Transcending the Blues: An Interview With Legendary Record Producer Daniel Lanois

Daniel Lanois lives and breathes music in a very literal sense. As a true audiophile, he seems to be marinating in centuries of sound waves, honing in on some of history’s most visceral musical compositions. It’s as though he pulls rhythms directly from the ground and resonant frequencies from the stratosphere. This description may seem over the top, and while it comes from a place of genuine reverence, I can say that over the 3 hours that we spent together, I witnessed this phenomenon with my very own eyes and ears. When he tells a story, it doesn’t suffice to tell it in words. His life story wouldn’t make sense unless he sang it to you, played it for you, and punctuated it with his signature, “yea, man.” Which is why I had to compile all of these bits in an audio file to give you a real feel for who he is and how he communicates. It’s really quite elevating.

Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, the steel capital of Canada, he was raised in a community that was directed by the shifting of the harsh seasons. A community that gathered to play traditional French Canadian folk music; the true salt of the Earth. The melodies he heard as a child stuck with him and he felt that he needed to capture them, so he made himself a recording studio in the basement. Pretty soon he was recording music with the likes of Rick James and was determined to find the roots of the American soul. He gravitated south to the Mississippi delta where he found the guttural rhythms that live in your hips and the pain and the suffering that gave birth to the blues. But when the Mississippi River spills into the Gulf of Mexico most people stay put, singing their woeful stories of yore. Nevertheless, Lanois took those symphonic lessons and synthesized them with his Northern roots to produce music with some of the 20th century’s most groundbreaking artists: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Willie Nelson, Peter Gabriel, U2, Brian Eno, Sinead O’Connor, and the list goes on. He’s been nominated for 7 Grammys, 4 of which he was awarded, and yet, his humble beginnings are invariably evident in his unpresuming temperament. 

These days, he’s making music with the free wheeling musical outlaw, Rocco Deluca. They have a friendship that is bonded by their two major loves, music and motorcycles. Together they create a sound that is at once arresting in a way that makes one feel buoyant and unencumbered. When you spend time with the two of them, you get a sense that their lives are filled with nothing but positive, creative vibes, and it seems impossible to abate the longing to just tag along and pretend this is a normal day for you too. We met them at a café, followed them back home, and continued the night with several friends who tagged along and indulged in the privilege of a private listening party. Here’s what we took away.

AUTRE: You were just singing a gospel song, and I’m not familiar with it specifically, but it seems like it comes straight from the slave trade.

LANOIS: Yeah, “Once I’m taken away, I will not fold” is the message.

AUTRE: I think that is the roots of this country. Everything that this country has been built off of has been the elbow grease and the blood and the sweat and the tears of the black community. So for that to be the source of our strength is no surprise.

LANOIS: For that church music to reach the top of the charts in the early 60s. Sam Cooke was not a pop singer, Sam Cooke came from the soulsters and from church. It was that beautiful church harmony that made its way into popular music. We were just talking about James Cleveland who is from the LA area, he’s not from Chicago.

AUTRE: And Bo Diddley, I mean he invented Rock n’ Roll. And Big Mama Thornton.

LANOIS: All that. Well the Bo Diddley beat is an old African beat. But I’m Canadian. So for a Canadian kid to come south of the border - I went to New Orleans and made a great record with the Neville Brothers - for me to actually work with the Neville Brothers? As a white French-Canadian kid? That was the cherry on the cake of my PhD.


AUTRE: Absolutely. It seems like you’ve had an autodidactic approach to music. Or have you?

LANOIS: Without any doubt, every day I learn something new. And I hope it keeps coming my way. I never went to school for any of it, I’m self taught. But when I was a kid I got to work with Rick James in my mom’s basement. I didn’t have to come up with any tuition money. For Rick he came in by himself, and in 20 minutes there was a fully flourishing piece of music coming out of the speakers and I was practically in tears. Oh my goodness, I could not believe this was happening. I was in the presence of a Beethoven.

I was talented, I knew what I was doing, but I had never before been exposed to anyone like Rick. He came in, and I recorded him some demos – mindblowing. I realized that I needed to go somewhere where the bass was good, so I went to New Orleans. I got to work with the Neville Brothers and George Porter from the Meters. Leo Nocentelli, perhaps the funkiest guitar player out of America. To be in that place, to hear the parade bands, where so much music had come from – that was amazing. The music of the North was so stiff. The music of the South had funk.

