Willie Nelson Brings New Spirit To Making Of Teatro

Working with producer Daniel Lanois, country legend brings sparse, ethereal sound to his latest album.

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

release, Spirit.

"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

around.

"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).