Magic and Gloss
Daniel Lanois, superstar producer and occasional solo artist, took pains in his liner notes to thank all of the musicians who contributed to Shine, his first album in a decade. These fellow musicians include U2's Bono, sensual country singer Emmylou Harris, prolific session drummer Brian Blade, longtime friend and collaborator Tony Mangurian...and Charley Patton.
Yes, that Charley Patton, the seminal Delta bluesman who died in 1934.
"I've always had a foot in traditional music. It's been an ongoing interest of mine since I was a kid," says Lanois, 51.
Daniel Lanois performs September 16 at Gypsy Tea Room, with Mother Superior.
Patton, in part because of the adoration of Bob Dylan, has attracted a new wave of interest over the past several years, including boxed sets and glowing critical write-ups. In Lanois' case, it turns out the connection to Patton was more than spiritual. Lanois produced Time Out of Mind, Dylan's dusty 1997 meditation on mortality that effectively revived Bob and his long-stale career. As part of the preparation for those sessions, Lanois says he sampled bits and pieces of old blues records and created tape loops; then, with his template in place, he would play his own guitar over those loops.
Dylan's enthusiasm for Patton trickled over into that process, and a leftover sample of Patton's acoustic guitar--so loose it's dang near funky--became the backbone for Lanois' wispy lament "As Tears Roll By," a standout on Shine.
"My studio is my laboratory," Lanois says by phone from his Los Angeles office. "I'm always finding ways of developing new sounds. But what never steps out of my life are the inspiration and the early forces.
"It's what's great about being a North American," the Canadian-born Lanois says a few moments later. "You've got this incredible source of traditional music to draw from."
Which is a sense that Lanois, a prodigious pedal-steel guitar player as well as a studio hawk, has been exploring as a producer for two decades on some of the best records of this era. Those works include Peter Gabriel's So (1986), U2's The Joshua Tree (1987) and Achtung Baby (1991) and Dylan's Oh Mercy (1989). It's instructive to hear Lanois' influence on those records illustrated so clearly on Shine--the deliberate arrangements ("San Juan"), the lonesome echoes, the relative quiet of the vocals on songs that otherwise either scream or explode ("I Love You," "Power of One"), the references to blues, country and folk, the ability to be pretty and spooky at the same time (the Bono duet "Falling at Your Feet"; the gorgeous pedal-steel instrumental "JJ Leaves LA").
"I'd say what's at the heart of my music are those little pieces of magic that I've managed to get my fingers on," says Lanois, who also speaks of an "orphanage" of musical ideas he accumulates on tape that may or may not find homes in songs. "You never know where they're going to come from...it's an ongoing mystery to me. It almost defies technique. It's like a director making a film. You've got the camera you always use and the [production director] you like and everything else. And then that little magic moment creeps up."
On the phone, Lanois seems like an affable enough guy. Yet on record, he's emotionally naked, as if it's his default position in life--even on the hopeful title track, the shine of his lover's beauty is in the distance and always out of reach.
"I think melancholy just comes with being Danny Lanois," he says. "That search never comes out of the picture with me. I was talking to [U2 guitarist] The Edge the other day. He says, 'Aren't you sick of searching?' We laughed. But there's always fertile territory to explore. In the words of Iggy Pop, you are what you are and you do what you do. There'll always be an element of elevation in my music."
And now, at least, he's carving out the time to explore his style of elevation. Shine is only Lanois' third album, following 1989's Acadie and 1993's For the Beauty of Wynona. While his production duties for U2, Dylan, Willie Nelson, Marianne Faithfull, Luscious Jackson and frequent partner Brian Eno serve as his "main excuse" for the delay, the space between records has as much to do with the three years of off-and-on touring he did behind Wynona as anything.
Now, he's cleared his schedule so that he can turn around another album by next summer.
"I'm using a different technique this time out," he says. Instead of adopting lost harmonies and riffs from his orphanage and piecing together songs in the home stretch of his studio time, he plans to debut full-bodied songs on his ongoing tour to support Shine. "I've been saying this for years and years and haven't done it. I'm always advising other artists of this: Write your songs, play them live and learn about them through the ears of your audiences."
Lanois, though, hardly needs to worry about mass audience feedback, even if it does prove helpful. He's been surrounded by extreme talent for so long that he's grown as much through what he calls "the power of association and osmosis" as anything else.
He speaks of Dylan as if they attend neighborhood watch meetings and yell at the umpires together at their nephews' Little League games. Consequently, if he at times comes across as a hopeless romantic ("Sometimes I feel like I'm on the freight train/Forever rescued by the mystery rain," goes one lyric), he's got a better excuse than most folks.
"As a teenager, when you develop an interest in rock and roll, the sentiment is not about making sure you read a lot of books. That's not the vibe," Lanois says. "The vibe is to rock out, play music and drop out of school. It's rebellion. I'm fascinated with that element of our structure. We want to rebel, but we also want great lyrics.
"I'm trying to become a Beat poet in this late stage in my life."
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