Behind the Boards with Willie Nelson and Daniel Lanois
In music journalism, setup is 90% of the battle. That said, getting outlaw/icon Willie Nelson and producer/musician Daniel Lanois on the phone together across three different time zones couldn't have been easier.
The pair became fast friends making Nelson's Teatro, one of the most striking albums of the local country legend's career. While those sessions were five years ago, both men will no doubt see plenty of each other this week; Nelson says he's penciled in both Lanois' SXSW keynote address and the producer's Thursday night showcase at the Austin Music Hall, where he'll debut his upcoming album, Shine.
In turn, Lanois promises he'll be front and center at the Lost Highway showcase, which Nelson anchors at the same Music Hall Friday night. As you'll see, fans of both men might just have something else to look forward to beyond South by Southwest 2003: maybe, just maybe, another Nelson/Lanois collaboration.
Austin Chronicle: Five years after Teatro, what do you think you two accomplished together?
Willie Nelson: Well, we had a lot of fun making good music. And we got to hang out with Emmylou [Harris]. That ain't bad.
Daniel Lanois: Willie said to me after I suggested Emmylou should come in, "That's a great idea. We'll work her little tail off."
AC: She wound up on 11 of the album's 14 cuts. It's unique the way she shadows Willie vocally.
DL: One of things that's interesting about Willie's voice is that it's a deep voice, as you can hear on the phone. But he has the ability to sing high, as well. What's always been the interesting aspect of low-voice singers for me is the ability they have to cut through the mix when they go up high. Bob Dylan is the same way; his speaking voice has a good low timbre, but he can still come in with those piercing high notes.
AC: What did you learn from each other?
WN: I learned that there is another way to make records other than the way I'd been making them. It's one of the main reasons I wanted to work with Daniel. I knew he knew the tricks of the trade -- like how to get the bass in there with two or three drummers going at one time. I came out of there with a lot more knowledge about ways to record.
DL: Willie, I'll tell you -- I don't know any other way to record. For Teatro, we just put everybody in one room. I can't remember if Bob Dylan's Time out of Mind came before or after, but we did the same thing. We just put all the people in a room and got everybody playing together. How's that for a novelty?
WN: It really is a novelty when you think about how they try to separate everybody, putting everyone in their own little cage somewhere. It might be good for the sound in some ways, but for really getting a good live sound, you just have to get out there and play.
DL: I think musicians are very resourceful and operate very much by intuition. And if you separate musicians, you're kind of blocking intuition. By having someone right next to you, where you can hear their sound without depending on headphones, you're going to better accommodate what they're doing. It makes for a lovely exchange. We also had the sound console in the same room, so it's more like a show than a recording. And the electric guitar work was nice on that record, too. My old Gibson ES 300, if I remember right.
WN: It had a good sound to it.
DL: If we hook up again, I still have that guitar.
WN: Well, let's hook up again.
DL: If nothing else, at least for that instrumental record we talked about.
WN: I'm up for that anytime.
AC: If you were to produce a Willie Nelson instrumental album, what would you do?
DL: First, I'd see what Willie had up his sleeve. Both Willie and I reference Django Reinhardt as a source of guitar inspiration, and there's something to the chordal structure of the music of that time that could be celebrated and elevated again. What I love about Cuban and Mexican music is that they still embrace their great eras. They don't drop any of the music that's been strong historically.
I'd invite Willie to pull out everything he knows, and I'm sure he knows a lot. We'd listen to all that together and decide, maybe these two or three, and maybe an original one here or there. Then we bend this one, or try that one backwards. We'd see what we can make of Willie's guitar playing.
WN: That really sounds right. I know a lot of old instrumentals from when I used to play clubs four hours a night, six nights a week. We'd get requests for all kinds of instrumentals; Bob Wills had some great instrumentals with "Panhandle Rag" and "B. Bowman Hop" -- all those steel-guitar things.
AC: SXSW is as much about business as it is about music, and this is obviously a hard time for the music industry. How much has changed about the way you two do business?
WN: I don't really know what you mean about business. To me music is writing songs, making records, and doing the show at night. Then there's the other stuff I turn over to the guys that are in the rooms with the executives and know what to say and when to say it. I don't try to intervene on that, because I'd be lost.
AC: Daniel, don't you have to worry about budgets and support for the albums you make?
DL: I've never had to worry about budgets, and I'm actually very frugal by nature. I usually deliver records well under budget, or sometimes I work with folks that pay for their own records, like the U2 boys. Then it's not such an issue. When you work with folks, you want it to be successful musically and financially so you can look at them straight in the face a few years later and say, "That was great, let's do it again." I think those values have never changed for me, and I hope they never do.
AC: Do you see the values of people you're working with change? You're both obviously notable songwriters. Are we hearing the importance put on songs like we used to?
DL: I think beautiful songs are still written all the time. There's a fellow here in Canada, Ron Sexsmith, that writes songs in the classic form. Willie writes them that way.
WN: I have a theory that less is more, and to prove the point, Norah [Jones] won all those Grammys. She's such an understated artist. She has such emotion that it's just there -- you don't have to cover it up with a lot of arrangement. It proves the point that if you got it, don't hide it.
AC: The last SXSW came not long after 9/11. This one comes with war in the air.
WN: I think every citizen has a responsibility to speak his mind. We're all responsible for what our country does, because we're responsible for who's in office. Even if we didn't vote for anybody, we're at fault for who's there as much as anybody. We have to speak out. That's what democracy is all about. All the dissension that's going on, I'm for it. If you don't like what's going on, say something. If you don't, how is anybody gonna know?
DL: I don't think anybody is comfortable with the current climate. It's a shame we've gotten to a place like this. I'm an advocate of information. I bet a lot of people never knew where Iraq was until recently.
AC: Speaking of information, Daniel's doing the keynote speech at SXSW this year, Willie.
WN: I didn't know that. I'll have to be there to listen. Daniel, what are you going to say?
DL: I'm going to talk about life and music -- the two things I know about. I've made records for so many years, and now that I'm over 50, I think I can talk about life. Have you ever done it, Willie?
DL: You see, Willie's smarter than I am.
AC: In Texas, you might want to name-drop your friend Willie Nelson.
DL: Believe me, I was already planning on it.