During a celebrated career that has spanned nearly 30 years, Daniel Lanois has gone from Eno to emo and back again.
The 53-year-old, Hamilton-bred musician and producer, returns to Toronto this weekend to be inducted into Canada's Walk of Fame. Famous mainly for his work with popular music icons U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, he has lent his studio skills to a slew of projects — not all of them commercial juggernauts.
Last month, he was in Toronto to fine-tune a forthcoming disc by Dashboard Confessional, a.k.a. Christopher Carrabba, the young Florida singer/songwriter and popular purveyor of the soul-baring rock genre labelled emo.
"The kid's real smart. A great lyricist," says Lanois on the line from his Los Angeles home.
"I've really outdone myself with the arrangements. There are some really beautiful counter-melodies and sub-melodies. It's a really innovative record. I'm so happy I did it. I really hope it goes through the roof for him."
At the same time, Lanois is promoting a new disc of his own, Belladonna, an instrumental album he likens to the ambient soundscapes he recorded with fellow studio guru Brian Eno in the 1980s. It hits stores next Tuesday. He leads a four-piece band into the Winter Garden Theatre June 11 to perform selections from the new album, as well as songs from his earlier catalogue.
Prior to hooking up with Eno on 1980's Ambient 2: The Plateaux of Mirror, Lanois's short resume included three albums of kids' music with Raffi.
"If we were to look back at our great Canadian exports, of which we had many, the ambient music chapter that took place in Hamilton is a relatively uncelebrated one — probably because it was just instrumental ambient music," Lanois says. "But, as is often the case in Canada, we pay no attention to things going on right under our noses. And then 10 or 20 years later, we think, `Wasn't that great?'
"The idea of ambient music is that not everything is on your face. Sometimes it's nice that something is stirring the imagination without punching you in the face. You can put the record on, whether it's Belladonna or one of those Eno records I did in the '80s, and make your own movie. You are now the director. You are not being directed or told anything. We're going to send you off on a trip and your own imagination will be the boss. That's a nice thing to do for folks."
In some ways, Belladonna is a stylistic continuation of its predecessor, Shine. That album, released in 2003, wasn't wordless, but it was also rooted in a low-key, atmospheric vibe.
Lanois has now released two solo albums in three years, after keeping silent on that front for nearly a decade. He credits his label, Anti, home to such independent musical spirits as Tom Waits, Nick Cave and Marianne Faithfull.
"They're music lovers and great supporters of music that might not be considered commercial," he says. "They've been egging me on to do an instrumental record for a while, to revisit those early passions of mine. Some of it is among my best work."
Lanois' best work is an impressive roster — including his contributions to U2's Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. His own favourite is 1997's Time Out of Mind, one of two albums (the other being 1989's Oh Mercy) he produced for Bob Dylan.
"There's a track on (Time Out of Mine), `Can't Wait'. I heard that the other day and I thought, `My God, I don't even know how we did it.' It was incredible. And I don't remember how I did it.
"I produce testimonial exorcisms," he continues. "That's what Danny Lanois does. The artist, whether they like or not, their heart and soul is going to be worn on the sleeve bigger than ever. That's my skill. That's my gift. That's what I bring out in people. And that's what I'll keep doing. I'm like a preacher. That's my gig."
VIT WAGNER POP MUSIC CRITIC www.thestar.com