Changephobia, and Rostam's journey in embracing change
Changephobia, the second record from Rostam, is a pivot and a culmination, furnishing new ideas with his production prowess.
It’s a little hard to get ahold of Rostam Batmanglij.
Few artists have so delicately toed the line between ubiquitous and withdrawn, with the Iranian-American musician simultaneously shaping contemporary music and shunning larger spotlights. He’s not evasive as such, but when taken alongside the impact of his art, Rostam’s public profile is dwarfed by his long shadow.
You might know him through his hand in Frank Ocean’s Blonde - producing and arranging Ivy - or perhaps via his recent successes producing Clairo’s Immunity and HAIM’s Women In Music, Pt. III. You might have heard his name mentioned alongside Carly, Charli or Maggie Rogers, all collaborators, or recall having read it during his decade-long stint in Vampire Weekend. It might be some, it could be all, but no matter the means, it’s almost certain that you’ve tapped your toes to some of Rostam’s work.
All this is to say, he’s both ever-present and elusive. It’s hard to get ahold of the shy singer-songwriter in general, but today is proving especially difficult. “I'm in Mexico City right now,” he explains when he hops on the line, “it's nice to be back. This is the longest time I've spent here consecutively.”
The occasion is a friend’s birthday. “He wanted all of us to come from different parts of the world and America, and we all showed up to spend his birthday week with him,” he elaborates, laughing at the suggestion it’s something special. “Yeah,” he exclaims, “I guess the timing worked for everybody.” The way Rostam’s talking – patient, relaxed, leisurely – you wouldn’t think he’s just days out from Changephobia, his much-anticipated solo return. Still, it’s somewhat fitting that he be somewhere so unexpected as his 40-minute meditation on change comes into the world.
“It feels very surreal,” he says of that release, the culmination of years of writing, recording, revising and experimentation. One of the most striking experiments comes instrumentally, with Rostam’s classical influences pared back to make room for a slightly more contemporary force – jazz. “It was something that came naturally,” he says of his recent musical evolution. “I started writing the beginnings of songs where I could hear a baritone saxophone, and I started writing parts for baritone saxophone.”
Whether through coincidence or manifestation, it wasn’t long before an accomplished saxophonist came into the fold. “I met Henry Solomon in February 2018, and when he started playing on the album, it wasn't even an album yet,” recalls Rostam. “The songs were not written, but I had already started these musical ideas. I kept asking him to play more and more, and I think working with him, he really helped me realize my vision of making an album that landed on the intersection of songs and, in some ways, jazz.”
It’s no coincidence, however, that jazz too works to embrace change. A vast genre that prizes both improvisation and experimentation, there’s a lot of space in that sole syllable, and it’s space Rostam was increasingly drawn to. “I would trace it back to the song Unfold You, that was the first song that I wrote sax parts for,” he says of that slow acceptance, “and when I started recording them with Henry, I also asked him to improvise a solo. That was the first song on the album that had a sax solo, and I think there was a voice inside of me that said, ‘you need to have five more of these on this album.’”
If jazz was already a new destination for the famously classical-inspired musician, Changephobia is something of a journey in and of itself. “I think in some ways, it culminates with the song Starlight, because that's my favourite sax solo from the record, and it's also the last sax solo that was recorded for the album.”
That’s not just musical, either – at the heart of Changephobia is a reckoning with that titular condition, a reluctance to veer from the comfortable in search of something different and new. As sweeping as that subject is, Rostam’s album announcement puts his inspiration down to a singular interaction on a New York park bench: “a few years ago I met a stranger on a park bench, somehow I found myself opening up to him, revealing recent changes in my life that had altered its course, and he said, ‘Change is good. Go with it.’”
He’s aware it seems like a platitude, but for Rostam, the simple sentiment hit like a revelation. “The truth is, no one ever said ‘change is good’ to me,” he admits, a little stunned himself. “I never heard it until that moment with that guy that I'd never met before, and I perhaps will never meet again. Pretty sure he's a doorman in New York, on the Upper West Side or the Upper East Side,” he posits, as good a guess as any. “You know I feel, in some ways, he inspired this whole album.”
It’s a loose kind of inspiration. In keeping with the pervasive reality of change, Changephobia runs a gamut through the personal, the political and the outright existential. It opens at the nexus of these vast strains, with lead single These Kids We Knew a heartfelt dedication to the ascendant generation of activists, environmentalists and youth leaders. “I landed on it in a fever,” says Rostam, “the fever was actually a COVID fever! It was something that... came out of me, the words for the entire song came out of me in the span of 20 or 30 or 40 minutes.” A timely critique of “governments or emperors,” the light salute to a youth set on “slowly [pulling] the earth back together” feels like a raw release of contemporary ideals.
“My first instinct as I wrote the song was, ‘this is not for your album, this is just you killing time and waiting for your fever to subside.’ The next day I went back to my studio and I listened to the song and I was like, 'well, maybe this could be for the album,' and then I spent a few months finishing it.” They’re humble beginnings for a lead single and opening track, but as Rostam remembers, “initially it was not supposed to be the opening track” at all.
“Originally, the opening track was From the Back of a Cab, but my mastering engineer Emily Lazar told me that she felt like that song, sonically, was just too big to open the album,” he explains. Concerned that “everything that would come after it would feel so small,” Rostam experimented with sequencing, ultimately wading into the record with that soft salute to agents of change. It didn’t just give that fever-fuelled song the spotlight – it helped spotlight From The Back of a Cab, described in Rostam’s press release as “probably my favourite song that I’ve written.”
