Producing Depth of Field: An Interview With Daniel Lanois


  1. Olivia Mather: You spoke before about ancestral influences on your music and I wanted to ask you about that. When did you know that you wanted to be a musician? Was that something that you ever came to a self-conscious decision about?

  2. DL: I knew pretty early on that I was driven by music, from when I was about ten or eleven. But when I was fourteen was when I decided to do it as a living. I didn’t grow up with my dad, so I went out with my uncle on a rowboat—he was a very nice guy—and I said to him that I was thinking of not bothering with school and just carrying on with the music. I asked him if he thought that was a good idea, and he said, “Yeah, just follow your own heart.”

  3. OM: You have a lot of family members that were fiddle players. Could you talk a little about that?

  4. DL: They were called violoneux, which is a French term for fiddler. My grandfather and my dad were violoneux. And on my mom’s side we had a lot of singers. They just sang traditional French Canadian folk songs, which were just really about weekend entertainment, not unlike the Cajun communities—“We work hard all week, it’s the weekend, let’s have some fun”—self-entertainment society. So the violins would come out, and there’d be some tap dancing, and singing these old folk songs. When you have that around you when you’re a little kid, that’s great. You actually get a chance to hear something real, rather than somebody playing you records of something real. It’s just a pure form to be exposed to. I imagine it’d be like if one of your parents or a friend of the family was a really great storyteller and just made up a bunch of stuff. That might actually be a greater experience than going through the normal classics that every kid would read. So it’s the difference between reality and study.

  5. Figure 4. Album Cover for For the Beauty of Wynona
    OM: When I heard the song “The Collection of Marie Claire” from For the Beauty of Wynona it reminded me of the Appalachian fiddle tunes that are played in unison with singing. You do that when you start to sing—play in unison with what you’re singing. I assumed that the strain that was influencing you was the French Canadian tradition, but you don’t actually use fiddle on either Wynona or Acadie.

  6. DL: Me playing in unison with singing or harmonizing with my singing is just a thing that I developed a long time ago to help me stay on track. Because I’m not a really powerful singer, I use the guitar almost like a second singer. So I never just strum through songs, I actually play a harmony to a singing melody, and I get a better support system that way. But the driving force of that tune was the story. I wrote a lot of songs about the mixture of cultures—French culture, English culture, or rural culture and urban culture—and that one was about the mixture of rural and urban. It’s about a guy coming from the woods and visiting Montreal and being wowed by the city lights and stumbling into a striptease parlor and falling in love with this girl. I was touched by the waste of love in cities, how somebody’s efforts could never be considered in the presence of these parameters, even though their heart might be entirely true. And it’s probably still going on, [even] right here in Los Angeles. The kindest person will be the loneliest … It was also influenced by a story called “The Collector” [by novelist John Fowles]. In it, a butterfly collector falls in love with a girl and she’s oblivious to his bouts and then he abducts her in the end. So it’s a story about love and abduction. And that’s what “The Collection of Marie Claire” is about.

  7. JG: There wasn’t any fiddle on either of those albums.

  8. DL: I’ve never used fiddle on a record, I don’t think. I like fiddle and I use fiddle melodies, but I’ve never quite stepped into it.

  9. JG: It seems a little ironic in the end that a record called Acadie had no fiddle on it.

  10. DL: Well, I guess I didn’t want other people playing on the record too much. So I did my own playing. Some of the drumming I didn’t do. I’ve always maintained that it’s best if most of the music comes from the artist rather than employing superimposition.

  11. OM: I was wondering what you thought of the recent growing interest in folk music, especially since the release of the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? I know you haven’t directly been involved, except maybe through Emmylou Harris.

