Whether you know it or not, Rostam Batmanglij, producer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, is responsible for at least some of your modern pop sensibilities. His most ubiquitous contribution manifested in what one could imagine being a librarian’s version of a boy band, Vampire Weekend. Even if you weren’t a fan of the allegedly elitist swagger of four ivy league, New York-based ruffians, perhaps his contributions with emerging queens of pop (Carly Rae Jensen, Charlie XCX, HAIM) or with some of our culture’s most indelible pioneers (Solange, Frank Ocean) is more your speed.
Point being, Rostam has been an omnipresent force in modern music — an architect that is both elusive, but undeniably recognizable. With a varied catalog of work, it begged the question when Rostam would chart a course on his own. In the last decade, Rostam has been making a career out of telling other people’s stories, and while that work remains valuable, it was high time that we started to hear him try to tell his own.
In 2016, Rostam announced he would be leaving Vampire Weekend. In a public post explaining his departure, he wrote, “My identity as a songwriter + producer, I realized, needs to stand on its own. Still connected to the [people] I work with, but through the songs we make together.” Ezra Koenig, Rostam’s principal collaborator and lead vocalist on Vampire Weekend, followed with similar sentiments: “A couple years ago, Rostam and I sat down at his house & talked [about] whether our collaboration was dependent on being members of the same band. We both firmly agreed that nope, it was not. In fact, we agreed that our collaboration was more important.”
To Rostam, collaboration and connection are two different words describing the same thing. Through his collaborations, Rostam is evidently skilled in crafting atmospheres as templates for others to express themselves, yet, the stories from this first-generation, Iranian-American, queer artist from New York were never quite exposed. Half-Light, Rostam’s first solo venture, is this much-needed exposure, but it’s not quite the autobiography we’ve come to expect. Instead, it serves as a testament to what makes Rostam such an in-demand commodity across different spectrums of genres. It’s a glimpse into a universal vulnerability, both expressed sonically and through sentiment that often sounds like the shivering voice of an adolescent coming into their own. Backed by a string quartet and a rhythm section influenced by his Middle Eastern background, Rostam sings to us as if he’s retelling our own stories through his.
In his songs, we travel through the wavering moments of a disappearing love (“Baby, all the lights came down and illuminated you/Blinded me, I shut my eyes to see an imprint left of you”); we learn that sometimes gratitude and absurdity can mean the same thing (“But all of these dreams/Keep coming back to me slowly, slowly/And sometimes I laugh/When I think about how you know me/ Yeah, you know me”); and come to know that escape is many times a prerequisite to knowing yourself (“Mama knew that Rudy was/Not like the other boys”). Such sentiment expressed in popular music is anything but a limited currency, but Rostam makes the argument that the tensions borne out of these truths do not exist to be lamented. They are, instead, what unites us and, ultimately, what makes us human.
It comes to no surprise, then, that Rostam’s live show is built to prioritize intimacy. The moment the curtain at the Fonda Theatre opened up to reveal Rostam stepping onto the stage, he was under cover of darkness — never once revealing to his audience a portrait of his physical self. Through the entirety of his set, Rostam stood as a silhouette, backed by a projector displaying images of adopted homes (the skyline of New York City) and signifiers of his personal identity (a modified American flag with his name written in Persian draped across it). At first glance, Rostam’s choice to drench himself in darkness was an aggravating one — especially for developing photographers awaiting that perfect shot. Though, as the show went on, it was thrilling to see how Rostam used the mood to tell a story. Like the natural producer he is, he stayed behind in the distance to let the music meet us for him. Even when it’s his show, supporting his record, and telling his story, he relegates himself to the background, leaving the catharsis up to us to achieve.
At the end of the night (which included a surprise appearance by the indie queen of Los Angeles herself, Jenny Lewis), the house lights went up, and for a fleeting moment, beams of light graced the stage. For a brief glimpse, you saw Rostam, with his hands up, graciously applauding the audience. The veil was lifted, with no mood or darkness to stand behind. Instead, just a person brimming with immense gratitude. At this moment, it’s hard not to wish that Rostam would remain in this light permanently — not halfway, but fully absorbed.
The opening act was Bedouine, the moniker of Syrian-born, Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian. Check out photos of the entire show below!
Words and photos by Eric Han