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Rostam is no stranger to the process of making an album. After writing three LPs with Vampire Weekend and producing standout records for Clairo, Haim, and The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, Rostam has songwriting down to a science. He even explored his musical roots on his 2017 debut solo album Half-Light, a record that was over a decade in the making. But for his sophomore solo LP Changephobia, the process was different.
For one, Changephobia was finished during a time of intense isolation. The world came to a screeching halt with COVID lockdown, which was enacted when the album was nearly complete. The unexpected period of stagnation allowed Rostam to privately focus on finishing touches and confront grim global events unfolding around him.
But the world wasn’t the only thing changing at the time. “What I can definitely say is that I feel like in the last five years, I’ve grown a lot as a person,” he said over a Zoom call from the same studio where he had written, recorded, and produced the album. “I’ve had time to grow and I think that growth has come from self-awareness. The concept of Changephobia to me is a lot about reminding yourself to be aware of what you’re feeling.”
Rostam aimed to translate his personal evolution to a sonic one. He intentionally traded in soothing strings heard on his debut effort for languid brass instruments, experimenting with a jazzier side to his sound. In this way, Rostam’s breezy Changephobia copes with change in multiple forms. It examines that which we can’t control, like the uncertainty of the future, speaks to necessary changes, like addressing the impending doom of climate change, and takes the future in stride.
Most of the music’s lyrical content centers around anecdotes from Rostam’s personal life, but their ambiguity achieves a sense of universality. Rostam delicately sings of the frustration that arises from communication barriers, the intimacy of sharing the back of a cab with someone to the airport, and the cathartic freedom of a cross-country road trip. Songs like “Kinney” showcase his masterful production work, combining arrhythmic chords to feel like a warm embrace. While Rostam deliberately took his music in a different direction on Changephobia, some of the album features callbacks to his Half-Light days. The layered hand drums heard on “Bio18” are reminiscent of the intoxicating track “Wood” and evoke a drowsy daydream.
We spoke about the concept of change over Zoom exactly a month before the Changephobia’s release. Check out a condensed and edited version of our conversation below, where Rostam talks about the intersection of politics and music, how making a solo album lends itself to creative freedom, and his vision for the next generation.
On Half-Light, some of the music you had been working on for upwards of eleven years. How was the Changephobia process different?
The process was a lot shorter. It probably took about three years to write and record this album. And I would say, maybe like 85 percent of it was done before the quarantine, but I really needed that time to finish the album. So I think it’s fair to say I took a solid nine months finishing the album. I had like eight and a half songs written, but I didn’t have any of the production finalized. And I wrote like, one, one and a half, maybe two songs worth of lyrics during quarantine. But such a huge percentage of this album was conceived in the two and a half years prior to the quarantine that I don’t want people to think of it as a quarantine project. But to answer your question, yes, it happened quickly. Most of it happened before the quarantine. But certainly, it wasn’t the kind of long gestation period that Half-Light took.
Can you talk a little bit about your album title Changephobia? What were some things that you were trying to change? And how was that scary for you?
No one’s ever put it that way. I think that’s a good way to put it. On some level, I wanted to change the sound that I was known for. What I was known for. So that was a component of it. This idea of personal growth in musical evolution. How could I evolve musically? And what would that mean? One of the rules that I made for myself going into making this album was no strings because I used so much cello, so much violin, viola on Half-Light. And that was sort of the project of Half-Light was to make this album that integrated strings with songs in a way that I thought maybe hadn’t been done before. So then, with this record, I really wanted to push myself to be inspired by the jazz that I loved. And saxophone music of a certain era, specifically Bebop, which is from the ’50s. And so that’s one component, this idea of musical change. And then there’s another component, which is life changes. And I think that’s something that’s more reflected in the lyrics in several songs. I didn’t really realize this until I was finishing the album, but a lot of the songs deal with the concept of change lyrically, whether they have the word change in them or not.
I was reading up on some interviews that you’ve done recently, something that you said really stood out to me, which is you’ve learned in your production work that being a good producer is equal parts challenging and supporting an artist. Did you have anyone doing that for you on your record, both challenging and supporting you in this project?
