The leftfield pop artist discusses her new EP on Warp Records and why she doesn't want to be known as a 'globetrotting' musician.
Lafawndah's new EP, 'Tan', opens with Town Crier, a leftfield pop song built on militaristic percussion and a buzzing, siren-like synth. She envisioned the song as the sound of a failed revolution, with lyrics that tell the story of a civil uprising against a repressive state using the language of a more conventional love song. The track was premiered alongside an interview between Lafawndah and political activist/academic Lawrence Lessig, with the two discussing civil disobedience and political mobilisation in the modern age. But despite its subject matter, Lafawndah doesn't want to be defined as a 'politically engaged' artist. "I want every song that I write to open a conversation, whatever conversation that is," she says down the phone from Los Angeles, her current home, "[But] I don't wanna have that label."
As a child, Lafawndah lived in Iran before moving to Paris. As soon as she could leave the country she settled in New York City, with a brief period in Mexico City working in an art gallery along the way. Her self-titled debut EP in 2014 was produced over a month-long studio stint in Guadeloupe alongside her friend Garagembanda and Jean Claude Bichara, a veteran producer of South American zouk music. But despite the heavy international travel, the 'Tan' EP doesn't sound like a sum of global dance music influences: it just sounds like Lafawndah.
Your debut EP was recorded over a month-long stay in Guadeloupe. Did you have a different recording process for your new EP?
Lafawndah: "It started similar, because if I have a goal, which I did in Guadeloupe and I did with the [new] EP, I work better in very concentrated pockets of time. I think it requires somehow to get in the zone, to find the palette and the story and the language of thing that you're trying to deliver. It requires disconnecting from the world for a while – not during the entire process, but just for that initial moment that you're first finding the basis of the music. The EP happened on Fire Island; we were there for two weeks. It's a little island off of New York. I spent two weeks in one place, completely locked down and obsessing about the way to go about [making it]."
Were you in a studio there?
Lafawndah: "No, it was an art residency that I applied for. They had a house on the beach. I was there with Nick Weiss [of Teengirl Fantasy] and Tamer Fahri, and we brought our studio from New York and set it up in the living room. It was beautiful. We just spent two weeks not really talking to any other human beings, just going in on the [sound] palette. That's the basis for what was to come afterwards."
What were your earliest memories of Iran?
Lafawndah: "I guess my memories are oblivious of the time. It was pretty rough. There was a lot of anxiety around at the time because the revolution had just happened, it was the middle of the war, and Tehran was super dangerous. We had to move to this little beach town in the north because it was just too intense in Tehran. All of these things that I now know are not really things that I remember. I just remember having good times, being cared for and loved."
Do you remember when you found out about the situation there? Did it affect your memories of the place at all?
Lafawndah: "I don't really remember when I was told or when I realised what was actually happening. In a way, it's not really surprising to me. In my family – and it's also, culturally, very much a Persian thing – you always are trying to protect the people that you love from the truth. If someone is fighting, or if someone's divorcing, it's like 'Don't tell anyone!' I wasn't told that there was a war and that there was bombing, I was being protected."
"I don't wanna be 'exotic'! I actually want my music to be in your fucking vinyl collection forever." - Lafawndah
What were your experiences in the Mexican art world like?
Lafawndah: "Strange. Alienating. It didn't feel that great, to be honest. The positive thing is that I got familiar with the Mexican art scene, and the neighbouring countries that are not the U.S. – I'm really grateful for that. I got to know amazing artists and get familiar with their work. But the job itself, and the business side of it… I was working in a gallery [and] we were representing a lot of people who were outwardly engaged, politically and socially; it was very much anchored in reality and politics. [But] there was a big gap with the artists we were supporting and how things were managed on a day-to-day level. In Mexico, if you are hanging out in the art scene, or any kind of culture – movies, music, whatever – you have a lot of political conversations, from the small things to the big problems of the country. But on an every day level, the way people handle their lives… Like service, [they had] cleaning ladies and people who cook and people who keep their child, which is all fine, but the way that they treat them, the way that they pay them, all these things are not really aligned with their discourse. I felt like I was participating something that didn't make me feel great. I'd rather hang out with a douchebag who's very clear about how things work than people who have all of these ideas and no idea how to really apply them. That's why I left my job."
You're often described as a 'globetrotting' artist, but I never know how comfortable you feel with that description?
Lafawndah: "I'm always a little dubitative about what it actually means about the music when people use that term. I don't know [how] to talk about the inspirations without sounding cheesy, like some sort of tourist guide. How do you talk about all of these things without sounding like a backpacker? It would be dishonest to pretend that these things didn't forge my way of thinking, or my personality in a world because they did. But where is the line where it just becomes fucking annoying? I don't wanna be 'exotic'! I actually want my music to be in your fucking vinyl collection forever. So I wonder, when is the point when people won't open their article that way anymore?"
"I wanted [Town Crier] to sound quite military and marchy, and quite bloody. I wanted you to feel like people died in this." - Lafawndah
Tell me about Town Crier.
Lafawndah: "We were in Nick's studio at the time with L-Vis 1990 and Nick. We had a synth that Nick had bought called the V-Synth, a very fun synth with some crazy patches, like monks and choirs of girls singing on top of the mountains. We were playing around with that and James [Connolly, aka L-Vis 1990] started scrolling and he found the sound from Town Crier that sounds like a South Asian wind instrument. Then he found a hammer, and he was playing the two together and I said 'Let's record this, this is definitely the beginning of a song.' Very quickly there was some kind of narrative [forming] in my head. I wanted it to sound like a failed revolution. There's a movie called Burma VJ, a documentary about the monks of the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar. Citizens started to protest, and the government started taking it much more seriously because there were monks on the street. It's a really amazing documentary. It ends very badly; it ends in blood.
"The wind sound made me think about that documentary. I just wanted to have a song about that feeling of where you have a group effort on that massive scale, which is a crazy thing to me, a thing I think about a lot. Obviously, it's part of my own history. I ask the same questions over and over to my mom about how things went down [in Iran]: 'What was the day that you understood that things were gonna go down?' I'm just really curious in general about popular movements like that, when people decided that enough is enough. I wanted to have a song about that feeling of creating a momentum, and having hope – and that momentum not succeeding, basically. I wanted it to sound quite military and marchy, and quite bloody. I wanted you to feel like people died in this.
"I was trying to write the lyrics and the melody with that narrative in mind, and it sounded very corny. There was a lot of build-up and pressure because I had that story in my head. I exchanged a bunch of ideas with James. We'd send each other articles and pictures. When the time came to write the lyrics and the melody, it became this huge, heavy thing: how do you talk about something like this? What point of view do you use? Do you say 'me', do you say 'them', do you say 'us'? The click for me was the moment I understood that the song should sound extremely personal, like a personal relationship. That was my way of getting away with such a heavy thing. The way that I had to write the lyrics was to understand that I don't really want to write a song about a failed revolution: I wanna put out words that make us create some kind of imagination around the possibility of it. How would it sound if we actually do it? How would it feel? I'm much more comfortable with that than something cynical about how it's all fucked up and useless."
Warp Records released the 'Tan' EP on February 5th, 2016 (buy).