Lawrence Rothman on Being Genre Fluid, Gender Fluid and Finding a New Home in the Americana World With Their Revealing New Album

Lawrence Rothman has been knocking around the music scene for two decades, but not until this year would anyone have likely pegged them as primarily an Americana artist. The L.A.-based performer didn’t necessarily come off as someone begging to set up a secondary base in Nashville — not with a list of collaborators or production clients that included Kim Gordon, Courtney Love, Girl in Red, Empress Of, Alison Mosshart and members of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Guns N’ Roses. Or a career in soundtracks that included scoring movies by film-director spouse Floria Sigismondi like “The Runaways” and “The Turning.” Or a solo career as an indie rocker with an androgynous bent that incorporated taking on multiple personas, male and female.

But Rothman’s penchant for doing something that might be considered a bit more homespun became evident when they produced one of the best Americana records of recent years, Amanda Shires’ 2022 release “Take It Like a Man,” as well as working on tracks by Margo Price, Brittney Spencer and Angel Olsen and enlisting Lucinda Williams as a duet partner. Now Rothman has released their own excellent solo record in that vein, “The Plow That Broke the Plains.” The material is plain-spoken and revealing enough that it almost seems inevitable Rothman would end up gravitating toward more of a singer-songwriter mode. It finds the artist touching on some tougher personal experiences, from an eating disorders to a beating Rothman once received at the hand of Texas rednecks, that might push the envelope of realness even in a genre that specializes in it. The collection benefits from three prominent co-signs — from S.G. Goodman, who collaborates on the gun violence-themed “R Blood”; Shires, who adds a harmony vocal to “LAX”; and Jason Isbell, who co-wrote and played guitar on “Poster Child,” a tour through Rothman’s background that’s gritty but also counts as one of the catchiest earworms of 2024.

More from Variety

Rothman spoke with Variety about the reception they’ve gotten with a growing body of work produced in Nashville, and how opening up genre-wise coincided with opening up to exploring more painful personal experiences as a songwriter.

There’s been a shift in your music toward what would be considered more of an Americana or singer-songwriter vein. And you’ve been working with Amanda Shires, who is a big part of that world, as producer, on her last album and her next one. How did you end up leaning more that way, and doing some work in Nashville? 

I’m from Missouri originally, and my dad was a radio DJ, deep into the country and singer-songwriter type of world of music, so I grew up a lot on that. And early on in my career, before I started really doing it professionally, I was more in the zone of what would be considered Americana, before you had a term for it. My father took me down to Nashville to do some of my first recordings when I was around 14 years old. But from there, my thing morphed more into me going after a Big Star type of approach, and then morphed more into a punk/Nirvana type of thing, so I drifted away from doing that kind of sound.

During the start of the pandemic, I was making my second album, “Good Morning America,” and I was writing a song called “Decent Man.” The whole time I was writing that, I envisioned Lucinda Williams dueting with it on me. She’s a big influence on my work and always has been. So I finished the song and I just cold reached out, didn’t know her, and she agreed to do it. And that led me back, I think, to Nashville. I recorded with Amanda for that record as well, which led to a great relationship working on her songs. I rediscovered the scene down there and I fell in love instantly with all the writers and and artists that are down there doing things.

Music for a while got very much drawn away from lyric storytelling type of songs. I feel like Americana music really influenced a lot of what’s going on right now with, even with stuff that’s outside of Americana. Even the new Charli XCX record to me feels more personal, you know? I don’t know if a lot of these artists are listening to Americana and then going, “Oh, I’m gonna do that now.” I just think it’s just part of the landscape of culture right now, seeping through in all directions.

So, when I think of this particular record sounding more Americana, it wasn’t really a conscious decision. It was more of an instinct of just wanting to simply write songs that were honest, not overthink it, not make ’em too metaphorical, and to record it in a way that was more of a snapshot of a moment in time. I’ve done records where I’ve spent years on them. I’m a producer as well, so I can operate the studio like an instrument, and I’ve done those records where I’ve recorded and worked on a song for two months, like I’m Trent Reznor or something, reinventing the song and adding layers upon layers and subtracting. I’ve done that approach for good over a decade, but I slowly started shedding that skin on the last record. And when it came time to this one, I embraced the idea of: I just want to walk in the studio with a guitar or a piano and five people playing instruments, where we all sit in a circle and play, and whatever happens in those 10 days is the record.

