Soul Mining, a recent memoir by Canadian musician and producer Daniel Lanois, journeys through the complex process of creating and recording some of the most popular albums in recent history—from million selling releases by U2 and Peter Gabriel to important works by Emmylou Harris, Bob Dylan, Sinéad O'Connor, and dozens of others, not to mention nearly a dozen albums of his own.
As a producer (Lanois calls that “a stupid title”), he is responsible not so much for the instrumentation (although Lanois does contribute readily) but for the way the instrumentation sounds. Lanois has worked endlessly—obsessively—to capture the essence of each artist he works with and has the unique ability to make his recordings seem warm and alive, often using vintage instruments, vintage equipment and unorthodox recording techniques. Tech heads will appreciate juicy details about the equipment and instruments he uses (although he readily admits that he doesn’t give away all of his secrets), while others might enjoy learning about his own rise to sonic stardom; from a homemade recording studio in his mom’s basement to a converted old movie theater in Oxnard, California, to his current state-of-the-art studios in Toronto and L.A.
I’ve long been a fan of Lanois’ ambient collaborations with Brian Eno, Harold Budd and Michael Brook. But Lanois has also produced some of my own longstanding favorite commercial releases – Peter Gabriel’s So and Birdy soundtrack, U2’s Unforgettable Fire and Joshua Tree, Robbie Robertson’s self-titled solo debut, Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind, and Lanois’ own Acadie. Yet after reading this, I felt compelled to go back and dig more deeply into several other titles... Yellow Moon by the Neville Brothers, Achtung Baby and All You Can’t Leave Behind by U2, and Willie Nelson’s Teatro.
Clearly, Lanois derives great satisfaction from all his past projects and speaks highly of each and every artist he’s worked with. Some projects, though, were not without their obvious challenges. In the middle of recording Time Out of Mind, Bob Dylan decided to move the entire operation from California to Florida and continue in Miami with a new band. (Can you imagine?) Lanois later jumped at the chance to make an acoustic record for Neil Young (“I’ve been waiting all my life to make a Neil Young record,” he admits), only to have it morph “under full moon and forever skies” into an anti-commercial (though incredibly interesting) “electro” venture aptly titled Le Noise. (Neil’s theory: “If it sounds dangerous, you’re on the right track.”) Lanois’ current venture is a project called Black Dub, which includes vocalist Trixie Whitley, daughter of the late Chris Whitely. Black Dub appears in Detroit on June 9th and Chicago on the 10th.
If you’re a fan of Lanois’ work (or of the artists he works with), Soul Mining is a fast and interesting read.
Here’s a clip of Daniel Lanois discussing his craft in his Toronto studio...
Soul Mining: A Musical Life