In the fall of 2014, Roberto Lange found himself at home in Brooklyn, emotionally spent, watching Ferguson, Missouri erupt in the wake of the news that Darren Wilson would not be indicted for killing 18-year-old Michael Brown. Like so many of us, beset at all sides by the forces of white supremacy, his hope was succumbing to sheer exhaustion. Faced with this feeling, he turned his gaze inward, and the record he wrote, Private Energy, became an introspective exploration of his sense of self – sci-fi lullabies that celebrated being young, Latinx, and brown.
By the time Lange started on his latest LP, This Is How You Smile, he had been performing the songs on Private Energy for almost four years, tweaking and tuning the arrangements as he played to crowds across the globe. And then came an election year that saw White America respond to eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency with extreme political violence.
“Most people felt like their guts got ripped out in 2016,” Lange says backstage before his set opening for Beirut at Brooklyn Steel in Williamsburg. He describes the feelings he shared with his peers — and their perceived obligations. “In 2017, I felt completely untethered from any kind of creative work…people became very fragile or frail after that moment, very vulnerable. The people who were doing a lot already, maybe, felt like they needed to be doing more, and I feel like people weren’t coming to their rescue…This album needed to be this recuperative moment.”
Lange’s recuperation began with a residency at AIR Serenbe outside Atlanta, Georgia. He would emerge from the program with two new songs — ”Come Be Me” and “País Nublado” — and a decision to make. He’d been recruited to contribute to the Adult Swim Singles series, and realized that whichever song he decided to submit would likely determine the direction of his next album. “I’ve done things that felt like ‘Come Be Me’ for a long time now, in one respect,” he says. “I just wanted [This Is How You Smile] to be different.”
“País Nublado,” an ode to a “cloudy country,” buttresses the gentle strum of a classical guitar with no less than three synthesizers, creating a gauzy collage that served as a soothing soundtrack for the winter in which it took shape. Along with “Fantasma Vaga,” the song would form the sonic palette of the album, one that blends electronic instruments and Ableton loops with acoustic tones that support Lange’s soulful coos. As part of this new direction, he eschewed a favorite technique — doubling his vocals — for a sound that pulls its organic elements out from under the layers of noise, granting them prominent placement in the compositions. “The more you double your vocals, the more it kinda fuzzes everything out,” Lange explains. “So I tried to keep it [to] singular takes as much as possible. And I think that changes your perspective of how you hear a sound. You’re hearing my voice way more…not so much that it’s [more] prominent, but you’re hearing the shape of the voice first, and everything attaches to that.”
“This album needed to be this recuperative moment.”
After his stint at AIR Serenbe, Lange spent a month in Durham, North Carolina, house-sitting for his friends in Sylvan Esso and working out of their home studio. He would occasionally visit his wife, an artist herself — who was attending a program nearby in the mountains, but for the most part, he worked alone. When he returned home to Brooklyn, he holed himself up at two different studios, tracking in the morning at 411 in Flatbush, then mixing through the wee hours of the morning at Heard City, his friend Keith Reynaud’s space in DUMBO. The isolation provided the immersion he craved, but he found himself in unfamiliar places — his attention drifting in and out of epic films like Lawrence of Arabia, embracing the glacial pace and painterly mise-en-scène, or alone at the piano, weeping as he played a song.
The isolation he inflicted upon himself wasn’t absolute — he would take morning walks in Prospect Park with his wife, come home for dinner between sessions, and collaborate with friends such as Raquel Berrios and Luis Alfredo Del Valle of Buscabulla (“Todo Lo Que Me Falta”), Xenia Rubinos (“Echo For Camperdown Curio”), and Ela Minus (“Fantasma Vaga”). He pulls found sounds from a friend’s wedding, kissing couples and cyclists in the park, the echoes of his wife’s voice in a tunnel. And he also tracked his usual coterie of musician friends on drums, steel pan, violin, saxophone, etc. — including some piano samples from his buddy Sufjan Stevens (“November 7”). The result, a record made in isolation with the help of a community of artists and the places they call home, is quite possibly his warmest, most inviting record to date, all acoustic swirls and electronic sheen with a blanket baritone that swaddles as it soothes. The record’s title is somewhat instructive; taken literally, This is How You Smile serves as a guide to remembering how to embrace joy, a respite from the exhaustion of being a sensitive human in the MAGA era.
There’s a sensitivity underlying most of Lange’s work, and it’s clearly evident on This Is How You Smile. To be acutely aware of the pain and suffering all around you is emotionally taxing; to do so while being brown, even more so. When he sings, “And we’ll light our lives on fire just to see if anyone will come rescue what’s left of me,” as he does on opener “Please Won’t Please,” Lange speaks for marginalized voices desperate to be heard, bleeding on the front page in hopes of achieving salvation.
These themes are universal, but speak to the Latinx diaspora. On “Imagining What To Do,” he continues to explore themes of existential displacement, longing for the tropical warmth of home while surviving the plummeting temperatures of the north, the kind that seep into your bones. He first hinted at this dread on the 2017 Buscabulla collaboration “Frío” – here we get a more intimate portrait of how he endures. “We’ll stay under the covers/until there’s no snow/we wait softly/looking for the sun/to come back,” he sings, projecting himself from Brooklyn to the tropics with a flutter of a steel pan. His wife’s presence looms large; he will occasionally reference autobiographical moments of their life together, but their support for each other appears to be the foundation upon which all of Lange’s self-care and recuperation is built. Even when he was putting in months of marathon days in the studio, they still began each morning together with those walks in the park, making field recordings that would become “Echo For Camperdown Curio.” The album’s most avant-garde abstraction, the track still manages to offer the most unfettered view into Lange’s state of mind as he recorded it — wandering in the park with the love of his life, listening to ghosts.
The differences between this record and his dense, sprawling oeuvre are distinct, but subtle. Lange has always incorporated myriad instruments, samples, gadgets, and gizmos into his compositions, tracking live instruments and tweaking them on the computer until it suits the sonic landscape he’s crafting. On This Is How You Smile, the textures from these instruments are just as intricate, yet somehow the sum of their parts feels more subtle — wavelengths with jagged edges so fine they sound almost smooth. He’s followed up a career-defining work with an album as therapeutic as it is beautiful, a balm for tired souls that continue to press on, in spite of everything.
Helado Negro’s This Is How You Smile Is Out on RVNG Intl. on March 8. Listen below: