Legendary rock producer Daniel Lanois is coming to Ottawa to perform with the NAC orchestra as part of an Ontario Scene / NAC Presents co-presentaion. And he wants you to know that this will not be one of those shows where a rock artist plays through their classic songs with an orchestra for a backing band. “I’m not really interested in the touristic side of entertainment. I wouldn’t be the first in line to see Riverdance, for example and it wouldn’t interest me to hear orchestrated renditions of somebody’s familiar songs.” This, after all is Daniel Lanois who’s made his name on boldly seeking new sonic territory and who remains as fiercely dedicated to this vision as ever. ??I caught up with Lanois over the phone from his Toronto studio, housed in a former Buddhist temple, to talk about bringing the studio to the stage, the symphony he wrote for the Ottawa show, and his memories of growing up in Hull.
Though best-known as the producer who shaped the sounds of U2 and Peter Gabriel, and re-imagined those of Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris, the producer is only one side of his artistic personality. Lanois is also an accomplished musician and songwriter who’s released twelve albums of his own material. He brings a great live show too. On the night he was scheduled to play the Ottawa Jazz festival last summer, there was a huge storm that brought on a torrential downpour. Undeterred, Lanois and band played the kind of set you can’t walk away from, communing with the small audience that stood soaked to the bone and ankle deep in mud. In his live shows, he is the master of the slow burn, whose sets move fluidly from moments of atmospheric calm to peaks of sonic fury. Even if you’ve seen him play before, the NAC concert coming up will be entirely unique.
Daniel Lanois is currently touring his electronic album, Flesh and Machine, a collection of instrumental pieces created through the processing and layering of pedal steel, electric guitar, piano and the human voice. Though electronic, the pieces have a surprisingly organic quality to them. Describing “Forest City” he says, “it really sounds like the beginning of something, you know the seed that first germinates and sprouts and then a little plant comes up.”
Ever eager to let the music take the spotlight, it wasn’t long into our conversation before Lanois treated me to a rendition of “Iceland,” a Satie-esque piano based piece from the latest record. When the song ends, he tells me, “it’s instrumental but on the night in Ottawa I will perform the vocal with it so that people understand the sense of evolution within our composition and that nothing stays static, it’s always moving and it just keeps unfolding and unfolding like life.”
To perform the album live, Lanois is bringing the studio to the stage, so that both the playing of the instruments and the sampling, dubbing and processing are happening in real time. To achieve this he is bringing an eight-track player, various processing and sampling devices, and dub echo machines as his palette of tools for shaping the sound as it is performed. Asked about this new approach to performing he says, “It really allows me to do that thing that I do in the studio in a live situation. I’ve done it for so many years I’m pretty good at it but no one ever sees that because I always thought it was part of the record-making process and not something that should be taken live. But the more I get on with my work I realize that people are curious about all aspects of the artisan work I’ve chosen.”
But this won’t be about watching him work his magic at a console all night. He is also bringing his pedal steel with him, an instrument with a surprisingly human quality to it. “I’ll have my steel guitar which is very dear to me. It’s the opposite of technology. It’s a very hand-played thing and an old friend that never goes out of style, never steps into the future. It’s a very vocal sound, the way I’ve chosen to play it. I don’t play it very fast so I let the harmonics lead the way, and the melodies dictate what the harmonics will be. There’s something touching to hear somebody play something by hand like that in these fast times of electronics and all that.”
To keep things interesting, Lanois has written an entirely new piece for the Ontario Scene show. “I’ve written a symphony for the orchestra for this. It’s called ‘Crash Mountain to Senegal’ and that will be electro-driven. I will bring my recording machine, my playback machine and we will actually play on top. I will be playing my steel guitar and the orchestra will play their arrangements. David, the arranger has taken a liking to that piece. He likes the fact that it’s quite a long journey. It has a little bit of exodus in it. We’re going to go off and play this and hopefully we can transport listeners to a special place.”
The concert with the NAC will be the first time that Lanois has performed with an orchestra so he has been working with David Martin, the concert’s conductor and arranger on developing the orchestra’s parts. For an artist whose shows have a lot of improvisatory interaction between band members, the inevitable question is how much freedom will he have when playing with the orchestra. Lanois explains, “the orchestra obviously needs their arrangements written ahead of time so I’ve worked very hard to send David, the arranger, all of the templates but even within the restrictions or the specifics of the templates we do have a lot of improv. topics.”
It’s a good answer but it’s still hard to believe that he will be able to create the very free and exploratory feel that makes his shows so good when an entire orchestra is involved. So I asked about it further. “I think the feeling will still be there because even though David is writing parts to a fixed arrangement I’m allowing myself flexibility at the top of all that. Plus I’m going to do some free-form pre-amble so I’ve made it clear to David that I’ll cue him for the top of the chart. So for example, this symphony I wrote, “Crash Mountain to Senegal” will have a pre-amble with solo steel guitar so that part’s up to me and then I’ll give David the eyeball when it’s ready for him to come in.”
Among the new electronic material and the symphony, Lanois will also be performing some of his classics, including “The Maker.” But even on his well-known stuff he will change things up a bit. “I’ve decided to do it in a lower key which puts me in more of the Elvis Presley range (sings the opening at the piano). Normally, I do it in G which is (sings a few lines in the higher key). I’m usually up there so I’m going to try it in this low range which might suit that beautiful hall.” As he imagines the space and its potential for shaping sound, it’s clear that even as a performing musician the producer in him is never far away. It’s going to be fascinating to see the ways he uses Southam Hall.
As the interview winds down Lanois adds, “I’m looking forward to being in Ottawa because I’m from around there so there’s always a little feeling of back home when I visit that piece of land.” Lanois’ musical journey has brought him so very far from Hull where he spent part of his childhood but memory is powerful. I ask if he ever visits places from when he was growing up. “Yes, not too long ago I took a drive outside of Gatineau there and I went along the river to Wakefield. I had memories of Wakefield when I was a little boy because there was a bakery there that we stopped at.
If your timing was good you got a bread that came straight out of the oven, get a pound of butter and that would be the meal. It tasted so good. And then there was a suss. A little water pipe coming out of a hill there that was supposed to be the cleanest water available. So between the suss and the bakery it planted a pretty good memory. I grew up right there in Hull. We come from poverty so we lived in a place called Projets du Sault which was government housing. Part of me wants to drive by there and see if the old projet is still there.”
For a man with seven Grammys among his many awards, Lanois remains grounded, seeing his success as just the by-product of pursuing his gift. “You know we’re only people, we only come from real neighbourhoods. Simply put, I’m a French-Canadian kid who did not have a lot of advantages except that I had the musical gift. I couldn’t dribble a basketball, sink a basket or hit a puck very well so I thought I’d better go with the music.”
In any other situation the “insert-big-name-here” with orchestra format would translate to all things predictable. But this is Lanois who knows listeners expect him to “be kicking in the innovative wing of his imagination.” He will deliver.
To win one of two pairs of tickets to see Daniel Lanois and Basia Bulat at the NAC, send an email with “Lanois” in the subject header to firstname.lastname@example.org. A winner will be selected by random draw on April 22.
Daniel Lanois and Basia Bulat perform with the NAC Orchestra on April 30, 2015 in the NAC’s Southam Hall. The show starts at 8pm and is presented by Ontario Scene and the NAC Presents series. Tickets start at $39 and are available online.