AUTRE: Going back to the beginning, what was your initial experience with making music?

LANOIS: As a kid I played slide guitar and I played woodwinds as well. I started a little recording studio at home, so that was the basis of the whole thing. I was in and out of bands up in Canada. I got to be a good player as a teenager. But I always had my recording studio and that was the mecca, the crossroads for so much. I was connected with a gospel music association in Canada, and they brought acapella groups in from across the world to tour Canada. One of the touring stops was my studio. So I made acapella quartet records - dozens of them.

AUTRE: Oh that’s amazing.

LANOIS: They had great singers too. So imagine this white French-Canadian kid sitting there and hearing the four-part harmony. Tell me that’s not an education to hear all that, and then that related to all other four parts of any other genre. Funk music has four parts, you know. The intertwining of these four parts provided me with a really great understanding of how music communicates. How significant the harmonic interplay is. That was kind of it. Plus on top of that, the Pop music on the radio was the best stuff.

 AUTRE: Back then, yeah.

LANOIS: You heard Sam Cooke on the radio, you heard James Cotton, The Jackson’s. Psychedelic stuff. It was kind of amazing. We didn’t hear any fluff, you know we had to listen to some of that British music, but I didn’t mind that.


AUTRE: Yeah, that was before they had found the algorithm for selling commercial products with pop music.

LANOIS: The force was certainly different, it just belonged to that time. It was a cultural revolution on the rise. The Poet’s Society, rebellious Rock n’ Roll, psychedelic. It all came to a head - how special is that? Plus, also the front end of a medium, not everybody had a camera so if you shot pictures it meant that you were involved with something special. You know, you look at photographs from the late 50s and 60s and they all look significant, because people were discovering something. Not to criticize modern times or anything but there are so many pictures now. Now we’re not at the front end of the medium - but when you are at the front end of a medium, things are more special.

AUTRE: I think that’s a good point you make though about the fact that we didn’t have an image associated with the music. There wasn’t a music video for every track. So when you listened to an album, you had a listening experience - just listening. Now musicians have to sell themselves as more than just a sound. They’re a sound and an image. Plus, their social lives are on blast through their social media. So, you have their personalities to judge as well. There is so much less focus on creating amazing music and leaving it at that.

LANOIS: The other concern is including merch. You know, “how’s your merch going?” Merch?!

AUTRE: Exactly. You have to boost your T-shirt game.


AUTRE: You’ve worked on some incredible records. And it seems like you’ve always been innovating your sound. This music you make with Rocco - you sit there and if feels like you’re floating in sound.

LANOIS: We try and break new ground on every project. I didn’t come up through a referential time, so coming up as a kid everything was new. We didn’t think jeez let’s try to make it sound like a 1948 tune, that would be a cool sound, no everything was new. So I’ve never bought into the referential aspect of music making. Even in these modern times where it’s easy to say - the grunge and the punk thing in the 90s, that was cool, lets adapt that look and that sound - well no I’m not interested. I’m glad that it happened and I respect that it did, but in regards to anything we’re going to do from here on I want it to be original.

AUTRE: Who are some of your Rock n’ Roll heroes?

LANOIS: I’ll always appreciate pure forms, sometimes I go to the Thirsty Crow on a Monday night and there’s a guy there who plays a lot of old records. We always appreciate hearing Electric Mud from Muddy Waters. They play a lot of 70s R&B on that night, a lot of stuff from San Francisco. That era of the 70s where things were getting funky but experimental.

And you know we have modern day heroes as well. I listen to some of the Hip Hop out of the Long Beach area. And the D’Angelo record that came out a couple years ago, I enjoyed that a lot. Any pure form. Anything strong that qualifies as soul music ultimately. And we’re not talking a genre of R&B particularly, but something that seems to exist for the right reasons.

AUTRE: There seems to be this reemergence of soul music, of traditional 60s soul music coming in through a lot of newer pop music these days. It’s being revisited, which is really interesting. I talked to a young woman who I really respect and she said “you know, in some ways I feel like maybe Hip Hop is coming to a close.”

