As I mention here as often as I can, I love the intersection of books and music. When the book Soul Mining: A Life in Music by Daniel Lanois appeared in my mailbox, it jumped to the top of my to read list. I didn’t know much about Mr. Lanois, other than than the fact that he was the co-producer for almost all of U2′s albums and produced records for the likes of Peter Gabriel, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Emmy Lou Harris, Willie Nelson, the Neville Brothers, and on and on. That was enough to pique my interest and get me reading.
Despite the “A Musical Life” subtitle, Soul Mining is not a memoir. It is a collection of autobiographical essays on varying topics, and I quickly realized that theyare not arranged in a linear fashion. For instance, near the end of the book Lanois mentions his service in the Canadian Navy in passing, and it’s a complete surprise. When did he have time to fit that into an already eventful life?
Lanois got his start in the music industry as a teenager when he and his brother built a recording studio in the basement of his mother’s home in Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton is a blue-collar industrial town outside of Toronto that is not a musical cross roads by any stretch of the imagination. One of the surprises of the book came when I learned that the Lanois brothers recorded an album by gazillion selling children’s singer Raffi. Somehow, Lanois was discovered by famed musician and producer Brian Eno. The two collaborated on Eno’s ambient music projects for several years. Working with Eno got Lanois invited to share production on U2′s Unforgettable Fire album and then work on Peter Gabriel’s So. Lanois has been hand-picking his projects from an endless stream of job offers ever since.
Throughout the book, Lanois peppers his amazing stories with nuggets of wisdom and advice for those who want to lead a creative life. Early on Lanois, a French Canadian Catholic, frames a brief digression on faith as a belief in one’s self and hard work as its own reward. “Stick to your story” he advises the reader on several occasion and believe that the skills that you aquire through discipline and daily application to your craft will pay off one day. For Lanois, learning the ropes of one’s craft is not only a meal ticket, it means being able to hang out with the cool kids because of what you are able to offer:
Skill was an automatic ticket to an interesting scene. I made a decision that I would never ask for anything from the table, I would always bring something instead.
Write that down, kids.
The book takes its title from Lanois’s general philosophy for making music. For Lanois, “soul” is the essence of art, it’s what is “true” and what is left when artifice has been stripped away. Soul mining is following your heart to dig deep into yourself for inspiration:
Soul music is music that rises up from inside you because it has to. It operates outside the restrictions and preconceptions of the music business.
At just over 200 pages, there was plenty of room for Lanois to delve deeper into some stories that are inherently fascinating (there’s almost nothing here on recording The Unforgettable Fire, which was clearly a turning point in Lanois’s life, for example). Occasionally the descriptions of equipment and recording techniques is overly technical. Refreshingly, Lanois doesn’t gossip, isn’t confessional, and doesn’t set out to settle old scores in this book. While Soul Mining is a bit uneven at times, it’s nevertheless a fascinating account of the issues and experiences that Lanois considers the takeaway lessons in what has been a rich and rewarding musical life up to this point.
Cautionary note: As a result of reading this book, I’ve now bought five CDs that Lanois worked on, and I have been listening to lots and lots of U2. Be prepared for additional cash outlay if you pick up this book.
First, check out this video for Lanois’ new band Black Dub. Lanois is on piano. This is fantatsic. (Thanks to Rich G for providing the link elsewhere)
Lanois was also a recent guest DJ on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Tune in to hear the author talk about his musical inspiration and his musical philosophy.
As I mentioned I’ve been listening to a lot of U2 lately. This Lanois-produced number is now permananetly lodged in my head:
U2 – Until the End of the World
And Lanois says that U2′s One is “one of those songs that stands outside of an artists’s control; it lives because it needs to.” These two songs are back to back on u2′s Achtung Baby CD, which seems rather incredible to me.