By Shannon Carlin
It was while driving through Sedona, Arizona on his way to Los Angeles that Matthew Hemerlein came up with the moniker Lo-Fang. The alias was a play on a song he’d written years before, called “No Fang,” but it was also his attempt to balance the feminine and masculine elements in his music.
For him the word “lo” relates to the feminine energy, usually found in the string compositions that he incorporates into his songs. “Fang,” meanwhile, represents the more masculine, industrialized beats he tends to use. Hemerlein aims to strike a counterbalance between the two, so much so that “lo” and “fang” have become helpful keywords in the recording studio with him requesting “more fang” or “more lo.”
“The meeting points of really disparate sounds is interesting to me,” he explains.
With his debut, Blue Film (out Feb. 25), the former music teacher from Baltimore manages to find a happy medium between the two competing styles.
On the album’s sexy title-track, he uses warped synths to play off the naughty meaning behind the phrase “blue film,” a euphemism for pornography in India. The classically trained violinist sweetly plucks away, counteracting some of the song’s creepiness and making the track seem more heartfelt than lecherous.
With his slinky cover of “You’re the One That I Want” from Grease, Hemerlein drops down to a F-sharp major to put a seedy spin on Danny and Sandy’s love song. His updated version was inspired by a rather feminist take on the movie.
“There’s a lot of really strange subtlety misogynistic attitudes in that movie to begin with,” Hemerlein explains. “There’s a darkness kind of underneath it, even the whole teen pregnancy aspect and like ‘Beauty School Dropout,’ it’s not really supportive. It’s like being like, ‘You’re just going to fail at this.'”
Hemerlein’s latest single, “Look Away,” takes a lighter approach with a bit of downhome banjo, a nod to his time in Nashville. Lines like, “The things we used to joke about have all come true/I had to slowly back away,” were written on his trek from Nashville to L.A., the same road trip in which he came up with the name Lo-Fang.
The making of his debut spanned three continents and five cities, leading many to explore this idea of pilgrimage during the making of the album. But the singer says it was less about him looking to find himself and more about being in the right place at the right time – his friend who is a director of photography for National Geographic and the Travel Channel was looking to get rid of a few extra frequent flier miles.
“He was like, ‘Hey, let’s go to Southeast Asia and hang out and we’ll shoot some stuff and you can do your thing,'” Hemerlein explained. “And I was like, ‘Great, free plane tickets to Cambodia.'”
That trip set some things in motion and allowed him to play shows in England and Iceland before heading back to the States to record in his parent’s Maryland farmhouse. “That really inadvertently informed the making of a lot of these songs,” he said of his global excursions. “But it wasn’t a premeditated thing.”
Adding, “It’s the type of thing where when you’re going through it it feels just totally natural and like you’re not being influenced by it. But often times, those are actually the things that are influencing you the most, the things that you’re slightly oblivious to when you’re going through it.”
After getting signed to 4AD, Hemerlein continued to travel, recording in London, Nashville and L.A.’s legendary Capitol Studios, which was the biggest highlight for the singer. “I remember the first time I went in there, they spelled my name wrong on the parking and I was still like so excited, taking pictures and texting it to friends,” he said.
While there he heard Elton John working on new music and met composer and producer Jon Brion, a big influence on Hemerlein’s sound. Brion–who’s worked with Fiona Apple, Kanye West and Best Coast–even let Hemerlein borrow a few instruments after he geeked out a little. “I went and harassed him in the hall and was like, ‘I love that record you made with Brad Mehldau,'” he explained.
He’s starting to earn a few of his own diehard fans, including Lorde, who listed his track “#88” as her second favorite track of 2013 and later tapped him to open her spring tour. Hemerlein doesn’t deny that the “Royals” singer helped pique some interest in Lo-Fang.
“I think it’s the type of thing where everyone loves a good co-sign,” he said.
But while everyone’s been asking him if he and Lorde will record something together or share the stage on their upcoming tour, Hemerlein is just interested in taking things one step at a time. “I’m just excited I get to hang out on the side of the stage and listen to her tunes every night,” he said. “That’s just really exciting.”
Check out Radio.com’s album preview of Lo-Fang’s ‘Blue Film’ starting this Tuesday (Feb. 18), a week before its official release.