LANOIS: Maybe a certain aspect of it.

AUTRE: A certain aspect of it, yeah. But in the same way that Soul music had its own era through the late 50s, the 60s, and a little bit into the 70s but then it kind of veered into Funk. Which then veered into Hip Hop. I feel like it is kind of coming back, and that there is an urge to find its roots; to get back a little bit of that heart that was really pulsing through it originally.

"Miley Cyrus naked with her bare cunt on a cannonball – is that all you got, baby? You know go up the flagpole and back down, bare cunt. I’ll throw some confetti. So, I kinda like that whole thing that’s happening in America right now where the girls are just in charge of fucking pop. I say, take more clothes off, have more hits, own the fucking country, get to the top of the charts and I’ll be eating popcorn."

LANOIS: You hear it a little bit with Alabama Shakes, their recent record is pretty adventurous. I hear some shades of 70s experimental Soul, but I wouldn’t offer a lot to support the theory. But I’m ready to be educated.

AUTRE: Where did your love of motorcycles come from?

LANOIS: Since I was a kid I just loved everything that went with it - freedom, and to feel that wind on your face. When I was a kid I got my first Harley and me and my brother rode from Canada all the way down to Florida.

AUTRE: That’s a long trip! How long did it take you guys?

LANOIS: Oh it took a long time. We could only ride so long because it was freezing, but by the time we got to Kentucky and Tennessee it started getting warm. I love wintertime riding.

AUTRE: You grew up in Ontario right?

LANOIS: I’m French-Canadian but I came up as a teenager in a place called Hamilton about an hour from Buffalo on the Canadian side. It was a steel town and a real working place.

AUTRE: Do you go back much?

LANOIS: Yeah! I still keep a place there; my mom is there still. I have a soft spot for what I call the Great Lakes of Culture.

That part of the world is very harsh in the winter. The harvest comes in and the root vegetables will keep all winter. And I love that - you wouldn’t dilly dally through the fall. You cut your wood in the summer, make sure you can and jar in the fall. That way you can have some fruits through the winter. That’s sort of long gone now because of the coming of Whole Foods. You can get a tangerine in Toronto in the winter, that wasn’t the case at one time.

AUTRE: So how long have you been living in this house?

LANOIS: 14 years. Nobody wanted this place 14 years ago. At the time I was working with Melanie Ciccone, Madonna’s sister. Madonna looked at this place, and Melanie knew about it and she said “well my sister doesn’t want it but you should get it” and I came here on a rainy day and I loved it.

AUTRE: It’s beautiful.

LANOIS: I came up with a mix today I’m very excited about. The performances for this record were all done here, and I took them back to Toronto and I manipulated them and added some new ways of looking at the works. Some of it is very pure form hand played, and some things are more built. It’s not a point of bragging but I’m a sonic specialist so I get in there and I build things. One of the things you’re going to hear that was built is one called “Low Sudden” and it’s more of a trance. It visits some of what I was doing in the early 80s and touches on some of those sounds you’ll hear in a minute.

AUTRE: We’re excited to hear it.

LANOIS: Some elements are a little crazier and symphonically driven - I’ve gone into harmonic places that I’ve never known before. Now this is significant because you might think “well we’ve done it all, and same old chords” but there are a few turning points in this music that provided me with a glimpse into the future.

AUTRE: So where do you think that inspiration came from?

LANOIS: Perhaps, I might have gotten disillusioned with the usual chords. It’s not a rhythmic record; you’ll hear the strangeness of the chords and the textures. It will conjure up feelings you’ve never had before. One has a very Italian melody – things that I would never come up with, because I see myself as a rocker. To bump into this whole way of looking at harmonics has really opened up a new side of my imagination. Crazy ass shit.

AUTRE: The devotion you have to music is astounding. Your collection here is amazing.

LANOIS: I have a couple of comic friends. Jim Carrey is one of them. He is so smart; he could do a routine at the drop of a hat. He walks in here and says, “This is how to live! Close to your passion! What are you passionate about? You can’t take that to the grave! You could take this to the grave!” He gave a whole sermon to justify the mess I made in the front room.

