Looking 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 self-pitying introspection sell.
Rothman—who has seemingly arrived out of nowhere to become 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. And while the lines have been opened by some outlets like CNN running stories on gender fluidity, that hasn’t necessarily made life any easier.
“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 sepia-toned “Ascend”, and goes full-blown 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. Every single song is biographical.”
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 gender-fluid, 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 isn’t who they run with as an artist, but instead 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.”