Daniel Lanois is a producer and musician best known for his production work with artists such as U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel and Willie Nelson, among many others. With U2, Lanois produced hit albums such as The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Lanois is also known for his work with scores and soundtracks, creating music for media such as the soundtrack for the video game Red Dead Redemption 2. Lanois’ new solo album, Heavy Sun, is set to be released this April. mxdwn spoke with Lanois about this upcoming album, gospel influences and the impact of the Red Dead Redemption soundtrack.
mxdwn: Your new album Heavy Sun is out in April, what did you set out to create when you started this project?
Daniel Lanois: We were interested in group singing. Rocco DeLuca is one of our singers. Rocco and I have always fantasized about having a singing group because we like some of the Jamaican singing groups from back in the day. And then we met Johnny Shepherd from Shreveport, Louisiana, and Johnny’s a church singer. We call him our hymn-ologist. So, he’s a great choir leader, master harmony arranger. So when we met him, we thought, well, maybe the timing is right so we invited Johnny to join us in LA and then we brought in Jim Wilson so we’re a quartet. And we just wanted to find the joy of group singing for ourselves and put it on a record for other people to feel it as well. So that was the beginning of it. Then as the songs got co-written, mostly by Rocco, Johnny, myself and then Jim jumped in on “Power,” as the songs started developing Johnny requested that songs have a message in them. And without stepping into the tar pit of religious music, we thought that the spirit of gospel music started to come to us through this body of work.
mxdwn: Gospel music is traditionally very uplifting, did you intentionally channel the genre when you began working on this project because of its uplifting qualities?
DL: The uplifting part of things came as a byproduct. We realized that a couple of the songs had that kind of nice feeling about them. For example, “Crumbling Stone” talks about leaving your home and going on a pilgrimage. And a lot of people would leave home for various reasons for work or for music, filmmakers, maybe actors come to LA from small towns and so on. So, it’s familiar enough a story for a lot of people’s lives. And we wanted to talk about how brave one has to be to leave an awful lot behind to chase one’s aspirations and dreams. And so, there’s a verse in there that talks about “church with no walls” to be the traveling minstrels with gospel tonality but without the church. Isn’t that nice? Thinking of the spirit in that way and then it might be a segue into all denominations and not be restricted.
mxdwn: This new album has been described as having a “space-gospel vibe,” what did you like about combining elements of gospel with modern electronics?
DL: I like the idea of the spirit of gospel music stepping into the future. I believe we’ve done that a couple of times, you know, the song called “(Under The) Heavy Sun” talks about an imaginary place, where the spirit rises from the ground from hurt to glory. Also, as if we might come upon that nightclub that we’ve been hearing about that’s somewhere in outer space. You hang your ego at the door, come in and have a great time, and let the word be heard. So that song has a bit of that fantasy, and another song called “Way Down.” An imaginary place, the city on the other side where we’re not bought, we’re not sold. Just a place of redemption and maybe a utopia of sorts. So that’s the fantasy part of things, she’s got a little south of the border and a little Gabriel García Márquez in it. And we like that you know, we like to include imagination where there might be something out there that we don’t know about just yet.
mxdwn: The single “(Under The) Heavy Sun” has a very smooth, jazz-like sound to it. What elements from this single do you think carry over into the rest of the album?
DL: “(Under The) Heavy Sun” has a bassline on it that I played on an organ, it’s probably part of what gives it that kind of Latin jazz feeling. We happened to invite Brian Blake, one of the great jazz drummers of our time, to play on a couple of tracks. He plays on “The Tree of Tule,” a very nice groove, and he plays on “Power.” And he’s from Shreveport, Louisiana as well, so you can really hear that Southern feel in Brian’s playing. So there might be a little bit of jazz spilling into the recipe here from Brian’s involvement, and then Kyle Crane, also a great drummer, plays on “Every Nation” and “(Under The) Heavy Sun.” Kyle is also a great jazz drummer. He covers many, many different styles, but he studied at Berklee, and he played great metronomic time, grew up playing big boxes, and all that, so he was pretty good at following a template.
mxdwn: In addition to your work as a producer and your solo career, you’ve also worked on the soundtrack for projects like Red Dead Redemption 2. When working on soundtracks or scores for specific types of media, what elements from the source material do you aim to capture in the music?
