Rostam Batmanglij is not afraid of a nice, long pause.
The 33-year-old former Vampire Weekend member and producer may move fast when it comes to collaborating with others, having worked with an impressive array of artists including Frank Ocean, Solange, HAIM, Hamilton Leithauser, Carly Rae Jepsen and Santigold. But he is deliberate, to say the least, with his own words. He’s seated by the window of his room at the Standard Hotel in New York’s East Village, and you can almost see the wheels turning in his head as he reflects in silence, sometimes for as long as 30 seconds, before answering a question.
So it should comes as no surprise that his solo debut, Half-Light, out Sept. 15 via Nonesuch Records, is more than 10 years in the making, crafted with the same judiciousness he uses to gather his thoughts in conversation. It’s also been nearly two full years since Rostam announced his departure from Vampire Weekend with a social-media post saying that his “identity as a songwriter + producer needs to stand on its own.”
Read Paste’s review of Rostam’s Half-Light here.
“I think I had a vision for this album at the end of college, which was 2006,” he says. “There was a vision of an album, and it evolved over the years. I knew I wanted to make an album. I think it was at the beginning of 2016 that I realized I wanted to make a longer album.”
The result is a lovely, warm record of baroque pop that will please Vampire Weekend fans who know him primarily as one of the two main creative forces behind that band. But it’s also uniquely Rostam, which is to say a focused distillation of a few styles and sounds, from the Middle Eastern percussion on “Wood” to the pulsing strings on “Gwan” to the deceptively upbeat “Bike Dream,” on which he sings of “two boys, one to kiss your neck and one to bring you breakfast…one to love you sweetly, one does so discreetly, never will he meet me.”
Some of the songs on Half-Light were originally released back in 2011. But he included them because, as he explains, “I had always thought of [them] as part of the album, so they needed to be on the record.” For a while, he toyed with the concept of releasing one song a month during 2016, but three months in, “I turned around and said, ‘Okay, I’ll make an album,’” he says, laughing.
“It was too hard for me to finish on time. But I’m ultimately glad I didn’t take that path, because I think there’s something important that I learned in writing all the lyrics of the album together and seeing them all together and then deciding to name the album.”
That name, Half-Light, carries several meanings. It refers to the code-switching that he experienced growing up as a gay Iranian-American, navigating different worlds and, as he has described it, “feeling both double and half.” It also draws inspiration from the dawn and the dusk, when the sun’s either not quite up or on its way down and anything feels possible.
“I think on some level it connects back to the song ‘Wood,’ which is about being in bed with somebody and feeling an emotional connection to them and waking up next to them and experiencing sunrise,” Rostam says. “I knew that that was something that was important to me that I wanted to express on a record. I think that I’m generally an optimistic person. I think the times where I’m able to catch the sunrise, those are the times when I experience a really intense optimism about what can happen in a day, so that was important to the record, too.”
Optimism is an increasingly rare commodity in 2017, and Half-Light is ultimately romantic, not cynical. It’s an album of emotional shades and colors rather than overt messaging. Rostam grew up in Washington, D.C., a son of immigrant parents, so he has his opinions about the political climate, but he insists they didn’t directly impact the songs.
“I felt very alienated by politics because I think there’s a lot of denial of truth in what both Democratic and Republican parties present,” he says. “I felt that way since I was a kid. That viewpoint has informed this album since I started writing it when I was in my early twenties. But I can’t say that the last year, as eventful as it’s been, impacted my songwriting.”
Change, in any case—whether social, political or creative—is rarely comfortable, so Rostam is ready to be uncomfortable. “In order to get somewhere new,” he says, “you can’t feel like everything is easy.” He’s got some new ideas in “different stages” of development, and hints that a follow-up to Half-Light is already in the works. He’s even got a few words to go with it. “I did come up with a title recently in the last month,” he says, “and it feels already like just doing that is plugging into some kind of weird power crystal—for lack of a better way to describe it.”