LOS ANGELES — To understand the past decade of Lo Fang’s life, it helps to have an atlas. His passport is stamped like a secretary of state’s. France. Belgium. England. Iceland. Germany. Cambodia. Indonesia. Japan. Those are merely the international jaunts. Domestic stints for the multi-instrumentalist crooner — whose real name is Matthew Hemerlein — include Columbia, Md. (where he was raised in a farmhouse), New Orleans, Nashville, New York and D.C.
At this moment, a sun-split afternoon in late February, Hemerlein is in a French cafe a few blocks from his latest home in Los Feliz, a tony, bohemian-lite enclave of Los Angeles. The 30-year-old violinist who also possesses a gravity-immune falsetto is attempting to explain how this rootlessness sculpted his debut under the Lo Fang alias, the recently released “Blue Film.”
“The wandering nature definitely played a role, but it’s tough for me to explain,” Hemerlein demurs between bites. He briefly traces the genesis of breakout song “#88” to a fragment of inspiration gleaned among the ruined temples of Southeast Asia. He mentions “Look Away,” a tune incubated in Maryland and Tennessee. The words came to him when he was on the road.
“There are very specific moments that were written about specific things relating to traveling,” Hemerlein says, taking a sip of coffee. “If I wasn’t working in Nashville, I wouldn’t have been staying at a friend’s house who had banjos. I just picked it up and messed around, and it came out right. I don’t even own a banjo.”
In recollecting his rambling years, Hemerlein conveys the notion that his inspirations came through gradual accretion. The songs on “Blue Film” are more of a delicate refinement of slowly gestating ideas than a heady swell of exotic experiences. His orchestral suites of classical piano, bowed string instruments and melancholy vocals frequently garner comparisons to James Blake, Bon Iver and Gotye (whose producer he shares). However, Hemerlein’s closest musical cognate might be loop-mad polymath composer Andrew Bird.
Over the last two months, Hemerlein’s notoriety received an astral lift from the endorsement of Lorde, the teenage New Zealand pop anti-royalist, who tabbed him as opening act for her first U.S. tour, which includes a sold-out date Friday at Echostage.
“[‘Blue Film’] had been mastered since September and was being passed around,” says Hemerlein, who had backstage passes to Lorde’s first L.A. show at the Henry Fonda Theatre but didn’t introduce himself; he says he was too shy. Eventually, she saw his second L.A. show under his new Lo Fang alias, and the pair hit it off during a post-performance pho dinner.
“Her producer had gotten a hold of ‘Blue Film’ through my publisher [Sony] and she liked it. By that point, I’d already been driving around L.A. constantly playing ‘Pure Heroine.’ ”
Citing schedule conflicts, this year’s Grammy winner for song of the year declined to comment for this article. But in a list compiled for the Huffington Post, Lorde named “#88” her second-favorite song from last year.
“There was no relationship between our labels or publisher,” Hemerlein adds. “We just liked each other’s music. It’s rare when that happens.”
Of course, his entire life has been idiosyncratic enough to double as the plot of a Wes Anderson film. The middle child of three, Hemerlein and his siblings were home schooled until age 13 at their Columbia farmhouse. The bucolic surroundings included a menagerie of chickens, dogs, cats and eight bee apiaries. His father worked in the family’s steel manufacturing business. During summers, the future Lo Fang drove forklifts.
Classical music was among the most vital parts of his curriculum. Violin came first, followed by cello, upright bass, piano and mandolin. Adolescent fixations included Daoism, lacrosse, Wu-Tang Clan, musicals, Tim Burton, Bach and tai chi. After graduating from Wilde Lake High School, he enrolled at Loyola University in New Orleans before a bout of Lyme disease forced him to withdraw and convalesce at his family home in Maryland.
“The illness cleared up any questions about what I should be doing,” Hemerlein says. “Forget the liberal arts degree. I didn’t care. Music had far more positive physical and psychological impact on me than reading Foucault or Nietzsche.”
During the latter years of the 2000s, Hemerlein tutored kids in music and haunted District open mikes, indie shows and art gallery performances.
“You’d bring him in and it would be a one-man sound installation,” recalls Svetlana Legetic, the co-founder of Brightest Young Things, a D.C. online magazine. “There’s a built in drama to him. He has an interesting look, is easy to photograph and could play almost any instrument. It made events special.”
Despite the local notoriety, Hemerlein’s music didn’t attract mass appeal or label attention. Yet his virtuosity won over his peers and several tastemakers, which led to a 2011 invitation to open up in London for British folk duo the Smoke Fairies. From there, a friend put Hemerlein in touch with a European booker who spread his gospel to promoters in Belgium and Germany. Shows soon followed, including a live performance in Berlin that eventually led to EMI offering him a publishing contract.
The publishing deal transformed his career. Suddenly, Hemerlein fielded offers to collaborate on sessions in London and Nashville. He also began working in earnest on “Blue Film,” which was initially conceived as a mixtape. When he wasn’t in the studio, his travel itinerary shamed Carmen Sandiego. In August 2012, he finally packed up his belongings, drove cross-country and settled in Los Angeles.
“I moved to L.A. because it’s awesome,” Hemerlein answers when asked about leaving the District for the West Coast. With steel-blue eyes, model cheekbones and a voluminous thicket of hair, he could pass for a rising Hollywood actor. In addition to standard gigs, living in L.A. has also brought supremely random ones — like performing at the members-only Soho House before an audience that included Russell Simmons and his model retinue.
“The studios in L.A. offered better access to time and space,” Hemerlein says, wary of contrasting the strengths and weaknesses of D.C. and L.A., or why it took a performance thousands of miles away to trigger his takeoff.
“D.C. isn’t trying to be L.A. and vice versa. They’re completely different ecosystems,” he says, underscoring the fact that when you have “film” in your album title, it’s a tacit acquiescence to the allure of the Hollywood vortex. “But it was pretty necessary for me to work at Capitol Records and EMI. Having a year and a half in the studio made me a much better singer and gave me the confidence to know when something is done and when it’s not.”
Upon its completion, “Blue Film” won Hemerlein a recording contract with the venerable indie label 4AD, which is home to acts such as Grimes and the National. Reviews have run the gamut from effusive (Esquire called it “the perfect balance of old and new”) to dismissive (his lyrics range from “embarrassingly inert to annoyingly overwrought to frustratingly tone deaf,” said Pitchfork).
Hemerlein laughs off the negative notices, focusing instead on the fan base he has rapidly built. In L.A., the influential local NPR station KCRW has placed “#88” and “Look Away” in heavy rotation.
“His live session made a bigger impact than the record initially did, which is the best case scenario for an artist. I was really impressed with his instrumentation, the intricacy, layers and his presence,” says Jason Bentley, KCRW’s music director, noting that the unorthodox song structures don’t quite fit mainstream radio. “There’s a charm to it, but there’s also room to grow and hone his focus and songwriting craft.”
Perhaps most meaningful to Hemerlein is how many of his old piano and guitar students have e-mailed and tweeted their love of the record.
“I hope that it connects with people and provokes an emotional response. Maybe for a lack of a better word, it’s therapeutic,” Hemerlein says. “Nothing is more exciting than when my old students hit me up to tell me that they’re really into it. They’re still young kids, too . . . 14, 15, 16. . . .”
Its resonance might stem from that ability to mine the woebegone despair that never feels more real than when you’re in high school. After all, one of the most reliable truisms of the music business is that if you can get teenagers to love it, then you’ll be all right — and at least one of them does.
Weiss is a freelance writer.