Rostam Batmanglij is working on some Lucinda Williams covers. In April, he shared a teaser of his progress so far, including with pal and in-demand horn blower Henry Solomon laying down a baritone saxophone part over a shuffling beat. His fandom of the country-music legend is well documented â€” â€œhey siri, google why is Lucinda Williamsâ€™ music queer even though she is not,â€ he tweeted in March â€” but on a recent Zoom call from Los Angeles, he canâ€™t say what these latest tracks will amount to, not yet.
â€œI have an idea that’s a little bit of a secret,â€ he says, standing before a bright wall of windows. â€œI have this idea to do something that in the last few months has become the standard way that pop albums are released, which isâ€¦,â€ he trails off. â€œI don’t want to ruin the surprise, but it’s this thing that the biggest people in pop are doing across the board, and I thought it would be fun to try to model my release after this new standard, to use a term, of art.â€
Looking casual in a black tank top, he ties it all together, kind of: â€œThe Lucinda Williams covers may be involved â€” may or may not be.â€
What might be taken as blowing smoke from a more trollish, less credentialed artist comes across as Rostam doing the work in real time and being careful not to share until the job is done. In fact, heâ€™s always working. On the dozen-plus albums the frequent collaborator has worked on as a performer or a studio mind (or both), heâ€™s played piano, organ, bell piano, harpsichord, acoustic and electric guitar, banjo, synthesizer, bass, mandolin, light percussion, and whatever other strings or keys he can find. He doesnâ€™t play the saxophone, hence the help. But he knows enough to trust his own ears.
â€œI have really strong opinions about sax in songs,â€ he tells MTV News. His latest album as a solo artist, Changephobia (out today), is dripping with brassy sax solos, courtesy of Solomon. This wonâ€™t shock anyone whoâ€™s followed Rostamâ€™s decade-long career from Vampire Weekend linchpin to in-demand pop producer for Carly Rae Jepsen and Frank Ocean, but Changephobia opts out of arena maximalism in favor of a lithe, airy mood. Itâ€™s a reflection of his own taste. â€œThere are some songs where I think the sax is amazing, and there are other times when I think it is corny and terrible. And you know what? I feel the same way about strings.â€
Classical elements have long been fertile ground for the former music student. Early Vampire Weekend songs like â€œM79â€ and â€œTaxi Cabâ€ sprang to three-dimensional life thanks to his string arrangements, and 2016â€™s I Had a Dream That You Were Mine with crooner Hamilton Leithauser found its strength in swooning chamber-pop moments. But as his sensibilities evolved, Rostam likewise expanded his sonic toolkit. His moody yet bright sound has earned him Grammy recognition for Haimâ€™s Women in Music Pt. III, which he co-produced, and acclaim for Immunity, the debut from emerging vocalist Clairo that merged her lo-fi roots with Rostamâ€™s own synth-pop experiments.
As a solo artist, heâ€™s melded the classical influences that marked his early career with folk music and dreamy pop. That potent combination yielded a warm debut in 2017â€™s Half-Light, and when he set out to make follow-up Changephobia, he sought a looser, jazzier sound. Cue the saxophone.
While referencing classical music has offered him â€œsome secret language that you could speak withâ€ over a 15-year career so far, Rostam is now picking up brassier lingo. â€œI guess the reason that I wanted to make this record where the sax was like a character in the ensemble is because I do have strong opinions about the way I want sax to sound on records and what kinds of things I want sax to reference.â€
Therefore, Solomonâ€™s saxophone feels like a second voice throughout Changephobia, a duetter who reappears to guide Rostamâ€™s sedate rhythms, as on lead single â€œUnfold You,â€ or adding an ethereal gauze to moony closer â€œStarlight.â€ Solomon also lit up Haimâ€™s â€œSummer Girlâ€ with its mellow homage to Lou Reed in 2019. That songâ€™s atmosphere â€” California breezy even in the face of adversity â€” characterizes much of Changephobia. As Rostam sings about climate change, miscommunication, and escape, he seeks out organic sounds, a strategic move aimed at making them easier to translate in a live setting without losing any of their polish. â€œIt’s this kind of insane thing of trying to make a live performance that is as big as the recording,â€ Rostam says. â€œI want [the songs] to be completely freewheeling, to have no computers involved, everything loose and just untamed, I guess, and unchained.â€
Still, some of Changephobiaâ€™s essential moments are devoid of wind entirely. Euphoric single â€œ4Runnerâ€ rushes with forward propulsion, spinning a yarn of fizzy love in its amber guitar lines. â€œI was more interested in what I wanted to say lyrically than how I wanted the melody to flow,â€ Rostam says. â€œFrom the Back of a Cabâ€ similarly feels like a sunset personified, thanks to a stylish video with gentle cameos from Charli XCX, Haim, Wallows, and more. On â€œTo Communicate,â€ one of its most cathartic tracks, Rostam sings a mouthful for a pop song â€” â€œYou said a discrepancy at the start may account for a conflict between usâ€ â€” that came to him fully formed while sitting at the piano.
â€œI find a lot of times the deepest songs that I write are when I turn my brain off and just allow it to drive, or allow this little character in the back of my brain to be behind the wheel,â€ he says. â€œI’ve grown a lot in the last five years. I feel like I’ve become wiser, and it was somewhat hard-fought. It wasn’t easy.â€
This wisdom allows Changephobia to exist both as a vibe and as a statement ready for a close read. On a more casual listen, youâ€™ll pick up subtle tempo changes and fun experiments, like the â€œdrum-and-bass song that turns into a grunge songâ€ called â€œKinneyâ€ and the cool evening beat of â€œBio18,â€ which makes it one of the prettiest songs heâ€™s ever penned. With headphones in, meanwhile, Rostamâ€™s words can knock the breath out of you. â€œI didn’t want to stumble on a question / That might upset the structure of the world in which we lived in,â€ he confesses on the searching title track. To punctuate â€œNext Thing,â€ he keeps it simple: â€œSome pain is OK.â€
â€œI think I’m the kind of songwriter who’s sort of afraid of writing a song that’s just about one thing,â€ he says. Itâ€™s the kind of thought youâ€™d expect from a true collaborator, one whose latest project shines in part because of a friendâ€™s shining saxophone. Heâ€™s given Solomon his due by including his solos in the musical transcription that comes inside the albumâ€™s vinyl booklet. â€œI studied music in college, and even before that, I learned how to notate music when I was a really little kid. So to me, I think it’s just cool. It’s part of the art,â€ he says. â€œYou can read the lyrics, you can follow along to the lyrics, you can read the sax solos, and follow along to the sax solos.â€
You can also learn how to play his big-throated folk song â€œIn a River,â€ courtesy of a YouTube tutorial made by Rostam himself. Itâ€™s a three-minute mandolin strumming lesson that even dips into suspended chords without getting bogged down in clunky theory explanations. The entire clip breezes by, suggesting Rostamâ€™s abilities lie in both demystifying the creation process and making people feel a bit more connected to it. â€œSome people might be like, â€˜Oh, that’s so stupid, and dorky, and it’s high-minded,â€™ or something,â€ he says. â€œBut I don’t feel that.â€ How could he? Heâ€™s just doing the work.