So you took to the Nashville approach readily, despite being steeped in what people would consider glam-rock or punk for some of the first music people knew you for.

Every year that goes by, the definitions of what is a particular genre get more blurred. For my first record, I was nine different people on the record. I had prosthetics and I called them my “alters” — different alter egos — and at every show, I performed as a different person, basically, and each song was for a different person. When it came out, it was so genre-shifting that people were like, what the hell’s going on?

At some point I don’t know that we’ll even be having a genre conversation. But, yeah, for this particular record… I feel like I’ve never been able to really fit into a scene, particularly, and the people down there in Nashville and the neighboring places that all this Americana music is coming from are the most open-minded, embracing and respectful group of musicians and artists I’ve ever encountered. I’ve worked a lot in pop music and indie music, and I’ve never experienced the warmth that I have from the people inside of the Americana scene. For that alone, I’m comfortable calling this record an Americana record. I’ve been doing this for about 20 years, and I’ve been on like eight different record companies; I’ve met all sorts of people — and there’s nothing like the Americana scene as far as the friendships, honesty and warmth that comes from the community.

That’s quite a recommendation for that community.

You know, I’m gender-fluid, and I don’t always know what to expect. When I arrived in Nashville in 2020, at the studio I was working at, Sound Emporium, like the second week I was there, all of a sudden they changed the bathroom stalls to not say men and women anymore. I didn’t even ask for that. And at no point did anybody not get my pronoun right. I mean, I was shocked, really. But yeah, it’s a great place. They’ve just been so welcoming; I’ve never felt this comfortable making music in my life, really.

A lot of this new album is very topical, addressing significant issues. It’s all personal to you, as well, but was there a game plan about that going in?

I didn’t really have a pre-determined idea of what I wanted to do lyrically with the record. I just knew I wanted it to be completely from the heart and for it to be my story. The first song that I wrote for the record was a song called “Poster Child,” which I wrote with my friend Jason Isbell. There was an event that happened to me in the early 2000s where I got attacked at a club for the way I presented myself on stage. When I sat with Jason, he was asking me some questions about my path, and I brought that story up and I’m like, “Eh, I’ve never really written a song about it.” He was like, “Well, that sounds like our story; that sounds like what we should be writing about.” An hour and a half later, we had the song. And that kicked off the idea of me feeling very comfortable with baring stories that had been a little too personal, that I’d kind of kept out of my songwriting.

Every song after that, I just went fully to uncomfortable places inside of my psyche and I wrote about it. I wrote about my eating disorder on the song called “LAX.” And it was embarrassing to have to talk about; it’s embarrassing when I see it in print and family members have to see it. But it’s something that I had a feeling other people were going through.

When I first was listening to the song “LAX,” I admit I was not getting that it had anything to do with eating disorders or body image. I was thinking about the airport, and wondering what that served as a metaphor for.

Well, as gross as it sounds, to be very graphic, I meant “lax,” not LAX. It was a double entendre.

Obviously that is not something people are going to guess at with you, without you being publicly explicit about it.

It’s not something you really like to talk about, because there’s different degrees of eating disorders, and what I went through was something I think isn’t talked about a lot, which is the simple fact of… You look at social media and you see a weird picture of yourself, let’s say, that gets uploaded by a friend or a fan, and it disturbs you, right? Because you don’t like that angle or the camera lens was distorted and you don’t look right. And that leads you to all sorts of events of ideation that can happen to the strongest people — and I consider myself pretty strong and not too vain. But I saw some images and I was called some names… and it affected me a lot when I was seeing comparisons to people or saw photos I didn’t like. It just led me down this very dangerous path of starving myself and taking laxatives… This was pre-Ozempic. I don’t know if that’s dangerous or not, but I was doing dangerous stuff, and it led me to an emergency room visit that was my wake-up call.

I would say that that scenario was the most uncomfortable to write about, because I don’t want strangers reading about it that I don’t know and judging me, and I don’t want my family to really go like, “Whoa, Lawrence was sneaking this and that.” But I felt like I had to talk about it, because I feel like other people go through it. And I was correct, because since I put out the song, I’ve gotten a lot of people coming to me about it.

