrumentation and rich, impressionistic ambient sound.” Another source described Lanois’ sound as “recognizable and notable for its ‘big’ and ‘live’ drum sound, atmospheric guitars and ambient reverb.”
Although the public has largely ignored Lanois’ albums, Canada has not forgotten her own son. In 2005 he was inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, and given a star in the walk.
In June 2013 Lanois received the Governor General's Performing Arts Award, an important honor for excellence in the arts. The award was initiated by Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn in 1992 to award Canada’s best. Along with the award Lanois received $25,000 and a Royal Canadian Mint medallion.
In America Lanois has been recognized by Rolling Stone as “the most important record producer to emerge in the 1980’s.” Lanois is appreciative but unfazed by his celebrity status, the recognition, and the awards he has received. He remains a quiet, rather private Canadian citizen who can’t seem to stop bringing attention to himself.
Daniel Lanois is a man of extraordinary accomplishments, of which he speaks in a very ordinary way. Of the music he has produced and created, Daniel says simply:“If something is made in a pure way, with a lot of love, it will stand the test of time.”
In October 2014 Lanois and Black Dub released Flesh and the Machine. They have been touring ever since to support the album and spread their music. So today Daniel Lanois remains focused on sound, on creating new and ever more heartfelt music. And to that end may we all wish him well.
Joshua Klein, author of an article in Pitchfork entitled “Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois Remember the Making of U2's Unforgettable Fire,”October 23 2009.
The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Barshots TV Interview with Daniel Lanois, parts one and two. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=opgCQ_ihMH8