One of the brand new tracks off of Joe Bonamassa’s latest release Live at Radio City Music Hall is a cover of the song “Still Water” originally by Daniel Lanois. When I first learned that this track was being released, I was excited, thrilled. I’m a big, longtime fan of Daniel Lanois’ work. Daniel Lanois is not a household name in America, but I think many more people have heard his music than they realize. This is especially true of Lanois’ work as a producer. I’ve always been extremely interested in producers and music production. In fact, when I was 18 and starting my freshman year of college, I was majoring in music business with an eye towards launching a career as a producer. It didn’t happen that way, but my passion for the studio side of music making has never declined. And among producers, Lanois has always been one of my very favorites – possibly my very favorite.
Born September 19, 1951 in Hull, Quebec, Daniel Lanois began his career as a record producer when he was merely 17 year sold. He started out by producing records from local bands in his basement studio with his brother, Bob Lanois. Eventually, he came to work with Brian Eno, a former member of Roxy Music. Eno, a pioneer of ambient music, produced some incredible material with Daniel Lanois, not least of which was the song “An Ending (Ascent)”, an uplifting ambient piece that you might even recognize from some of the films that it has appeared in like Traffic and 28 Days Later.
Working with Brian Eno turned out to be a huge break for Daniel Lanois. Brian Eno was hired on to produce U2’s The Unforgettable Fire, the Irish rock band’s fourth studio album, in 1984. The band was seeking to incorporate the more ambient and experimental kinds of sounds that Lanois and Eno has been employing in their music, and when they hired Eno, Daniel Lanois was soon brought along as co-producer. The album produced the hit single “Pride (In the Name of Love) and was a major success in multiple countries including Australia, the U.K., and Lanois’ own Canada, going triple platinum there.
From there, Daniel Lanois’ career really took off, leading him to get the gig with which I first became familiar with his work. That would be the production of Peter Gabriel’s megahit So. Peter Gabriel, who Rock Candy Funk Party recently covered on their latest album Groove is King, released a true masterwork with So. Its diversity and breadth is magnificent, while still remaining true to one overall vision and aesthetic. Fun and funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking, full of pain and love, So features a song for every mood, every aspect of life, every kind of feeling.
Gabriel is brilliant, but I’m not sure he could have pulled off such a breathtaking album with a lesser producer than Daniel Lanois. I became an immediate fan after buying that record. And I wasn’t the only one. Since that record, Lanois has gone on to record albums by Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, The Neville Brothers, Emmylou Harris, more work by U2 and Peter Gabriel, and other accomplished artists. And the thing about Lanois is, if the albums he produces aren’t the best albums of an artist’s career – which in the case of Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree, I would argue they are, he inevitably winds up producing the best albums that artist has made in some time. Need to revitalize your music career? Seek out Daniel Lanois.
Daniel Lanois has had incredible success as a producer. Three albums he has either produced or co-produced have won the Grammy for Album of the Year. Four others have received Grammy nominations. But Lanois isn’t just a producer, and not just a sideman to great artists. He’s a principle artist in his own right, which, if you’ve heard Bonamassa’s version of “Still Water”, you’ve now heard for yourself. Daniel Lanois didn’t originally see himself as an artist and he was satisfied with his career as a producer. But when the timing was right, it organically happened. Peter Gabriel, already impressed with Lanois as a producer, came to encourage him as a songwriter and recording artist as well.
Lanois’ debut album Acadie was recorded in his home studio in New Orleans (Daniel Lanois owns houses in quite a few places now). The album, in some ways, is what one might have expected from Daniel Lanois. Brilliant songwriting, a spacious, textured sound, warm instrumentation. But, perhaps one might not have guessed what a colorful and magnetic singing voice he has. The album is also of note because he sings in both English and French, sometimes even on the same track. And usually the decision is aesthetic and important to the meaning of the song; it’s not just to show off his bi-lingual abilities.
The album leads off with “Still Water” and it’s an amazing cut. Probably the most famous track off the album though is “The Maker”, which in addition to being the other single released off of Acadie with “Still Water”, has been a covered by a multitude of artists including The Jerry Garcia Band, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Dave Matthews Band, and Phish.
What makes the music of Daniel Lanois so poignant and touching? I think it’s that, in addition to its beauty, it tends to touch on deep truths and has the ring of authenticity. The idea of truth and authenticity is crucial to Lanois. “People feel something when they hear songs,” says Lanois. “If it came from a real place, people recognize it. And when the song feels the truth, then it lives on.”
The music of Daniel Lanois has certainly lived on, and I hope it will continue to do so. And if “Still Water” proves popular enough and enjoyable enough to Mr. Bonamassa, perhaps he will see some other Daniel Lanois tunes added to his repertoire. Count me among the fans that would definitely love to hear this.
– Brian R.