It’s certainly a personal one. The track itself is built about a distinctive 12/8 drum arrangement, common in Persian and African music, and laced with the bittersweet memories of fleeting cab rides and tender moments since passed. “I think what makes me happy with that song is that I think as a songwriter, I've been interested in a certain emotional space and certain experiences kind of my whole life,” he explains, “dating back to the song Campus and the song Diplomat's Son, which I wrote in my 20s. This song feels like it's kind of returning to that emotional space, but covering a complete ground within the span of three minutes.” That’s not to say he set out to make a short track – instead, the briskness was a function of the process itself. “I feel like I was able to say everything I wanted to say in those three minutes, and that makes me very happy.”
Vivid and vague, From the Back of a Cab feels like many a story, with the music video folding appearances from friends such as Charli XCX, HAIM, Remi Wolf and Ariel Rechtshaid into a collage of solitude, celebration and intimacy. Lyrics like “in the back of a cab we sit closer, and I rest my head down on your shoulder” recall the tenderness of reluctant goodbyes, while Rostam’s own admission – “I am happy you and I got this hour” – speaks to the virtues of that pain.
“It's about relationships that I've had with people, but it's also about my relationship to New York City, which is a city that I lived in for 12 years,” he elaborates, casting his mind back almost seven years. “I think even though Half Light came out about three or four years after I moved out of New York, this was really the record where I wrote songs about leaving New York. From the Back of a Cab, in some ways, it's a song about repeatedly leaving New York and sort of coming to terms with what that means, and where it left me emotionally.”
“I do think it's bittersweet,” he admits, speaking of the city with a fondness you’d extend to a former friend or onetime lover. “There's something bittersweet about staying up till 4 AM at a bar and wondering if you should just stay out for one or two more hours and see the sunrise.” From the Back of a Cab finds in that sentiment a universal sense of hanging on – “you say you think we could keep going till the sun's out, the thing is that I‘ve been here before and I dread the daylight.” “Some people love to watch that sunrise, and other people can't stand it,” explains Rostam, “I'm one of those people that wants to be in bed before the sun starts to rise, and that was something that I wanted to reference in the song.”
Rostam’s relationship with New York comes to a head at the close of Next Thing, a jaunty and jazzy ode to new horizons – both abstract and literal. “Next thing I knew I was in California, it didn’t feel strange at all,” he sings of his recent relocation as the track shifts to a languid stroll. That move is cast in shades of optimism and realisation, the seachange making for a new opportunity. “You never sent my stuff to me, but I don’t really care much,” he admits on the bridge, “someone sold my shit for me, I guess I never really needed it.”
It’s a reckoning with retrospection – “I couldn't change even if I wanted to,” he suggests of his once-rote ways – but in that change comes bittersweetness. Even as Rostam hopes not to get caught in the rain, he craves a little of it: “even if I do it won’t be so bad, or maybe bad enough that I’ll feel some pain.” His ultimate idea comes in four sharp words, all at once a contention and conclusion: “some pain is okay.”
“A thing that can happen to you in New York is that you can get caught in the rain, and when that happens, you sometimes have no recourse but just to experience it,” he lovingly recounts. “In California, that almost never happens. In California, you're almost always protected; you always have a car you can run into; it almost never rains unexpectedly.”
“That lyric was about the experience of getting caught in a thunderstorm in New York City and not having a way of getting home,” he explains. “When that happens, you do feel some pain. Sometimes the rain comes down so hard that it actually does hurt your skin. I think on the other side of it, you come home to your apartment or wherever you're living, you take a shower, you change your clothes, you experience some pain, but you come out on the other side of it okay.”
It’s a life-affirming kind of pain; the romantic dash through a downpour that lets you know you’re still at the mercy of something greater. You can’t have sunshine without rain, and a little bit of pain does as much for pleasure as any lazy Sunday morning. “There's a lot of unnecessary pain that you will experience living in New York City that you don't experience in California, but in some ways, I think I'm acknowledging that that's a little bit of the beauty of living in New York,” concludes Rostam wistfully. “That's maybe a little bit of what I missed when I missed New York – the pain that's okay.”
On Changephobia, Rostam’s tender retrospection fuses with the shifting musical sands of his new Californian home. It’s a tale of two coasts, one that barrels from the emotional exhilaration of 4Runner to the meditative measure of Changephobia itself. It understands the ways in which change can be scary, explores the complex emotions of Rostam’s own seachange, and represents a striking change in and of itself. It finds pleasure in pain and pain in pleasure, looking back on fleeting, tender moments with that newfound park bench wisdom.
Any record so at peace with change barrels towards an inevitable question: where to from here? “I have no idea what's next, but I do feel like I told the whole story that I wanted to tell musically on this record,” responds Rostam with ease. “There's a voice inside me that says, 'maybe you need to go back to classical music, or maybe you need to figure out a way to marry classical music with the jazz influences from the new record,' and there's another voice inside of me that says 'you need to make an acoustic guitar album'.” They’re loose, conversational ideas – even as he puts them into the world, Rostam seems at ease with any and all possibilities.
That openness goes beyond any future record or rapport, with a recent mandolin lesson on In A River hinting at other little detours. “I do feel like we're in an interesting moment now, partly because of the quarantine, but also partly just because of the ubiquity of YouTube,” he muses on that recent accessibility. “It's a nice time to share some knowledge that I've gained in the last decade and a half of obsessively writing and playing music.”
In the meantime, between studio sessions and online lessons, there’s life to be lived. “Well in September, I got a dog,” he says as excitedly as you’d expect. “It was a very big change, and I think it's changed me for the better.”
If Changephobia is to be believed, that's nothing to be afraid of at all.