Lafawndah's New EP Is Like a Wrestling Match for the Soul

'Tan' is a power struggle between sounds, bodies, and nations: "I always want you to feel some kind of tension."
February 8, 2016, 10:20pm
Tim Saccenti

There is a scene in the video for "Tan"—the title track from Lafawndah's new EP on Warp—that encapsulates the Iran-born, France-raised, New York-based producer and singer's strange brand of poetry. We behold the artist in a long beige dress, wilted face-forward over the back of a chair. A male dancer drags her and the chair into the center of an empty room, and begins twirling her around in circles, like an inanimate object. Finally, the two melt into an embrace on ground. Lafawndah is sitting on top; the male dancer falls passively to the floor.

It's a scene that instantly reminded me of the work of Pina Bausch, a 20th Century German choreographer known for teasing out the subtle politics of human relationships—and especially, male-female relationships—via the interaction of bodies in space. Over the phone from Los Angeles, Lawfandah catches my drift when I ask her if she's a Bausch fan: "It's basically power-relationships, power-play, power dynamics at work with the body language," she says in a wispy French accent.

"Wrestling" is a word comes up often as she describes her second offering of songs, which she co-produced tag-team style with Nick Weiss of Teengirl Fantasy, Tamer Fahri, Night Slugs founder L-Vis 1990, and Aaron David Ross over a period of six months, starting with a three-week artist residency this past summer on Fire Island. Combative, earthy drum sounds vie for air space with bleating sirens and plastically distended synths; vocals snake tensely and around unruly song structures with nary a release—or pop climax—to be heard. A track called "Town Crier" starts out as a first-person narrative about an imploding romantic relationship, then zooms out into a story about a struggle between citizens and the state.

In Lafawndah's music the personal and the political are entwined to the point where you can't even pick them apart. At a time when artists make headlines for the causes they endorse about as often as they do for their music, that very ambiguity—the feeling that Lafawndah is wrestling with something, but never knowing quite what—might be the most radical thing about her work.

"I don't really make any difference between my politics and my music," she tells me when I ask her whether she sees an activist element in her work. "Me talking to you, me being a brown girl, me having a boyfriend, me having a girlfriend—it's all political from the minute I wake up to the time when I go to bed. And during that day I also make music. I don't really know how else you would operate in this world." Below, Lafawndah tells us the story of Tan, from its origins as a collection of "world-gay-dance music" to its visions of "failed revolution" in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

THUMP: You recorded your first EP, Chili, on the island of Guadalupe, partly in collaboration with zouk producer Jean Claude Bicharaa. What was the creation story behind this record?

Lafawndah: It started in Fire Island in the summer. The idea of the lock-up is extremely important for me; it's important for me to be away and to be locked in with people, with no outside distractions. When you're in a house on an island and you don't really go out, don't really talk to other people, it becomes kind of psychedelic after a while. I was looking for that same kind of experience, and there was this residency offer on Fire Island on the table, so it started like that. [Teengirl Fantasy's] Nick Weiss and his boyfriend Tamer Fahri and I wrote this proposal about making… We said that we would make a four-track EP of "world-gay-dance music."

Right before, we had been on this trip in Zurich. Zurich is a tiny, tiny city. Everything happens on this one strip called Langstraß, but the cool thing about it is you have clubs kind of dedicated to [different countries]. So you walk on the street and you can go dance to cumbia, and then go to the Jamaican dancehall club, and go to the reggaeton club, and then go to the Balkan club, where you have Eastern European [music]. So we had this one night where the three of us just went to all these spaces one after the other, and the proposal was about this idea of experiencing nightlife in a condensed way—like in a "disneyland," small world, very superficial kind of way. People always ask me questions about appropriation, and when they ask me what kind of music I make, talking about the music as "world music" is kind of my joke—it's just the way I respond to all that. That proposal was kind of a joke, but we proposed and presented it. Maybe that was the intention for like 48 hours. I don't really know what the result is, but I think we failed at that mission.

What was on your mind during the recording process?

