In a digital age where music is produced, consumed and discarded in the blink of an eye, Rome is brilliant anachronism: a defiantly analogue album that took five years to perfect and has been made to pass the test of time.
Brian Burton and Daniele Luppi met in Los Angeles in 2004. Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, had just created a media storm with The Grey Album, begun work on Gorillaz Demon Days opus and was also embarking on his hugely successful Gnarls Barkley project with Cee-Lo Green. Luppi, a composer from Italy, was receiving acclaim for his album An Italian Story, which revisited the cinematic sounds of his childhood. (He has also written music for the screen – Sex and the City, Nine – and later worked with Burton on arrangements for Gnarls Barkley, Dark Night of the Soul and Broken Bells.)
United by their shared passion for classic Italian film music, they decided to create something special. After an intense songwriting period – writing separately at first, and then together as the songs evolved – they travelled to Rome in October 2006. Luppi made some calls and they assembled the original musicians from films such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West – including the legendary Marc 4 backing band and Alessandro Alessandroni’s ‘I Cantori Moderni’ choir. Most of the musicians were in their seventies and hadn’t worked together for several decades.
They booked time in Rome’s cavernous Forum Studios – formerly Ortophonic Studios, founded, amongst others, by the great Ennio Morricone. Burton and Luppi scoured the city for vintage equipment, using bottles of wine as payment. Every effort was made to replicate the recording practices of the 1960s/70s golden age, recording live and straight to tape, with overdubs but no electronics, computers, 21st-century effects or studio trickery.
“The studio was a beautiful thing,” says Luppi. “It sits underneath a neo-classical church and is carved out of an ancient catacomb. The space is huge. It has an echo chamber and a room full of vintage tapes. The vibe is really inspiring.”
Return journeys were made to record the choir and full orchestra. “I’m so happy with how it’s turned out, but it’s been a real labour of love,” says Burton, who funded the whole project himself, “It’s taken up a lot of time and effort, not to mention the cost, but it’s because it had to be a certain way.” And that, ultimately, reflects what this album is built on: perfectionism, patience, being ambitious and two people who were prepared to go to great lengths to ensure the end result is exactly at it should be.
The next step was finding two lead vocalists who could do justice to the songs – three of which been written for a man and three for a woman. While on tour with Gnarls Barkley, Burton met Jack White of the White Stripes: “I played him some of the tracks, not even thinking I’d be able to get him on it.” A year later, White recorded his contributions – The Rose With The Broken Neck, Two Against One and The World – in Nashville. “We thought it would be really interesting to combine his voice, which is very rock n’ roll, with this polished and elegant music,” says Luppi. “He nailed it perfectly.”
White’s counterpart, in a revelatory turn, is Norah Jones, who flew to Burton’s LA studio from New York to sing on Season’s Trees, Black and Problem Queen. “I really love the way her voice sounds,” says Burton. “I knew this was a little bit different for her, but she was really up for it.”
Subsequently, acclaimed director and photographer Chris Milk was enlisted as ‘Visual Director’, and finally, after half a decade of hard work and unstinting perfectionism, the album was mixed. It opens with soprano Edda Dell’Orso’s dramatic voice (used to haunting effect on The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 44 years ago) gracing Theme of Rome. For all its cinematic qualities, what follows is not the soundtrack to an imaginary movie, or a homage to the great Italian film composers but a complex, nuanced pop record with intensity and darkness as well as uplift and light. (Luppi calls it “a small window on human life, touching on love, death, happiness, desperation, and the visceral connection of a man and a woman”.) It’s an ambitious work with a uniquely modern sound that has been achieved through traditional, vintage processes. It is, above all, a fully realised album, perfectly formed and hauntingly beautiful.
Welcome to Rome.