Although best known for his star-power productions, for the past decade Lanois has spent more time on his own projects. They've been wildly different, from his dub-rock set Black Dub, to his 2018 pedal steel-synth-beats collaboration with Venetian Snares. You just never know.
This time out, Lanois formed a group of some of his close friends, with a purpose in mind. He had a sound in his head, something old, and something new. He wanted to make a vocal album, with lots and lots of harmonies. He wanted it to be soulful, not just in name and style, but in real, gospel-based soul. He wanted it to be modern too, and of course, Lanois knows how to make anything forward-thinking, with his unlimited studio skills and sounds in his head.
It would also need a unified sound, something that can only come from a core group of like-minded souls, who could play and sing like angels. He already had long-time bassist Jim Wilson ready, plus guitarist Rocco DeLuca. But it still needed gospel authenticity. For that, Lanois turned to another connection that he had made through his drummer friend, the great Brian Blade. Blade came from the church, as did his father, Pastor Brady Blade, whom he had met when he had his studio in New Orleans.
"The Blade family certainly introduced me to another dimension of culture in Louisiana," says Lanois, currently in his Toronto studio. "I was introduced to their Pops, who runs the Zion Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I've sat in with the church band and choir a good many times, and that's how I met Johnny Sheppard, who was the choir director and organist. So that's it, we always wanted a harmony singing group, and I heard Johnny and thought maybe he could be that member of the orchestra we've been looking for."
Lanois doesn't choose his projects on a whim, and he pours his heart and effort into each one. Record-making, to him, has important rules. "It's always been my criteria to pay respect to tradition. We all came into this loving something that was already made. But then I have a responsibility to take it into the future. I managed to do it with Bob Dylan and a lot of folks.. We had such an eclectic group, everybody brought something to the table. Johnny had never sung outside a church, how rare is that? Such a pure form. Then me with all my record-making experience, to try and harness the magic as best I can, and then to write songs with these mates. Overall it was a very good setting for making something that will live on."
What leaps out is music full of joy. It's a positive sound, built on the harmony singing and spiritual vibes. It's not Gospel music, religion doesn't feature in the lyrics, but the positivity certainly does, much like the sound of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions. "That's a good point of reference, because his music always had joy in its spine," says Lanois. "And no matter what the subject matter was, you got the impression he was on the pulse of something. If we could be in that club in any way, that's a big compliment."
Given how we've all been feeling, it could be the tonic you've been craving. Lanois felt it was important to make a positive record right now. "I felt that way before the pandemic," he says. "And so off we went, and Johnny Sheppard said, please make sure that every song has a good message. I said, alright Johnny, no problem, let's go. Then the pandemic came, and apparently the record is being called the Sonic Vaccine."
You don't have to overthink this album, just enjoy this mix of new and old, and simply beautiful melodies and harmonies.
"I think that if there's any truth that artists feel the wave of the future in the present day, let that apply to this, says Lanois. "I felt something in the air. Nobody's occupying the centre stage in this, it's group singing in most places, and I think people feel that we left our egos hanging at the door. Isn't that why people sing in choirs? They want to harmonize, they want to blend. And there's a lot of harmony and blended singing on this record."