Daniel Lanois: a Sonic genius
As I exit the elevator into the fourth-floor studio/loft, I spy 10-time Grammy-Award winning producer and singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois playing the piano, singing a song from his first feature film Here is What Is, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September. Several assistants are busy answering phones and prepping for a TV interview later that afternoon; Lanois is lost, trancelike in his music. Lyric sheets and phone messages are scattered in the middle of the hardwood floor and instruments are everywhere — from a pedal steel he’s had since he was a teen to a wall featuring a dozen electric and acoustic guitars. There’s no questioning I’m in the presence of a mastermind.
The passion from this Canadian genius is genuine as we spend an hour chatting like old friends on the black leather couch in his Toronto studio. Surrounded by instruments, Lanois is like a child discovering music for the very first time, with each new sound he creates – whether it’s on pedal steel, acoustic guitar, or an antique player piano.
Sensing a fellow music lover, Lanois lets me play his Martin D-28 acoustic, crafted from the finest Brazilian rosewood. I strum a few chords and then return the guitar to the guru. Another vintage instrument — a Gibson SJ-200 (circa 1940), which he says was given to him by Emmylou Harris, is also on display; he tells me nonchalantly it’s worth about $20,000.
“I try to keep as many instruments around as possible,” he explains. “My old formula is still with me. When I was a kid, I wanted to work in a recording studio and I couldn’t get a job in one, so I started my own. I looked around at other studios where I was working as a session guitar player and noticed the Toronto engineers would let the band set up and then they would accommodate that setup by pulling the necessary microphones out of the closet and building the technology around the band, which makes sense.
“But, then I discovered a more Jamaican way of working,” Lanois continues. “The Jamaican folks had their sounds all ready in the studio before the musicians came in. They didn’t wait to be dictated to by the combo. As Chris Blackwell told me once, reggae music was not invented on the street … it’s not a thing that was happening in the parking lots, the roadsides and the hills as you might think, but it came out of the recording studio. The studio people like Lee Scratch Perry were highly inventive. They built up their own sounds with their own echo machines and with the limited equipment they had, they developed a sound. Then the singers and players would come in and they would cater to that feeling that was already set up.”
From early on, Lanois followed this Jamaican model in the studio: building his own sounds to set himself apart from his contemporaries.
“I started plugging stuff in when I was a kid and discovered sounds I liked,” he says. “Then, when people came into the studio, I would show them my sounds … people were always excited … having my own sound meant I stood out in the crowd a little bit … I wasn’t like every other record maker, which is a good piece of advice for anyone who wants to do this kind of work.”
He likens this approach to a door-to-door salesperson.
“When I show up at Sinead O’Connor’s house or U2’s studio, I don’t just turn up with a toothbrush,” Lanois says. “I’ll present The Edge with a new pedal perhaps that he doesn’t know about or I’ll present a riff that I’m excited about … I let them hear it and see if it rocks the house.”
Over the years, the über producer has been lucky to rock the house and share riffs with everyone from Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris to Aaron Neville and U2. While Lanois’ learned a lot from all these musicians, it’s fellow producer/musician Brian Eno with whom he shares a special relationship.
“We share an interest in soul music of the past and the future,” Lanois explains. “We grew up with similar influences. Eno grew up near a U.S. military base and there was a lot of rock ‘n’ roll and do-wop music at the base, so that always resonated with him. Eno is an incredible innovator and loves to challenge every situation with his sonics, which is fantastic.
“Eno and I are full of surprises,” he adds. “We are good in a workplace because we can conjure something up right on the spot. That’s what’s fun about having us in the room and I believe that’s our most valuable commodity to U2.”
Currently, Lanois and Eno are working together on the new U2 record. He says he’s keeping his mouth shut about the sessions, which have taken place in Fez, Morocco and France to date, but he does say that “we’ve got some gems already.”
Speaking of gems, when it comes to musical influences, Lanois is partial to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, which is a touchstone he always returns to – artists like Jimi Hendrix are innovators he always admired.
“I liked the fact I was living at a merging point,” he explains. “I was hearing Buffalo and Detroit radio stations, which had a really good serving of rhythm and blues and soul music. Then, when the psychedelic era came, it was just an extension of this merging … people who were singing folk music were now rock singers … they were not loud sounds, but they had rock in their souls. That always stayed with me … I’m still fascinated with mixtures and think there is plenty to still invent through crossing musical styles and riffs.”