Certainly there are people that I trust. But I think part of the fun of making an album as Rostam is that I can get lost in the process. I can work on the production for as long as I want and I can work on the songwriting for as long as I want. I’m the only person who needs to be happy with it. Maybe one day I’ll want to involve other people. For the sequence of the record, I worked with Emily Lazar, my mastering engineer who has mastered nine albums with me in my career, which is pretty crazy. Outside of Emily, who had notes on the sequence and I took her advice, I was the only producer on this album. And there were a couple people that helped with some of the songwriting, there’s certainly musicians, there’s friends that I send things to and ask them to send me ideas to integrate into the finished product. There’s a little bit of that but it’s mostly me.
So you were the one both challenging and supporting yourself, then?
Yes, I guess I had to, I guess I had to be. And I want to make records like that sometimes. That’s why it’s important to me to make records as Rostam because I don’t get to do it any other way.
You said you wrote this album basically in the last three years. Obviously, a lot has happened in the world in the last three years. Do you inject politics into your music at all, or do you try to shy away from that conversation?
I’m someone who believes that all music is inherently political. So I think that if you say your music is not political, or you say you as a person are apolitical, I think you’re probably lying. It might be because I grew up in Washington, DC, and everybody’s watching all these Sunday morning talk shows there in a way the rest of America does care about as much. Certainly not on the West Coast. In DC, everybody’s glued to the TV on Sunday morning. They’re watching Meet The Press and This Week. So I always have politics on my mind and I believe things have inherent politics, whether it’s art, music, advertising, television, or film. Everything has its own inherent politics. So that’s definitely on my mind when I’m making music. But it’s also not something that it doesn’t motivate me to make artistic decisions. On a conscious level. I think it’s a subconscious level it motivates me.
I totally agree with what you’re saying about how all music is inherently political. That’s something I’ve been thinking about in the past year as a lot of artists have made explicitly political music. There’s a certain kind of person who responds to that with, “Oh, I missed when politics was left out of music. I liked you before you brought politics into music.”
Yeah. Like, “Leave the politics out of your music.” You kind of want to be like, have you heard the music? What exactly are you listening to?
I know for a specific song, [“These Kids We Knew”], you wrote it while you were actually under the weather with COVID. What that experience was like and how sick were you?
I was actually sitting in this chair in my studio. I had a fever that lasted about four days. And on the fourth day, the fever started to break. And I got sir crazy from being in the same room, so I came to my studio and I sat down. I didn’t expect anything that I was doing to be for an album or even to be released. I found myself in a fever state and I was trying to pass the time. But I found myself writing this song. The song’s about global warming, but in a way, it’s about COVID too, because I think those things are linked together.
“These Kids We Knew” seems like it touches on the legacies we’re passing on to the younger generation, how they don’t feel represented, and how they’re the ones who will have to deal more with the lasting impacts of climate change. Although there is still a lot of progressivism and social activism in their generation, it really makes me think of how I wouldn’t trade anything to be a teenager right now.
To me, that song is about three generations, and I’m in the middle generation. I think there’s an older generation that holds power over us. And then the next decade, our generation is going to enter that age bracket where we have political power. And there’s the younger generation that sees a dark future ahead, where the effects of global warming are catastrophic. The older generation may never live to see that future. So in the song, what I imagine is the youngest generation taking the oldest generation hostage and trying them in court, but on the sidewalks. So it’s kind of a dark concept for what maybe has to happen. Or it’s a cautionary tale, depending on how you look at it.
Sort of forcing the older generation to reckon with the choices that they made.
Yeah, and to reckon with the destruction to the environment. I think a lot of what was on my mind was this Republican idea of, let’s rape the environment in order to further the economy and the short term effect is the economy goes up the long term effect is devastation. […] It’s terrible. But there’s gonna have to be dramatic change, and soon, and I think it’s coming.
Changephobia is out now via Matsor Projects. Get it here.