“I was a psychedelic kid,” Daniel Lanois revealed in a recent phone interview. “I grew up listening to night radio.”
As a grownup, Lanois is probably best known as the atmosphere architect of such Grammy-winning albums as U2’s Achtung Baby (Island, 1991), Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind (Columbia/Sony, 1997) and Emmylou Harris’ genre-shifting Wrecking Ball (Asylum, 1995).
But despite his impressive producing resume, Lanois also takes time out for his own music — his debut album Acadie (WBR, 1989) and For the Beauty of Wynona (WBR, 1993).
And now, 10 years after that last haunting collection, Lanois returns with the just-released Shine (Anti, 2003).
“I love to be taken on a journey, musically,” he muses. “I can’t get away from thinking of music that way. I’m a romantic: Even if I have a remote, I won’t skip over tracks. You listen to the A-side and then the B-side. My vinyl values are still intact.
“A record suggests there’s something that needs to be documented,” he adds. “I like that idea.”
But Shine, more so than Lanois’ previous albums, is conceptual rather than narrative. And while it doesn’t exactly tell a story, each song is infused with a sense of longing — the romantic and the spiritual kind, intertwined.
Lanois’ trademark sound — a spooky, shadowy undertone of candlelit rooms and rainy streets — still surfaces on Shine. Yet like the album’s name suggests, a shaft of light also makes its way into these tracks.
“That spooky thing — I don’t know where it comes from,” Lanois says with a laugh, though he does acknowledge the influence of the time he spent living in New Orleans and recording at that city’s Kingsway Studios (an ambience-laden historic mansion in the French Quarter, complete with hissing gas lanterns and wrought-iron balconies).
“As a Canadian kid, I went there to learn about the bass,” Lanois says. Make that plural: He’s talking standup bass and booming tuba — all that bottom-end sound that seems to issue naturally from New Orleans musicians.
“For me, as someone who wants to be continuously educated, [New Orleans] was definitely one of the stops,” Lanois explains.
But it’s been years now since he left the French Quarter (and Kingsway is now owned by actor Nicolas Cage). And even after he moved into his L.A.-based studio, Theatro (hence the name of the album he produced for Willie Nelson), the spooky sound followed. Just listen to “Love Sick,” the lead track on Time Out of Mind, wherein Bob Dylan sounds hounded by a restless phantom.
All this, though, is in the past, Lanois suggests.
“I have my dark moments,” he admits, “but I don’t try to hide them anymore. I’m going for a wholesome sound.”
He is, he adds, fascinated by Jamaican recordings from the 1950s.
I wanted to use that schoolyard sound in my recordings,” he reveals. “I think it shows up in [the title track].”
He proceeds to sing a verse of the dark but lilting “Shine” over the phone, filling the miles between us.
The entire album, at first listen, is so much less layered than Lanois’ previous projects that the shadowy underbelly can almost be overlooked. The opening track, “I Love You,” is a duet with Emmylou Harris, and Bono contributes to both the writing and vocals on the second cut, “Falling at Your Feet.”
“These are love songs, searching songs,” Lanois explains. “These are the same questions I was asking when I was 15. ‘Falling at your Feet’ says no matter what you choose to drag around with you, we’ll all end up at the same crossroads.”
About “Shine,” he muses, “We might freeze up our dreams, thinking we’re all alone; but in fact, if we let something come to us, that may be the real deal.” The word “shine” also pops up in the reggae-flavored “Power of One.”
“It’s about being the recipient of information on the level of synchronicity,” Lanois says. “If you open up your heart, you’ll feel something. On a good day, I feel a lot of that and I call it my shine. It’s a multipurpose word for one’s inner spirit, [one’s] burning light.”
As open as the singer/songwriter is about his musical inspirations, getting him to talk about his more famous production work is another story.
“People get hooked into a buzzword and it gets reduced to a really simple comparison,” he protests. “People ask, ‘Are you this? Are you that?’ in this age of compartments. After the ’60s, I thought there would be less of that. I want to hear everyone from Nina Simone to The White Stripes.
“I started a studio in my mom’s basement,” he finally relents. “One day someone called me a producer. The title means something different for each producer. For me, I go into my laboratory because I’m excited about something. I do my homework, and I put years of time into my sound. I would never accept an invitation [to produce an album] because I was flattered by someone who invited me.”
Keep in mind, Lanois has produced golden names in almost every existing genre: Dylan, U2, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, The Neville Brothers, Luscious Jackson.
“I’d only do it because I could bring something to the table,” he asserts. “That’s really important.”
The digital-versus-analog debate, meanwhile, is “a bit of a pet peeve,” Lanois continues. “I have all kinds of machines, including a Radar digital machine … but it’s more about the personality of the recording.