Rostam Batmanglij understands the creative power of a momentary break. His seemingly endless resume, however, would suggest otherwise. It’s only been eight years since his last album Vampire Weekend as an official band member, and since then Batmanglij has written and produced tracks for Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX, contributed to Frank Ocean’s Blond and that of Solange A place at the table in addition to Vampire Weekend’s latest album, released his first solo album and produced for Lykke Li, Clairo and HAIM, the latter of which earned him his third Grammy nomination.
Today, he is driven by patient determination: “I just need time. I always want to make sure the ideas are finished. Sitting in her sunny home via Zoom, it’s eminently clear that the essential prerequisites for her creativity are a close interplay between doing what you love and following your passion.
Every move is a lunge for something bigger. This month Rostam published The phobia of change, a sublime second album hailed by critics for its open-hearted honesty, its passionate approach to major subjects and its delirious and loaded saxophone warmth. And while his debut album as Rostam felt intimate and compassionate, this record takes a leap forward in sharing his personal life experiences as a gay man of Iranian descent and leaving gender pronouns behind – an evolution in an industry where conversations centered on non-binary identities are still rare, ensuring that any listener can see themselves in music.
As a balm to all this hard work, Batmanglij decided he would get a puppy; Rahm, 11 months old, sits on the musician’s lap as we chat. The delicious vibes don’t end there, as Batmanglij is about to head to an undisclosed beach. “The first 30 years of my life, I never liked going to the beach… But I feel ready to go on vacation,” he says with a mischievous laugh.
I was struck by your choice not to use gender pronouns. When you think of someone you love, I guess most people don’t focus on that linguistic binary, but on the person. Leaving aside the genre makes the songs immediately inclusive. Was it instinctive or intentional?
Both. I realized that I was asked to have a certain set of beliefs about gender. As someone born in ’83 and raised in the ’90s, I had no choice but to accept what I was told about the genre. And so I was interested in rejecting that. Every time you make a scrapbook you create your own world and you have your own set of rules. And in this world, I wanted to reject what I was asked to accept as a child.
How do you feel about going out into the world and sharing these songs publicly after the album was released during the pandemic?
Well I had an interesting relationship with COVID. I had COVID the second week of March 2020 and spent about four days in bed, sleeping all day and night. On the fourth day, actually, I still had a fever, but I went to my studio and wrote one of the songs on the album, “These Kids We Knew”. It eventually became the first song on the album.
This is terrible! I’m glad you got over it well. This song reminds me tonally of “From the Back of the Cab” and “Kinney”. Was it all written at the same time? How do they fit together?
“From the Back of the Cab” and “Kinney” were two of the oldest songs on the album. It took me a long time to finish writing them, but they’ve definitely been meeting since 2017.
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What is your relationship with your older material? I can imagine that sometimes it’s a bit like talking to a version of yourself that maybe no longer exists. In your case, after the pandemic, isolation and quarantine, do you feel like you can dive back into old ideas?
It actually depends. If I have a musical idea and want it on my next album, I’m usually going to take it and put it down and work on it in different ways over the course of a year or two, if not longer. I keep them all on my Dropbox. When I started this album, I found a folder that said “Rostam LP 2”, and it was four MP3s, and two of them were songs that appeared on the album. I want to finish the other two for my next record.
I like to approach art without an agenda; it leaves little room to get stuck in ideas that you can’t escape.
Yes. If I have a musical idea, it can take many forms before it even becomes a song. The process of making an album for me is so much about pulling together the musical ideas I have and turning them into a finished song or a cohesive thought. This is what I find to be the most difficult part of creating an album.
How does this style of working come into play when you are producing other people? How to compartmentalize all the ideas?
I find that when I work with artists on their projects, the songs tend to start from something that they do or something that we do from scratch in the studio. In my twenties, I used to do a lot of beats on my own, and those beats sometimes ended up in songs. [But today] I am inspired by having the artists sitting next to me. The only exception I can think of is the song “Now I’m In It” by HAIM. It’s a beat I did when I was in Sweden in 2014 or 2015. Four or five years later, I found myself with Danielle. [Haim] and I was like, “I have this beat that I think nobody has been quite good at.” She started singing to it and we immediately knew it was the right solution.
Do you try to foster this collaborative process when working on solo projects? Do you bounce ideas off other people? It feels like the collaboration is so close to who you are as an artist.
It certainly is. A really stupid way to put it would be if I collaborate with myself when I make an album as Rostam. For example, I would say on this album that I knew I wanted to do a lot of stuff with the saxophone. I met [saxophonist] Henry Solomon very early in the process, when I hadn’t even finished the songs. I had sheet music for some tracks for Henry, and for others I would just sing him melodies and he would play them. But I also found that I liked asking him to improvise on something he had never heard before.
Did you feel like you had to share the themes and the story behind the songs with him?
No, no, I didn’t. [Laughs] I wasn’t ready to share it yet.
You grew up speaking three different languages. Coming from all this language, when did you realize then that your words would have such an impact on people?
When I was in high school, I wrote a poem and it was published in the literary magazine. When I think about it, it’s a little embarrassing. It was about how in life there is no turning back. At our graduation ceremony, the professor giving a speech suddenly started quoting my poem. I was really embarrassed because, come to think of it, it was a really bad poem. It was … I would say it’s scary.
Having said that, I think the concept runs deep. Do not you think?
So it comes back to what we were talking about earlier. It is a question of concept and execution. [Laughs] Maybe it was a good concept, but I don’t think I was yet equipped to execute it.
Do you feel compelled to implement big ideas now that you have the capacity? You work with so many big names, and as a person of Iranian descent, as a queer person, do you need some strength in the songs you choose to do?
As someone who has spent the past seven years collaborating with different people, in addition to working on my own project, it is important for me to feel that I am amplifying the voices with which I resonate. It would be impossible for me to collaborate with someone whose policy does not suit me. The goal is to amplify the voices of the people I connect with. All music has a political component, whether people want to minimize it or emphasize it. The choices I make are important and I really think the words I put in the songs are very important too.
I’m sure being able to speak openly and connect the spaces between your heritage, your past, your sexuality, your experiences, your relationships should make this easier.
Whether it’s songs, fiction or non-fiction, as writers we are always looking to express ourselves. As a queer person, the world has certainly taken more interest in queer narratives over the past 20 years. When people aren’t true to themselves, it goes pretty quickly. Whether gay or straight, the art that speaks from a place of honesty is the deepest art.
This interview has been edited slightly for more space and clarity.
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