Producer Daniel Lanois hopes his new album offers 'refuge' for these 'troubled times'

·4 min read

TORONTO — If Daniel Lanois can offer listeners anything with his newest album, he says it would be a little bit of joy in these “troubled times.”

A year into the global pandemic there’s much to feel anxious about, and the seven-time Grammy-winning producer’s gospel-fuelled “Heavy Sun” could be a breather of sorts with its lush harmonies and church organs.

“It’s got congregation, it's got good feelings,” the 69-year-old musician explained in a recent interview.

“I’m hoping that people will find some kind of refuge within this body of work, just to boost a little bit of morale.”

“Hard Sun,” recorded in the months before the pandemic, was a collaborative effort between Lanois, best known for his work with Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson and U2, and his bandmates in the Heavy Sun Orchestra, whom he affectionately calls "the Four Musketeers."

The group is led by vocalist Johnny Shepherd, an organist and choir director originally from Louisiana-based Zion Baptist Church who befriended Lanois before agreeing to join him on the project.

Beyond co-producing the album, Lanois plays guitar and sings alongside guitarist Rocco DeLuca and bassist Jim Wilson.

Lanois spoke to The Canadian Press about the ways “Hard Sun” marks a departure from some of his most famous works.

CP: You’ve said you wanted this album to take gospel music and move it into the future. Can you explain how that idea first took shape with your bandmates?

Lanois: We sang a few church classics that everybody knew and found ourselves really enjoying singing together. We thought, how can we take the energy this music seems to have to our own arena? So we started developing this space-age gospel sound. I wasn't about to step into the familiar aspects of ecclesiastical music. Of course, we love traditional music and respect the past, but if we're going to go into the form, then we have to own the approach. And that's when records have more of an individual personality. We have the spirit of gospel music and then something new with it.

CP: The album is stacked with an array of musical elements. Not just gospel, but you can almost feel jazz, rock and soul pushing against each other at times. How do you see the relationship between these genres?

Lanois: I love so much music – and all kinds of music. I spent a lot of time in Jamaica, so there was always a bit of a Jamaican tinge to my work. I was in New Orleans, exposed to some of the great bass playing, piano playing, drumming. We are what we eat, and if we eat beautifully cultured music then we become some of that.

CP: How does this relate to your relationship with past albums you made?

Lanois: As I look back at certain chapters of work I realize we were committed to a certain approach at a given time. And we just made the most out of what we had. I don’t think philosophically that has changed much. The tools have changed. But I think the spirit of that is still with us. (With U2’s album) "The Joshua Tree" we were the outskirts of Dublin. No distractions, this was before cell phones. We didn’t employ studio musicians or anything, we just made a record with the people that were in the room. That's what we love about classics. They represent a very specific snapshot of people at a very specific time.

CP: Many of the albums you’ve worked on became part of the cultural zeitgeist, whether it's Brian Eno's ambient albums or Peter Gabriel's "Us." How do you feel about having songs that are intrinsically connected with "life moments" for many people?

Lanois: Isn't that beautiful? It takes a little bit of the ego out of it and the leather pants out of it. Even when I'm gone that song or that body of work will keep touching hearts. It's the best compliment, really. It doesn’t happen to everybody and I can appreciate that I’ve made a few things that will keep touching people along the way.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2021.

David Friend, The Canadian Press