Roth­man be­lieves there’s al­ways light at the end of the tun­nel

The Georgia Straight - - Music - > MIKE USINGER

2Look­ing at the dif­fi­cult times that’ve

been part of life for as long as they can re­mem­ber, it would have been easy for Lawrence Roth­man to go the maudlin route with The Book of Law. Af­ter all, if we’ve learned any­thing from the Smiths, Nir­vana, and Joy Di­vi­sion, it’s that mor­bid sad­ness and self­pi­ty­ing in­tro­spec­tion sell.

Roth­man—one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing new voices in pop mu­sic—wasn’t in­ter­ested in that. What stands out on their de­but is the way that there’s a beau­ti­ful hope­ful­ness to the songs, even when the lyrics tend to look dark when read on pa­per. Pre­pare to get chills when Roth­man turns the line “I’ve lived long enough in shame” into a mantra in the syn­thetic soul num­ber “Jordan”. Or when they de­liver a crazily timely mes­sage in “Geek” with “Don’t let them bully you/i know what it’s like to feel con­fused.”

“You gotta be­lieve that there’s al­ways light at the end of the tun­nel,” Roth­man says, on the line from a Wash­ing­ton, D.C., tour stop. “Even when I’m in a cave in the dark with the blan­kets and pil­lows over my face, the only thing that can pull me out is keep­ing in mind that light is al­ways there.”

Log onto their Face­book page, and you’ll

get the fol­low­ing de­scrip­tion: “Lawrence Roth­man is a singer song­writer from Los An­ge­les, Cal­i­for­nia.”

That tells only half the story. Roth­man is non­bi­nary, which ex­plains the gen­der-neu­tral plu­ral pro­nouns. They also have nine al­ter egos, in­clud­ing the old-school-el­e­gant El­iz­a­beth and GG Allin look-alike Aleis­ter. The less open-minded among us don’t al­ways get it, and that in­cludes mem­bers of Roth­man’s own fam­ily. For years the singer’s fa­ther was un­able to cope with them.

“As far as other parts of my fam­ily, a lot of them still don’t talk to me or are in de­nial about it,” Roth­man says. “What­ever. I’m fine with that, be­cause bet­ter to live com­pletely your au­then­tic self than to be hid­ing be­hind some sort of mask—i think that causes peo­ple more pain. I’d rather get rid of peo­ple in my life who aren’t sup­port­ive of who I re­ally am.”

To lis­ten to The Book of Law is to be left con­fused as to who Roth­man might be, but for rea­sons that have noth­ing to do with gen­der iden­tity. By de­sign, the al­bum’s 12 tracks are a clinic in the power of genre-jump­ing. Roth­man starts out dab­bling in lounge-tinted MOR with “De­scend”, rolls out the retro-jazz horns for the sepi­a­toned “As­cend”, and goes Broad­way mu­si­cal for the en­chant­ing “Walk­ing My Tears Across Man­hat­tan”.

What binds the songs to­gether is that they are, en­tirely by de­sign, deeply con­fes­sional.

“The whole record, lyri­cally, is me writ­ing about what I’ve gone through,” Roth­man says. “That’s what ties to­gether all the genre-hop­ping in the mu­sic.”

That will­ing­ness to open up isn’t some­thing Roth­man has al­ways been com­fort­able with.

“For a long time, I didn’t feel like it was some­thing that I needed to talk about pub­licly,” they say. “I sort of had it in my head that as an artist, or, you know, a mu­si­cian, you can sort of dance be­tween what you want to re­veal about your in­ner be­ing and your per­sonal life, and what you want to leave at bay. For a long time I’ve iden­ti­fied who I am and how I am by be­ing gen­der-fluid. My close cir­cle of friends have all known this. I didn’t re­ally feel like it was some­thing that needed to be ex­plained in pub­lic.

“When I first started this project in 2013, I also felt like maybe it was a hard thing for peo­ple to un­der­stand,” Roth­man con­tin­ues. “I just sort of saw, even see­ing friends go­ing through the same strug­gle that I’ve gone through, that in the last few years it’s be­come a thing that’s a lit­tle more open and a lit­tle more talked about.”

Part of that re­al­iza­tion came from look­ing at their au­di­ence.

“I was play­ing a bunch of shows in late 2014, go­ing into 2015,” Roth­man re­mem­bers, “and I just started run­ning into peo­ple who were com­ing to my shows who iden­ti­fied as gen­der­fluid, but were sort of in­su­lar about it—who were em­bar­rassed and hav­ing prob­lems with their fam­ily try­ing to ex­plain it. Things like that. Peo­ple were read­ing into some of my songs and vi­su­als, and won­der­ing. I be­gan de­vel­op­ing a bond with them, to where I went, ‘I should be a lit­tle more for­ward.’”

So Roth­man’s nar­ra­tive be­gan to change. Thanks partly to a close re­la­tion­ship with bound­ary-ex­plod­ing video direc­tor Flo­ria Sigis­mondi (Mar­i­lyn Man­son, the White Stripes), they be­gan gen­er­at­ing a buzz a cou­ple of years back. Early fea­tures in publi­ca­tions such as New York’s iconic In­ter­view magazine tended to fo­cus al­most ex­clu­sively on their mu­sic. These days that’s shifted to where in­ter­view­ers are talk­ing about more than what goes on in their songs.

But that shouldn’t dis­tract from the fact that Roth­man very much is poised to be­come a 2017 break­out artist. The dev­as­tat­ingly ac­com­plished The Book of Law at­tracted some heavy hit­ters on the sup­port­ing-cast front, with guest mu­si­cians rang­ing from Sonic Youth pi­o­neer Kim Gor­don to in­die-rock chanteuse An­gel Olsen to Guns N’ Roses bas­sist Duff Mck­a­gan. But what might be most im­por­tant to Roth­man is the ex­am­ple they’re set­ting for oth­ers.

“We’re at least in a time where you can be more open about your true in­ner self,” they muse. “And there are now re­sources, or sup­port groups on­line, or in real life, where you can kind of be your au­then­tic self com­pletely 100 per­cent. You can find a com­mu­nity of like-minded peo­ple, and that def­i­nitely wasn’t around when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. Now in schools, things like be­ing a trans kid are ac­cept­able. When I was grow­ing up in Mis­souri, that was def­i­nitely not the case.”

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