The songs happened in kind of a spread-out way. When we were on Fire Island, we experimented a lot with sonic palettes; I needed to be developing the language of the EP. I think we wrote 10 [songs] there, but that's pretty much it. And after the three weeks [on the island], I started working on the other tracks, and the EP happened over the course of six months or something.

I don't know if there is so much of an overall theme, but I think it has to do with being more assertive in my palette. [It's a] mix of things that are extremely earthy—like earthy drum sounds—and things that sound extremely, deliberately fake, or things that sound extremely round and things that sound extremely angular. What I would say about this EP is that it's kind of an introduction to how I think about music and how I juxtapose sounds, and how I structure songs, and how I use my voice. In terms of the lyrics, it always has to do with whatever is happening at the moment or the questions that I have about certain things at that moment. But if I told you there was a theme in these four tracks, it would be a little forced.

Tim Saccenti

So you would start every song with the sounds?

Yeah. The production side comes before the melody, it comes before the lyrics—and all the songs have a different point of departure. "Tan" started because I was in Berlin at this Turkish rave that they have once a month over there, and there was this song playing with a beat that I was very intrigued by because it was a very weird time signature. I was with Tamer—he's Turkish, and he was telling the story of that beat, which is a pretty traditional beat. It's a kind of music called Roman-Havasi—and men are battling on the dance floor with that music, so that was the point of departure for "Tan."

So we grabbed that, and we kept the theme of the battle, but then it became about friendship—a friendship between two girls, and how as girls we're raised to feel threatened by each other. And it's a song about [how] the answer to the threat is to love even more. So It's kind of confrontational, and it references this song [that] men usually battle over, and the lyrics are about the exact contrary of what the beat is about.

So not everything is in the same direction; I think that's the thread during the whole EP. If the beat is extremely threatening, the lyrics are kind of loving. "Ally" is [about a] crush, but it sounds demented.

My relationship to singing comes only because I'm facing a production that makes me want to go and wrestle. It's almost like arm wrestling.

You seem to gravitate to pounding, combative sounds. What do you think that is?

I like things to be quite heavy. There are no chords in my music—I don't think chords are something that I physically react to. The drum pattern—that's the basic for me. If a beat has something exciting that I can't really pinpoint, or that just doesn't sound familiar—that's kind of how I start the song. Like, how do I navigate that? How does it work? That's the thing that makes me want to sing on something. It's almost like arm wrestling. I think singing is not so much a natural thing for me—I'm always weirded out when people are like, "Oh, the singer Lafawndah." My relationship to singing comes only because I'm facing a production that makes me want to go and wrestle. It doesn't need to be a fight, but I need to feel that tension. If the instrumental is just a bed, I don't want to go lay down on it.

Does that extend to other aspects of your creative output?

I think the album art has to do with what I was telling you about my voice. It's me feeling comfortable with my voice, and I think the knife feels very dangerous and uncomfortable, but it's also really sensual and welcoming; you don't really know if it's coming in or out of the mouth. I always want you to feel some kind of tension between things. It's never all the way.

[When I was growing up], my dad was listening to a lot of French singer-songwriters, I was raised to be extremely aware of the playfulness of words and lyrics. In French, there is a lot of play with the sounds. Like, you're talking about something that's really soft and comforting, but you're adding all these "s"-sounds that make it slightly uncomfortable at the same time. I've had a love for words since a very young age, and it's been a funny journey to try to apply that to English. The English language doesn't really call for that, but I can't really sing in French, so I just have to find my way around the language and my own way of feeling excited about words.

I remember on your last EP, you did a song—"Jungle Exit"—where you used Google Translate to transpose lyrics that you wrote from Spanish to English and then Swahili.

Yeah, that was really fun. In general, I'm really interested in what a language does to a melody, and to the tone of a voice. I also did that with a Korean song—I'm really proud I have a song in Korean, because it sounds amazing and it's so good for melodies. I take those as like experiments and games, just to explore my biggest self—like my extended self.

That ties in with the whole "world music" idea. Do you feel like you're most tied to any one place in particular, geographically speaking?