  12. DL: It’s not unlike what happened with Buena Vista Social Club. I believe that a large percentage of the community likes quality. We find ourselves dragging our way through a lot of popular culture at any given time—it’s just the way it is—and certain things just get all
    Figure 5. Album Cover for Buena Vista Social Club
    the attention, and you look at it, and say, “Why is this getting all the attention?” Well, nobody really knows, other than it’s popular. And then somebody will bring a project around like Buena Vista Social Club and it’s just beautiful music with a great bedrock of tradition, fantastic melodies, virtuosity and not about attitude, or what people are wearing, or who they’re fucking. It’s just the music. Then you get sort of a collective synchronicity kicking into place saying “We’ve had enough with the tabloid—we just want a nice record to listen to.” So that’s why these things become popular. So I think that’s what happens in the case of that great bluegrass music.

  13. OM: We had an article about two or three issues ago in our journal about country music and what the author called the “O Brother aesthetic” in production. He says that Emmylou Harris’ album Wrecking Ball was influential for the way T-Bone Burnett acoustically framed some of the songs for the soundtrack of O Brother. And on Gillian Welch’s first album, Revival since Emmylou’s song “Orphan Girl” on Wrecking Ball came out first. One thing that always struck me about Revival was that even though there were usually two instruments and two singers per track and that there was an amazing amount of acoustical space, especially on [Welch’s version of] “Orphan Girl.” Another example of this would be “Didn’t Leave Nobody But the Baby,” from O Brother where there’s kind of a musical-saw-type sound in the background that really gives a nice sense of space to it. To me it seems like something that T-Bone Burnett is picking up from some of your production style.

  14. DL: Oh, well that’s a nice compliment, I never thought about it. Without any doubt, if you do good work and people like it it’s gonna maybe influence somebody: they’re gonna say, “Wow, look at Lanois—who would have thought? He pulled this off pretty good, and people seem to like it, so let’s start with that and go to another place.” That’s actually the meaning of folk music. If you can unveil the stereotype for a minute, the folk tradition is the passing on of information. It’s as simple as that. It’s like I’ll sing something this way, you hear it, you’ll like it; you’ll whisper it to him, and he goes to the club and does a rendition that in fact is a little different. And that’s—we’ve built careers on it. We all learn something because of it. So, if there’s a few shades of my efforts turning up in T-Bone’s work, then I’ll take that as a compliment.

  15. OM: We wanted to talk about pedal steel a little bit. You said that the recording you were just playing for us is something that you’re working on now. We know that you were really influenced by the pedal steel guitar in the Santo & Johnny records from the late 50s. How did you get into them?

  16. DL: Santo & Johnny. Well, you know, “Sleepwalk” was a hit [in 1958] when I was a little kid. There was a lovely thing happening in that time: the weekend dance. Kids would get together and really look forward to the weekend dance.
    Figure 6. Santo & Johnny
    They’d play sexy slow songs that were often in the 6/8 time, you know [sings] and you got a chance to dance cheek to cheek and maybe on a hot sweaty night … so I always liked that part of rock and roll culture. When people think of rock and roll they usually think of up-tempo and fast rhythms, but there was a lot of really slow sexy stuff back then that still appeals to me today. And for that matter, the fast rock and roll was not that fast—it had a lot of roll in it. You listen to[sings]: “keepa knockin’ but you can’t come in, come back tomorrow and try again.” It’s not fast, you know. And then something happened in the 70s where suddently it all became eighth notes [sings]: do do do do do—and it lost a lot of sexuality, and so i keep going back to those early Santo & Johnny [records]. I have the steel right here, you wanna see it?

    [Lanois leads us downstairs to his basement recording studio, where he plays his pedal steel guitar]

  17. DL: I still have my original ones, my original steel here, that I used on that track called “Deep Blue Day” [with Brian Eno] they used in Trainspotting [plays].

  18. DL: This section is what I call the “Samuel Barber” section [plays].

  19. DL: I call that “Panorama.” This one is more melodic, [it’s] called “Thank You” [plays].

  20. DL: I’ve been working on playing up really high. Most players don’t play really high. I like this kind of raindrop sound [demonstrates]. So that’s it. I play it as often as I can.


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