Daniel Lanois is one of the newest breed of rock musicians to make the jump to serious film composition. Indeed, he has actually proved more successful as a film music composer than he has in his own rock recordings. Lanois was born in Hull, Quebec. His mother was a singer and his father and grandfather were both proficient violinists. Growing up in his mother's home in Ontario, he studied guitar and, with his brother, also began learning the science of recording, establishing a primitive four-track studio before he was 20 years old. Arranging and songwriting followed naturally from his work managing recording sessions, and the two became so proficient that their business evolved into a fully professional studio, with clients that included cowboy singer Ian Tyson. It was also during this period that Lanois first met composer Brian Eno, who became his mentor and collaborator.
Even as he was experimenting with different techniques of instrumental composition, Lanois was developing a major reputation as a recording producer, first with the group Martha & The Muffins, who broke out of Canada to international success, and later with guitarist Jon Hassell. In 1984, he suddenly emerged into the public spotlight when, at Brian Eno's suggestion, Lanois co-produced U2's new album, The Unforgettable Fire. That same year, Lanois also collaborated with Brian Eno, Marty Paitch, and Toto in the composition of the score for David Lynch's movie Dune, which became a cult favorite and a sci-fi classic; however, it proved something of a dead-end for Lanois' film work at the time.
The major impetus behind his career came from The Unforgettable Fire, which became a mega-hit album and gave him exposure to a much wider audience. This included singer-composer Peter Gabriel, who asked him to co-produce the soundtrack for the Vietnam-era drama Birdy. That collaboration was successful enough from Gabriel's standpoint to earn Lanois the co-producer's spot on his 1986 album So. A year later, he reteamed with Brian Eno for the U2 album The Joshua Tree, which proved one of the biggest sales blockbusters of the decade. Albums with Robbie Robertson and Bob Dylan, among other major artists, followed, and Lanois also collaborated with John Altman on the score of the Canadian movie Camilla.
It was Lanois' own solo album debut, Acadie, however, that led to his breakthrough as a film composer in his own right. Director-actor Billy Bob Thornton heard the record and was sufficiently impressed with Lanois' writing to ask him to look at his independent film Slingblade. Lanois was stimulated by the film as a work in progress and allowed his writing to take flight, in a dark-hued mode in keeping with the film's subject matter. Given the freedom to compose a full score for a movie on his own for the first time, Lanois appreciated the chance to work within the framework of a completed film; he described it in an interview as the tonal equivalent of being a landscape architect, mixing intuition with precisely planned sections. To the surprise and delight of all concerned, Slingblade, which had seemed destined for status as a cult movie, became a major hit at the Sundance Film Festival and went on to become a box-office smash; suddenly Lanois' film music was being heard by millions — far more people than heard Acadie or any of his follow-up albums. He has written the music for the documentary No Maps For These Territories and the Wim Wenders feature The Million Dollar Hotel, the latter in collaboration with Eno and U2-member Bono.