Growing up, Rostam Batmanglij recalls printing out interviews with producers he looked up to. “I always knew this was what I wanted to do,” he says, adding he got his first multi-track recorder at 14. By his mid-20s, he scored his first No. 1 album as both an artist and producer with Vampire Weekend’s Contra.
Now, at 37, Rostam’s career as a band member, solo artist and songwriter-producer is flourishing. He’s worked with artists ranging from Frank Ocean to Charli XCX to Wet, and says to this day he’s never had a song placed with an artist without direct collaboration. “I like to work in such a way that creates a bond with the artists,” he says. “I’m picky about who I work with, and really feel like when we’re making an album it’s a high artistic statement. It’s about the collaboration serving that statement.”
He’s equally picky when it comes to his own work, saying he’ll often spend months thinking of lyrics to sing on top of beats he’s made. But last year, while recovering from COVID-19, Rostam rather quickly wrote what became the lead single on his upcoming second album, Changephobia, out June 4 on Matsor Projects (via Secretly Distribution).
“That one came right out of me,” he says of the spacious alternative-rock song, titled “These Kids We Knew,” which is broadly about global warming. “I also felt certain that it wasn’t going to be on my album, but I think that’s a classic situation. I remember the first time Frank Ocean played me ‘Nikes,’ he was like, ‘This is not for my album, this is not from my album.’ And then when the album came out, it was the first song.”
The weight of 2020 seeped into his writing beyond that one track. As he finished an “assembly line” of projects in 2019, which included Clairo’s breakout debut full-length Immunity and Haim’s Grammy-nominated Women In Music Pt. III, he eventually had nothing left to turn his attention to but his own album. “I was able to really focus,” he says, “and [be] inspired by the experience of the world changing.”
Changephobia clocks in at 38 minutes (Rostam’s goal was to make an album that could be enjoyed in one sitting) and he says working with someone like Clairo in particular “really gave me hope for a generation,” in terms of the enduring importance of the LP format. “There are kids and young people who love music and want to experience albums, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” he explains. “There’s a whole generation of people who take longform very seriously still, and that’s amazing.”
Below, Rostam breaks down three of his most recent collaborations that he wrapped, just before doubling down on his own second album.
“Gasoline” ended up being the second-to-last song he and Haim started for WIMPIII back in November 2019. “We knew that we had to finish the album within a couple months, and I guess that’s what you call a dark horse,” Rostam says.
He recalls Danielle Haim, the sister trio’s lead vocalist, talking about an Alex G song she loved — but when she found it on Spotify, it was missing the key part she felt inspired by. “It turned out it was this live-only aspect. She had made a video on her phone and played it for me from the Alex G performance,” says Rostam. “I don’t think if you listen to those two things next to each other, you’d hear any similarities, but it was the spark. That was the beginning of ‘Gasoline.’” (Rostam is also credited for co-writing and co-producing the track’s recent remix, featuring Taylor Swift.)
Beyond “Gasoline” or its remix, though, Rostam is most proud of the overall album scoring a Grammy nod in the album of the year category. “I think it’s pretty rare that a largely alternative album would not get nominated for best alternative album, but would get nominated for album of the year,” he says. “And I think it speaks to Haim, and the fact that their sound is not strictly alternative. That’s something we’re all proud of, when we work on music that’s not fitting easily into one category.”
While at a party in Brooklyn one night, someone asked Rostam if he had heard of Clairo — he had not. “They said, ‘It’s bedroom pop.’ And I was like, ‘What does that mean?’” he recalls. “I was staying at the Wythe Hotel, and remember when I got back I put on her music and the song ‘Flaming Hot Cheetos’ came on and I just kept wanting to listen to it over and over again. I felt like she was tapping in to something vocally that was very honest and powerful.”
He then looked up her Instagram and was surprised to see a post about his own debut album, 2017’s Half-Light. He DM’d her complimenting her music, to which she replied: “Your album changed my life.”
They stayed in touch, and in the spring of 2018, finally met for dinner to discuss working together. They ended up writing a full song that night, and going on Instagram Live to perform part of it. “I remember the day she walked into the studio and was like, ‘I think we’re making my debut album,’” says Rostam. “I had not produced a debut album since 2008, but I had a feeling that this one was special.” Looking back, he’s particularly fond of “Sofia,” a “queer narrative” that impacted alternative radio and “broke down boundaries with the power of its own energy.”
Maggie Rogers, “Fallingwater”
When Maggie Rogers performed “Fallingwater” during her musical guest gig on Saturday Night Live at the end of 2018, Rostam had a better-than-front-row seat — he was on stage playing piano on the song he produced. “I knew from the moment she sang the first note that the performance was special,” he says.
Rostam met Maggie through Hamilton Leithauser, who shares a manager with the young pop-rocker, and in 2016 released a collaborative album, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, with Rostam. “On release week, we were doing a performance, and she came to sing with us. We got to talking, and she had transcribed an interview I had done for this book by Lizzie Goodman, Meet Me In the Bathroom. I was a fan already of ‘Alaska,’ but once she told me that she had transcribed all these interviews with pretty much every New York musician between 2001 and 2011, I started to put the pieces together and realize that that she was somebody who was deeply interested in the tradition of songwriting of music making.”
A few months later, she brought him the beginnings of “Fallingwater” to work on together, which Rostam recalls being tricky to get right structurally because it’s so minimal. But once they slowed the tempo down, due to a dream Maggie had, everything clicked. “One of my favorite moves is to slow a song down,” says Rostam. “I feel like you really can experience the groove.”