Daniel Lanois: Revisiting Wrecking Ball

Music Features Daniel Lanois
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The current stage of Canadian producer Daniel Lanois’ career began in 2009, when he helmed the recording and producing duties for Neil Young’s Le Noise. The rocker was so impressed with the sonic outcome of one man in a studio that he titled the album after him.

The 62-year-old winner of multiple Grammy awards became driven by the possibility of making one man sound as though several were performing in the room. Two years ago he began to add layer upon dense layer to his own recordings. The result will be released this fall, his first new solo material since 2007’s Here Is What Is.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this,” Lanois says in a recent chat from his Los Angeles recording studio, where he spends most of his time when not in Toronto or his native Quebec. “It’s very technologically driven, but with a soulful result.”

That’s not difficult to imagine, coming from the producer who has fished some of the best, emotionally driven work from the biggest names: U2’s Achtung Baby, Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire (with ex-Roxy Music founder Brian Eno); Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind; Peter Gabriel’s So and Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.

The latter, which won the 1996 Grammy for best contemporary folk album, is marking its 20th anniversary with a release of a re-mastered album (out today on Nonesuch Records) and a spring tour of the United States, United Kingdom and Europe. Lanois is serving as musical director, sideman and opening act.

The Wrecking Ball re-issue includes several outtakes that have not touched human ears since the initial recording sessions.

“We may have walked away from [some of] these a little too quickly,” Lanois says. “There’s a song on there called ‘I Could Never Be Gold,’ and I think we should have put that on Wrecking Ball, but now it’s turning up on the re-release.”

Wrecking Ball is a defining work for Harris. In the mid-‘90s, she was fighting to remain true to her country origins, while the genre was turning over to Top 40 pop. Lanois allowed his friend to remain true to her roots, while at the same time placing his fingerprints—layers, delay, reverb—over each song.

Lanois says it has stood the test of time because of the love and passion that Harris and her musicians—including Neil Young, Lucinda Williams, Larry Mullen, Jr. of U2 and others—poured into it.

“We were really devoted to a certain kind of sound, and I always thought that it had enough Appalachia in it for it to belong to Emmy,” Lanois says. “We had a little bluegrass in it, in the sense that we were using mandolin—but electric mandolin, with a mando-guitar, actually. A combination of that with the beautiful upright piano that we rented. I pulled up the dulcimer for a few songs. Those are all old-fashioned instruments, as electrified as I might have made them for the record. I think the spine of those instruments belongs in tradition.”

The vocals, which were all recorded live, and “sonic tapestry,” as Lanois refers to Harris’ root sounds, remained loyal to her past recordings. The end result allowed her to carry her music and career forward, while at the same time respecting the country music heritage
“I think it’s under people’s skins,” he said. “People may not fully understand why they appreciate something, but I think all these little details add up to something that will last.”
The album includes a haunting cover of Young’s “Wrecking Ball,” as well as Jimi Hendrix’s “May This Be Love.” The guitarist is Lanois’ idol, and the producer believed that Hendrix had some country guitar-playing qualities to his music. It was his idea to do the cover, and 20 years later, he calls it one of his good ones.

On his own albums, Lanois has never shied away from trying new things. Most recently, in 2010, he released a reggae-tinged soul record with several frequent collaborators, calling the project Black Dub. It was the first time he led a band since the start of his music career some three decades ago.

He calls his new work, which may consist of instrumentals, his most sonically driven yet.
“Some of it pushes on what I call the symphonic button,” he says. “We, as music listeners, are programmed to respond to…symphonic classical music, and this conjures up a certain emotion in us. To this day, that’s why people use orchestras for film soundtracks. I think that the capacity that we have to respond to symphony will be touched, also, by this record, because some of it is symphonic. As electronic as it might be, it’s got that in it.”

He can’t come up with a term for this new direction, but lets Paste create one for him: Electrified symphony. “Okay, let’s use that. That’s pretty good.” The self-proclaimed “studio rat” says he wouldn’t recommend his time-consuming recording process for this record on anyone.

Lanois isn’t waiting for the Harris tour or the solo album to release new music. In February, he released one-off single “Papineau,” which he recorded with singer Laura Cole over the course of a few hours.

The entirely fictitious jazzy bar tune tells the tale of an argument between a father and his daughter over a new man in her life. Lanois says he has had the idea for the song for more than a decade. When Cole, the daughter of a friend, told him she wanted to record together, he pulled out the partial song and finished writing it with her. Papineau is the name of the boyfriend in the story.

“It’s sort of an old Quebec name [and] I liked the idea that the boyfriend would have a funny name like Papineau,” Lanois says.

Lanois wanted to release the song right away because he’s not a fan of holding on to finished material for longer than he has to. He’s not expecting to make much money on iTunes, the only place to make a purchase, but he enjoys the creative freedoms that come with it.

“The absurdity of delivering a record, and a year later, that’s what you’re touring—just seems wrong to me,” he says. “I tend to lose excitement about things and move on.”
His new album may not even get a traditional tour. Instead, he has partnered with the Modern School of Film in New York to match tracks with young filmmakers, who will create visual projects to go with the music. Fans will also get to contribute with submitted videos.

In a live setting, the songs would complement the films, not the other way around.

“It may be showing a film with prerecorded music, but I may venture into the old silent movies with the organ player,” he says.