Like so much of his music, Daniel Lanois is a busy and multilayered complexity, inspired and inspiring, genius yet accessible, leaving you wanting more.
It's dizzying, what the legendary Canadian producer and recording artist has going on. Just back from Europe, where he's been touring his latest solo album, Flesh and Machine, and where, in Belgium, he presented a memorial symphony, written for Anzac Day, Lanois was at his Toronto studio early this week working on his next project – a pedal-steel guitar album – before heading to Ottawa for a one-time only performance with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and guest Basia Bulat. He's also talking about a possible new project with Brian Eno.
"I can't sit still," says Lanois, who started making music in the basement of his mother's house in Ancaster, Ont., and went on to produce, with Eno, seminal albums for the likes of U2 (beginning with The Unforgettable Fire) and Peter Gabriel (including So).
The Ottawa performance, part of the NAC's Ontario Scene festival, promises to be quite something. David Martin was commissioned to arrange a number of Lanois's songs for the 65-piece orchestra, including music from Lanois's latest envelope-pusher, the atmospheric Flesh and Machine.
The album is a dynamic sonic exultation that he performs live by "bringing the studio to the stage," along with bassist and multi-instrumentalist Jim Wilson and drummer Kyle Crane, whom Lanois sometimes introduces as "the guy from Whiplash that you don't see." (Crane's drumming hands were featured in the film, uncredited.)
"It's never the same show twice," says Lanois from his Toronto studio, a converted Buddhist temple. And the NAC performance will, of course, have added elements. "I'll be doing lots of steel-guitar stuff and sampling and dubbing with the orchestra also. So it's a little bit outside of what we do but it's going to be really exciting for us: a whole new direction."
The collaboration has been taking place remotely for the most part; the group was not able to get together for a rehearsal until Wednesday for the Thursday evening performance. Lanois is hoping for some spontaneity anyway.
Lanois's career has been so diverse, successful and groundbreaking, I asked him if it becomes challenging to break new musical ground.
"I'm constantly searching; I can't say that it's always easy but there's always excitement from the recordings and the people around me," says Lanois, 63. "I've done a pedal-steel album before, Belladonna, but the new one that I'm working on currently – I wasn't afraid this time to make the sound even crazier, more like Jimi Hendrix steel guitar, taking it some place that we've never been and dubbing on top of those two."
The Toronto born-and-raised Bulat, a folkie singer-songwriter, has been a long-time fan. She first met Lanois at the Juno Awards a few years ago (she gushed) and then performed Shine at the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards gala two years ago.
She says working with Lanois has had an impact on her own music-making.
"He's been an inspiration to me on multiple levels," says Bulat from Montreal, where she now lives. "I'm really interested, obviously, in folk music and … in trying to do something different and finding ways to push those boundaries. Daniel has been paving the way in that respect for a long time, not just with his work with Emmylou [Harris] and Bob Dylan but also with his own work and songwriting and especially now with the amazing stuff he's doing. It's really incredible and it gives me a lot of inspiration into not letting yourself be put into a box by anyone else or by yourself, and just being continually interested in new sounds and new directions." (She is currently working with drum machines.)
Lanois, whose solo records include Acadie and Shine, is probably best known for his collaboration with Eno – which produced monster albums such as U2's The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Now there could be something new brewing for this legendary partnership.
"We have this crazy idea of a 16-channel speaker playback system that Brian's actually been working on. I want to bring him to Toronto, eventually, where we kind of started together. We have this dream of having a concert with speaker people, like have 24 or so people who are carrying around a wireless speaker throughout the audience. So it's the sound and the visuals – just keep making them crazier and more fun," says Lanois, who spent time with Eno at his London studio before a show earlier this month (which Eno attended).
"We're always supportive of each other," Lanois continues. "And we have a friendship that's been lasting a long time. And I'm trying to get the studio here back into the basement of the building so it can kind of go back to the roots of where we started in my mother's house; you know, just bringing the music right from the bottom of the ground."
Daniel Lanois performs with the NAC Orchestra and special guest Basia Bulat in Ottawa Thursday.