Nobody makes records like Daniel Lanois. The Quebec-born artist and producer started his sonic journey with a slide guitar and a makeshift home studio in Hamilton, Ontario back in the 1970s. Those first simple 4-track outings for local bands led to recognition and collaboration with the legendary Brian Eno (Roxy Music, David Bowie), and from there, Lanois became a singular force in the evolving careers of U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, the Neville Brothers, and Bob Dylan just to name an iconic few. Lanois’s reach has extended to film (1984’s Dune, Sling Blade) as well as the video game realm where he enlisted the help of D’Angelo, Willie Nelson, Rhiannon Giddens, and Josh Homme in the creation of the soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption II. But with every chameleonic project and grand challenge, Lanois has continued to explore his own musical worth in a series of personal efforts that range from heady, ethereal songsmithing to atmospheric, improvisational electronica. His latest artistic incarnation is Heavy Sun, an outfit Lanois describes as a vocal group featuring singer-songwriter Rocco DeLuca, organist/singer Johnny Shepherd, drummer Brian Blade, and longtime friend and bandmate Jim Wilson. Equal parts gospel and science fiction soul rally, Heavy Sun blends harmony with choir energy and positivity. It’s an album Lanois has conspired to make for years– but don’t imagine that he’s reached his zenith just yet. The 69-year-old continues to seek out new innovations and inspirations with the same passion he’s cultivated across multiple decades worth of albums and awards. “It never stops for me,” said Lanois. “And I hope it never will!”
AI- Through various podcasts and interviews, I’ve been able to assemble what I think is a pretty decent playlist [from Heavy Sun]. You’ve called it a gospel record, and from what I’ve heard, it’s all sweetness and light and absolutely a gospel record driven by organ and those layered vocals.
DL- Yeah, we were pretty lucky to bump into the great Johnny Shepherd from Shreveport, Louisiana. I’m a now and again guitar player in the Hallelujah Train, which is a band run by pastor Brady Blade out of Shreveport. That’s where I met Johnny and I thought, “What a talent!” We call him our hymnologist. He has a real understanding of hymns as a choir leader. He was able to guide us along through the harmonies. He had a simple rule: Every song has to have a good message. I said, “Okay, Johnny, let’s go!” (Laughs)
That’s an important thing right now too, havin’ a good message. And you had put this together before the pandemic came down. Of course, even then people were desperate for a positive message.
Yeah. The coming of the pandemic was pretty intense and lucky for us, we had the bulk of the work finished by then. I took the recordings to Toronto and I finished the mixing up here. I put the last cherry on the cake to a song called “Every Nation”. But yes, I think folks are lookin’ for somethin’ that will bring a bit of joy into their lives. It’s a timing of some kind, but pandemic aside, isn’t it nice if people can be uplifted by music?
You say you put the final cherry on top? I think I had read, within just a couple of weeks ago, that you were still tinkering with some of the mixes and some of the things for Heavy Sun. You are thrilled with it now?
Very much. I mean, is anything ever really finished? I like that we were able to put final attention to detail up here in Toronto. I’m pretty fast and furious in the studio, but in the end, we hope that the foundation of it all has magic in it and that the spirit is intact– but then you still got to make sure that you don’t have distortion or something, funny clicks and this kind of stuff. So we do our cleanup work, ultimately (laughs)!
You mentioned Johnny Shepherd. Tell me about the other instruments and the other players on the album.
Oh, absolutely! The great Rocco DeLuca, one of my best friends from Los Angeles, a great writer, and singer. We always wanted to be in a singin’ band or harmony band together, ’cause we like some of that old Jamaican harmony singin’. We thought, “One day we will!” We will have a little group like that!” So when we met Johnny, we thought, “Okay, this is it!” Rocco was a very big part of this, one of our songwriters and a great guy, and can’t say enough about him. He’s based in Los Angeles, he’s a Californian. And then Jim Wilson, who has toured with me for years, a great all-rounder musician and a good singer himself. It was all about singin’, and I decided, “Well, now that we’ve met Johnny, maybe let’s take it as a sign that this is a time to put something like this together.”
The sad part of it all is, we had to cancel our West Coast tour because of the pandemic. But while we were making the record, we played every Tuesday night at this little club around the corner from my studio in L.A., a little place called Zebulon. We’d work all week and then had a chance to test out what we were doing to an audience. And the audience just kept building and building! They could not believe what was happening! Johnny’s quite a soul showman ’cause he’s used to singin’ in church to a congregation. Jaws were dropping, and eyes were in tears! We really had somethin’ special going. So we hope that when all this subsides, we could just get back to that part of things.
Lots of tours, I mean, everything– festivals, live performances– got put on the shelf, put on hold. You’ve been working on Heavy Sun, puttin’ the final touches on that. What else has occupied your time this last year? I would think that it would be very easy to just retreat to the studio– but what else have you been up to?