DL: Well, it’s an interesting subject matter that we have to be chameleons in the way that we get the word out. I don’t come from the video game world as a player, but I appreciate that such an invitation came my way. And it was certainly an opportunity to ride the wave of what these people had started, and I thought, what an incredible force in modern culture, that this would even exist. Cause you got to be real about it, part of what we remember as a pillar of the electric industry is it just disintegrated because records were not selling anymore as they once were. And so, it’s just a wave that died down, but then another wave comes, and off we go. So, trying to apply our talents to an invitation. So we stay wide-eyed and open-minded. And I think it’s a survival instinct. We’ve always been survivors.
mxdwn: Standouts from that soundtrack are the songs “That’s The Way It Is” and “Red,” how do these lyrical folk tracks help expand the world of the game?
DL: I believe, in the case of the video game, that the fellows from Rockstar Games approached me because they felt that there was somewhere that players and listeners had yet to go to. And they wanted more emotional music this time. So, the central character in the game is ill and has fallen into demise, and in the end, he doesn’t make it. And so they wanted our songs to represent that journey. We got so many nice comments from many players who felt that they had never, in a very ‘shoot ’em up’ setting, had never really been touched emotionally that way. And so I think we did a nice job of bringing folks to a new place. I wrote a song with D’Angelo called “Unshaken,” and it’s about “May I stand unshaken / Amid, amidst a crashing world” so to stand by your values and to be reminded of how much of a change we can make by listening to what’s inside us. I think it allowed the video game community to feel something different this time around.
mxdwn: And then, with the new album that is coming out, were there any gospel songs or artists that inspired the project?
DL: We sang a few gospel classics with Johnny Shepherd because he has a vast repertoire, he’s a church singer. So he did a beautiful version of “Amazing Grace” for example. And then another track called “Fare Ye Well,” and that is one that is a call and response song. And what became “Every Nation” started out as “Fare Ye Well,” the spirit of it but in the end “Fare Ye Well” is not there at all. So it’s an example of something that began as a familiar classic that evolved into something of our own. I finished that one in Toronto because there was something going on in the native community here on the East Coast. Fishing rights were being threatened, native fishing rights were being threatened, you know, a lobster plant burnt down and there were all these terrible things going on. Without being too specific, I wanted to address the Native issues that we have up here in Canada, and also in the States too. So it was a way of bringing some kind of awareness by a shout-out, at least to my native compadres. It’s nice to be able to push things that way a little bit in regards to the gospel content. It strayed from the center a little bit, but it can still be considerate to the force.
mxdwn: How did you choose vocalists for each track you worked on for the soundtrack? Were there any country/western songs or artists that inspired you when working on the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack?
DL: Well we talked about Willie Nelson because it is a Western setting and I’ve worked with Willie before. So the fellas asked if I would call him to invite him to write a song with me for the game and I did and Willie agreed. But then he was caught in Hawaii during the hurricane and couldn’t make it back in time to write song. So I wrote a song called “Cruel World” and then we eventually hooked up with Willie in Los Angeles and he did a couple of takes and that’s what got in the game and on the record. But yeah it’s a very country song like ‘cruel, cruel world must I go on, I’ve been living to fast I’ve been living too long’ so it’s shaped very much like classic country and we didn’t feel a responsibility to serve the era that would be dictated by the game necessarily, but we thought that that one and another song called ‘Red’ that those would be allowed to be country.
mxdwn: Have you ever considered taking the band you’ve performed in with Rocco DeLuca, Jim Wilson and Johnny Shepherd and performing the songs from the Red Dead Redemption 2 soundtrack out on the road? Would you do an ‘in-the-round’ tour with you all at the center of the audience?
