Living in New York City it is not uncommon to randomly come across celebrities while you’re doing something relatively normal. I’ve bumped into movie star Dustin Hoffman on my way to lunch, spoke to The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart outside of starbucks, and met legendary music producer Daniel Lanois at a book store while waiting for my girlfriend to get off work. Lanois was “Upstairs at the Square” at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York to promote his new book Soul Mining: A Musical Life and band, Black Dub, which also consists of singer Trixie Whitley (daughter of Chris Whitley), drummer Brian Blade, and bass player Daryl “The Bird” Johnson. While “Upstair at the Square” Lanois, Whitley, and Johnson (minus Blade) did a few tracks off the new album before Lanois himself read some excerpts from the Soul Mining. Inspired by the (coincidental) experience I purchased the book, got Lanois to sign it, told him I love his solo album Belladonna, and then went to dinner with my lady.
Over the next few days I couldn’t put the book down. It was fascinating content written in colorful language. Before our random encounter I wasn’t so familiar with Lanois’ music catalog. I reviewed U2’s No Line on the Horizon for UnRated NYC, often listened to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind, and had Brandon Flowers’ new solo album Flamingo on my iPhone. All albums that have Lanois’ signature sound radiating throughout them. As I read through stories of Lanois and his brother building a studio in their mother’s basement (as seen on the book’s cover), locking Peter Gabriel in a room to write lyrics for So, and recording music at the Teatro with Willie Nelson I became obsessed with hearing the music he produced.
After reading each chapter I would pick up the album I just read about and try listening to it from Lanois’ perspective. On Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells,” off his Oh Mercy album its the beautiful honesty in both his lyrics and sound that make this song grab you by the heart and bleed the soul from it. “There’s something special about the cohesion of a one-point source, when the piano and the vocals are done simultaneously, ” Lanois describes in the first of his two chapters about working with Dylan. “Bob performed ‘Ring Them Bells’ at my rented Steinway B, which I later purchased and recently sold to John Cusack. John loves ‘Ring Them Bells,’ so now he has my piano at his place in Chicago.”
I had never listened to Emmylou Harris before reading about how Lanois “felt deep American patriotism in the walls of Emmy’s home, and was humbled by the unspoken dedication to values that [he] had never known.” Knowing this kind of background to a song or album can definitely change the way you hear the music. It was also cool learning that Bob Lanois, Daniel’s brother, not only did the artwork for Emmylou Harris’ Grammy winning album,Wrecking Ball, but also produced a documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball which tells the story of how this album came be. Lanois also reflects on the making of U2’s Achtung Baby and how “Bono was at a turning point in his lyrics, during which the complexities of life and human emotion fueled him to write new kinds of songs.” I have listened to Achtung Baby a million times and never thought the song “Love is Blindness” was about “someone being driven by an ideal to the point of contaminating the very fiber of his morals.”
By the end of Soul Mining: A Musical Life it felt like Daniel Lanois and I were friends. As if Lanois himself had read me these stories. I began listening to albums I’d never heard before as well as reinterpreting albums I was very familiar with. Now his captivating signature sound is as recognizable to me as a guitar solo by U2’s The Edge or Bob Dylan’s voice. It’s as if his book taught me a new audio language and now I can’t help but hear it. On Neil Young’s most recent album,Le Noise, songs like “Someone’s Gonna Rescue You” and “Angry World” have Daniel Lanois all over them, like the Mona Lisa has parts of Leonardo Da Vinci in it. This book not only taught me new music, but what to look for while listening to it. It may have been pure chance that I ran into this musical virtuoso, but the ripple effect of our encounter has deeply impacted my day to day life. That’s the good thing about living in New York City, you never know whose path you might cross while waiting for your girlfriend.
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