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 21: Lawrence Rothman and Floria Sigismondi arrive at the premiere of Universal Pictures' "The Turning" at TCL Chinese Theatre on January 21, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)
Lawrence Rothman and Floria Sigismondi arrive at the premiere of Universal Pictures’ “The Turning” at TCL Chinese Theatre on January 21, 2020 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

You mentioned writing “Poster Child” with Jason Isbell. It marks the first time you’ve written about being assaulted in Texas back in the 2000s. But there’s an interesting filter you put that through, because the lyrics are largely about not wanting to put that out publicly before, but being pressured to use that as a press angle in the past.

Yeah, when that happened to me, when I was in my early twenties, I wasn’t one to really want to talk about my personal details. I love the Thom Yorke from Radiohead approach where the songs explain themselves and you just sing and are an artist and there’s not much explaining. I’ve worked with a lot of people where the record label’s asking me what my story is for the record, and I don’t really want to reveal too much, but there’s gotta be something to write about for an album or there isn’t that press angle. I landed on that idea for this song because earlier, when it happened to me, I was on a big record company, Geffen Records, and they wanted to sort of take the story — and they did take some of the story — and turn it into like a press event, which for me at the time felt sort of violating.

Everything about the experience felt violating, from how it was handled by my record company to how it was handled by the man who did it to me. So now I am talking about it and I’m writing about it, and so there is a little bit of an ironic element about it. But I’m 42 now, so I have more perspective on it.

I’m not trying to be some massive household name or pop star; I’m not even trying to be Dave Grohl, you know? I’m just trying to talk about things that happened to me in a way that is candid to see. Because what is the point of me making music, or anybody making music, if you’re just gonna do it selfishly? The whole “look at me, look at me” culture and that kind of mentality doesn’t really sit with me. So because I’ve had a very colorful life, I try to take the colors from my life, now being over 40, and put them into the music, to hopefully influence or just console somebody younger than me —  or the same age, or older — like, hey, you’re not alone. Music is therapy, in many ways. And that’s what I’m trying to convey with all my songs, and particularly with that song.

It seems like it was with your last album, in 2017, where you started to talk more in the music and in interviews about being non-binary. That was bold at the time, and our language and understanding of that has changed so much in the seven years since, so I’ wondering if it’s more comfortable to discuss it now than it was then… let alone when you were dealing with confrontations in real life going back more than 20 years.

My 2017 album, “The Book of Law,” is when I started being a little bit more open about it. Pitchfork did a piece about, about it. That record really dealt with the fluidity of identity and gender, and I floated between different identities and genders. Visually on that record, I was nine different alter egos.

I believe, regardless of your gender identity, that we’re all different. Like, you and I right now are acting one way, and then we’ll get off the phone, and if you’re with your loved one or a friend, you’re gonna be a different way. If you’re with your boss… there’s all different sides of yourself, right? And I think that that correlates with a lot with identity and gender identity, where we’re all just beings here on the planet. And some days we’ll feel a little bit more effiminate, or some days we’ll feel a little bit more masculine, or some days we’ll feel in between, or some days we’ll feel a way that’s unexplainable. And I think that that’s part of the constraints of societal norms, and that’s what gender fluidity really is: you’re just being your authentic self, however that may be, and whatever that pronoun may be. And that pronoun can shift. I think a lot of pain has and shame has been on past generations because there was no definition for that feeling, and there was no acceptance of that feeling and there was no conversation in the public about feeling like I don’t really fit a gender norm at this moment.

So I feel like the work that’s been done… like, when I came out with that in 2017, it was a little bit unheard of, in many circles. In music circles they didn’t really kind of know what I was talking about, and I explained it. Now, fast forward to 2024, and it’s very thankfully a very common conversation. And I think that’s important mostly for young people… but also, something which doesn’t get talked about a lot, is there’s many people who are over 40, over 50, over 60, who their whole life have been living in shame and denial of not being able to articulate how they feel, who now have identified what this is: “I am actually they/them, he/them, she/them … and I can find certain solace here.” It’s hard to find that when you’re young and old, but now in the current times that we’re in, it doesn’t feel shameful. And I think for older people, who over decades have lived in sort of self -shame and doubt, that  is a medicine that didn’t exist before, the conversation being acceptable, in society.

