Heavy Sun

Daniel Lanois

Heavy Sun

Long before he was producing blockbuster albums for U2, composing ambient symphonies with Brian Eno, and cultivating his own singular style of artful roots rock, Daniel Lanois was making records in the home studio he and his brother Bob built in their mother’s basement in the suburbs of Hamilton, Ontario. Their low-cost, open-door policy saw them welcome in a wild array of artists throughout the ’70s, including local proto-punk legends Simply Saucer and Toronto children’s folk singer Raffi, as well as many touring acts on tight budgets passing through the area. “The amount of Jamaican music and gospel music that came through our house was staggering—hundreds of albums made in a regular suburb house basement,” Lanois tells Apple Music. “On that old Jamaican stuff, those guys had all the fun singing in harmony. So I always wanted to be in a singing group, like a four-part-harmony group.” Nearly 50 years later, he’s finally getting his wish. On Heavy Sun, Lanois builds a new band with some old friends (guitarist Rocco DeLuca, bassist Jim Wilson) and one very notable fresh face: Johnny Shepard, the choir leader and organist at Shreveport, Louisiana’s Zion Baptist Church, whose pastor is the father of longtime Lanois drummer Brian Blade. As Lanois recounts: “Johnny said to me, ‘I'll only do this record under one condition: Every song has to have a good message.’” Guided by this policy of positivity, the new quartet spent several months workshopping material at a weekly club residency in LA, developing the repertoire of organ- and gospel-infused hymns that make up Heavy Sun. But this is no typical Sunday-service songbook: Filtering the group’s Congos-style harmonies through a free-floating dubby haze, Heavy Sun delivers the sort of spiritual experience that even secular listeners can appreciate. “You can think of Heavy Sun as some kind of enlightenment—a crack of light in the door in dark times,” Lanois says. “We just wanted to make something that sounded hopeful and had a positive energy in it. I've got plenty of sad songs in me, but I didn't want to put them on this record.” Here, Lanois offers a track-by-track road map to navigating Heavy Sun’s righteous path.
Dance On “This is based on an old Isaac Hayes song called 'Do Your Thing.' A dancer friend of mine, Carolina Cerisola, called me up one day and said, 'Dan, I'm doing a solo dance number at this modern dance hall next week, but I don't have a song.' I said, 'Well, I've got a song called “Dance On”!' So we went down and performed it with her, and the version on the record was actually recorded on the night that we were playing with Carolina, lead vocal and all. We redid the background vocals because we didn't have any mics for them on the night. But the organ, my guitar, and the lead vocal are all the real deal from the night of performance. I stand by it as something that resonates truth. When 'Dance On' first comes on, it's like, okay: 'If you feel like you want to dance, dance on'—that's fine and dandy. But then the lyrics change to 'teach on' and 'love on,' and then in the second half of that song, Johnny just goes out of his mind. At that point, I hope people get transported by his raw energy. It's rare to find that kind of emotional delivery in modern music.”
Power “Obviously, this has been said before: power to the people. But it's a reminder that we have the capacity to make change, at least with the person in the mirror, for starters. And then maybe it's within your house, and then on your street, and in your community, and so on. The lyrics are something we came up with on a night of performance when the song wasn't fully formed, but it just felt like the groove was saying something about get-up-and-go and inner strength. I said to the guys, 'Let's just sing “power.” And “if we've got the power, why can't we be together?”' And it never evolved beyond that. We went into the studio and touched up the vocals, but it came out of a live performance. That's Johnny Shepard's wife, Mary, singing the super-high soprano part of that—we haven't heard anything like that since Mariah Carey!”
Every Nation “We started fiddling around with 'Fare Ye Well,' which is an old call-and-response church song, and that became 'Every Nation’—even though there’s no evidence of ‘Fare Ye Well’ in there anymore. This song was partly driven by a shout-out to my Native compadres, and what was happening on the East Coast with the fishing rights being threatened at a lobster plant. So I invented this character, a Mi’kmaq that travels to Toronto to find work, and he's hearing the ancient voices.”
Way Down “Rocco had this idea about ‘a city on the other side,’ like a distant place where greed would not exist and you couldn't be bought or sold and there would be some kind of a utopia. So we wrote 'Way Down' about that.”
