For many country-music fans, the pairing of country-legend Willie
Nelson and rock-producer/ambient-sound sculptor Daniel Lanois might
seem like a waltz out of step.
They wouldn't be alone in their doubts.
But Nelson offers something for the doubters to chew on.
Before handing the production reins for his recently released LP,
Teatro, over to Lanois (U2's The Joshua Tree, Bob Dylan's
Time Out of Mind), Nelson said he did his homework, listening
to the producer's past work and trying to figure out if the two would
click in the studio.
"I started listening to things he'd done. I heard [singer Emmylou
Harris'] record [1995's Wrecking Ball] and Bob Dylan's, and
some of Daniel's albums and tried to figure out if we could work
together OK, because when I turn myself over to a producer I need
to do it 100 percent," Nelson said. "I figured I wanted to gamble on
it, just to see how we'd work together in the studio. Nothing could
have been easier and more fun."
In a way, Lanois -- who is known for his mesmerizing, highly
textured soundscapes -- was ideally suited to this Nelson project.
Although 65-year-old singer/guitarist Nelson is best known for
country hits such as "On the Road Again," "Always on My Mind" and
"Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" -- and for a massive catalog of
recorded music and a rebellious reputation that made him a pioneer
in the Outlaw Country movement -- Teatro finds the
country legend fleshing out the ethereal sound that marked his 1996
"I kind-of figured that this Teatro album was kind-of a
natural follow-up, at least in my mind, to the Spirit album,
and then it progresses into its own thing, but I started out with
that feel and I tried to keep that same thought all the way through,
really," Nelson said. "The Spirit album is very sparse, very
few musicians doing spiritual songs. It covers a 17-year spiritual
trip, and the follow-up to that, Teatro, is just the next
stage" (interview excerpt).
Lanois' approach to recording -- and the recording environment
itself -- provided perfect conditions for creating such a record.
Pared down from an initial selection of 100 tracks given to Lanois by
Nelson, the album was completed in less than a week at Lanois'
Oxnard, Calif., studio -- a former Mexican-movie theater -- by a
motley crew of musicians that included Harris, drummers Tony
Mangurian (Luscious Jackson) and Victor Indrizzo (Redd Kross), Lanois
on bass and guitar, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, harmonica player
Mickey Raphael, and Nelson's sister Bobbie singing backing vocals.
Blending Nelson's older material, such as the flamenco-flavored "I Never Cared for You" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Home Motel" (RealAudio excerpt) with covers of songs by Lanois ("The Maker") and "Ou Es-Tu, Mon Amour?" ("Where Are You, My Love?") -- a tune popularized by '40s gypsy-jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt -- and with new Nelson compositions such as "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," the group recorded the 14 tracks for the album in an unusual fashion.
Nelson said that while recording in the studio, the musicians made
use of its theatrical functionality -- and drew inspiration from some
unconventional props set up by the producer.
"It's a huge room, as a movie theater would be. ... We were all in one
big room playing. There was a big screen in the back of the theater,
and when we listened to our playbacks we'd watch silent Spanish movies
on the screen," Nelson said. "Daniel had about 100 motorcycles and
about another 100 guitars scattered all over the studio" (interview excerpt).
The recording process also found drummers Indrizzo and Mangurian
pressing an ashtray into percussion duty.
"We would play the ashtray at some points and bang on various
different things, whatever was close by," Indrizzo said. "We'd use
weird percussion stuff Daniel would have laying around. The ashtray
was most prominent, right in between us. Both of us were smoking,
so it all of a sudden became part of the drum set."
For a more spare feel, Nelson trimmed the group to two for
"Home Motel," which Mehldau described as a slow song about heartbreak.
"Willie and I did ['Home Motel'] as a duo. It was real
unrequited-love stuff, more of a jazz ballad, something like Jimmy
Scott would do," Mehldau, 27, said.
Mehldau said he sees the sound of the album as falling outside
standard commercial categories. "The songs fit into that murky area
of 'American songs.' Country radio will probably play it because
it's so identifiable, but it's somewhere in between country and rock."
Regardless of how the music gets classified, Nelson said he feels
grateful for the chance to introduce new songs and dredge up some
older tunes that might not have gotten much attention the first time
"I put together a whole list of songs with all the new stuff I had
and all the old favorites of mine that had been laying around, like
'I Never Cared for You,' 'Home Motel' and 'Darkness on the Face of
the Earth,' that I felt ... never did [get to] see the light of day,"
Nelson said. "I was wanting to at least try to give them another
chance" (interview excerpt).