Lushlife - Latest Challenge Is More Collaboration

The Philly rapper on working with outside producers for the first time and writing at 30,000 feet.
Lushlife © Ryan Muir/Red Bull Content Pool
By Elliott Sharp
  • Philadelphia-based rapper Lushlife recently headlined a Red Bull Sound Select show with opening acts Cuddle Magic, Heliotropes and Johnny Showcase
  • Lushlife's last two albums, 'Cassette City' and 'Plateau Vision,' featured guest appearances by Ariel Pink, Styles P, Heems (Das Racist), and others
  • Lushlife's next album, which he is working on with producers CSLSX, will be out some time next year

The rapper Lushlife (born Raj Haldar) is eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant located just a few blocks away from the venue in his hometown of Philadelphia where, in a few hours, he will headline a Red Bull Sound Select showcase. As Haldar grabs a vegetable dumpling with his chopsticks, he tells me he has been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles, where he is currently recording vocals for his next album.

"I went out there to record with one of the guest artists from the new album," he says, "and I fell in love with it. San Francisco is too granola for me, but LA has some of the grit of the East, which I like, and it's warm in February. I've been making frequent trips, going there to track vocals every other month, and it has added a different feeling to the music."

Haldar will not confirm who the guest artists will be on the next Lushlife album, which he plans to release sometime next year. But, based on the guests from 'Cassette City' (2011) and 'Plateau Vision' (2012) - Ariel Pink, Greg Saunier (Deerhoof), Andrew Cedermark (Titus Andronicus), Styles P, Camp Lo, Cities Aviv, Heems (Das Racist) - it is probably safe to say there will be appearances by both rappers and indie-rockers.

I want to challenge myself, and I know my core audience is gonna dig my new record. Where it goes beyond that, I'm not too stressed.

Haldar has his feet firmly planted in many musical worlds, but the finished product never sounds torn or forced or gimmicky or collage-y. The beats he made on 'Plateau Vision' were fresh and ambitious and cloudy, but strongly rooted in hip-hop history. And when he raps, he slips easily from the street-level anxieties of living in a big city like Philadelphia to dropping references to the writer Henry James and the mythologist Joseph Campbell.

Somewhere between the dumplings and Lushlife's after-midnight set, we had the following conversation about his professional goals, how his creative process has changed since 'Plateau Vision,' and how he has been writing the lyrics for his new album while flying in planes.

You steadily make records and play a ton of shows as Lushlife, but you also have a regular nine-to-five job as Raj Haldar. Why, and how, do you balance both?

I don't even think of my nine-to-five gig as something I do to buoy my music career, or to just bolster me being Lushlife. I head up the marketing department of a tech start-up, and I get to work with some of the most creative, smartest people in the city, and I find that just as fulfilling as coming out to play a show and being in the studio and writing music.

I might not have yet achieved any stratospheric success with music that's gonna make sure my grandkids are set for life – which I hope to do, soon – but as it stands now, I'm in my early-30s and I have longterm sustainability as a human-being. Even if I did make a few hundred grand a year making records, that's not gonna sustain me forever. But having a career I enjoy with a longterm scope is just as important to me as making records. They are both very important to me.

Pitchfork gave 'Plateau Vision' a 6.9, and as much as I wish they would've given it a 9.6, in the end I don't derive any core satisfaction whether one person or another or the world embraces the record.

As Lushlife, what are your goals?

If there's one thing I've learned over the last seven or eight years of making records, it's that you're always looking up and thinking that if you could achieve some other person's level of success, you'd finally feel like you made it. Very early on, just having a record out there that people listen to, that's great. But when you arrive there, you realize there are millions of records out there, and you have to get people to listen to yours. I don't necessarily think about my career as Lushlife in terms of some singular apex that I have to achieve, and then I'll rest on my laurels. I don't think that ever exists.

