Daniel Lanois
Photo: Laura Cole / Courtesy of Missing Piece Group

Daniel Lanois Still Believes in Magic

Legendary producer Daniel Lanois discusses U2, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, his new instrumental album, and how he still lets the music guide him.

Player, Piano
Daniel Lanois
Modern Recordings
23 September 2022

In the music world, the role of the producer varies wildly, depending on who you ask or, naturally, who’s doing the producing. Probably no other rock producer’s touch can be so easily identified in the last 35 years than Daniel Lanois. He’s helmed projects as era-defining as Peter Gabriel‘s So and its follow-up, Us, and U2‘s The Joshua Tree and Achtung, Baby! He’s helped rejuvenate or reinvent careers, as on both Bob Dylan‘s Oh, Mercy and Time Out of Mind as well as Emmylou HarrisWrecking Ball and Willie Nelson‘s adventurously percussive Teatro. You know Lanois’ aural stamp if you’re familiar with those and any other projects he’s helmed over the last almost half-century.

The Canadian-born Lanois is also an accomplished musician who creates soundscapes for his own projects in his Toronto-based studio, as he’s done for his latest, Player, Piano, which is being released on 23 September through Modern Recordings. I spoke with Lanois by phone from his studio about the new project, some of the biggest albums he’s helped create, and how music continues to inspire.

How did the idea for Player, Piano come about?

Well, we’re trying not to use the word pandemic anymore, but it did happen during that time. I wasn’t about to have a 60-piece orchestra in because we were advised not to go to public places or around people. In the meantime, my piano playing got pretty good, and that, combined with the pandemic, gave us Player, Piano. I’ve only ever gently flirted with the piano, but a good friend of mine, Margaret Marrisen, said, “I love your gentle touch on the piano; you should make a record like that.” She’s the voice of reason in my life.

I’ve had an interest in pianos all my life from making records. I’ve acquired a few nice ones, a few beauties. They’re all old pianos. One hundred-year-old pianos that have been restored. On Player, Piano, I use three of them. Each one has its own personality, but they’re all quite soft sounding. I’m a little bit old-fashioned in my tastes in piano sounds. I like sounds from that bygone era in the 1950s and the rise of vinyl in people’s houses, you know, when you could hear Oscar Peterson on vinyl and all that. 

I’m operating by a romantic notion that in those days, there was something – perhaps with the limitations of the equipment at the time and method – piano recordings sounded a little softer. So that’s what I went for, even if it meant having to hang cheesecloth between the hammers and the strings.

You also used a micing method that was rather unconventional, at least by today’s standards, didn’t you?

Especially for uprights, yes. You get a mic right close to the soundboard in the back. That gives you a certain kind of old body sound. It’s far enough away from the hammer, so you don’t get the clickety-clack of the hammers by micing in the back. So we do a combination of back micing and maybe a nice tube microphone in the front. It’s the old trial and error and finding the sweet spot.

This follows Heavy Sun – what has brought about this resurgence in recording over the last few years?

I like to stay busy. I try and make records with what I have to work with, and I get excited about certain approaches at a given time. I made Heavy Sun when I was in Los Angeles, and I had some good singers, and we said, “Let’s start that little quartet we’ve always dreamt about” because we love gospel quartets.

I grew up recording quartets. As a teenager, I was associated with a Christian organization in Canada. They brought people in from all over the world to tour Canada. And one of the stops was my studio, and we’d make a record in two days. So I had a two-day lesson in harmony. Whether you’re recording a singing quartet or you’re making an instrumental record, harmonies still come into play. 

Player, Piano has some of that in it. I didn’t play everything all at once. For example, the second track, which is called “Lighthouse”, it’s got a little bit of a Jamaican feel. The left hand was done independently from the right. But don’t tell anyone [laughs]. But I visited what I remember of Cuban piano playing on that left hand, so it was not just Jamaican. I was only in Havana for two nights, and that’s all it took me to master the left hand that you can hear on “Lighthouse” [laughs]. So it’s got a little island in it. I keep a little place in Jamaica. It seems that the further south you go, the more laid back the phrasing gets.

One of your landmark productions celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. How does The Joshua Tree sound to you now?

