Matthew Hemerlein chooses his words carefully when describing his forthcoming album, Blue Film. Understandable, as we are discussing a project that came to fruition over three major continents and an incalculable number of years.
"Anytime you go to a place for the first time, you experience, in a positive way of course, a certain level of culture shock. And then reverse culture shock when you come home. Your olfactory senses being opened in a different way, and the lights being in different places," Hemerlein told Ones To Watch last weekend following FOMO Fest (hardly a festival, more like a local showcase) in Los Angeles.
Photo: Steven Silvers
You may know Hemerlein, who performs under the stage name Lo-Fang, by the sparsely beautiful track "#88," which Lorde named as one of her favorite songs of 2013. Since then, the pop songstress has tapped Lo-Fang to open for her 2014 tour - meaning if his star wasn't already on the rise before, it certainly will be now.
Nearly three years ago, travel opportunities began trickling in for Hemerlein. There was a trip to Cambodia to trail a friend for work; a stint in Europe, including Germany and a chance to play at a music festival in Iceland. Then, there was a week in Japan to support his friends, members of the band Local Natives, who were touring the country at the time. Inevitably, both destination and state of transit were elements that became swept into the production of Blue Film.
"I didn’t buy any instruments, because I’m not a collector at all," he says. Instead, Hemerlein wrote melodies and recorded bits of music throughout his travels as a way of collecting experiences. The stretch between Nashville and Los Angeles was where he floated lyrics to songs that would eventually make it onto Blue Film, as well as the idea for the stage moniker: a wordplay on masculine (fang) and feminine (lo) energy, and the balance through opposites. Finally, it was Los Angeles where the years and wealth of experience would emerge in a studio setting at Hollywood's Capitol Records tower. All of which contribute to the sensation of being in between worlds when listening to Lo-Fang.
On the album, which Hemerlein co-produced with Australia's Francois Tetaz and worked on with Capitol's house engineer, Travis Terence, he plays a staggering stockpile of instruments; namely, a non-exhaustive list of strings, including the violin, cello, upright bass, guitar, mandolin, piano, and banjo. Amid roomy, rapturous beats, all flutter about softly around Hemerlein's luminous falsetto — a plethora of sound recalling, ever so slightly, the mighty ambiguity of artists like Bon Iver or Sufjan Stevens. The rootless, globalized feeling of Blue Film is also due to years spent delving into jazz and Latin American percussion, early blues music, and hip-hop, all built atop a foundation of studying violin while growing up in Maryland.
But there is, inevitably, more to Lo-Fang than gorgeous arrangements. Piercing lyrics such as "You and someone else without consent" and "Make no mistake, these are animal orgies" barb up from the album's beautiful canvas, revealing a conflicted curiosity that divulges a bleak exploration of human psyche and relationships. It appears too on his subtle rearrangements; of BOY's predatory "Boris," and the Grease classic "You're The One That I Want," in which he sings both John Travolta’s and Olivia Newton-John’s parts. The related themes in both covers are no coincidences, either.
"I needed music to balance out a lot of other things for me. So I spent a lot of time exploring and learning new instruments and exploring different styles of music," he says with a shrug, a move which comes up frequently throughout our conversation. Behind the gesture, there is the unmistakable trace of someone who has seen, and been haunted by, something in this world.
But as an observer, he opts for the role of storyteller. "If we were to do a video treatment for 'Boris,'" he says, "I wouldn't play the role of the guy, but I'd be the arch-angel in the story - that's the way I see myself in that."
Blue Film is out next month via 4AD, preview it here.