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Matthew Hemerlein was driving through Arizona, on his way across the country, in 2012. He had just signed to the 4AD label, and he knew he didn’t want to release his debut album under his given name, but he hadn’t determined what his alter ego would be. That’s when it simply popped into his head: Lo-Fang.
After the fact, the 30-year-old singer-songwriter came up with many reasons why the alias suited him perfectly—its hint of Taoism, its resemblance to “Wu-Tang Clan,” the softness of the Lo contrasted with the violence of the Fang. But the real reason he chose it was that he just knew it was right.
Classically trained in violin, bass, cello, guitar, and piano, Hemerlein has been a musician since childhood. But a key for him is not getting caught up in his own musical sophistication. “I’m glad I have that theory in my brain and hands,” Hemerlein says, “but it’s not the thing that I necessarily rely on to create.”
His just-released first album, Blue Film, fuses the sounds of other difficult-to-pin-down artists: soul from Jessie Ware, synths from James Blake, falsetto from Rhye, all mixed up with the strings and folk of Bon Iver. The influences he names are mid-century bluesman Skip James and multi-instrumentalist and producer Jon Brion (who has worked with Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann, and Fiona Apple).
Summing up his eclectic musical sense, Hemerlein says, “There’s not that far a difference between Nicki Minaj and Bessie Smith, in my opinion. They’re kind of talking about the same stuff, if you really get into it.”
Amid the lovely originals, Hemerlein’s debut includes two covers: “You’re the One That I Want,” from the Grease soundtrack, which was a 1978 number-one hit for Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta before it went on to be a karaoke favorite; and the more obscure “Boris,” a 2011 song from Boy, a Swiss-German duo.
“Covering ‘You’re the One That I Want’ is, on paper, one of the dumber things you can do, especially on a debut record,” Hemerlein says. “But it just sounds really good.”
He will open for the Grammy-winning Lorde during her U.S. spring tour. Asked how he got paired with the New Zealand teenager, he says, “She shot a kiwi out of my hand, and it had a note on it that said, ‘Would you like to come on tour with me?’ ” More seriously, he adds, “I’m really glad that I get to listen to her record played live for twenty shows.”
Hemerlein picked up the violin at age 5, played recitals and competitions at age 6, and wrote his first songs at age 15. He attended Loyola University in New Orleans but was forced to return home, to Maryland, after contracting Lyme disease his junior year. While teaching guitar and piano to kids in the Washington, D.C., area, he realized he had to make music all the time.
“All I want to do,” he says, “is have an instrument in my hand every day.”