Lanois reveals his secret to success is due to “feel.”
“Feel is a place you hope to get to when people congregate,” he says. “You hope spontaneity will be your friend and there will be some kind of combustion that relates to that moment, which funny enough usually operates outside of the confinement of preconception. Unlike architects, we of the music world can make something up on the spot and improvise … that’s the luxury of our position. It’s really an area of strength for me to look around the room and say, ‘I see what we have access to here,’ whether there is a certain kind of mood to that morning. It’s almost the responsibility of that team to accommodate that mood rather than tell it it needs to be something different.”
As I exit the elevator from the musician’s studio, I slip on my iPod. As the first notes begin to take me away, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll ever come close to appreciating music in the same way as the master I just left behind.
K’Naan: poetry and passion
By David McPherson
Look at the headlines and the portrait you get of Somalia is a poverty-stricken, backward country, home to warlords and pirates. That’s only one-side of the story; this African nation, which Forbes magazine recently named its most dangerous destination, is also a nation famous for its pastoral verse. The 19th-century British explorer Richard Burton wrote in First Footsteps in East Africa, “[Somalia] teems with poets …” And, the late president of Somalia, Abdi-rashid Ali Shermarked, spoke of the country’s pastoral verse as “one of the two national assets of inestimable value” ranking it just behind the Muslim faith.
K’Naan — the Toronto-based, Somalia-born, hip-hop artist — is one of these poets. Through his music, which mixes world beats, rap and reggae, and the oral tradition of his forefathers, he penetrates the stereotypes of his nation, trying to give people a glimpse of this other side of Somalia and explain the reasons for the piracy. Reaching the musician in Music City, we speak of his new record Troubadour and how his music documents his struggles to find meaning within the madness and hope amidst the hopelessness.
“There is a purpose art has always served whether it is a painting or any kind of art,” he says. “It’s to take tragedy and mold it into something beautiful … that’s the prescription I subscribe to.”
K’Naan certainly knows tragedy. In 1991, his family narrowly escaped death and managed to get on the last commercial flight out of war-torn Somalia. His first record, The Dusty Foot Philosopher (2006), which won a Juno for best rap recording, documented these experiences. “What’s Hardcore,” from this disc, directly spoke of the gunmen who terrorized his countrymen. After leaving Somalia, K’Naan arrived in New York and survived the ghettoes and gangs of Harlem before settling in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood.
Troubadour, released this past February, continues this journey. Troubadour means traveller and K’Naan’s birth name (Keinan) also means traveller in Somalian, so the title is apropos. Since fleeing Somalia, the 31-year-old has done his share of travelling. And, like the bards of old, K’Naan documents this journey, bringing his message to the masses. While many of the songs are political, K’Naan does not preach. Through rhymes, he tells these tales of experience and lets the listener find the meaning in his wordplay.
In the liner notes, K’Naan thanks, among many, warlords and drive-by shooters. He gives these people props for “forcing [him] to create,” “making him fight harder,” and for “giving him convictions.”
K’Naan’s grandfather, Haji Mohamed, was a famed Somalian poet and his aunt, Magool, was one of Somalia’s most famous singers; the rapper learned at a young age to rhyme and write in verse. But, instead of traditional poetry, the emcee adopted his generations’ medium — hip-hop — to tell his story.
It’s hard for wired North Americans, addicted to their Crackberrys and “Twittering” to fathom life without technology, much less, imagine a life without a stable government, where every day could be your last.
“That’s what life was made up of for me at a young age and for Somalians,” he explains. “The tradition of oral poetry was the method or informer of your day to day and your dreams and ambitions.”
K’Naan’s voice became his weapon and the means to fulfil his dreams; his songs were his shield — steering him on a righteous path of verse as opposed to the corrupt path of violence. In his three decades, the musician has seen more violence than most. At 14, the rapper and his three best friends were attacked by warlords; while K’Naan survived, his chums were gunned down. Like the woman he sings about in “Somalia” – “she got a gun/but she could have been a model or a physician” – K’Naan could easily have turned to crime; instead, he turned to rhymes.