Lucky for me, I have a studio in L.A. and one in Toronto and I never stop working. Some part of what I do didn’t really change. I’m still the studio dog. We’ve always got things on the go. I’ve moved into piano composition now. Margaret Marrissen, who works with me, loves my piano playing, says I got a nice, soft touch. She said, “You should make a piano record!” So I moved into a piano record here. I mean, I’m excited about Heavy Sun— that’s what we’re talking about here– but life goes on. Compositions keep comin’ my way. We hope to just keep the innovative fire goin’. I’m excited about some things that are happening right now. It never stops for me. And I hope it never will!
I saw that you had mentioned the possibility of a piano album in another interview. When you say a piano album, obviously piano-driven, but stylistically, how do you see that coming off?
Well, it started out as solo piano. I got a piano right here. Lemme tinkle a little bit for you, and you can get an idea.
(Lanois playing airy, improvisational, melodic piano).
There, that gives you a little taste.
That also has a very hymn quality to it.
I’m glad you mentioned that because I love hymns. They’re very melodic and oftentimes very simple and they touch people’s hearts. Hymns are so old. They have a little battlefield in them. They have glory, they have hope, they have marriage, they have funeral. They have everything that we encounter in life. Even some of the old bagpipe numbers, you might think of as battlefield numbers, they all have a little something in them that that suggests congregation and, “Come hell or high water, we will continue! We will pursue!” I’ve always liked those kinds of melodies. They also show up in violin melodies, you know, some of the French Canadian melodies that I grew up with, ’cause my grandfather was a fiddler, a violoneux. So you’d hear things like (sings a reaching French or Cajun melody), a little Dolly Parton in there, a little Appalachian, a little Emmylou, a little Neville Brothers (sings opening lines of “With God On Our Side” and “Yellow Moon”)… That yearn shows up in a lot of music. And so I’m gonna push that button on the piano as well (laughs)!
You were talkin’ about in Shreveport, playing in the church band. Is that still something that you seek out– playing during services?
Well, you know, the services have stopped as well because of the pandemic. But I loved doin’ it when I did. Brian Blade, a great drummer from Shreveport, that’s his pop’s church at the Zion Baptist. I met Brian Blade in New Orleans sometime back. He’s one of the great drummers, if you know about him, maybe you know, maybe you don’t. He’s a great, great all-around drummer known in the jazz world to play with Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter, you know, some of the last standing giants of that fantastic jazz era. He’s an amazing talent, and he comes from Shreveport. His pops has the Zion Baptist church, so that’s where Brian learned to play drums– in the choir. We’re great old friends, and he invited me to sit in with that band a good few times. We hit the road a few times. We did shows all over. We did shows in New York and Los Angeles, and it’s nice to be in the presence of that kind of singin’ and in the presence of the pastor himself. He’s a roaring singer (laughs)! It’s a big, beautiful voice!
That’s where a lot of this came from. I’m not involved with church right now so much, but as a kid, I served at the altar at Catholic church. So I’ve always had a foot in that kind of music. But that aside, as a teenager around 18, 19, I recorded a lot of gospel groups in Canada. I was associated with a Christian organization and they brought singing groups from all over the world, oftentimes quartets, to tour Canada. And one of the touring stops was my studio. We would make a record in two days. I got to hear a lot of that beautiful harmony work as a youngster. It kinda got under my skin! Big part of my education to hear the intertwinings of those four parts and to hear those quartets from different parts of the world. One of them was a Haitian group and they sounded so beautiful! My goodness, it changed my life! So I’ve been addicted to that kind of harmony singing since then.
I recently spoke to a local songwriter [Drew Whitehead] here– actually, he lives in Nashville now, but he’s from the Central Georgia area where we are– and in addition to his own music, he plays in church, and something that he said really struck me. I knew that he was a real spiritual guy, so I asked him about the difference between playing worship music and secular music if it was a challenge for him. And what he said was no. He told me he plays worship music and it’s all about the worship. And then he wants to take that and do the same thing with his original work. I knew that I was going to be talking to you, and that actually made me think of you when it came to that treatment of music.
I’m glad that fella said that because I think in modern times, let’s say for a minute, that church is not as popular as it might’ve been at one time. But that doesn’t mean to say that people don’t want to congregate or don’t want to feel joy from music. And so we have a responsibility. We have a term within Heavy Sun, the members of the band, that we want to build a church with no walls, to carry the sentiment and the power of such messages without the gilding and the edifice. I think it suits the modern times and I believe as musicians, we have a responsibility to raise the spirit however that is to happen– by gospel music or otherwise. For example, Rocco DeLuca has a song called “Congregate”. It’s not on the Heavy Sun record, but we’ll get around to recording it in the future. It’s about exactly that. It’s about congregation, and it happens to be all denomination because people like to get together and feel something. And leave a show elevated somehow and maybe wanna lead a better life and be a better person. The church message can live outside of the church walls.