I recently went to see David Byrne (of Talking Heads) at Tower Theater, and went to a bar afterwards. And Byrne's agent was at the bar across from the theater, and I was having this kind of “woe, is me” discussion about where I was in my career. And this dude was like “I just had the exact same conversation with David Byrne.”

Everybody's in the struggle to some degree; you always feel that way. Ultimately, at this point, I just want to continue to make records that engage more and more people. Whatever happens beyond that is gravy. And since making music isn't the way I pay my mortgage, it's liberating. I can make whatever kind of records I want to make.

The last album, 'Plateau Vision,' got more attention than any of your previous work had. With the next album, there's more anticipation than ever before. How does this impact the direction of the album, and your own creativity?

Oh man, you just made me really nervous. When I'm making records, I do think about the audience and building the audience. I guess I just don't think about failure, though. Deep down, I feel like if I'm happy with the record – fucking Pitchfork gave 'Plateau Vision' a 6.9, and as much as I wish they would've given it a 9.6, in the end I don't derive any core satisfaction whether one person or another or the world embraces the record. I want them to, but it doesn't place into the equation when I'm making the record.

Naturally, because I'm growing as a human-being and an artist, the records become more challenging for me. 'Cassette City' has the least visibility of all my records, but it's also the poppiest record. I always keep a thread of pop music in what I do, but my stuff is getting to be a little more experimental. I want to challenge myself, and I know my core audience is gonna dig my new record. Where it goes beyond that, I'm not too stressed.

Your previous albums were recorded alone, at your home studio. But now you have collaborators, and are working on the new album in Philly, New York and Los Angeles. Why did you make this decision, and how has it changed your creative process?

So, over the last 18 months, I've been working on the followup to 'Plateau Vision.' And this is the first time I've been working with some outside producers. The producers I'm working with are based in Philly and New York and are called CSLSX. Their music is amazing, really lo-fi dance music. It's not hip-hop, so it's a pretty strange step to bring them on board, and a fruitful step. They've brought an aesthetic and a vibe that I needed. I needed to feel challenged.

When I took those first few trips to the West Coast, I found out that writing on the plane was easier than writing at home.

I've been making my music in a bubble for years with no one to challenge my decisions, so this has been a huge growing experience for me. There was nobody else there to okay or veto my decisions; there was no friction. People know what a record sounds like when it's me from end to end, so I think this was important for my artistic growth and for what a Lushlife record can sound like to bring these guys onboard who are from outside the hip-hop world.

No matter what, with Lushlife, it's always gonna end up being a hip-hop record. But it was fun to bring guys with a different mentality into it. It's been a slower process, too, because we're moving the ball across the field as a team. So there have been trips to New York for that, and I'm doing all the vocals in Los Angeles. It's about organically creating a different environment for the new LP. I hope it feels like a Lushlife record, and it fits purposely and distinctly in the canon of my work.

Earlier you mentioned that all this traveling has helped fuel your writing process. How so?

As is always the case, I was hoping to have a new record in eight months, but it's slow-going for me. I generally write 16 bars in two hours; it's been like that since I was 20. But in between that, for every verse, there is a month of handwringing where I'm afraid of the failure of sitting down and nothing coming out. Ideas are simmering in that time, but a lot of it is a fear of the wellspring turning off. I sit down and think I can do it. I do it, and then the fear happens again.

I found it increasingly difficult to find the stillness of mind to write rhymes this time. That's the thing that always slows me down: getting the verses done and being happy with them. I write down couplets and words I like in my notebooks, but in terms of these verses that are gonna last forever, it takes time.

When I took those first few trips to the West Coast, I found out that writing on the plane was easier than writing at home. I think it has a lot to do with the confluence of being in a public space with a lot of stimulus, but also a kind of white noise and the idea that everybody's doing whatever it is they're doing. You're in this public social sphere, but also kind of sequestered.

So I started writing whenever I was on a plane. I'm not sure this is a process that will continue on future records – actually, I hope it doesn't because it's an expensive process – but it's one of the many strange things that has informed this new record.

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