Brian, meanwhile, was inspired by hearing the demos for what would become Karen’s intimate 2014 solo album, Crush Songs. “I heard her singing in a way I hadn't heard her sing before. When I had seen Karen onstage, she's a rock star, and she's a very powerful and enigmatic person. But then I hear her singing these really beautiful things, and I'm not even thinking about Karen anymore. I'm thinking about how it's making me feel. I got to turn it back in on myself. And I was very interested in that.” The demos, Brian says, made him want to tap into Karen’s rare ability to be “both be every person when [she’s] singing but also very unique.”
But things fizzled. The demos Brian sent to Karen then weren’t quite the right fit, and they were each busy with other projects—Karen fronting the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Brian producing for The Black Keys and forming Broken Bells. “We'd still run into each other and talk about [working together],” Brian says. “And then when [Karen got] pregnant in 2015, we had a sit down in New York. And it was like, 'Alright, we're going to do this.'”
Karen laughs. “I was going to have some time in 2016. I was like clearing the decks.”
When 2016 came, they were both free from record label obligations, third parties in the studio, time constraints, and even demos to work off of. They felt untethered, back to square one. “We thought, 'Let's see what happens if we start making a bunch of beautiful-sounding things and experimenting with it,'” Brian says.
What happened was that within the first few days they’d crafted their first song, a 12-minute cut of the album’s eventual nine-minute title track, “Lux Prima.” The song, with its far-out synthesizer notes and angelic ooh-ing and la-ing chorus, has the feel of an epic space opera. It’s split into three parts, and in its beginning and end, Karen intones phrases that sound divined rather than written: “Faithful / Sunshine / Faithful / Sunshine” in the opening; “Flash / Flash / Flash” towards the end.
Karen did all her writing in real time—“torturous," she says—and the subconscious process led back to the new chapter of her life. “I had just had my son, and that's like the most trippy and connecting experience in terms of the bigger picture that I had ever had,” she says. “And also, it's ego-destroying to a certain degree. So I almost felt reset by it. And it gave me this whole other perspective, which was pulling back to cosmic level, but also linking me more with nature.” That new perspective can be heard on the title track; a refrain goes, “I'm nowhere / I'm no one / I'm nobody / There's nobody, but you.”
“Lux Prima” would set the tone for the rest of the album in ambition as much as in sound. “We kind of made our own statement to each other of, 'Oh, you don't think I'll [do this]?' We kind of called each other's bluff,” Brian says.
Though Danger Mouse productions have been known to ride electric guitar riffs and two-ton beats into left field, Lux Prima ventures fully out of this stratosphere, which was a culmination of sorts for Brian. His first inkling that he wanted to make music came in college, when he was introduced to the music of Pink Floyd. “I saw that you could do these long, big things [in music]—that it was art, basically,” he says. “And I was like, 'Oh, if music's art, I'll just do that.' But I didn't have the ability to do those things then, and it took me a while, working with a lot of people, to learn and figure it out.”