A recording studio is a strange workplace: a perfectly silent chamber without windows to the outside world. From this cavernous silence nothing emerges but what you bring in with you. It is, in short, a dangerous place for dreams.
One of Rocco DeLuca’s dreams was to work with Daniel Lanois: the renowned music producer who has produced albums for U2, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, and Bob Dylan. One night in 2007, Lanois happened to catch the tail end of DeLuca’s show at L.A.’s Spaceland. After the set, Lanois suggested they work together.
By this time, DeLuca had been busy earning a reputation as a rising star, one who nabbed the first slot on Kiefer Sutherland and Jude Cole’s new indie label, Ironworks.
Years of mostly solo performances had suddenly paid off for DeLuca, with opportunities unspooling as quickly as a reel with a big fish on the hook. Those were loud, wild, and thrilling days that broke the surface first as an album, I Trust You to Kill Me, and then a behind-the-scenes tour documentary of the same name. The first dream had come true.
And yet DeLuca calls putting that first album together “a thing of fear.”
“I had to face some real misgivings about that process,” he says about I Trust You to Kill Me. “I knew that I would be hearing concrete versions of what was in my head. When I’m performing, the music is there for that one moment. But recording these songs was going to change things.”
The album garnered wide praise for DeLuca and his newly formed band the Burden (drummer Ryan Carman, bassist Dave Beste, percussionist Greg Velasquez, and multi-instrumentalist Brett Bixby.) Things did change. The documentary drew media attention for featuring the occasionally out-of-control Sutherland as the band’s erstwhile road manager, a post he held for only 10 days before the band fired him.
These days, DeLuca wavers in his assessment of that period. It may have been something of a distraction from his rigorous approach to his career.
He had waited and stayed focused on his goals, and turned down other offers that weren’t exactly right. He likes to say that he had set out to work within certain limits, beginning with his instrument, the dobro.
The dobro, he says “is a place to start from.”
These self-imposed constraints —Deluca’s effort to take in the seams of his vision for the music and render it achievable — demonstrably stood up to the test of working alongside Lanois on his most recent release, Mercy.
“Danny got into it — the two of us performing the songs together. He sat right next to me during the sessions,” DeLuca says. “And other people have said this — but it’s true —Danny’s musicality is intense. His passion for the music is just contagious.”
The duo established a simple, intense routine: one song a night for 18 nights.
“Work on that one song. Get it down while the energy’s still in the room. Don’t belabor it. Finish it. Go home,” DeLucca says.
His description has a workaday feel to it: punch in, do your job, punch out. “If the performance was apologizing — sounding meek — we’d throw it out,” DeLucca says. “The process affirmed to me that maybe I wasn’t so wrong.”
The result, DeLuca feels, is “a real troubadour record,” perhaps because the process itself harkened back to his early days of stripped-down stage performance and the intense concentration required to stay in the moment.
“I would just play something, and Danny would say, ‘Yeah, let’s work on that,'” DeLuca recalls.
The songs on Mercy range from the raucous to the ethereal. Musical elements, textures, and themes introduced in his first album get pulled into sharp focus on this one.
It says something that DeLuca and Lanois often kicked off their workday listening to modern classical composer Samuel Barber over the studio monitors. Even when it’s rocking its heart out, Mercy echoes that kind of gracious, thoughtful vibe.
DeLuca’s path to this place and these achievements has proved to be no wide, easy road nor even, for all its sudden seismic shifts, a very fast one. The artist has been willing to sit with his dreams, build an audience slowly, “let people find the music,” and continue paring away slices of the great notions he’s envisioned for his work. And the enduring aspect of committing that work to a recording is no longer the daunting thing it was.
“There are dimensions on these songs. A foreground…” he pauses there, as if considering how much to reveal. “… and a mysterious background as well.”
Draw him out just a little on what that mysterious background might be and he sounds like he’s transported himself back into that studio, taken a deep breath, and exhaled songs into the space around him.
“Ghosts in the room,” he says.
Before the club set, Rocco DeLuca also performs an in-store set at Monster Movies & Music (946 Orleans Rd., 843-571-4657) on Sun. March 29 at 2 p.m.