I only ever hear my work by surprise. I might go to somebody’s house, and they’ll be playing a record I’ve worked on or (I may hear) something on the radio. It’s those moments where I realize that we snap the camera just at the right moment, you know? We were obviously excited about working together; (Brian) Eno, myself, and the boys in U2, whether it be Joshua Tree or Achtung, Baby!, that era. We were just so determined to discover something that hopefully had never been heard before. So when I hear those records from back in the day, I hear the excitement in the exchange of some pretty smart people in the room. We were just so hungry to do something meaningful. So I appreciate that they resonate that way now. They were quite original for their time. 

The Joshua Tree is seen as U2’s love letter to America. It was the 1980s version of when the British invasion happened in the 1960s; artists from outside the United States and their impression of America and what it meant to them. U2 was sharing that sound back to its native land.

I’m glad you said that because many Irish folks made their way to New York, and there’s a lot of Ireland in America historically. It’s said that at this one bar in Manhattan, if you were arriving in America from Ireland, and you first walked into this Irish bar, and you had that twinkle in your eye, they’d immediately give you a job, and you got to live upstairs until you found your way. There are a lot of stories like that. So there’s a fondness for America in Ireland to this day. The fellas from U2 are obviously connected with those kinds of stories, that you could find a new life somewhere else. Stories of the land of the free where you could chase your dreams and if you happen to have the gift of gab, you might have a better chance than the other guy.

When artists invite you to join them on their projects, there’s probably an expectation of how they want it to sound. Is there ever a “I want my album to sound like Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball” situation? Is there ever a direction you steer them toward that they weren’t expecting?

I wouldn’t say that. I’d say that when people choose to work together, they’re likely philosophically aligned somehow. And that’s why the invitation happens to begin with. It’s based on having heard good work and wanting more good work to be done. But I don’t think anyone expects, “Okay, if we get Lanois, suddenly it’s gonna sound exactly like” this record or that one. No, we like to enter the arena with original thoughts. 

We build menus as we go along on records. That’s a nice way to put it. If we’re lucky enough to hit on a sound during a jam session, or if there’s a hook or a this or that. If there’s anything that stands out, I’ll make note of it. Then I make the people I’m working with aware of the standout. And those standouts are usually things that everybody agrees on. If there’s a little bit of magic, a good seed, a good beginning. We write down our beginnings. And those beginnings, those seeds, will give us a chance to get to an original place. We build that direction together. Nobody tells anybody what to do, really. We just wait for the magic. And when it’s evident where the magic is, everybody agrees, and then that becomes the way we’re going to go. The music tells us where to go.

Dylan invited you to produce two of his most acclaimed albums. How did Oh Mercy differ from Time Out Of Mind?

Oh, Mercy was done in a kitchen. It was a very private-feeling environment. I sat next to Bob in a kitchen chair, and we played our guitars, and the songs were beautiful. [The songs] had started wearing the cloak of the Midnight Special in New Orleans because we were down there, and everything was dripping in sweat. The sessions ran later and later at night until it just became evident that this was going to be a nighttime record. And it was going to be a storytelling record. “Crickets are chirpin’, the water is high / There’s a soft cotton dress on the line hangin’ dry” Like, “Ooooo, ok, here we go!”

I’m painting you this picture because that’s what we were working with at the time. It really was just Bob and myself. We’d bring in musicians as we needed them. But a lot of that record was cut to metronomic time. I used a little Roland 808 beatbox, like Marvin Gaye used for “Sexual Healing”. I figured if it was good for “Sexual Healing”, it’ll be good for Bob Dylan [laughs]. 

So you can hear, for example, in the song, “Most of the Time” [mimics the sound of the programmed beat and the main riff], you get a little bit of hip hop. And the use of the Roland 808 afforded us the flexibility of fixed-time echoes. So if you hear the drums on “Most of the Time”, there’s a complimentary echo that puts them in a back dimension. There’s a lot of power to that. It has discipline in it because it never speeds up or slows down. 

