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Lawrence Rothman's genre-hopping 'The Book of Law' explores many personalities

Lawrence Rothman's genre-hopping 'The Book of Law' explores many personalities
Lawrence Rothman, photographed as alter-ego, Orion. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

When you walk into Lawrence Rothman's house, the place just keeps on going. Rothman — a gender-fluid, genre-agnostic L.A. singer-songwriter who uses neutral pronouns — lives deep in the Cahuenga Pass, in a three-story Midcentury stunner filled with metal skulls under glass, floor-length fur coats and delicate shoji screens (Rothman splits it with a few friends).

The long, steep stairs lead out to a grassy hillside, and along the wall, there's a tiny crawlspace just big enough for a person to slip through.

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Inside, there's a sunless two-room studio where Rothman cut much of their Downtown/Interscope debut album, "The Book of Law." On a Tuesday afternoon, Rothman fired up a Chamberlin keyboard — a kind of ancient tape-loop sampler — that appears all over the record and lent it some of its mystery.

"I was told this one actually belonged to Harry Houdini," Rothman said, dressed in a gown-length denim coat hand-sewn with an image of a geisha. "I found it at a prop house and was immediately like, 'This shouldn't be here.'"

Rothman is one of those singers who, upon meeting them, immediately restores your faith in music as a world to get lost in.

David Bowie and Prince are obvious reference points for the very tall, androgynous vocalist whose LP spans electro-disco, doom-stricken folk and heart-rending ballads (Rothman plays the Bootleg on Nov. 10). But there's a very modern, very L.A. angle to the record — a document of a singer whose identity anxieties led to the realization that you don't have to pick one personality. You can be anyone, all at once.

"I love L.A. for that," Rothman said. "It's one place you can truly be an individual."

On Tuesday, Rothman settled in behind the mixing console and recounted growing up as a misfit kid in St. Louis, in a home with generally supportive but bewildered parents watching their precocious kid unpack a complicated sense of self.

"My mom nurtured it, but whenever I hid it, I would get depressed. If you didn't want a cookie-cutter life in Missouri, you'd get bullied," Rothman said. "She gave me her blessing to move to Chicago when I was a teenager. I'm not proud of everything I had to do to stay alive there, but when I got there I felt like I was free."

That drastic re-imagining of oneself informed everything about "The Book of Law," where Rothman plays nine different characters (or "alters," as Rothman calls them) across 12 songs that share little sonically but everything in narrative and vision.

The record skips from the feather-light funk of "Wolves Still Cry" and disco reverie "Jordan" to the claustrophobic noir of "California Paranoia" and "Ain't Afraid of Dying." Rothman's voice changes dramatically depending on the setting, from a resonant Nick Cave baritone to a vibrato-soaked falsetto that recalls another gender-challenging artist, Anohni.

"I wanted these songs to show that struggle with identity and all the ups and downs of that," Rothman said. "To not do that would mean living in a black hole."

It's no coincidence that Rothman sounds lovely in duet with like-minded female singers — Kim Gordon, Angel Olsen and Kristin Kontrol all show up. But then, the record can have some hyper-masculine moments as well: former Guns N' Roses bassist Duff McKagan makes a cameo, and one of Rothman's "alters" is a face-tatted brooder named Aleister.

Rothman's deep partnership with video director Floria Sigismondi, who did the velvety, gothic clips for each single, lends physical form to Rothman's aesthetic, and it's clear the 35-year-old had been imagining this world for a long, long time.

But what Rothman didn't plan for was an America where their radical deconstructions of gender and self would be under attack in today's culture war — and in creative communities riven with fresh wounds of sexual assault allegations.

Rothman thinks hard about art's transformative power, and the way that challenging work can yield more-radical ways of understanding oneself and the world. But after a recent tour stop in St. Louis — where Rothman's band watched protests over police violence spill out onto the street just beneath their hotel — Rothman again turned to music as a sanctuary for people pushing back against a tide of intolerance.

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If you don't fit in with the world as it is, Rothman's LP is proof you can make a space of your own, and maybe others will follow you there.

"You get outside of L.A. and you see, 'Wow this is real, this country is so massively divided," Rothman said. "It's so important to say we need to be more humane to each other. "

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Lawrence Rothman

When: 8:30 p.m., Nov. 10

Where: Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd.

Tickets: $11-$13

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