Can you talk about the theme of the song “R Blood,” which has S.G. Goodman on it as a featured guest? You’ve described that as the closest thing you’ve written to an outright protest song. 

First and foremost, I’m a huge fan of S.G. When I was in the studio recording it, I was singing a higher vocal, and I couldn’t quite reach the notes. The whole time I was doing it, I was like, “Man, this just needs to sound like an S.G. type of thing. … wait a second, I should call her up and ask her to sing.” That was a great honor to have her on there because I think she’s one of the greatest new artists who have emerged in the last three years. Every one of her songs just kills me.

I don’t like too many political songs because I don’t feel like I can always talk about it in a way that can convey a message that is rightly informed. I respect those people that can do that, but I’ve never really wanted to dabble in that. But that song came to me in like a couple minutes, very naturally. There was a shooting in Nashville at a school and it really hit me hard, because I grew up in the Columbine era and I just remember that feeling of going to school in fear. And my daughter goes to school and there was an active shooter on her campus within that same month, as well. So it was a month where it was really hitting me close to home, and I wrote it very honestly and very much from my perspective, and so I felt like it warranted being on the record.

What is “Never a Right Time” about, if you don’t mind explaining? It includes the lines “Believe in me like you do your Lord / I found my cure,” which sounds like it could be personal.

It’s about assisting euthanasia. I had a person I knew that was going through that, and their family was very religious. She had found her peace by wanting to go through with euthanasia, and she wanted her family to just believe in her like they do the Lord. That was the right decision.

What does the metaphor in the title “The Plow That Broke the Plains” mean to you?

Amanda Shires and I were working on some music, and she said that term, and I was like, “Whoa, what is that? Because that sounds like that should be the title of my record.” And before she told me what it was, she’s like, “Why should that be the title of your record?” I said, “Well, because my body to me is like a plane, and I took a plow and went right through it, and that’s kind of the epicenter of my record — about just mentally and physically going through all this emotional wreckage. And then she’s like, “Well, then, you should call it that. Don’t Google it.” I’m like, OK! When I did finally Google it, I saw that it had to do with some video from the 1940s about farming. But words are however you want to present them, you know?

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 18: Lawrence Rothman and Amanda Shires attend the 2021 GQ Men of the Year Party at the West Hollywood EDITION on November 18, 2021 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for GQ)
Lawrence Rothman and Amanda Shires attend the 2021 GQ Men of the Year Party on November 18, 2021 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for GQ)

How did you end up working with Amanda as her producer?

I discovered Amanda’s music during the pandemic. I got obsessed with the Highwomen, which led me to her. That Highwomen record is one of my top five favorite records of all time. All I can hope is that they put out another one. I got to (produce) the Highwomen’s “Unicorn” cover for Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” (deluxe reissue tribute addendum) with parts of the Highwomen.

I contacted her to sing on my music, because I love her voice and mine is so low that it complements mine. We didn’t know each other, and it went so well that we were like, let’s try to see if we can do something together with (her) music. We hopped in the studio in 2020 and and we put down three songs that are on her “Take It Like a Man” record — “Fault Lines,” “Don’t Be Alarmed” and “Stupid Love” — in a day. She was like, “Oh my God, you’ve gotta come back in two weeks and we’ve gotta finish.” We had just met, but I came back two weeks later and we did the whole “Take It Like a Man” record.

I felt then — and I still feel this now — that I had just found this wonderful gem. It’s so funny that there’s all these people that exist in the world that you don’t know, and then all of a sudden you meet them and you’re like two peas in a pod. I’d been searching for acollaborator as a producer that I could really feel like I’m in the band as well. And she was that person for me and still is. When we get in the studio, it’s just like two kids in a sandbox. And I just have such immense respect for her songwriting. It’s rare for somebody to find somebody like that in today’s time — so poetic but also, at the same time, so accessible. You could sing her songs, but they’re poetry.

You were working with Amanda on a follow-up to “Take It Like a Man” in the summer of 2023. Is that still due to come out?

That was last August. And rumor has it that she’s about to be in my studio (for a follow-up session), and it’s gonna finally see the finish line. She needed to take a breather for a second, and she’s coming in with a slew of songs in a week. The stuff we did last year was heavy. It’s going to be quite a piece of work.

Best of Variety

Sign up for Variety’s Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.