“Somalia” is one of the songs on the new disc that best sums up K’Naan’s journey; he describes this composition as an ode. Through lyrics like these from the song’s chorus, “So what you know about the pirates terrorize the ocean?/ To never know a single day without a big commotion?,” K’Naan criticizes the media and the one-sided view they paint of Somalians as modern day pirates.
“What I’m doing in this song is trying to explain a bit of Somalia to people,” he says. “I’m still shocked by how much people don’t know about Somalia. I still find it surprising – even now that it’s on TV and print every day with pirates. It’s not contributing to knowing about Somalia, it’s just contributing to how the West knows Somalia. I always want to do things in my music to try to explain a little bit about my life, my past and my country.”
On Troubadour, the rapper wastes no time letting listeners know of these experiences. In the opener, “T.I.A. (This is Africa),” K’Naan says: “I take rappers on a field trip any day/ They never been opposite real clips anyway.”
K’Naan is referring in this song to his brushes with bullets (clips) and how you can’t compare the ghettoes and gangs of North America to what he experienced in Somalia.
Thanks to an invite from friends Stephen and Damian Marley, K’Naan recorded much of Troubadour at famed Tuff Gong studios in Jamaica and he wrote the bulk of the songs during a sojourn at Bob Marley’s house. He says the experience was surreal; he used everything from the folk guitar to the actual Hammond B3 used in Marley’s Exodus; K’Nann is still trying to put into words the meaning of these magical months.
“I’m fascinated and also inarticulate about that whole experience,” he says. “How do you sum up the feeling of being in that environment … having that privilege, just being creative in one of the greatest spirits of our time, in his world and with his friends and family and using his house and his instruments? The entire experience was a beautiful daze.”
– published in Penguin Eggs magazine
For Corin Raymond, there will always be a small time
Corin Raymond believes in the Small Time
By David McPherson
Corin Raymond believes in the small time. And, as he sings in the fine-pickin’ song “Stealin’ My Heart Away,” on his latest disc There Will Always Be a Small Time, he “likes his music deep.” Despite his affinity for the small time, the Toronto-based songwriter plays big-time music. And, he writes even bigger-sounding songs.
Raymond sports his trademark felt fedora and tired eyes from a life of insomnia. Over dinner on the patio at the Rivoli in Toronto, we chat about the small time, a shared passion for music, the lack of a music industry, and his fine new record, There Will Always Be a Small Time.
The Toronto roots artist describes his concept of the small time in more detail.
“It doesn’t mean amateur,” he explains. “There is nothing unworthy about the small time. The small time is my way of describing the life we are living today in the current conditions with a lack of a music industry. I’ve said this before; I don’t know what the music business is … I’ve never seen it. I make a full-time living as a songwriter and I don’t know what the music business is.
“The small time is a rich world and it’s a world that requires digging,” he adds. “The small time is not going to be piped in over the speakers at my convenience store. You have to connect the dots. The people who love it are going to connect the dots.”
Raymond captures this with some fine wordplay in the title cut when he croons: “There will always be a good time/ when the nine-to-fivers go to bed/ there will always be a grapevine/ where everybody brings a friend/ there will always be a small time/ just come and see us now and then.”
Raymond grew up in Northern Ontario, learning to appreciate the small time from his dad, who raised him after his mother died. His father was a librarian, high-school teacher and book seller. The pair lived in northern Ontario, north of Ear Falls, near Red Lake.
“He exposed me to a lot of culture when I was growing up,” Raymond recalls. “He taught me to love books, theatre and film.”
With There Will Always Be a Small Time, Raymond offers a dozen songs that fit into what he dubs the “classic folk idiom.”
“My songs are all … maybe four chords,” he concludes. “Most of the songs are three-chord songs. Anybody who plays guitar on their porch can learn these songs and that’s what they are designed for. They are designed to be played, enjoyed, make people laugh and feel good. They are designed to make people sing. They are joyful things, these songs. I don’t think there is anything pretentious about any of them.
“I believe they are folk music in that sense. For me, the small time is about real communities. It’s about places where people get together and experience music and where music brings them and binds them together. It’s not the music that is going to change the world, but it changes our world, my world and your world. The only advantage of the big time for me is that I could reach more small-timers. If I could get enough small times happening, maybe we could all be a big-time together.”
– published in Penguin Eggs magazine
By David McPherson
On the title track from his major label debut Trouble, Ray LaMontagne sings that he’s been “saved by a woman.”
