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At Last, No Rome Finally Releases His Debut Album: 'I Went Out of My Comfort Zone'

It’s the first album from the internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter.
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Last time we interviewed No Rome, we were backstage at the Mall of Asia Arena about an hour before he went up onstage as the support act for his old pals The 1975. It was September 2019 and the then-22-year-old had been churning out single after single, hit after hit, and was performing at stages all over the world. Rome was also an honoree at that year’s Esquire Philippines Man At His Best awards. 

“I just want to be able to contribute something that lasts for a long time,” he said then. “I don't want to just come in, be the hottest artist for, like, two years and then, be gone. I want to put something on the table and then, the next 10 years, people can come back to that piece of music and say, ‘Yeah, this was such a good album, or this was such a good piece of music.’ And I'm trying to make that last.”

Rome is finally getting that chance. Hard to believe, but the guy behind hits like “Narcissist,” “Talk Nice,” “Seventeen,” “Pink,” and many others, is finally coming out with his debut album. It’s All Smiles is the product of years of hard work perfecting his sound. And the fact that he recorded it right here in his hometown of Manila during the pandemic makes it all the more significant and meaningful. 

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We caught up with Rome just as he got back to wintry London, where he’s been based for the last few years. We asked him about spending most of the lockdown period here in the Philippines, what took him so long to come out with a proper LP, and what Wong Kar Wai has to do with his creative process. Excerpts:

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Esquire Philippines: How long have you been there in London now?

No Rome: Been here about two weeks. Winter's coming up here. And it's been a cold one.

I can imagine. How long were you here in Manila?

I was there for almost a year and a half. 

Okay, so pretty much for the whole of the pandemic.

Yeah, but I was able to come out to London around March this year. But that was also the time that we got red-listed in London because of the spike of the pandemic cases. But it's better now. It's back to normal now, which is good.

When you were here in Manila, what kinds of things were you doing? Like everybody else, I imagine you were just stuck at home. How did you keep busy?

I was doing everything that everybody else was doing. I was trying to be productive, creative, and trying to get work done. I saw some friends. But at some point this year, my parents had COVID. So yeah, but they're better now. But that kind of scares you a little bit because, it's your parents. They're the ones that can get affected with it on a different level.

But yeah, I was just kind of making music and trying to get into new hobbies while working on new stuff. 

Since you were pretty much locked down, how was your creativity affected by the pandemic? Was it harder or easier to create?

I'd say It was a challenge, I wouldn't say it was hard. Because, you know, looking at it on a more positive side, I was able to focus. I stayed at home, you know, I wasn’t distracted in that way. I was just hyper-focused on making music itself. 

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But, at the same time, it was also hard to be creative, because there wasn't much stuff to do, not much stuff to get inspired by, especially looking at the news. You're going outside, I guess you try to find what you can with the given situation.

So, to me that was that. Okay, I'm in my house. I have nothing else to do. I've been listening to music that got me inspired to make music (in the first place). I use that as kind of a motivation as well as keep pushing. It wasn't so easy because, at the same time, I was working on my record. I was working with my producers for remote, BJ Burton was in Minneapolis and that would be like 12 hours apart.

I also think that the beautiful part about it was there wasn't a rush to finish the record. You know, I wasn't rushing because nobody was rushed during the pandemic, especially at the height of it. So that was also great. It gave me time to really focus and to get it right.

You mentioned something about inspirations during this whole period. Were there any specific things that inspired you while making this record?

Movies. And experiences that I've had throughout the year. What was crazy was, (in 2019) I went on tour, and it was a busy year. And then, 2020 hit and it was like, you're not allowed to do anything. That was also, in some ways, inspiring. I had some stuff to write about. 

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Any specific movies that you really responded to?

I don't know if there's anything specific. It's like, just kind of going through old favorites, like Wong Kar Wai films. He's one of my favorite directors. And his films are like, comfort films, every time I’m feeling kind of low, I put on one of his movies. Like Happy Together and In the Mood for Love. Like I've watched those so many times. 

I also like a lot of bio pics. I've seen the Queen bio pic, which was super cool. And Theory of Everything, with Stephen Hawking.  Great movies like that, makes you want to listen to the soundtrack or just kind of get inspired by the story.

You were talking about finally getting to work on your debut record. They say things like this, they arrive exactly when it's supposed to, right? So in your case, you've been churning out songs since, what, like 2018 or 2019, or even earlier. What made you decide that this was the time you were finally ready to release this album?

I feel like, just achieving that whole idea of making something new. This album that I made, it felt new, it felt creative. Because that's kind of like how I wanted to make music. I just wanted to make something creative. Maybe one that seems a bit of a stretch. But just something that made me feel like I made something new, like sonically, and, to me that's kind of like what it sounded like. Something that was out of my comfort zone. Something I wasn't used to and something that I wanted to say that I was keeping it in. 

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Like you said, I've had tracks for ages, but I guess I was trying to find myself making those tracks, in a bit more creative sense. And being able to link with BJ and Sachi, and George (Daniel), working on the record. It just became what it was. Because funny enough the records I had first I wasn't so sure if I wanted to make that the debut album. Because there was this thing where I wanted to do two albums. I’m still doing it, but there were two different sounds. And (I wasn’t sure) which one I was going to focus on. And writing songs with the guitar, that was the first thing I gravitated to. That was the feeling I had at the moment as well. So I went with it, and eventually, came up to this point of the music and I was like, ‘This is it for me. This is the push. This is what I want to do. So let's work on this.’ We finished that whole project for a whole year, 2020 to 2021. 

Was there an overarching theme for the album?

Yes, there's a recurring theme to the album. The feeling of belongingness, as well, as with the pandemic, was loneliness. But it's not an album about things that are depressing. It's more of uplifting, given that situation. Not just about being lonely but definitely about belongingness. These kind of pieces of music stitched together.

They have this thing they call like plunderphonics, which is, like a mash of different samples forming a song. Samples are like these short pieces of music that you reuse for your music. It’s like a mashup of genres, like rock, hip hop, R&B. So that’s like a recurring theme sonically. I wanted some kind of cohesiveness in the music.

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Is that why you titled it that way also? It’s All Smiles?

Yeah, yeah. Because, like I said at the end of the day, it’s about belongingness. It's a nice juxtaposition of like, some of the songs are a little sad lyrics-wise, but they’re really about belongingness and positivity.

What do you hope people take away from this album, knowing this is your first as an artist?

Just the music, honestly. I don't know what to say about them taking anything away from it. I'd say I enjoyed making this record. I felt like I made something new and, if you like it, then it's yours, if you don't, it's all right. (Laughs). So take it if you want to, for what it is. I don't mind because I enjoyed making this record.

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Paul John Caña
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