I don't feel rooted anywhere, and I don't even feel comfortable saying I'm based in New York—am I even based in New York? I don't have a base. I was born in France, and then I lived in Iran, and then I went back to France, and when first I left France to move to the U.S.—maybe eight years ago or something—I kind of realized how "not-French" I felt, or how I never really felt "home" there.

I was raised kind of as a white person, surrounded by mostly white people. And there was an underlayer of racism and not belonging that I didn't really process when I was a kid. Thinking on racial terms in France is not really allowed—it's pretty taboo. Until recently, it's been almost anti-French to think in those ways, because if you think in those terms it means that the basic ideas—the basis that built France in philosophical and political terms—would be a failure.

Me talking to you, me being a brown girl, me having a boyfriend, me having a girlfriend—it's all political from the minute I wake up to the time when I go to bed. And during that day, I also make music.

If you're second generation from Algeria, or Morocco, or Tunisia—all these kids that are basically my age, the school system actively asks [their parents] to not speak Arabic with their kids. There's this idea that your origin has to be erased in order for you to integrate. Everybody pretends that you're not different, but you feel that you are, and they also think that you are. I never had the tools within my family, or in the outside world, to process my difference—ways of understanding what was happening to me. That definitely shaped my experience about feeling good somewhere. I think it gave me the feeling I don't belong, though it's never been in a painful way. In a way, I feel lucky that I don't belong.

You recently unveiled the song "Town Crier" on SPIN, accompanied by an interview you did with copyright and political reform advocate Lawrence Lessig. Why did you want to interview him?

In my life and in everything that I put out in the world, I want to be able to continue imagining the future—the things that are possible for us as humans. I want the music and the visuals and the conversation to allow for collective imagination—like, "How would it work?" or "What is the thing that we would want?" It's not about living in a parallel world and not knowing the state of things, but I do think it's vital to dream and to imagine. [For "Town Crier,"] I wanted to speak with someone who is actively in touch with imagining what the future could look like, in very pragmatic ways.

In the introduction you wrote, you talk about "[mobilizing] people beyond the politics of dissatisfaction." What did you mean by that?

I think the "politics of dissatisfaction" is that feeling of… we're not happy, but we have been disabled collectively [from having] any kind of agency. It's the worst mix. I wanted to talk with someone who is facing that in a real way in their everyday life—how you reintroduce in people's minds the idea of change, and of having agency over your own life.

What's the connection between that idea and "Town Crier"?

I was in Iran right after the Arab Spring, and people had already been in the streets for almost a year. Suddenly, the Arab Spring happened, and all these governments just left and fell apart—and it was a really interesting moment to be in Iran, because [the vibe in the air was] almost jealous and frustrated. [Revolution] had worked for their neighbors, and it didn't really work for them. People went to jail, people mobilized time and energy and lives and blood—and then it didn't happen. They were kind of speculating about how things could have been done differently—like, "We should have gathered in this neighborhood instead of that neighborhood." It was heartbreaking, and interesting to see the terms in which they were thinking about it. Like how much agency do you actually have when there is revolution happening? How much is it the people being on the street, and how much is it international politics?

For "Town Crier," I wanted a production that would sound like a failed revolution—that was my theme. L-Vis 1990 and I had exchanged all these articles about revolutions in the world, how they happen or how they fail or how they succeed. We had just exchanged so much about it that the day when I actually had to write lyrics, it just wasn't working. And then suddenly I had a click—I had two clicks. The first click was, "I don't want to put the idea of failure in the world." It can sound like this, but I don't need to back it up with words. And then the second revelation I had was the way you talk about something that's so general is that you have to start by making it sound the most intimate. So the lyrics start in a very intimate way, with an "I"—they sound like I'm talking about a relationship. But then the chorus comes in, and it becomes a general "we," and then it becomes more of a relationship between people and the state. I think I was looking up some Brandy lyrics, and then suddenly I was like "Fuck, yeah." It needs to sounds like a love song. That's how it's going to feel the most relevant.