Resting at home in Freeport, Maine with his wife and two sons – before heading back on the road to promote Trouble – the humble 31-year-old songwriter talks about his musical journey. There’s no doubt that a woman helped save LaMontagne from his troubled past, but initially this worried man’s soul was saved by music.
It was a day like any other six years ago when LaMontagne’s alarm clock radio went off at 4 a.m. and he had an epiphany. The sound that came from this early morning wake-up call was unlike anything he had heard before. The song was “Tree Top Flyer”, the artist was Stephen Stills, and something in the music moved LaMontagne, awakening his spirit. He didn’t go to his job that day, which at the time was a stint at a shoe factory in Lewiston, Maine. Instead, LaMontagne spent the day browsing the local record stores, finding the Stills’ album Stills Alone, and starting to dig all sorts of music.
“I just got really psyched about music all of a sudden,” he says. “I hadn’t really before. I’ve always liked music. My father was a musician … I don’t really know my father and I don’t really want to at this point … that’s a whole other story.
“There was music in the house when I was really young,” he continues. “I dabbled with instruments as I grew up: saxophone, drums, but I never stuck with anything for various reasons. Then as I got into my teen years I totally pushed music out because it was like my dad and I didn’t want to be like my dad at all, so it became totally out of the picture.”
Listening to Trouble, one gets a clear picture of the pain and suffering of his past through his emotive voice and personal lyrics. LaMontagne is candid about his life before he had this reawakening.
“In my early twenties I went through a really hard time,” he reveals. “I had bouts with serious depression and suicide. Then I discovered Stephen Stills and I got really excited about music and I just started listening to records all the time.”
These records — from Bob Dylan to the Band — became LaMontagne’s refuge and his education. “I had no friends, but I had records,” he says. “Man, I just lived in those records. I would listen to one side, flip it over, and then flip it back to side one again … I consider it like my schooling.”
LaMontagne has been busy making records independently since 1999. He made three on his own and then signed with a publisher (Chrysalis) before he had a record deal. This came about through a chance encounter with a fan that had a friend in the music business. Six months after Chrysalis signed him, he made Trouble with Ethan Johns (the Jayhawks, Ryan Adams) with the hope that maybe an independent label would pick it up. What ensued was a bidding war, which RCA Records won.
When LaMontagne initially signed the publishing deal, which he stresses was “really modest,” he hoped that other songwriters might cover his songs. “That was my first thought,” he says. “I remember coming home and being excited and talking to Sarah [his wife] and saying ‘maybe someone will sing a song or maybe we will get a song recorded by someone else and make a little money.’ That’s a pretty exciting thought from where we were. I was just working carpentry, playing gigs here or there and hawking my own records at 10 bucks a pop whenever I could.”
Making the transition from carpentry to composition, it’s no surprise that it took the songwriter a long time to discover his approach to penning words and music.
“In the beginning I tried the disciplined approach and tried to write every day, which just led to so much frustration that I wanted to blow my brains out,” he says. “I eventually have come to figure out that for me the melodies come and they come often and I just put them on tape.
“Then there comes a point … it’s like the train in the distance thing … you know that they’re coming,” he continues. “What happens is that I know that I’m having a creative spurt coming. It usually lasts about three weeks, sometimes a month. For some reason the stars are aligned, who knows, but for that month I can take things from beginning to completion.”
From working in a shoe factory to singing songs for a living, Ray LaMontagne’s musical journey is far from complete. With a voice that combines the soul of the late Ray Charles, with the grit of Otis Redding and Van Morrison, LaMontagne is poised to make a career in the music business.
“I just hope that I can earn a fan base that will stick with me for another record and another and another,” he concludes. “If that happens I’ll be a happy man.”
– published in American Songwriter magazine, January/February 2005
By David McPherson
Ziggy Marley was just a young lad when his father Robert Nesta Marley – in most reggae circles known simply as Bob – passed on in 1981. Twenty-five years on, the songwriter is continuing to advance his own music career, while never forgetting his father’s legacy. He feels he knows his dad more now than ever and he communicates with the reggae legend through his dreams. With Bob’s good vibes confirming to him that he’s on the right spiritual path, Marley is taking the inherent message of his new disc Love is My Religion around the world. Released August 29 in Canada, Love is My Religion veers more towards the spiritual side of the human condition; yet, several songs still champion equal rights and justice, and lament the struggles of the oppressed. He talked with Chartattack recently about the power of dreams, his newfound spirituality, and the need to hang on to our freedoms.
