U2's Newfoundland connection
Music After playing a small role in U2's latest disc, Lori Anna Reid returns home to perform

July 10, 2009

Lori Anna Reid hesitates to take credit, but the Newfoundlander's contribution to one of the biggest bands in the world is both hard to ignore and remarkably fitting.

"I love the record, it's fantastic," Reid says of "No Line on the Horizon," U2's 13th studio album, released in March, which has been heralded as a return to form by even the band's toughest critics.

"My dad brought it home and said, 'Your name is in here, missus!'"

Reid has quietly built an acclaimed musical career since she left St. John's in 1990. She started singing here as a child, and later studied classical music at Memorial University, before finishing a degree in voice performance at the University of Toronto.

Along with performing at Carnegie Hall, her vocal talents have been featured in Juno and Genie Award-winning compositions, and documentaries, such as television's "The Nature of Things."

Reid and her band perform in Brigus and St. John's Monday and Tuesday.

The singer also has a reputation for rediscovering musical gems and giving them new polish.

Reid's suggestion of a traditional melody to Daniel Lanois, U2's longtime producer, acted as a springboard in the creation of "White As Snow," a haunting song about a dying soldier in Afghanistan. It's a work that The Guardian, the well-respected U.K. newspaper, called "U2's most intimate song. ... of all the character songs on the album, 'White As Snow' is the most moving."

"I was driving between Banff and Vancouver when I got the phone call from Dan (Lanois)," recalls Reid, who has worked with the musician and producer since 2003, when she provided vocals on his solo tour. "He said he was working on a record with U2 again, and that they were initially thinking about doing a record of hymns. ... I gave him a few suggestions and one was 'O Come, O Come Emmanuel.'

"I have a hard time taking credit - I'm just grateful and glad that both Daniel, Bono and the entire band agreed with me that it's a gorgeous hymn."

Lanois says it's no accident Reid's suggestion made the album.

"I think it's fair to say that years and years of friendship and singing with Lori led to this," he said from his recording studio in Los Angeles.

Along with his work with U2, the Quebec native is a renowned solo performer, and one of the most sought-after producers in music. With his trademark sound, he's helped to mould and boost the careers of artists like Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and Robbie Robertson.

One of his jobs, Lanois says, is bringing intriguing ideas to U2, "whether it be melodies, chords or other ideas."

"Lori played me a few things that she regarded to be great melodic classics," he says of Reid's recommendation.

"I recorded a little piano version of it and brought that to the U2 camp. She has so much experience singing classical music that it's just embedded in her as an artist," say Lanois, who refers to Reid as a "musical mate" and a "deep soul."

"She just has a very clear understanding of how parts interlock."

While Reid helped push the creative process, she wasn't certain what the final form of her input would be. When she discovered that the finished song centred on the life of a soldier, it all seemed strangely familiar.

"The hair stood up on my arm," says Reid, "because it is such a close topic for me, having been there, having family there, and it's something that's very close to the heart."

In 2008, Reid sang for Canadian troops in Kandahar. She performed "Amazing Grace" at the ramp ceremony for Sgt. Jason Boyce, who died after a roadside bomb exploded.

"It's on so many minds right now," she says of the struggles in Afghanistan. "It's just a travesty that we need to be there, but we do. An injustice anywhere affects justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King said.

"Maybe it's that collective consciousness that resulted in the serendipity of those words being written," Reid said of U2's lyrics in "White As Snow," a track that credits Lanois as co-writer.

It's not the first time Reid has been connected with songs about young soldiers and the ravages of war. Her version of "Willie McBride/No Man's Land" was widely praised by Gen. Rick Hillier (now retired), while Eric Bogle, the song's composer, has called her take "the most beautiful version I have ever heard," saying it reminds him of why he initially wrote it.

And as if sharing musical wavelengths with Bono and Lanois isn't enough, Reid is driven by a passion for humanitarian work - both in her neighbourhood and around the world.

As an official consultant for World Vision, she helps encourage child sponsorship at her own concerts, as well as at her performances with other artists, like Lennie Gallant and Michelle Wright. Reid toured with Wright in April, where they sang together and spoke about their sponsored children and their respective trips to Afghanistan.

You can do something in every choice that you make," Reid points out. "We're changing the world, and artists are doing it. ... Last year, there were more than 6,000 children sponsored at World Vision because of Canadian artists."

When she's not on the road, Reid's Toronto surroundings seem far removed from her Newfoundland roots. But inside her apartment, there are links to the place she left behind.

"I've got two photos that my dad took in Torbay, with icebergs in the background, and the icebergs just dwarf the little boats, of course," says Reid, who returns home once or twice a year.

"Along with the painting he did, it's like a huge seascape theme around the room."

Reid is heavily involved in her new community. In June, she performed a sold-out benefit for a meals program for homeless people at St. Stephen in the Fields Church - a venue she helped previously when it was facing financial difficulties.

Allan Cannon, a music industry veteran who recorded the show, was moved by Reid's talent.

"I was hoping to capture something magical. ... I believe that there was plenty of magic on that evening," he said. "This is one of the finest examples of a cappella ... absolutely outstanding."

"What really fires me up is when I'm performing live," says Reid, who has been working with a new band for the past year.

The group features Mike Janzen on piano, George Koller (bass, cello) and Newfoundland native Greg Hawco (guitar, percussion, vocals).

Reid's two shows here next week will feature a mix of original compositions, songs with jazz elements and traditional arrangements.

"It's quite a wonderful thing when we get up there," said Reid. "I can tell stories, sing songs friends have written or co-written, or a couple of classical songs - I know it all sounds very disjointed, but it's not."

One of the standouts in Reid's current setlist is "Avalon," a devastatingly beautiful arrangement with improvised elements that finds her voice soaring and looping through a plaintive piano part and tribal drumbeat.

Partly inspired by the struggles of Demasduit, one of the last Beothuk women, it's a song without words, yet limitless with feeling.

"Everybody has a song, and every song tells a story," Reid insists. "The power of a really great song cuts through political lines, things that normally divide us. ... It's about what makes us human."

Reid and her band have two performances next week, along with special guest Bill Brennan - Monday at St. George's church in Brigus at 8 p.m., tickets are $20, and are available at the door (www.stgeorgesbrigus.ca); and Tuesday at Memorial University's D.F. Cook Recital Hall in the School of Music. Tickets are $22 and are available at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre, telephone 729-3900.