“I want to leave something behind that means something,” Daniel Lanois told Rolling Stone’s James Henke, explaining his singular approach to life and record making. “Am I going to follow my own ideas and philosophies, or am I just going to fall in the rut of doing rubbish for the sake of making a living?” Lanois’s decision to follow a more meaningful approach led him from recording groups in a homemade studio in the 1970s to forging a partnership with avant-garde producer Brian Eno in the early 1980s to producing some of the best-known—even legendary—acts in popular music, including U2, Peter Gabriel, Robbie Robertson, the Neville Brothers, and Bob Dylan.
Lanois’s record-producing capabilities are virtually unassailable: all productions have been hailed. Although Nicholas Jennings, writing for Maclean’s, credited Lanois’s success as a producer to his “reputation for a lighter touch and for bringing out the artist’s best,” it is perhaps Lanois’s spiritual conviction to capture an artistic moment that has gone the furthest in reaching listeners. “I’m passionate about music,” he emphasized to Richard Flohil in Canadian Composer. “I want to get committed, passionate music on a record, so that other people can understand the passion and the message.”
Lanois began his recording career in 1970 in a small studio he and his brother Robert built in their mother’s basement. “From the beginning,” Flohil recounted, “the studio’s reputation was strong; there was a nice atmosphere and a relaxed feeling; [the brothers] were good engineers and were able to help many artists sharpen their material in the studio.” They recorded dozens of artists from the surrounding area throughout the 1970s. In 1980, because of increased demand, the Lanois brothers were forced to open the larger Grant Avenue Studio in nearby Hamilton, Ontario. Here Lanois’s producing talents gained notice through work with such groups as Martha & the Muffins and the Parachute Club. With the arrival of rock experimenter Brian Eno to the Grant Avenue Studio in the early 1980s, however, Lanois’s recording direction changed.
Looking for a studio out of the mainstream, Eno came to Lanois’s to begin his self-termed “ambient music” series of records. The first of these experimental recordings, which were to become highly influential in the music industry, Lanois simply thought of as “badly recorded piano tapes,” he admitted to Rob Tannenbaum in Canadian Composer. But after working on these carefully composed and recorded works, Lanois found he “just got into that pace. Really quiet and atmospheric
For the Record…
Performed as a guitarist for several bands in Canada, including Tranquility Base, and worked as a backup musician for various acts, late 1960s and 1970s; opened basement studio in mother’s house in Ancaster, Ontario, 1970; started Grant Avenue Studio with brother Robert in Hamilton, Ontario, 1980; began producing such groups as Martha & the Muffins, the Parachute Club, and M + M, early 1980s; also began association with Brian Eno, producing and collaborating on albums, early 1980s; produced or coproduced albums of several artists, including U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, 1980s and early 1990s; recorded and produced first solo album, 1989.
Selected awards: Juno Award for producer of the year, 1983, for the Parachute Club’s self-titled album; Grammy Award for album of the year, 1987, for coproducing U2’s The Joshua Tree.
Addresses: Home —New Orleans, LA. Record company—Opal/Warner Bros., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91510.
music that paints a very strong picture with slow detail—almost like musical landscapes,” he explained to Henke. The artistic view Eno opened up for Lanois was accompanied by an expanded technological understanding as well. “The challenge of evoking a strong emotion on an instrumental record without the benefit of lyrics forced Lanois to experiment with outboard effects, playing the studio as he would a guitar,” Tannenbaum wrote.
The techniques and philosophies Lanois drew from Eno in their early partnership continued to evolve on their later collaborations and on Lanois’s solo journeys during the 1980s. Although he learned to use the technology available in the studio to its maximum benefit, Lanois never let it overwhelm his tender approach to the artist. He explained to Henke that a producer’s most important function is “keeping track of the big picture. Understanding the intentions of the artist from the beginning and carrying that through to the end. Obeying the ground rules.… Then I suppose another function—the most important, really—is drawing a performance.”
Lanois’s ability to do this, a talent considered his forte, is achieved in part by eschewing the conventional distance between a producer and artist. “I don’t spend much time in the control room,” he told Jennings. “I try to get out there, listen to the songs and get to the bottom of the arrangements—and get involved. If you’re standing right next to someone, a lift of an eyebrow will convey a message that would be lost behind a piece of glass.” Lanois also began recording outside of the controlled studio environment, capturing the spontaneity, acoustic warmth, and human element of performances in such informal and comfortable settings as castles, dairy barns, and homes. He sold the Grant Avenue Studio in 1985 and since prefers to simply set up a portable studio where a performance is to be recorded.