Then we swing on over to Time Out of Mind. That was the opposite because we had an 11-piece band in a room. With multiple musicians in a room, you get natural depth of field because everybody’s playing together. So if somebody sounds a little further away in the spectrum, that’s because they were sitting further back from Bob. The record has that feeling. It has a certain kind of presence. I’m not talking about the treble-on-your-stereo presence. I mean the presence of people, of characters in the room. That’s what I love about Time Out Of Mind.

I believe you’re the last outside producer he’s used.

Well, I’ll take that as a compliment. That must mean there’s not another person out there that can fill my shoes, other than Bob himself [laughs].

How did Neil Young approach you, and how was his Le Noise project conceived?

I was working with [Young’s manager] Elliott Roberts at the time, a great man who’s no longer with us. I said to Elliott at dinner one night, “Man, I always want to make a record with Neil Young.” I didn’t think too much more about it. The next day, the phone rang. It was Bonnie from Neil’s office: “I have Neil Young on the phone for Daniel Lanois.” So I took the call, and he asked if I would record him playing and singing ten acoustic songs and if I would film him as well because I was making films in those days. 

I had done some films with the band I had assembled at the time called Black Dub. We made some films in the front room of a beautiful estate in Los Angeles. Neil saw those, and they were a little bit noir, in the sense that there were no edits. It was one camera for the entire song as if the performance was witnessed by one pair of eyes. He appreciated that we were telling the song’s story with the camera. That’s how it started. And I said, “Ok. Come to my house. It’s a beautiful place.” We set up all the stuff. And that’s how it happened, except we expanded and went a little more electric. 

We had a little bit of a joke going because we’re both from Canada. I had a nickname, and he had a nickname while we were working. I called him “Pinecone Young”. And I got called “Le Noise”. All I ever do is fucking noise [laughs]. So we’d send little messages back and forth. I’d sign mine “Le Noise”, and he’d sign his “Pinecone Young”. We just had that little bit of Canadian humor throughout the process. 

He’s a very sweet man. I love him. A deep imagination. In the end, that’s what we love about records when they have something unique about them. Just to get back to what we said earlier about snapping that camera right at the time of excitement? That’s what happened with Player, Piano. That’s what happened with Le Noise and Joshua Tree – any of these records that seem to have found their way. Maybe that’s a nice way to put it: a record that finds its way. And that has soul. If I could quote Quincy Jones, “Every music has its soul.” As record makers, we have a responsibility to find that soul. As music listeners, we have a responsibility to seek out those records.

Is there any new or current talent that has piqued your interest?

Oh, yeah. I hear things all the time that I love. I like Rosalia from Barcelona. She has a record called Los Angeles that was made in 2017. She’s made records since then, of course, but that one resonates with me. You can really hear her gift and talent. It’s just mostly her and one flamenco guitar player. She is very gifted as a singer, one of my favorite young women singers in these times, I highly recommend Rosalia.

What are the plans for Player, Piano?

I’m heading to Germany in a couple of days, where we’ll be celebrating its release. We’ve been sharing a few tracks on the internet, and we’ve been getting some nice responses. So I’ll be in Germany playing piano, and I will likely work the piano into my main set in live performance. 

Also, I’ve got some new material. I got a new one that I think is my best piano piece so far, but it’s not on Player, Piano.

Maybe we’ll get a sequel then.

Well, maybe. Yeah, that might be a good idea. I love, I mean, outside of pianos, I just like instrumental records. It is said that instrumental records are the universal language. I just have to remind myself that the first single I went out to find when I was a kid was [The Surfaris’] “Wipe Out” [laughs].

Instrumentals stand the test of time. There’s nothing political in them, no trendy lyrics or phrases. An instrumental can last forever.

Yes, that’s a good point, because it allows listeners to build their own pictures or have their own thoughts or their own feelings. You know, there were records when I was a kid… if you are a young instrumentalist, and you want to get better on your instrument, you could buy these records called “Music Minus One”. They would be popular songs without the lead singer or without the lead trumpet and so on. You played the melody along with these records. 

So, all instrumental records are a bit like “Music Minus One” because there’s not a lead singer directing a lyric, or suggesting how you should feel. You are the missing component as the listener. So I like that instrumental records invite the listener to be part of the band. People are at the center of their universe, and they want to control their lives in as many ways as possible. Isn’t it nice to be able to paint your own pictures as you listen to music?