DL: Yes, we would. I’d love to get back on the road with this group of singers, wouldn’t that be nice? We had a West Coast tour booked that got canceled, but I just think it would be just the right music for a great live show. We used to do a regular Tuesday night in Los Angeles at a place called Zebulon, around the corner from my studio. So we worked all week and then did a Tuesday night at Zebulon and tried out some of the vocal arrangements. And that proved to be something great. The audience kept building more and more every Tuesday, and Johnny really delivered. And so we felt we discovered something pretty nice for ourselves, and the term “spreading the gospel” certainly applies here. Rocco DeLuca co-wrote some songs for Red Dead Redemption, including “Unshaken,” we co-wrote that with DeAngelo. And then another one called “That’s the Way It Is.” And so we were doing those on our Tuesday night as well. And I’d be happy to revisit “Cruel World” and “Red” so at least four or five of the songs. That would be nice. I feel bad for all the promoters and all those big agency houses, talent agencies in LA for example. All those big offices are doing amazing things for artists and where are those people now? Without work and every venue is close, it’s staggering really. I don’t think we’ve quite seen the full ripple effect of all that economically.
mxdwn: You’re the producer behind classic U2 albums such as The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree, what do you think makes projects like those so popular all these years later?
DL: Well, the only thing I can come up with is that people respond to records that have the heart in the right place. People like soul music and I’m not talking about old Motown R&B here. We respond to records that have some kind of substance. Whatever they’re trying to be, whatever they’re getting at, we want to do the best. I like a Barry White record, I’m not Barry White but “I Can’t Get Enough of Your Love”? Okay, I’m down! I think if the intentions are in the right place to begin with and you do a good job, I believe the works live on.
mxdwn: Do you have any memories or stories from producing hits like “With or Without You” or “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with U2?
DL: Yes, I have very nice memories of working for U2. Early days “With or Without You” for example, was done in a big old farmhouse outside of Dublin. At a time when we were very concentrated. It might be hard to imagine a time without cell phones, but there we were in a farmhouse on the outskirts of Dublin, no phones, so all we could do is work. But everything was unfolding for us, we were operating at the forefront of a certain kind of medium. Using the technology we had, “With or Without You” was built on a little rhythm box beat, and then Larry Mullen added his drums after. So it was kind of exciting for us to be mixing what would be viewed as urban technology with hand-played instruments. But we were all kids then, the power of youth was driving the engine. Also, the power of restriction, we’ve only got so much to work with but very talented people, that’s probably the most important ingredient and that never goes out of fashion.
mxdwn: You’ve produced albums for others as well, like Peter Gabriel’s So and Us and Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, do different artists bring out different parts of your work?
DL: Well, we serve the center. Obviously, if I’m working with Bob Dylan, he’s one of the great American songwriters, so there’s a responsibility to pay attention to the lyrics and the center. I really wanted to make sure that Bob was there in the house in the middle, and framing and ornamentation all came in second. He’s fast and furious, so I only had so much time with Bob. A little slogan I use is: “You gotta have a good first day to get a second day.” But Peter Gabriel, on the other hand, is a creator in the studio unlike Bob, so he doesn’t mind taking a long time, and so it’s a very different process. We’re quite chameleons as records makers. We don’t come in and push people around or force them to work in a way that doesn’t suit them, so we have to be flexible and, I’ll say it one more time, you know me and the folks I work with have good imaginations and are flexible. We don’t mind getting blown by the wind, whatever that might be, because we are resilient and we respond to, come what may always be prepared and I suppose, after years and years of skill-building. I started when I was a child in the studio so, by the time I got to work with the folks you’re talking about, I was very highly skilled and already had a lot of psychological experience in the studio working with singing groups and whatnot, I did a lot of records as a teenager. So, I felt ready to serve these people with what I had and also brought something to the table.