In recent years, former Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij has worked with Haim, Frank Ocean, Carly Rae Jepsen, and more. “I’ve always been very good at helping other people finish their songs,” the 33-year-old musician tells EW. But when it came to finishing his own? “I was hard on myself in terms of the storytelling aspects of the lyrics,” he says. “I wanted to make sure that the songs were always telling the whole story. Part of what took time with this record is that there were things I wanted to talk about and I didn’t know how I wanted to talk about them.”
The story Rostam tells on his debut Half-Light, out Friday, examines the intersection of identity and culture. “I have a really complicated relationship with American music,” says the U.S.-born son of Iranian immigrants. “This record is me exploring those relationships and doing my version of what I think of as American music. I was trying to make something honest out of my experiences.”
Though Half-Light largely skirts America’s current debate about immigration — Rostam completed most of the album before November’s presidential election — it does poke at broader political themes. “I have a very specific relationship to the north and the south and just American politics in general,” says Rostam, who grew up in Washington, D.C. “When you spend that much time in Washington, D.C., you become aware of the country and you become aware of politics. When I went to college in New York, I was surprised that everybody wasn’t watching Sunday morning talk shows!”
Half-Light is also plenty intricate musically and represents the apotheosis of Rostam’s singular fusion of ornate string arrangements and indie-pop melodies. “One of the things I wanted to do with this album was to put strings at the forefront,” he says, adding that he wanted to put the skills he learned as a music major to good use. In fact, as part of an effort to “arrive at songs from angles that were non-traditional,” Rostam wrote many of Half-Light‘s string parts before writing the tunes themselves. The tunes, meanwhile, blend everything from Shaker and Welsh folk songs to ancient Persian music.
Ultimately, Rostam concludes, the project just required initiative and focus to complete. “Once I knew that I wanted to finish these songs, it wasn’t that hard,” he says, “but it did require determination.”