“It’s an old friend, given to me by an old friend,” says Daniel Lanois, referring to a vintage Gibson acoustic guitar resting neck-down on a mid-century sofa in the billiards room of his Lynd Ave. recording studio. The guitar was a gift from Emmylou Harris, and as we talk, he picks it up and strums random chords, occasionally breaking out into songs from his first album, Acadie .
We’re drinking an Old Pal cocktail, a friend to the Boulevardier and Negroni, calling for Alberta Premium Dark Horse whisky (1 1/2oz), Dolin Dry Vermouth (3/4 oz.) and Campari (3/4 oz.) With a splash of Coffee & A Smoke bitters from Toronto bitters-maker Mark Coster, I let the drink sit in a barrel for a few days, allowing the oak from the former bourbon cask to give it a little more character.
The legendary music producer, now 63, has just released his eleventh solo record, Flesh and Machine, and is performing at the Danforth Music Hall on Sunday night. A mix of sounds and visuals, Lanois and collaborators will create live dubs to short films directed by Atom Egoyan, Mary Harron and others, a first for Lanois. “We’re bringing the entire studio onto the stage,” he says as we head to the basement, drinks in hand. One of his engineers, Alex Crispin, kicks in the visuals for “Opera,” the album’s heaviest track, as Lanois manipulates faders and buttons on a mixing console, bumping into it like a pinball machine.
Back in the billiards room, where we can hear one another, the conversation flows fluidly from French to English, one of the things I’ve long admired about Lanois. Despite his work as an audio engineer, producing Grammy winning and heavily lauded records for U2, Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris, it’s Lanois’s first record, Acadie, that has always resonated strongest to me, where song lyrics begin in French and end in English, embracing and accepting the duality of cultural identity so common for many French-Canadians living outside Quebec.
“It’s a celebration of both languages. Les deux cultures,” he says, as we continue discussing growing up francophone in English-speaking Ontario, his love of John Coltrane, and how his music career began with a knock at the door.
You were nine years old when your family left Quebec and settled in Ancaster, ON. Was it a difficult cultural shift?
There was a small French community, and I went to a French school initially, but later switched to an English school and that was tough because I didn’t speak the language. They thought I was stupid. In those days they’d keep kids back a year, so I had to do Grade 7 twice. It was upsetting: I couldn’t speak the language and I didn’t play sports. I was just a little kid. But luckily, I had this teacher, Miss Martineau, and she saw some potential and had me bumped back to Grade 8.
Was music already a factor in your life?
Luckily, I had that gift. I saw music as the universal language. I was a Globe and Mail delivery boy, so I had mornings to myself and would create little songs in my head. In those days there was a lot of door-to-door canvassing, so someone knocked at our door, selling music lessons. My mother signed me up and I started taking lessons down the street where they taught accordion and slide guitar, which is what I started out with. We only ever played things like (singing) “Please come back to the Red River Valley . . . ”
Those tunes were not unlike some of the French Canadian jigs that I heard in Quebec. My grandfather was a violoneux. Every weekend, people playing along and stomping. So when I heard those tunes, I didn’t know those tunes specifically, but they were related. Hymns are not that different from that.
It all comes from the same place.
I grew up with those (songs) in Quebec, and then the steel guitar lessons were sort of the same, and then when I started writing songs (sings “Jolie Louise”) . . . I was just mimicking things I grew up with.
Did you eventually overcome that feeling of not fitting in?
I was the most insecure kid. Even when I went to work in Ireland with U2 (starting with 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire ) … I thought: I can’t believe it. I’m here in Ireland working with these rock stars.
You were about 35 at this point?
Yeah. I mean I looked like I was 12. Felt like it, too, but I was very highly skilled, so as insecure as I might have been, I was able to bring something to the table. Eno’s from art school. He’s a big brain. He’d worked with Bowie, some really great people, but he’s an art student. The kids in U2 had only just picked up their instruments a few years earlier, so they were still learning to play. So I could be the ref and say: OK you guys, I know what you’re trying to do. Listen to good reason. Try this and the other thing . . . and I was right.
We’ve talked about traditional music, but your work, whether solo, with Brian Eno or others, has always pushed boundaries.
I have a responsibility here, and if I could get into a time machine, I can only imagine what was going on in the minds of Coltrane, Elvin Jones, young Miles Davis. They did not want to be at the bandstand, playing dance music for the white people. They wanted to be involved with civil rights. They wanted to grab the bull by the horns, be represented properly, and they splintered from that and went to small combos that were adventurous and took jazz to the future. I think we still have that responsibility in our faces and we should do something about it. I’m not saying we need to bring out the old jazz traditions, I’m saying we need to embrace the philosophy that they were operating by: we need to challenge music, build new sonics, to feel the energy that’s in the air.
Until you converted this former Buddhist temple into a recording studio, was Toronto ever a factor in your career?
Toronto was never a thing for me because I lived in Hamilton. But as a young guitar player, I used to play at the Brown Derby up on Yonge St. I’d play a show, then I’d go to the Edison next door to hear Bob Lucier, a great French Canadian pedal steel guitar player. I told him I was a slide player, but I never played pedal steel, so he became my teacher. So we’d play our set at the Brown Derby, I’d hang out with Bob, and I’d go to George’s Spaghetti House because they had late night jazz. I got to hear Lenny Breau and some of the greats of that era, and then I’d drive home back to Hamilton.
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on November 7, 2014.