When In Rome - Jack White

The hero
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Read an interview with Jack White (The White Stripes, The Dead Weather, Third Man Records) about his involvement with the spaghetti western inspired 'Rome' album alongside Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi and Norah Jones.

How did you first become involved with the project? When did you first hear about it?

Brian played it for me in the studio. He’d come by when the Stripes were working on ‘Icky Thump’. He came by the studio and played me a couple of tracks, and I really loved it. He wasn’t asking me to be a part of it, and I wasn’t asking either, he was just playing it for me, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is incredible’, and we just talked about it a bunch. A month later, he called me and asked if I’d be interested in being the male voice - he wanted a female and male voice on the record - and I said, ‘Yeah, I would love to do that’.

What interested you most about the project - the music or the whole back story to how it came to life?

I loved the back story and I hoped that the music was as good as the story - and it was! When he told me about it, my mouth started watering about how they’d gone over and got the original musicians from Ennio Morricone’s soundtracks to perform the music. I couldn’t believe it. And then he played it for me and I thought it was incredible, so I was really, really excited.

Brian and Daniele had very specific ideas about what they wanted for the vocals, which is why they sat on the instrumentals for so long. When you came on board, did you feel pressure to meet their exacting expectations, or did the fact that you got the job in the first place mean that you were going to be okay?

No, it’s very much like a movie soundtrack, where it’s a little bit... I was apprehensive, because those kinda projects, a lot of times there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen, so the chances are people are gonna end up not liking what I’m putting down. That’s happened a lot in other times with movie things, where you’ve gotta get in and sort of sell yourself to other people, which is not a very comfortable place for me to be in. So I did have, in the back of my head, thinking that maybe Brian was gonna not be too into my vocals and so they’d pick somebody else afterwards. But he liked what I did, I guess, so there it is.

What do you think you brought to the table that perhaps somebody else wouldn’t have?

I don’t know, but I definitely tried to write differently for this. It wasn’t my music. I had never written vocals for somebody else’s music before. That was a totally new challenge to me, which is one of the main reasons I was interested. And I tried a new technique where I drove around in a car listening to that music, and I had a handheld recorder in my hand, and I sang to all the instrumentals, all the songs, and I just sang whatever came to my mind as I drove around Nashville. And soon certain songs started to pop up and said, ‘This is really something that makes sense for my voice’, and then certain words would pop up in those songs, and it turned into something bigger and bigger - and I found myself driving faster and faster for certain tracks! (Laughs)

So certain things lent themselves to you more naturally?

Yeah. You find yourself just drawn to them naturally. I did a project with Bob Dylan: he put together twenty or twenty-five people to finish writing Hank Williams songs that only had lyrics and didn’t have music - it was the opposite of this project. I did this a year beforehand - I had to write music for Hank Williams’ lyrics. I looked through all the piles of lyrics, and one of ’em just kept speaking to me. Sometimes you think it’s gonna be really hard to find my spot, and then it picks it for you. You don’t even have to choose it; it just picks it for you.

This was a very personal project for Brian - he self-financed all the trips to Italy and put a lot of time into it. Were you aware of that commitment when you came on board?

Well, I sent him all my bills for the gas for my car! (Laughs) No, I self-financed that as well!

What was he like as a producer? Did you get to see him at work while you were recording your parts?

Yeah, it was great. He came in, we bounced around ideas, and it was really comfortable. I liked working with him a lot. We’d been friends for a little while but had not really hung out together. Now we hang out all the time, and we’ve got the same manager now and everything, so it’s kinda nice that this album is coming out now.

Do you have similar production methods? How did you work together?

You know, I think we have different ways of attacking the music, but in the end, this was his project, so I was more interested in the idea of how he works and where I would fit in it. I was very hands-off because this was his baby.

And how was working with Daniele?

You know, I never really met Daniele until we did photographs for the record, because he’d already done his part over in Italy with Brian. And when I did my vocals, Brian was the only one that really could be there, who could travel at that time, because of scheduling. So just me and Brian worked on my stuff.

Every artist involved with Rome seems to revel in pushing expectations. Danger Mouse never wants to be defined as a hip-hop producer; you are prolific with a number of different bands; Norah Jones enjoys collaborating with diverse musicians such as Outkast and Foo Fighters. Is it a case of liking to be different, or are you constantly learning new things?

I think we’ve all grown up in a different genre and a different era. You couldn’t do that in the ’50 and ’60s very much. You could do a song out of your genre a little bit, or an album a little bit, but mostly you were expected to stay in your box and stay Elvis Presley and stay Frank Sinatra for the rest of your life and that’s it. But I think we grew up in a different era, where we can do a lot more, and explore a lot of different ideas and different areas and see if there’s anything that clicks without getting punished for it by our fans or by the record labels or anything like that. It’s a nice freedom that we have.

