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It started as a mixtape. About 40 minutes long, the recording was a modest compilation of eclectic ideas and choice samples flowing from Columbia, Md., native Matthew Hemerlein’s well-traveled mind. The classically trained polymath had quit D.C. in 2011, traveling to Cambodia and London and Nashville. So he weaved his experiences abroad with his relationships at home; recorded his own violin, guitar, banjo, and vocals; and sent what he had to a handful of record labels. EMI came back with a publishing deal.
In April of 2012, with his publishing advance in hand, Hemerlein met with the composer and producer François Tétaz in Los Angeles, where Hemerlein was settling, and the two hit it off. Hemerlein and Tétaz, known of late for producing Gotye’s 2012 megahit “Somebody That I Used to Know,” started working together with no particular end in mind, but as time went on, it became clear that Hemerlein was turning his mixtape into the proper debut of his newly christened project, Lo-Fang.
The storied British label 4AD inked a record contract for Blue Film, Hemerlein’s mixtape-turned-album, last fall. Not long afterward, influential Australian radio station Triple J began spinning the record’s first single, “#88.” The song’s delicate hook, backed by pizzicato strings, drum machines, and a subtle kaleidoscope of synthetic sounds, made its way to New Zealand’s Ella Yelich-O’Connor, aka Lorde. The unorthodox teen starlet named it her second-favorite track of 2013, and after catching Hemerlein perform in Los Angeles, she invited Lo-Fang to open for her North American tour.
Considering the minimal fanfare of Hemerlein’s last gig in D.C.—accompanying a 2012 National Portrait Gallery installation by the artist Alexa Meade—filling the lone opening slot of Lorde’s sold-out Echostage show in March marks a definite jump in notoriety. So how did a music instructor, once the local singer you were most likely to see ambling in the direction of a museum after-hours party with a violin and looping pedal in tow, slip away and return as the tour support of a newly minted pop star?
Well, that’s kind of complicated. These days, Hemerlein doesn’t want to talk about his time in D.C., or how he went from local art-museum gigs to the pages of the New York Times and Billboard.
“I’m just not in that mindspace anymore,” Hemerlein says.
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Initially homeschooled, Hemerlein hammered out his chops early. He told the Washington Post’s Moira McLaughlin in November 2010, “My mom and dad looked at music as being a very fundamental, basic skill as important as reading or math…They didn’t treat it any differently, so all of us were trained to play music.” Along with the D.C. DJs Steve Starks (Steve Bock) and Nacey (Andrew Wallace), Hemerlein attended Wilde Lake High in Columbia, Md., where he played lacrosse and graduated in 2002.
From there, Hemerlein immersed himself in the deep musical miscegeny of New Orleans while attending Loyola University. A bout of Lyme disease cut his stay short, and he returned to his parents’ Maryland home. After a brief stint in New York, Hemerlein began seriously contributing to the District arts scene circa 2008, teaching and performing around town.
“He was doing a cover of ‘Tonight You Belong to Me,’ [the Billy Rose and Lee David song popularized by Steve Martin in The Jerk] for a while when we were playing small shows. It was beautiful and delicate, he played it pizzicato on his violin,” says Maureen Andary of The Sweater Set. Andary and Hemerlein both participated in a regular songwriter showcase called The 9, led by Justin Trawick. “Matt didn’t really promote it at all,” says Andary. “I just remember thinking, ‘I wish I didn’t care about promoting.’ He was more concerned about the art. He was like, ‘Whoever is showcasing me is lucky to have me,’ and they were.”
As a fellow area native returning from a stay in New York, Andary found a kindred spirit in Hemerlein; the two often performed in living-room shows and at open mics. He “was never upset or concerned about small audiences,” Andary says. “He was always open and down for whatever.“
With his sister Mallory, Hemerlein performed as part of the Family Hemerlein, a variety show featuring musicians and comedians. He collaborated with everyone from progressive hip-hop artist Christylez Bacon to electronic duo Bluebrain, performed in galleries and at Philippa Hughes’ art parties while generally avoiding rock clubs. Alongside Shark Week’s Ryan Mitchell and U.S. Royalty’s Paul and John Thornley, he played in Cowboy Cologne, even performing at the Textile Museum.
With Bluebrain, Hemerlein played violin on sections of the experimental pop group’s National Mall, a geo-sensitive smartphone app. “For Matt, it was always when, not if,” Bluebrain member Ryan Holladay says of Hemerlein’s recent success. Ryan and his brother Hays had played in a band in New York before returning to D.C. around 2009 to focus on their art. “[Hays and I] were thinking, ‘If someone of Matt’s caliber is where he needs to be right now here in D.C., it would be easier for us to settle here,” he says.
Still, by 2011 Hemerlein was spending a lot more time outside the District, writing and recording in Cambodia, performing in Iceland, hanging out in London. As he began to mold Blue Film from its original mixtape form, he coordinated a photo shoot with film-only photographer Lauren Dukoff and designed what would eventually become album art. Later, he would even design his own billboard ads to ensure complete control over his music’s presentation; much like his persona, the visuals evoke an air of cool detachment, intriguing and smooth-surfaced, but not wholly accessible.
Hemelerlein’s penchant for wandering is reflected in the music of Blue Film, an album that never sits still despite its moody, atmospheric veneer. (It was released this week.) “I wanted to recognizably take you through places, but not in a contrived way,” he says. “It’s the same artist, exploring their own genre of music—left-of-center pop music.” The sonic shifts aren’t there to throw anyone off, but despite its velvety production, it does retain some of the ambling, loose vibe of a mixtape. The initial response from critics has been hesitant praise—Pitchfork dug the record’s refined mood but added that Hemerlein “doesn’t really seem to have much to say”—though the breadth of his talent is clear. The overall sound of the album is exquisite, but Blue Film’s refusal to settle or focus makes it hard to hold on to.
Still, there’s a playful sensibility to the record, and a consistent tension between challenging ideas and attention-grabbing ones. “If it’s difficult to make, I like it better,” says Hemerlein. “To me, the best aspects in music are either immediate or the most involved; I wanted to do both. Even ‘[When We’re] Fire,’ which is probably the closest thing to a pop song on the record, still has a strange flow to it.”
Hemerlein’s music traffics in the kind of moody genre-hopping that’s brought Thievery Corporation success, in part due to his multi-instrumental talents. It’s a constant search to “find the right production, the right sound palette to bring to life the song as its written.” Tétaz was less an imposing presence than a keen navigator during their sessions. “There are lots of different ways to present each song,” Hemerlein says of arranging the many disparate sounds found throughout Blue Film. Tétaz’s projects “all sound like the artist in the best way possible.”
Out in L.A., Hemerlein isn’t far from Hays Holladay, who also lives there following several years in D.C. Hays recently helped Hemerlein prepare some of his songs for live performance. When Ryan visited last year, he stopped by Capitol Studios while Hemerlein was there overdubbing tracks for Blue Film. “He knew the place forward and backward.” At one point, they sat on a balcony as Hemerlein mapped his plans for the complete album.
“He just had total confidence,” Ryan says, “that it would all fall into place.”
Photo by Lauren Dukoff, courtesy 4AD