Of the 12 tracks that comprise Blue Film (4AD), Matthew Hemerlein’s remarkable debut album as the electropop project Lo-Fang, two are covers, both from unlikely sources. One, “Boris,” originally by female duo Boy, tells the story of a sleazy club owner who attempts to seduce a young musician. Its original iteration, sung in third person, is chilling, but Lo-Fang’s take, which replaces “he” with “I,” is menacing. Hemerlein’s slow, gender- and subject-reversed treatment renders the album’s other cover—”You’re the One That I Want,” from Grease—equally dark and startling: “you,” rather than “I,” need a man.
Sexual tensions run throughout Blue Film, which might seem like a given since “blue film” can refer to a porn flick, but Hemerlein, 30, insists the title was a coincidence. “Those two words just popped into my head,” the singer-songwriter says. It might also have something to do with the film from which Hemerlein drew inspiration, the Luc Besson drama The Big Blue (1988): “It has beautiful cinematography but goofy dialogue, kind of French and ’80s, about free-diving and true love and, for lack of a better term, dolphin sex.”
Hemerlein moved to L.A. last year from Maryland, where he was home-schooled with his brother and sister. Growing up, it was mandatory that he play violin. “I explored a lot of different styles of music, coming from that classical background and keeping a hand in it, but not attempting to be a classical musician at all,” he recalls. Hemerlein sings and plays every instrument on Blue Film, an album equally catchy and tightly composed. Songs like “Look Away” and “#88” pit delicate, finger-plucked violin threads against expansive, elegant synth and cello lines, along with Hemerlein’s own melancholic vocals.
After studying humanities at college in New Orleans—”I didn’t finish, like a good philosophy student,” he quips—Hemerlein spent several years teaching music and traveling as far afield as Cambodia, London, Nashville, and Iceland, experiences that formed the basis for Blue Film‘s diverse arrangements. This year promises to be just as adventuresome, kicking off with a tour opening for Lorde. “It wasn’t like a vision quest,” Hemerlein says of his journey. “I’m just following the natural energy my life is taking, and trying to do stuff I find really interesting and feel ‘Clear eyes, full hearts’ awesome.”