AUTRE: Well it seems this is your living room, and this is how you want to live.

LANOIS: It’s better than buying yachts and going to St. Barth’s.

AUTRE: How did you get a hold of this piano?

LANOIS: If you’re lucky enough to have an acoustic instrument that sounds beautiful, you can always restore it back to its former glory. Even if it gets funky or messed up, you can always return it to the sound. It will maintain the sound. When we found this barrelhouse of a piano, it needed refurbishing, but we could tell it had heart. We resurrected it.

AUTRE: There’s kind of a similarity to motorcycles in that.

LANOIS: Yeah, a little bit. It’s nice to respect a tool, to imagine what it was like in 1915.

AUTRE: Going back again to your beginnings, how did you get into music?

LANOIS: In the beginning, my father and my grandfather were violin players. They played some of the traditional music of their French Canadian culture. There were no nightclubs back then, so people would gather around their houses. They would whip out their violins. There were piano players. All my uncles sang. I was exposed to that as a kid. The melodies really got in my brain. There was nothing popular about them; they were just old songs.

AUTRE: What was your first introduction to rock and roll music? 

LANOIS: [Sings.] “You’re so young, and I’m so old. This, my darling, I’ve been told. You and I will be as free as the birds up in the trees. Please, please stay and be mine, Diana.” That’s the guy who wrote the theme song for the Tonight Show. A guy named Paul Anka.

Where we lived was between Detroit and Buffalo. We got great broadcasts out of those cities. I got to hear all the great Motown stuff on the radio. We had some cool DJs in Toronto. They were stoned out of their brains. This was a time when they let disc jockeys do whatever they wanted, late nights especially. And they were beat poets, spinning some yarn, playing an entire side of an album. Back in the day, there were no pictures of anything. I would sit in my mother’s basement, listening to the crazy music on the radio, imagining what it would be like out in the world.

AUTRE: Was there anyone in particular who really influenced you?

LANOIS: Rick James.

AUTRE: Were you invited down to New Orleans, or did you go there to seek out music?

LANOIS: I saw a piece in Life about the architectural significance of New Orleans. So I thought, I think I’m going to go down there to finish my record. I took a train from New York down, going through all the backwaters of the cities. I got to see industry in America. I got to see its decay, the decline of manufacturing and the steel industry. I was practically in tears – there is so much poverty. We grew up in North America thinking everything is great, but I saw the opposite when I went down there. It was a real eye-opener for me. It was a musical journey to go down there, but I was just as interested in everything else that was happening culturally.  

AUTRE: What was it like being a Canadian kid down south?

LANOIS: Amazing. You would hear stories about this crazy river, the bloodline of creativity. It’s called the delta, where different influences come in from different parts – blues, bluegrass, Texas swing. All these different forces. What did it add up to? Rock n’ roll. I got to work with the greats. I got Rockin’ Dopsie to play on a Bob Dylan record. Are you kidding me? I’m a dumb French Canadian.

AUTRE: How do you feel about music now?

LANOIS: It’s fine. You’ve got Maroon 5, force-fed rock. I kinda like the thing that’s happening in America where girls are just fucking in charge of pop music. So, Miley Cyrus naked with her bare cunt on a cannon ball – is that all you got, baby? You know go up the flagpole and back down, bare cunt. I’ll throw some confetti. So, I kinda like that whole thing that’s happening in America right now where the girls are just in charge of fucking pop. I say, take more clothes off, have more hits, own the fucking country, get to the top of the charts and I’ll be eating popcorn. I won’t make records like that, but I’m kinda glad somebody else is.

AUTRE: You keep coming back to real, pure form, for the experience of music rather than whatever movement you might be a part of.

LANOIS: We have a responsibility in these referential times. It’s easy to be spot-on with style. I don’t want to make a referential record. There’s nothing stopping me from sampling a song, but will that fill us? I don’t think so. I don’t want to do referential. I don’t care if I’m penniless. I want to do new things. I want to see the future of music. I may not get there, but I’m going to damn well try. 

Autre will be releasing Daniel Lanois and Rocco DeLuca's track The Resonant Frequency of Love with an accompanying short film on Valentines Day, 2016. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper and Summer Bowie. photographs by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE