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Soul Mining: A Musical Life by Daniel Lanois (Book Review)


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Book Review - Soul Mining: A Musical Life by Daniel Lanois

December 11, 2010

@U2

BY TASSOULA E. KOKKORIS

 

"I love the past and respect the forefathers and mothers of significant music, but I want to make groundbreaking futuristic records."

 

-- Daniel Lanois

 

There may never have been a more fitting title for a book than Daniel Lanois' new Soul Mining: A Musical Life.

 

The work is not a traditional memoir or autobiography, but more an exploration of his — forgive me, U2 fans — musical journey.

 

Sure, there's a bit of expositional background devoted to his childhood: French was his first language; his parents split when he was young; he once had a job as a hamburger grinder and also tried (unsuccessfully) to burn down his school principal's house.

 

But what we gain from those early chapters is more of a sense that Lanois was free to cultivate his own destiny. Because of his Canadian, small-town upbringing, he adapted to nearly any situation in which he found himself. He came from a musical family, which can't have hurt, but his focused nature seems to be the main reason he's fared so well.

 

Beginning by drawing a system of dots to represent the melodies he was creating on his pennywhistle, it's as if his brain guided him, perhaps somewhat subconsciously, toward where his instinct led. He shares these drawings and pages from his many music notebooks to explore his process externally, almost as if by exposing them, he may solve the mystery of his own mind.

 

This attention to detail can be especially fascinating, but it can also make for a laborious read. Without some kind of musical background, readers could have a tough time understanding all of the references to chords, notes and how songs in general are constructed. Thankfully, Lanois doesn't indulge in the technical speak too much.

 

Though he has an obsession-like attention span where music is concerned, he is also a natural collaborator. Starting with his brother and progressing to the many established musicians who would cross his path, he's clearly a man of few enemies (or he's too good of a man to mention them). He speaks fondly of all his colleagues and clients, reserving a special reverence for longtime producing partner Brian Eno and of course, U2.

 

Discussing Bono, he writes:

 

"His ability to transform the direction of a piece of music is really something. Once he gets to that zone, it's like some other being has entered his body as he challenges the rest of us to rise to that same level of nonthinking, only performing."

 

Unveiling his enthusiasm for No Line on the Horizon, which they were working on at the time Lanois was scripting this book, he mentions loving the title track and also expressing excitement for a song called "Welcome." Either "Welcome" didn't make the NLOTH cut, or it morphed into something different and earned a new name. Color me curious, because the way Lanois describes it, with multiple harmonies and two separate Larry drumbeats, it doesn't sound like anything already out there. He says, "This is the type of rock song I want to listen to."

 

In addition to reflecting on specific albums and songs, he also spells out a process that he and Eno developed, called "tag-team mixing." They each take turns going into the studio alone and mixing music for 15 minutes, then the next one comes in and does the same. They continue doing this for hours, with the understanding that they can improve upon anything they've done along the way, but the freshness of the 15 minute stop-time yields results favorable to that of mixing without stopping for the same length of time. It sounds like an exhausting approach, but if it works, more power to them.

 

Rest assured, the book is not entirely devoted to his time with U2. He tells wonderful stories about working with Bob Dylan, Peter Gabriel, Billy Bob Thornton and Emmylou Harris. He also offers an intimate perspective on the places he's lived, with a special emphasis on his time in New Orleans.

 

What's especially refreshing about Soul Mining is that our writer seldom speaks of drugs and women. He reserves the glory for his art, which is richly deserving of this spotlight.

 

An overall sincerity permeates the pages of this book, which invites the audience along as more of a passenger than observer. As Lanois is sharing his history, his readers can't help but get the sense he's documenting it for therapeutic purposes. It's as if he wants to know why his DNA spells out "music."

 

"The strange ability that I have to focus is hard to understand, even by me. I'm not saying this to honk my own horn; I'm saying it because it's a psychological curiosity. I don't even know if intelligence can be brought into the equation. During this chapter of my work [making Peter Gabriel's So] , I never had a chance to think about the broader picture. The obsessive condition of my brain would have been a study in itself. I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. It was a very hard time, a very successful time—it hurts to think about it."

 

Channeling creativity has been Lanois' craft for many decades, and this book may just be one more example of that. If so, it's a pleasurable result, which leaves you wanting more -- just like his music.

 

Soul Mining: A Musical Life was published by Faber and Faber Inc. and is available in stores now.

 

© @U2/Kokkoris, 2010.

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