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From gospel quartets to cattle barns, 10 things we learned about Canadian record producer Daniel Lanois

In a career-spanning interview with Q’s Tom Power, Canadian record producer Daniel Lanois discusses his latest album, Heavy Sun, and reflects on some of his most influential collaborations with the likes of Brian Eno, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

In a Q interview, Lanois talks about his new album, Heavy Sun, and some of his most influential collaborations

Canadian record producer and musician Daniel Lanois joined Q’s Tom Power for a career-spanning interview. His latest album, Heavy Sun, is out on Friday, March 19. (Floria Sigismondi )

A collaboration with Canadian record producer Daniel Lanois almost always results in a brilliant or even career-defining album.

Lanois has worked with some of the world's most successful bands and musicians — including U2, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Peter Gabriel, the Killers and Neil Young — but he's also a recording artist in his own right.

His latest release, Heavy Sun, blends gospel music with ambient sounds and was recorded by a quartet, which includes Lanois, Rocco DeLuca, Johnny Shepherd and Jim Wilson. It's set to come out tomorrow, Friday, March 19.

WATCH | Daniel Lanois's full interview with Q host Tom Power:

Ahead of the album's release, Lanois spoke with Q's Tom Power about the road he's taken, starting with his teenage years recording in his mom's basement through to some of his most influential musical collaborations. 

Here are 10 things we learned along the way.

Heavy Sun harks back to Lanois's first recording studio in his mom's basement

When Lanois was in his teens, his mom let him and his brother set up a recording studio in the laundry room in her basement. They called it Master Sound Recording Studio and charged $60 a day. One of their clients was a travelling Christian gospel quartet.

"We made a record in two days with these people … and I couldn't believe it was happening," Lanois told Power. "Here I was, a kid from Hamilton, and [there were] four beautiful voices pouring out of the speakers, and it was really a big part of my education. I became fascinated with this music and I thought, 'One day, I might be one of those people.'"

WATCH | Official video for Under The Heavy Sun:

Super Freak singer Rick James made a demo in that studio as well

At first, it was just kids from around the block and local artists that were using Lanois's basement studio, but soon enough more established artists were coming through. To Lanois's surprise, legendary funk musician Rick James walked in one day.

"Boy, that guy was a godsend," said Lanois. "He came in by himself and in a matter of 20 minutes, he had a whole track pouring out of the speakers. He was a great drummer, bass player, singer, all-arounder. Anyhow, it was a very fertile time and it just kept booming from there." 

Tony Bennett gave Lanois's mom a foot massage at the Grammys

Lanois's mother, Gilberte (Jill) Lanois, passed away in October at the age of 90, but the producer said she got a taste of the good life. He shared a story about a time he brought her to the Grammy Awards, where he would win best producer.

"She comes backstage and she gets to hang out with Tony Bennett," recalled Lanois. "She hit it off with Tony. I look over, and Tony Bennett is giving her a foot massage! … You know my mom's pretty good-looking, so Tony took a shot."

When Lanois first met Brian Eno, he made him pay up front in cash

By the time he met his longtime friend and collaborator Brian Eno, Lanois and his brother had moved out of their mom's basement and started working out of their Grant Avenue Studio in Hamilton, Ont.

After hearing a demo that Lanois engineered, called Wabooba by the Time Twins, Eno decided to roll the dice and book some time at their studio. Since Lanois was unfamiliar with Eno at the time, he asked him to pay up front.

"I said to my brother, 'I don't know this guy from New York, so make sure he walks in with cash,'" Lanois told Power.

Daniel Lanois, left, and Brian Eno. (@dark_shark/Twitter)

Lanois recorded Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer in a cattle barn

When it came to making Peter Gabriel's 1986 song Sledgehammer, the English rock musician asked Lanois if they could record it in an old cattle barn he owned in the West Country of England.

"We either worked in the control room or Peter would go into the cow barn," said Lanois. "Cows came up to look in the window. You got to take a peek at them back."

WATCH | Official video for Sledgehammer:

Bob Dylan said Lanois 'wanted to marry a mermaid'

Lanois produced two of Bob Dylan's albums, Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind. In Dylan's memoir, Chronicles, he wrote: "One thing about Lanois that I liked is that he didn't want to float on the surface. He didn't even want to swim. He wanted to jump in and go deep. He wanted to marry a mermaid."

"I can only assume that he's talking about my wanting to go the distance," Lanois told Power. "I wasn't about to accept the invitation, the party invitation, and just drink cocktails and eat hors d'oeuvres. I wanted to get to a masterpiece if we could. And I think the level of commitment that Bob has to his craft as one of the great American songwriters, he felt the same kind of passion."

Lanois recorded an album with Willie Nelson in a former adult theatre

Lanois recorded Willie Nelson's album Teatro in what was once an adult theatre in Oxnard, Calif. Together they transformed it into a Cuban nightclub as a throwback to Nelson's early career playing in clubs.

"I thought, 'Well, why would such a man [be] in a recording studio? Let's have it be that he has a little bit of fun,'" recalled Lanois. "So we recreated this image that I had of the clubs that Willie once played in as a kid."

WATCH | Official video for Willie Nelson's My Own Peculiar Way

Lanois fills his studio with plants, which absorb sound

Lanois said conventional studios are fine, but he likes to make his space more interesting if he can.

"I'm lucky enough to have some natural light coming from the back of the speakers there," he said about his studio in Toronto. "So we brought a bunch of plants in, and the plants become a part of the absorption of sound." 

Daniel Lanois in Toronto in 2016. (Marthe Amanda Vannebo)

Neil Young's album Le Noise is named after an inside joke with Lanois

"It came out of humour," explained Lanois. "We had a text exchange. I'd send him some mixes, and I always signed La Noise, rather than Lanois, and he was Pinecone Young."

He wishes he could have recorded with Jimi Hendrix

Lanois named legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix as the one musician he most wishes he could have recorded with.

"To this day, I'm still fascinated with Jimi Hendrix," said Lanois. "I don't know how he did it. He just had it in his fingers. If we could resurrect the man himself, then I'd make that record."


Written by Vivian Rashotte. Interview produced by Chris Trowbridge.

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