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HIGH FIDELITY Daniel Lanois was born in Hull, Quebec, Canada, in 1951 to French-speaking and musical parents. In addition to being an acclaimed solo artist, he is one of the top record producers in the business, working on albums with U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson, among others. He will release his third solo album in April and will be the keynote speaker at South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin on March 13.
You got your big break as a producer in a pretty unusual way.
It was completely a fluke. I was living in Hamilton, Ontario, and had a little studio. I recorded all kinds of people, including Rick James, who lived in Buffalo, and a bunch of gospel acts. I did hundreds of gospel records—Haitian groups, Yugoslavian groups. Brian Eno heard a tape I’d engineered, and he thought the sonics were innovative.
Five years later he asked you to co-produce U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. Do you ever wonder what would have happened if he hadn’t heard that tape?
Yeah, life’s little twists and meetings. God only knows what would have happened. I still would have had a strong music career, but it would have been very different.
What was it like working with Willie Nelson?
He’s a darling of a man. He has got a broad imagination. We did the album [Teatro] in an old cinema. He sat in the chair, and we were making music in thirty seconds. It’s all live, and we made it in four days. The album has a sweet clarity to it.
What’s your new record called?
Shine. It has a lot of pedal steel on it. That was my first instrument—it still really grounds me. The pedal steel got pigeonholed in country and western music and became somewhat of a cliché. I play it more with a gospel feel, more melodic. I’m not a high-speed player.
Based on your earlier albums, as well as your production work, I can hear it as a lush, reverb-drenched instrument.
Actually, I’ve gone completely away from the lush treatment. I’ve got the bone-dry feel—stark and unaffected. I like the fact that it contradicts my earlier work. And I think country-music people will like it.
Many previous SXSW keynote speakers, like Ray Davies and Johnny Cash, have sung songs as well as given a talk.
I’ll probably do it that way. I’ll just have my guitar, though maybe I’ll bring my pedal steel up too. I’m not sure what I’ll talk about. My area of expertise is the studio, so maybe I’ll talk about how to spot the magic. Or I might talk about demystifying the whole recording process. There’s a side of me that loves low-tech. I did an entire Bob Dylan record in a kitchen. I’m not a formal studio producer. You don’t need a lot of tools. (See Austin: Other Events)