Toward the end of November, Bob Bowen (head of music at Amazon) reached out to Brian Burton, also known as producer Danger Mouse, with an inventive -- and challenging -- idea for a companion piece to Amazon's hit show The Man in the High Castle. Bowen originally wanted Burton to contribute a cover or two for a compilation album, but the producer tells Billboard, "On paper, that's not something I would normally do."
Rather, Burton acted as curator for the album of covers, Resistance Radio: The Man In the High Castle Album, which was inspired by the show's era and thematic darkness -- the early '60s of a reimagined world in which World War II had a drastically different outcome. "Because it was '62 -- pre-Beatles, pre-most stuff people celebrate now as far as rock and roll -- it was a chance to do something different," Burton says.
At the same time, he was already in the studio with rocker, multi-instrumentalist and fellow producer Sam Cohen -- the two are working on Cohen's upcoming sophomore album -- and Burton enlisted him to help. "I knew I had taken on a hefty project," Cohen says of agreeing to the album. "There was a little anxiety in those first few days before we started, but I had a pretty good idea what musicians I would call."
Fortunately for Burton and Cohen, the two are very connected -- "It was initially just friends," Burton admits. "I didn't think we were going to have Beck and Norah Jones; it was really a humble project when we first took it on." Their Rolodex of talent to tap proved especially helpful with the project's quick turnaround. Burton and Cohen started recording in Cohen's Brooklyn studio in November -- the week after the election when "there was a feeling of genuine despair [in the studio]," Cohen says -- and the album had to be finished by the end of the year.
As a starting point, they were given a list of 150-200 songs to choose from (the album has 18 tracks), and while they planned to have one artist sing one song, Cohen ended up having two on the album. "I first chose 'Get Happy,' because I was surprised to see it on the list," Cohen confesses, adding he sang it in the style of the gospel-geared Staples Singers. His second song, though, was far less intentional. Cohen was recording the scratch vocal (a musical guide for musicians that accentuates the melody) for "The House of the Rising Sun" -- his stripped-down version is rich in haunting echo -- one day while Burton wasn't in the studio. "I sent it to [Brian] and he said, 'Oh, this should be your song,'" Cohen says. "It's a super iconic song. I think I would have psyched myself out wondering how to approach it for the public to hear, so luckily, I just sang it pretty off-cuff."
Burton was worried other artists they approached would have similar concerns. "It's a daunting thing to sing the classics," he says. The first completed cover came from Burton's close friend and collaborator James Mercer of The Shins, who recorded an impassioned version of "A Taste of Honey." "[James] sent it back in a day, and it sounded amazing," Burton relates. "I was like, 'Man, we just did that song in two days. I bet you we could do the whole thing.'" The second song they sent was to Sharon Van Etten, who delivered a beautifully exposed take on "The End of the World" -- "the highlight of the record," according to Burton. "That's the first song people have to hear to understand why we would even do an album like this." He says once they started sending The Shins' and Van Etten's covers out, people were impressed -- and interested.
A similar sentiment was felt when several contributing artists like Benjamin Booker, Kevin Morby and more all performed their covers live for the first time at South by Southwest in Austin. Much like the hurried nature of the album, Kelis and Jason Lytle of indie rock group Grandaddy were both running late and missed sound check. "I was meeting them for the very first time," Cohen recalls. "I didn't even have time to shake hands and say hello until they were onstage."
Such spontaneity is what Cohen loved most about the process of creating this project. "It's a joy when you don't have to overthink this incredible music," Cohen says. "Just to do it with all the heart and creativity you could muster."
Burton agrees that producing a project with so many moving parts -- he even stopped the presses to re-master the digital files from the vinyl records because, Burton says, "It sounded more like the time" -- in such a short span proved most rewarding. "Going in every day and hammering out song after song after song, I felt like I went into a time machine and went back in time when people used to make records like this," Burton says. "I got to experience something that I hadn't done before, and that was really, really fun for me."
The entire Resistance Radio project can be heard here.