Daniel Lanois relates the title track to his new album Here is What is, to a Jamaican proverb he heard many times when he worked with reggae legend Jimmy Cliff. The song cautions, “Here is What Is. Don’t you go walking too long in the dark.” Advice Lanois seems to heed, as the album is the soundtrack to his new documentary of the same title. The documentary Here is What is, is what Lanois would call “the travelogue of his life” filmed over the course of the past year. In the film, Lanois guides the listener on a search for the “source of the art, rather than everything that surrounds the art.” A point he simply describes as the “beauty of creation.” The film and its companion album, allow Lanois to delve into “his orphanage” of many previously unreleased textures, rhythms, hooks, grooves, prose, rhymes and atmospheres and bring them all to light in a one of a kind sonic journey grounded by Lanois’ stellar musicianship, imagination and relentless pursuit for that “spark of initial magic.” Lanois is one of the most distinct and celebrated music producers, solo artists and composers in the modern era.
Lanois brought together some of his frequent collaborators including Brian Eno, Garth Hudson and Brian Blade for Here is What is. The album is currently available in digital form via Lanois’ label Red Floor Records, with a wider release slated for March 2008, in tandem with DVD release of the documentary. The documentary debuted to great acclaim at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2007, which features guest appearances by U2, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Aaron Neville, Billy Bob Thornton and Sinead O’Connor. It has been described as “an invitation to experience a year of creation, looking over Daniel Lanois’ shoulder.” This exclusive look at this elusive artist in the recording studio is something music fans and scholars have longed for— for more than twenty years. From this journey, an array of songs emerge across a broad spectrum of musical genres.
Highlights on the 18 track album include “Lovechild,” which begins with a remarkable improvised piano solo by Garth Hudson and transitions into Lanois on his trademark pedal steel guitar, an instrument he calls his “church in a suitcase.” The pedal steel guitar later becomes the center of “Sacred and Secular,” a song which heightens a poignant dialogue between Lanois, Eno and Blade.
The simple, “I Like That” is a song of appreciation for “the little things that keep the motor going.” Lanois pines: “Give me sleeves rolled up, a wild tongue and good luck. And I like that.” On a completely different plane, “Bells of Oaxaca,” recalls Lanois’ fondness for a Mexican village where an ambient symphony of bells rings every night at 7 p.m. This track is immediately contrasted with a roaring rendition of “This May Be The Last Time” led by Brian Blade’s Father and his Zion Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. “Joy” has its roots in a sermon about the “pursuit of happiness” given by Blade’s father, where out of loss, the choir asks the sky to let “destiny set them free.”
Beyond the album’s diverse musicality lies Lanois’ gift for songwriting, conjuring up images of the real and the mysterious, like in the song “Where Will I Be” where the character is caught between “a poet’s lament” and “blistering a heel by running in the dark.” In “Not Fighting Anymore,” Lanois offers, “a new part of the character’s self is coming into bloom,” indicating a changing shift in priorities. This is echoed in “Harry,” a melancholy figure who Lanois encourages to “let the water pass” and allow “a stranger to feel his power,” “know his secrets” and “see a passion no one has ever seen.”
Earning an accolade from Rolling Stone Magazine as “the most important record producer to emerge in the ‘80s,” Lanois along with Brian Eno broke ground in the music industry by collaborating on a number of landmark ambient releases, which transformed perception of space, music and performance. From here, Lanois began to forge relationships with some of the world’s most renowned artists, offering them a fresh perspective on their sound. Through his production work with U2 on their seminal works, Lanois took the techniques he developed with Eno and went on to produce career defining albums for Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, and Emmylou Harris. Lanois describes his production work as follows: “Some people call it atmosphere, some people call it a hook or a groove, essentially what I’m looking for is that part of the song that sets it apart, gives it its identity. Take Bob Dylan’s ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,’ you understand what that song is before he even begins to sing. That’s what I’m looking for. That’s magic.”
As a producer, Lanois, the recipient of ten Grammy awards and five Juno awards, has been at the heart of some of the past century’s masterworks including U2’s The Joshua Tree, The Unforgettable Fire, Achtung Baby, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, and All That You Can't Leave Behind; Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy and Time Out of Mind; Peter Gabriel: So and Us; Willie Nelson’s Teatro; Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball; Scott Weiland’s 12 Bar Blues; The Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon; Brian Eno’s Apollo, Music For Films II, On Land, The Pearl, and Plateaux Of Mirror; Robbie Robertson’s Robbie Robertson; .Luscious Jackson’s Fever In Fever Out, and the soundtrack to Billy Bob Thornton’s Slingblade.
In the meantime, Lanois is anxiously awaiting his next trip to Dublin, to meet Brian Eno, Bono and the boys, where he will co-produce U2’s forthcoming album. He credits the band’s longevity with having “hungry hearts” and creating an atmosphere where “commitment is contagious.” He is even preparing a speech for their first day back. The first line is, “I need you to make a masterpiece.”
Lanois understands the delicate balance between the songwriter and the producer, skills he jokingly says he picked up attending “the University of Bob Dylan.”
“No one else can write Daniel Lanois song, the same way no one else can write a Bob Dylan song,” says Lanois. “As a producer you help an artist build the framework for their tracks and help them find sparks of magic. As a songwriter and solo artist, you are serving your own personal life experiences.” Lanois has shared his life experiences through a beautiful and moving collection of solo albums beginning with his acclaimed 1989 debut, Acadie. Following through with 1993’s Beauty of Wynona, 2003’s Shine, and 2005’s releases: Rockets and Belladonna. "For every song of mine that gets released there is an abundance of material that does not,” says Lanois. (The Orphanage.) He plans to release six CDs of previously unreleased material through Red Floor Records known as The Omni Series. Each album will be assembled to represent a certain part of Lanois’ work. For example, one album will be called Steel, featuring Lanois’ work with steel instruments.