Chartattack: On Love is My Religion you embrace spirituality in your writing and stray a bit from the emancipation anthems you wrote early in your career. Why is that?
In my early days I did a lot of social commentary, which is where my father left off, but he was heading into where I am now with songs like “Redemption Song.” Imagine my father’s career coming from “Get Up Stand Up” and “Slave Driver,” songs like those, to the later days where he was becoming more into that spiritual side too … “Redemption Song,” mental slavery, not physical slavery anymore … it’s that evolution that I kind of went through too and evolved.
Now, especially with this record, I find myself writing more songs about spirituality more than physical or social things. For many years I’ve found myself drifting away [from writing social commentary songs] because how much time can I spend singing about the poor, suffering and injustice … I still do it, but I do it less and less. I’m singing more about the spiritual condition of mankind and the spiritual thoughts and concepts like “Love is My Religion” and “Lifetime” where I speak about reincarnation. I’m going deeper right now in my songwriting.
I could go on blaming the system everyday. I could say the system causes so many problems and I could sing about that and about what the system has done to us. But over the years I have looked more within myself and realized that we as human beings need to change something inside of us more than change something outside of us like the system. It is okay to change the system, that is a struggle and that is something we should look on, but you should never ever forget yourself and the inside of you that needs to change also because in a way the system exists inside of ourselves … it is not just governments, politicians and extremists.
Chartattack: The song “Keep on Dreamin’” on your new record talks about how you communicate with your father and connect with him through your dreams. Tell me about that?
I know there is a connection. Many years ago after he passed I began having dreams. The dreams are strong. It’s not a joke. They have meaning. I feel camaraderie with him. That’s how we are in dreams. He supports what I’m doing and he shows me that support in the dreams and he wants me to keep on going and keep evolving. He’s into what I’m doing that’s all I can tell you.
It’s like, for me, the more I grow the more I understand him. I don’t know if it is as an artist or as a man. I think a lot of what I feel and know is what he knew, but people didn’t see. People saw the image of Bob Marley … the militancy of Bob Marley. What I feel now is that there was another side to him that I’m realizing that didn’t come out at the time … the spiritual side and the gentle way of putting things. I feel much closer to him now. I feel like I know him and I know he knows me.
Chartattack: While spirituality is now at the root of your songwriting, the struggle of the oppressed is still present in your songs. This is especially prevalent in the powerful song “Still the Storms” that shows how the wounds of slavery in North America still have not healed. Tell us about this song?
I studied history and slavery in school and I know the triangle of trade. I’m not singing that song from any kind of pulpit. I’m personally upset … it’s a feeling of no justice. I feel like the family of Africans has not been vindicated by that injustice that was done to their humanity. I don’t know if there was even an apology. I don’t feel like the world was sorry. It’s like people want us to forget it. I can’t forget it. It affects us today. No matter how many years go by I still can’t forget and people would want us to forget that it ever happened.
Justice is a thing that until there has been some sort of redemption or coming to terms with that injustice there will always be a force in the universe that is seeking that. The universe has a way of finding justice for itself, so that is what that song is about. I used the hurricanes and storms as an analogy because of the routes that the ships took from the West Coast of Africa up through the Caribbean coming up the south of the United States, New Orleans, Florida, even Jamaica … all those areas that get hit by the hurricanes where slaves were taken. I use that as a way to express my frustration.
Chartattack: “Be Free” is another song that expresses your frustrations at the erosion of our freedoms. Tell us about the message you are trying to get across in this song?
“Be Free” is another song that I think is important because now with the politics of fear playing such a great role in what’s happening in the world we are losing are freedoms little by little. It is happening and people are going to let it happen because of the fear and it’s sad. Just as terrorism is an oppression, that is another oppression. It’s like we are getting double oppressed: one from terrorism and one from the world of government that has taken away our freedoms and our rights. There is going to be a little group of us that are not going to want to let it go and we are going to have to be the new freedom fighters.
I just want to remind people to be free and don’t take it lightly. We don’t have to give up our freedoms. It’s bullshit. It’s just a trick to gain more control of innocent people. Our freedoms are not the freedoms that should be taken away … it’s the freedoms of the people that are killing people.