NASHVILLE, Tenn. - It seems just right that the making of
, Daniele Luppi and Danger Mouse's homage to Italian film soundtracks, should unfold like one of those improbable, flamboyant, and whimsical old movies that still fascinate decades later.
The screenplay would start with Luppi, the Los Angeles-based Italian composer who scores films, and Brian Burton, the outrageously creative producer known as Danger Mouse, crammed into a van, careening around the labyrinthine streets of Rome, bartering for the use of vintage gear from the 1960s. They needed to match instruments and equipment used by the masters like Ennio Morricone in films by Federico Fellini and Sergio Leone and others.
Luppi, a few bottles of wine under his arm, would knock on a door not knowing who he would meet. One time it was an 80-year-old man in his pajamas. The next a Vespa mechanic.
"He was wearing a jumpsuit and all that," Luppi said. "In between Vespa parts and stuff like that, he had vintage microphones and guitars. It's really weird. At the end of this meeting, he actually came up to me with a microphone and said, 'I stole this from Ringo Starr when the Beatles played in Rome. ...' So we had these characters. It was almost a Felliniesque experience."
Over five years and multiple stops and starts, Luppi and Burton outfitted their project, hired vintage musicians to go with the vintage instruments, and reassembled the surviving members of Alessandro Alessandroni's Cantori Moderni, the choral group known for those haunting and powerful harmonies that punctuate spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
After recording the basic instrumental tracks, they added a male star, the at-turns menacing and conflicted Jack White, and were missing just one last piece. Every good Italian film of the period had a strong female character, smoldering sometimes with desire, sometimes with anger.
They chose against type and asked Norah Jones to be their femme fatale.
"It was a different style of vocals than what she usually sings, but I knew she could do it and really wanted to hear her voice do it," Burton said. "She has such a beautiful voice. So when we went to record it, she was really, really open. Right away she sang the first couple of lines of 'Season's Trees' and I thought, 'This is exactly it. This is the last piece of this long, long puzzle we've been doing.' "
The silky-voiced Jones was drawn to the project because of its unique approach and the chance to work with Burton and White. Burton, who wrote the words for her three entries, sang the songs to her in a shy way and gave her one piece of advice: "He wanted me to just kind of deliver it like I was speaking a little more - a little less singy."
Though there's no script or story on Rome, released last week, Jones and White take on personas through their songs. Backed by sinewy bass, Jones explores darker territory than she's known for. She's yearning in "Season's Trees" and dealing with the mess she's made in "Problem Queen." And in "Black" she says "I'm the disease" and sings: "Someday they'll punish my deeds and they'll find/All the crimes."
"It was like nothing I'd ever sung before," Jones said.
White saw the possibility to create complex characters with his three entries as well, and seems to play the victim to Jones' heartbreaker. His doubletracked vocals on "The Rose With the Broken Neck" add a strange sense of loneliness. He mirrors the interior conflict in those spaghetti western heroes of yore on "Two Against One" and is left to bleed to death of a broken heart on album-ending "The World."
"I did write the lyrics to the songs but I forgot to tell Brian what they were about," White joked in an e-mail to the Associated Press. "Probably some girl."
Once White, a fan of Italian film scores "and sometimes Italian women," made his contributions, Burton finished off the parts that would go to Jones and a project that seemed to take forever finally wound down after five years and three trips to Italy.
Burton's preference would have been to knock the project out in five weeks long ago, but like a Leone western that sets its hero against impossible odds in the second act, the album went in directions no one could have foreseen.
When he started the project with acquaintance Luppi, he had yet to release his calling-card mash-up, The Grey Album, and was certainly not the bankable producer and songwriter he is today. They couldn't immediately overcome some obstacles along the way and each had to deal with increasingly busy schedules, meaning the project had to be dropped and picked up again.
It was frustrating at the time. But looking back, it turned out to be an adventure. A head-scratching, quixotic tale told nonetheless with great beauty; just like those old movies that fired Luppi's imagination as a child and spurred Burton to buy instruments and write his first song.