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‘Soul Mining’ With Daniel Lanois

Famed music producer offers engineering, compositional insight

Feb. 22, 2011
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Producer culture in American popular music took off with Rick Rubin, who restored or recreated Johnny Cash as the folk-singing Man in Black. Rubin failed to entirely reinvent Neil Diamond and Kris Kristofferson, but with his imprimatur those artists received some kind of renewed pretense regarding authenticity.

Tom Wilson and Bob Johnson, who produced so much of Bob Dylan’s essential mid-’60s work, are now properly regarded for their importance alongside the Beatles’ George Martin. Phil Ramone has taken us behind the scenes with Frank Sinatra in his book, as have so many erstwhile producers associated with game-changing artists.

But none of the above permeates the music as co-artist to the same extent as Daniel Lanois. His memoir, Soul Mining (Faber & Faber), is unique for its recording technique revelations, but also for its eloquence on making music and shaping artistic visions. “I had a little Gretsch Gadabout amplifier that I used to process Bob Dylan’s vocals on Time Out Of Mind. This processing was an extension of the…philosophy—take a sound that you already have and build a new dimension,” he writes. “Dimension on a song relates to ‘depth of field.’ As human beings we find comfort in depth: something that sounds far away is not an immediate danger; we are programmed to relax when prey is at a distance. Close sounds can be…like the whispering of sweet nothings. A sweet nothing will still communicate over thunder, as long as the thunder is in the distance.”

Lanois is also a musician who very often plays on the recordings he shapes. Referring to the Dylan song “Love Sick,” Lanois reports: “The penetrating sound of my Goldtop Les Paul and Bob’s Telecaster had reached the masses.” Soul Mining is comprised of engineering as well as compositional detail, and we have with this text a better comprehension of how making records functions at the nadir of an artist’s success, necessarily involving a producer who investigates sound expertly and artistically.

If there is one producer who deserves to be within a valid category of producer culture, it is Lanois, and this book explains exactly why. Another entry in this new, aural culture area would be Jack White. Having recently made a public announcement regarding the end of The White Stripes while producing artists such as Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, we are seeing how the vision of a producer is becoming a profound, distinct category in pop music. Where once we had our usual fascination with record labels, we now have a more refined, fine art presence—not of a label’s sound, but that of producer. Lanois is the model, and with poetic intimacy he describes how his producer’s sensibility resolves itself relative to spaces he records in: “Rooms and buildings are almost as much of an addiction for me as the music I make in them. If I didn’t love architecture so much, perhaps I would be more bohemian, a wandering musician.”


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