I spent the '90s hanging with musicians and performers. If that's never been your experience, and you wonder what it might be like, Jonathan Demme's '08 Anne Hathaway vehicle Rachel Getting Married pretty much nails it — psycho-social drama/trauma included.
The music and performing never stops with these people. And it's not just about seizing the spotlight: they're almost always good listeners, too. It's about staying focused and nimble, to better locate The Thing Itself: the sound, the pulse, the emotional ebb and flow of the Cosmos.*
If there was one performer from that decade who my performer friends held in the highest esteem, it was Daniel Lanois.
I, the hanger-on and rank amateur listener, found this curious. To my ears, Lanois's music was a bit too etherial to be anything other than an acquired taste. Lanois's production, on the other hand, clearly brought unusual surfaces and textures to light, particularly with performers whose delivery had become staid. That was the material I had no trouble raving about, but most of my friends considered that stuff tangential at best, a criminal distraction at worst. To their ears Lanois the performer was in hot pursuit of The Thing Itself, and they considered him very close indeed.
Shortly after I picked up Martha and the Muffins' Delicate, I downloaded Here Is What Is, the soundtrack to the Daniel Lanois documentary of the same name. Lanois's album came out a year or two before Delicate, and is pretty much what a listener should expect from him. When I was younger, I wasn't always fond of his patented echo-chamber. But on this album, he pares away previous flourishes and draws out the Lanois Palette with a winning patience and simplicity. Listening to it on a long drive through autumn colours is quite the experience. Maybe those circumstances flipped the switch for me, or perhaps age has better attuned my ears, but I now find Lanois's sonic textures and excavations have a deep, primordial reach.
I'm a little uneasy about comparing and contrasting Lanois with MatM — they have very little in common in terms of preferred styles and themes. But their shared point of origin, and strikingly different trajectories suggest a Venn Diagram that's difficult to resist.
The fun is over. I suspect that — and what follows is, I realize, all reckless speculation on my part — for Lanois, not only is the “fun” still very much in play, it will likely carry him into the grave. I can think of several reasons for this, the first being that his sense of fun has always leaned toward the esoteric. I've seen him perform in front of a couple thousand people at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, and later in a room of dozens, and he seems equally at home with either. He is pursuing The Thing Itself.
I also suspect he doesn't have to worry about money. Given the people who have his number on their speed-dial, he probably pays somebody else to worry about his money.
To whom, if anybody, is he tethered? Does he have a Significant Other — a wife, or a husband? Does he have any children? The first page of a Google search turns up a big fat zero. I could get more creative in my search fields, and keep clicking until I turn up . . . something. But the message he's clearly sending is it's none of my business. The answers to those questions are not elements Lanois wishes his work to be framed by.*** It's his playground, his ball, his rules, and I'm either fine with that, or I can go look for another game in town.
*There's a reason why radio, television, movies, and even the most stridently rationalist podcast begin and conclude with a few bars of music.
**I'll never forget a party where someone dropped For The Beauty Of Wynona on the platter, and the entire room promptly shut up and gathered around the speakers.
***A characteristic he shares with his big-ticket clients.