“With an approach that emphasizes tranquility and ingenuity over technology... Lanois contradicts the modern notion of a producer as a flesh-bound instruction guide,” Tannenbaum observed. Indeed, Lanois approaches the musicians with whom he works as part artists, part mystics, and always human beings. He never leads them, but instead lets them explore, often bringing to light the artistic achievement that is already contained within them. Peter Gabriel, who worked with Lanois on the film soundtrack Birdy and his album So, told Stephanie Ortenzi of Maclean’s that “Dan worked best in maximizing my performance. He has a reverence for the magic of the moment.” This intuitive insight, an attention to the possibilities of what might already exist or could be, is also what collaborator Brian Eno values in Lanois. “Dan listens to feel, to the skeleton of the songs, and draws attention to the things everybody else has stopped noticing,” Eno wrote in Rolling Stone.
The critical consensus of Lanois’s work has been extremely favorable: he has helped musicians, especially the Neville Brothers and Bob Dylan, create some of their most acclaimed work. Of the Neville Brothers’s Yellow Moon recording, David Fricke wrote in Rolling Stone that “their native brand of dance-floor fiyo is stroked by producer Daniel Lanois with a cool voodoo intensity. The result is like Mardi Gras meets [U2’s] The Joshua Tree: French Quarter magic infused with spiritual urgency.” For Dylan, Lanois “fashioned evocative, atmospheric soundscapes that elicit every nuance of meaning from Dylan’s songs while never overwhelming them,” Anthony DeCurtis declared in Rolling Stone. “Dylan’s lyric style on Oh Mercy —a plain-spoken directness with rich folkloric and Biblical shadings—finds an ideal setting in the dark, open textures of Lanois’s sonic weave.”
The artistic vision Lanois extends when producing other musicians was evident on his own recorded work, Acadie. “Lanois’s own album resonates with the kind of textual subtleties and artful treatments that don’t present themselves on casual listening.… Acadie is an album with the muted glow of a reverie-at-dawn, the tail end of a long night’s journey into day,” Down Beat’s Josef Woodard maintained. Lanois’s commitment to provide the most passionate vehicle for the message was also carried over from his previous productions to his own work. Flohil pointed out that “while [Acadie] may not sell the millions of copies racked up by his clients, it has a similar warmth, a similar integrity, a similar sense of care and concern.”
Lanois’s desire to create “‘soul music,’ born out of passion and commitment and need,” as he conceded to Tannenbaum, is evidenced by the similarity that weaves through his various productions and his solo recording. Lanois explained to Henke that what binds his works together is “an undercurrent of tension that is created by various treatments and atmospheres that were applied.… You’re presented with one angle, and then that is contrasted or undermined by something ominous, something that you feel more than you hear.” That is his artistic predilection, an idea he further elucidated to Henke: “I gravitate toward a lyric that says something, that carries some kind of weight or substance and that a listener will be able to draw a positive meaning from.… I gravitate more toward the melancholy and serious. Darkness with optimism.… And if I can incorporate what I feel in my work, then that’s my first choice.”
Acadie, Opal/Warner Bros., 1989.
Martha & the Muffins, This Is the Ice Age, RCA, 1981.
The Parachute Club, The Parachute Club, RCA, 1983.
Martha & the Muffins, Danceparc, RCA, 1983.
(With Brian Eno) Brian Eno, Apollo Atmospheres and Soundtracks, Editions EG, 1983.
M + M, Mystery Walk, RCA, 1984.
(With Eno) U2, The Unforgettable Fire, Island, 1984.
(With Peter Gabriel) Birdy (film soundtrack), Geffen, 1985.
Roger Eno, Voices, Editions EG, 1986.
(With Gabriel) Peter Gabriel, So, Geffen, 1986.
(With Robbie Robertson) Robbie Robertson, Robbie Robertson, Geffen, 1987.
(With Eno) U2, The Joshua Tree, Island, 1987.
Bob Dylan, Oh Mercy, Columbia, 1989.
The Neville Brothers, Yellow Moon, A & M, 1989.
(With Eno) U2, Achtung Baby, Island, 1991.
Also produced Eno’s The Plateaux of Mirror and On Land.
Canadian Composer, January 1987; November 1989.
Down Beat, March 1986; April 1990.
High Fidelity, December 1984; March 1988.
Maclean’s, July 21, 1986; March 14, 1988.
Nation, April 24, 1989.
New York Times, November 29, 1989.
Pulse!, July 1992.
Rolling Stone, December 17, 1987; September 21, 1989; November 30, 1989; December 14-28, 1989; November 28, 1991.
Stereo Review, February 1988.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from an Opal/Warner Bros. Records press release, 1989.
"Lanois, Daniel." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/lanois-daniel
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