Illustration: Nick Little for The New Yorker
During his senior year at Columbia College, music science major Rostam Batmanglij CC’06 decided he was going to make a solo album. After years in the background as keyboardist, guitarist, backup vocalist, producer and co-writer for the band Vampire Weekend, which he formed with Ezra Koenig CC’06, Chris Tomson CC’06 and Chris Baio CC’07, he is on his own with the debut album Half-Light.
Batmanglij now lives in Los Angeles, where he has produced tracks for Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, Solange, HAIM, Santigold and others, earning him the moniker of “pop’s secret ingredient” in Fast Company’s October 2017 issue. His solo album however — released on September 15 — has much to do with his 10-plus years of living in New York City, which began when he arrived at Columbia. In an interview with SPIN Magazine, he said:
“One of the things that I learned in college — or not even learned, just something that struck me and has stuck with me — is that whatever you’re doing, whatever art you’re making, you’re connecting with a tradition. You can kind of choose to be naive about that or you can be aware of that, and maybe the best art is a little bit of both. But I think of this album as connecting with the tradition of New York albums, certainly.”
Rolling Stone gave Half-Light four stars, describing Batmanglij as “a boyish, intimate tenor, charming when not overdoing the breathy, verge-of-a-giggle delivery … Here's to the bright future of another New York whiz kid.” And in a September 13 profile in New York Magazine, Alex Frank wrote:
Photograph: Alex John Beck for New York Magazine
“[Batmanglij’s] own search is for, as he describes it, ‘the intersection between the conventional and the unconventional’ and the world between classical and pop, between the acoustic and electronic. The album is sumptuous and textured, filled with churchy synths and light piano and Batmanglij’s voice, which until now the world hadn’t heard so clearly … He sings like he perpetually has stars in his eyes, in love and sweetly observing everything around him, as if he’s taking in the city in his first month away from home.”
It was in Rolling Stone where Batmanglij came out in a 2010 feature on Vampire Weekend. The public statement prompted him to reconsider his approach to songwriting, and in a September 18, 2017, profile in The New Yorker, he said, “As person who doesn’t identify as straight, any love song I write is contextualized by a queer identity.” It’s also contextualized by his Iranian parents, who fled in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution and insisted on making Iranian culture important in their family.
The dualities of Batmanglij’s identities— gay and Iranian, New Yorker and Los Angeleno — go hand-in-hand with the concept of “Half-Light,” the piano ballad (named after the half-light of dusk) that became his album’s title. “It’s surreal and mysterious,” said The New Yorker, “a song about having the courage to ask for what you want, and it lands somewhere between hope and heartbreak.”