Please Don’t Try “A few times in the studio, I'd say, 'Johnny, just play the organ for a while,' and I'd record him maybe for an hour or so. And then later at night, I would go through all of his organ ad-libs and choose my favorite parts and stick them together, so the track for this was arranged by me chopping a bunch of Johnny's performances together. Rocco came up with the lyric idea of 'please don't try'—stop forcing things to happen, let them come to you. It's a nice message, and Johnny really delivers it beautifully.”
Tree of Tule “I took a drive through Mexico, and I came upon this little town called Tule, where they have a thousand-year-old tree in this park, and people would congregate and pray under there as a spiritual place, and I was really touched by something so ancient in modern times. I already had the drum track for this, which I had recorded with Brian Blade from us touring a few years ago. I had recorded several shows, and I went through those tapes, and I think I put four different drum performances together—that's why the drums change so much from section to section, and the feel seems to eratically shift. There's also a nice bassline in there—it’s got a little of [Herbie Hancock’s] ‘Watermelon Man’ in it.”
Tumbling Stone “Rocco came up with the 'tumbling stone' idea, and I thought, ‘Let's treat it as a traveler's song for Johnny.’ He had to relocate from Louisiana to California to make this record, and I asked him, 'How did it feel to leave home, Johnny?' He said, 'I felt like I was on a pilgrimage.' And I said, 'Let's talk about your journey—you're now a traveling minister, but there's no church.' He liked the idea of a church with no walls, so that made its way into the lyric. We think of it as an all-denominational song, and I think it really suits the modern times, because people still want to congregate. They may not want to go to church specifically, but that doesn't mean we're faithless. I think what people got from church before is still available to everyone, without edifice. You don't need a gilded ceiling to appreciate that you might be serving something else other than yourself.”
Angels Watching “Everybody likes angels—even atheists! This song is kind of from a child's perspective—you go to sleep at night and your angels look after you. It's just a really old-fashioned fairy-like sentiment: In a very fast, high-tech world, if we ask for a little advice from our angel, we may still get it come decision-making time.”
Under the Heavy Sun “Like 'Way Down,' this is about another imaginary place—like a nightclub that you might get to in outer space where you have to leave your ego hanging at the door to enter. But you have the greatest time because you've found a new dimension in freedom: 'I know a place the spirit rises from the ground, from hurt to glory…with joy untold.' There's a lot that gets said in the Baptist Church about joy, as if joy is a better place than happiness. We might feel happy because we have a new set of wheels or a new stereo or whatever, but to find joy is another dimension of accomplishment.”
Mother’s Eye “I lost my mother six months ago. Johnny's mom was on her way out. Rocco never had a mom. We realized how significant our mothers have been—certainly mine, because she put up with having a recording studio in her basement for 10 years, and never once told me what to do. This record was made in a political time, and personally, I was a supporter of Tulsi Gabbard as a possible president of the United States. I thought she was just a voice of reason—a mother who had been in the military—and I thought if more decisions were made by mothers, then there would probably be fewer wars and all that. That was the sentiment, ultimately—if we could only see through the eyes of our mothers, then we might do what they were telling us to do.”
Out of Sight “Every Tuesday night, we played this little club called Zebulon around the corner from my studio in LA, and 'Out of Sight' was always our opening number. We'd start and people could not believe what was happening because it's just organ and four-part harmony. It's probably the song that's most true to the gospel-quartet form—if not by subject matter, then certainly by form. This is probably the most abstract song lyrically, but one that we had so much fun singing live. It reminded me of what it felt like when I first heard soul bands as a kid in Toronto and Hamilton—like going to hear Sam & Dave, and the excitement of really good singing and somebody at the front of the stage just giving it. The charisma of that music all came back to me when we were doing our Tuesday nights.”

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