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DANIEL LANOIS:
SUN SALUTATION

Daniel Lanois has always pushed the envelope, from his earliest days in the studio in Hamilton, Ontario, to his award-winning turns as producer of acts like U2, Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Neil Young and Emmylou Harris. Over the years he has also crafted an eclectic collection of recordings under his own name, showcasing not only his penchant for big-sky sounds but also his vast resources as guitarist and composer.

With his latest set, Heavy Sun (MNRK Music Group), the musically adventurous Lanois heads out into striking new territory, a caressing, soulful, deeply affirmative blend of churchy vibes and intimate vocal harmonies that feels particularly restorative just now. “Heavy Sun is a salve against pandemic blues,” Mojo confirmed, calling it “a joyous gospel record but noting that “Lanois’ nuanced production brings gospel to other, sometimes dubbier realms.”

All in all, the Quebec-born, L.A.-based producer/creator is in a sunny mood—though he probably wishes he’d applied more sunscreen before talking to us.

I was probably not alone in being surprised by this project. How did it come together?
I've always been a fan of the Hammond organ, so we dragged that out of the closet and found it was a very big part of the engine—some of the numbers have only organ on them. Johnny Shepherd plays and is a gifted singer as well. We started building this thing around that organ and the singing group we formed.

A few times I ran my old Roland 808 beatbox machine. We cut some of the tracks to the 808, then added Kyle Crane on the drums after. That proved to be interesting—Wayne Lorenz, my co-producer, and I got pretty good at taking a few bars of drums from here and moving them over there. There's a lot of technology involved in what we did, but as it always goes, we try and hide the sutures of our work.

The sutures are virtually imperceptible. It felt as though I’d walked into a room where the music was happening. It has that immediacy.
I decided to bring everybody up to the console—we sang right at the console—and we all held our own Shure mics. It's very much a four-part-harmony record. We made sure we kept all the grease and most of all, the joy, because what happens when you sing together is that you have to blend. One of the songs [“(Under the) Heavy Sun”] even has the lyric “Leave your ego hanging at the door.” If you're going to enter here, you have to work with your mates; it becomes all about blending—no one is taking center stage.

Even with the lyrics… We had a little room on the other end of my house in [the Los Angeles neighborhood of] Silver Lake; the other side of the house was the writing room, and we just worked on the lyrics together.

I understand you were thinking of ’60s and ’70s recordings, certain Jamaican records in particular.
We've always had a romantic notion of Jamaica at the time of The Heptones. We were remembering listening to those records when we were younger. So we had this romantic notion about a singing group, and off we went.

All four of us singers come from very different walks of life. Johnny is from the Baptist church in Shreveport, Louisiana. I'm French Canadian—I grew up with my uncles singing “On fait du mélange” [“We Stir the Pot”] in the room together. Jim Wilson is a rock singer [and bassist]. And [guitarist] Rocco DeLuca has that beautiful high voice. We all sang together Tuesday nights at Zebulon, around the corner from my place in L.A.

You really have created a sort of secular religious experience.
Yes, we left Jesus out of the equation, but we were thinking about the spirit and joy of that music. We thought, “Let's fly over the cuckoo's nest of the predictable and try and take it to the future.” I love classic gospel, but I don't think it's my role to step into that arena. I'm a record maker, a futurist, so I felt a responsibility to take the music in that direction. When I made Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind record, it was blues-based, but I didn't want to make a blues record. We had to find a way to get to the future. Because of the difference in characters in the singing group [on Heavy Sun], I do think we managed to get at the feeling and the joy of gospel music but not be weighed down by the conventions associated with it.

Soul music was a way to bring the feeling of church into a secular context. It was, and the question for me was, “What might that mean in modern times?” I have a reputation of breaking some kind of ground. I wanted to make sure that criterion was still with us—we would try to take that beautiful singing forward.

The album does impart a sense of solace. It’s hopeful-sounding.
A lot of people are searching these days. With a song like “Way Down,” which is a searching song—“I’m looking for a city on the other side”—if someone's feeling down, you might find a little bit of an open pasture there to be at ease with yourself.

What’s next?
After we finished Heavy Sun, I started playing a lot of piano and came up with some lovely new compositions. I just thank my lucky stars that I wake up in the morning and I'm still excited about all of it. The mystery of it all is part of what keeps the engine rolling. I keep making discoveries. I’m working with Wayne on some pieces with a view to having an installation in a gallery in Montreal with a 16-speaker [audio system]. We've mixed stems of this work and it sounds so beautiful.

What else can you tell me about it?
The installation falls under the banner of Sonic Temple, because it was made in a Buddhist temple in Toronto by that name. The installation itself is called “The Bells of Oaxaca.”

I lived in the hills of Oaxaca some years ago and experienced the ringing of the 7pm bells [for vespers] in all these little villages, which creates this fantastic symphony. I read it as sort of an ancient mantra. I'm trying to take that inspiration and bring the feeling of it to current times, not unlike the [Heavy Sun] song “Tree of Tule.”

On that same trip, when I drove from Mexico City to Oaxaca, I pulled into Tule and had no idea about this 1,500-year-old tree. But I thought, “Well, these folks are not just praying under this tree; they're finding something in themselves under this tree, slowing the heart rate and appreciating something that has always been.

I'm constantly reminded by nature of the beauty that has always existed. Sometimes we think this is a new idea, the hippest thing, but when you see something like this tree, you feel the eternal.

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