Is there a limit to what you can do? Is there a limit to your fans’ patience?

Every artist has to figure that out for themselves - where they’re comfortable, and where they make sense. You draw your own lines - ‘That’s not for me’ - but I dunno, I’ve never really felt uncomfortable.

With inspiration coming from movie soundtracks, and with your acting experience, did you find yourself finding a character from which to write your lyrics?

Well, oddly enough, I always do. I always am portraying a character in a song when I’m singing it, and never feel like I’m being myself. I’ve always felt in a way that being myself is too boring, too easy, and it’s always about being the character of a song. The lyrics may be something that comes directly from me, and it’s about me at times, but it doesn’t matter; when it’s sung, I have to be somebody else. So that was even easier to do on this record.

Who did you imagine yourself as for Rome?

A serial killer. No, I’m just kidding! (Laughs) I can’t explain it exactly, like give a name to the character, but I definitely take on a persona of someone who is not myself.

Were you aware of the lyrics that Brian was writing, which eventually became Norah’s parts?

Yeah, I did. I don’t remember exactly when I heard them - maybe I didn’t even hear them until Norah sang them, I’m not sure. Maybe Brian just told me what songs he was writing for, and I was listening to them, but I can’t exactly remember now.

The lyrics to ‘Two Against One’ sound very angry, and maybe just a bit paranoid...

Yeah, I think that character is pretty mad at himself, it seems like.

Yeah, it’s him against the world. That’s not you, is it?

I think it’s any artist. You have that feeling of you against the world. You miss out on a large portion of what your passion can come from. Sometimes it’s a blessing to have that feeling.

Why do the two voices work together so well when they are so different?

We just got blessed; it was just very fortunate that way. You never know. Brian and I talked about different girls and I suggested Norah, and he thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds like a person that would really work’, and he said, ‘I’ll go talk to Daniele about it’. I had never sung with Norah before or anything, so you just kinda get a feeling in your head. You think of different artists and the way they sing and you think, ‘Would that be a good match? Maybe so. Maybe Norah would work’. And obviously, like you said before, she can work with a lot of different genres and different ideas, so we knew that already, and she’s just incredible as it is, so I think we got fortunate.

Were you wary of the fact that two such high-profile vocalists coming on board might steal the limelight away from the people that really put time and effort into this project?

Yeah. I think it was a good balance that way. It came out great. If I had been part producer on it, it might not have been a good idea. I think the fact that those two had already worked on and written and produced the music together that it was their project and Norah and I were sort of actors portraying the vocal parts. And that was a good balance for that, where nobody really has top billing on the thing - and if anything, it’s Brian. So it feels good that way. It didn’t feel like putting together some new band either - it just felt like four people doing their own part of a bigger project.

What was the most rewarding experience of Rome for you?

Being able to add to that music. Because the music was so great already. To hear a song like that and say, ‘I’m gonna add something on top of this? I already love this song!’ Sometimes it’s like, you know, chocolate sauce isn’t gonna make this ice cream taste any better. So, you’re in a position like, ‘Well, I don’t wanna detract from this music’. So what I wrote and put on top, I just kinda hoped in the back of my head that other people were gonna dig it and it was gonna be beneficial to the song and not take away from it. And I think it worked out in the end.

There were suggestions that Rome could be performed live as several large productions. Is this something you’d want to be involved in?

Of course. I’d love to do that. I’m off the road for a while, so it would be nice to play a couple of shows, especially with that project - to see it all come together live would be really incredible.

They’ve not discounted the possibility of doing another album the same way. If the same line-up got together, or if more friends came on board, would you like to be involved again?

Wow, that’s interesting. I’d have to think about that one, because we could be pressing our luck, because it turned out so good! (Laughs)

So what’s next for Jack White?

We’re working on this project this week - Jerry Lee Lewis is coming in. We’re having Record Store Day and we’re putting out all these rare releases - actually the first single from the Rome record is coming out on vinyl here. And Jerry Lee Lewis is coming to play a live show here at the headquarters. So this week we’re putting all that together.

Wow. Is he still The Killer?

He’s still The Killer, man. A living legend to come here and play at our place is, uh, we’re all pretty excited.

Read further interviews with the other 'Rome' participants, Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi and Norah Jones.

Jack White and his 'Rome' collaborators feature on the cover of the latest issue of Clash Magazine, in shops now. You can access the issue online HERE or subscribe HERE.

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