With Light of Love, Kaveh Rastegar follows a natural progression from sideman to frontman, executive producing his debut LP as a leader. The album, out now on Ropeadope, opens with “Bad Ideas,” an ode to “back when we were kids,” and the only song with Rastegar on lead vocals. The beauty in this record is bittersweet, and notes quiver just on the edge of pitchininess as that voice unabashedly does not strive for perfection. It’s a ballsy way to kick off your first solo album, and Kaveh pulls it off, warts and all. Light of Love feels like the product of a full life lived, with much more on the horizon.
“It was really fun to make,” Rastegar tells me over the phone from his home in Los Angeles. He’s modest and serene throughout our conversation, with an ear on his two daughters in the next room. “It was refreshing to do something like that, and it all came together pretty organically.” Primarily known as the bassist for the Grammy-nominated, genreless quintet Kneebody, which he formed with friends nearly 20 years ago at Eastman School of Music, the last few years have seen Kaveh move from manipulating low end to producing and composing tracks for other artists. Light of Love “involves the bass, which I’m known for playing, but it also showcases different sides of me that I’m excited about,” he says. “Bass playing, writing, producing and collaborating. It was definitely a group effort.”
The album’s first vocal guest is Gaby Moreno, a Guatemalan “Spanglish folk soul” singer and guitarist with whom Rastegar has performed in the past. Her feathery delivery on “Cuento Ilogico” sails over his signature plucky, warm and arresting P-bass, and feels at times like Bjork vibing with Meshell Ndegeocello. The comparison to the latter is warranted –Kaveh cowrote the song “Conviction” on Ms. Ndegeocello’s 2014 album Comet, Come To Me– and the two also share the experience of playing both supporting and starring roles. “Kaveh is fucking awesome,” she says in the album’s press release.
Given its guests and stylistic eclecticism, the album remains cohesive. “That’s what I was hoping for,” says Kaveh. “There were certain common threads throughout, and a lot of features — I wanted it to have that family vibe, but steer the ship a little bit and make things work from song to song. I think a lot of musicians can relate to that feeling of having that voice you want to have come out into the world; there’s a threshold you cross from talking about it to actually doing it. A lot of us musicians who have made our way in the world by helping artists make their music better — there’s a lot of safety in that, because their thing is so solid it feels good to stand behind. It feels really good to put something out under my own name and hopefully have it stand on its own and speak for itself.”
When he’s not neck deep in Kneebody, composing, recording, touring, art directing, and social media-ing, you can find him on newly minted EGOT-winner John Legend’s bandstand, where he met legendary drummer Chris Dave, who is featured on two instrumental cuts. “The first time we ever played together was fall of 2016, and we did some shows in New York with John Legend. It was Rashid [Williams, Legend’s drummer], Chris, Pino Palladino and me — that was so much fun. Chris and I really hit it off, we had a lot of mutual friends, and we’ve now worked on a lot of recording projects together.”
Dave grooves hard, but so does session (and Tenacious D) drummer Scott Seiver, and being around stellar percussionists is nothing new for Kaveh. “I had some early mentors,” he tells me when I ask him how he’s moved beyond simply playing a role as a bass player. “There’s a drummer and great engineer in Denver, where I grew up — he was really particular about saying, ‘I’m not the drummer, I’m a musician.’ That always stuck in my mind when I would think about identifying myself. I’ve always been interested in creating things; I’ve always enjoyed drawing, ever since I could hold a pen or pencil, I always drew, and that developed as I got older. And from the second I picked up the bass, I learned on my own through writing little songs or jams or patterns or melodic ideas, always exercising that creative side of making something. That was always in my mind as I was coming up as a bass player. You’re always looking for people who have done that in their careers, people who you emulate. I’ve always looked for those opportunities to branch out as I developed a voice as a bass player. I really love that role, but [producing, writing, etc.] are an extension of that early feeling of always wanting to make things.”
Making Light of Love began almost where it ends, with penultimate track “A Little Too Late” incubating early on. Becca Stevens’ cadence wavers on the edge of fragility, the song swaying almost like a Pearl Jam ballad. “Becca was improvising that guitar part,” Kaveh remembers, “and I think we both kind of just sang the melody together, and I constructed a song form. We did what a lot of people do — make a demo with placeholder syllables, and there were some words in there too [sings chorus]. I sent my demo to Adam Levy, who’s a fantastic songwriter, and maybe a week later he texted me back lyrics. Maybe a year later, once the meat of my album had been done, Becca came over and we recorded Adam’s lyrics and finished the outro, and then I produced it.”
Other songs, like “Roll Call,” featuring Mike Viola, were born in a similarly fragmented way. “It was really fun too, because Mike is an amazing writer and great artist,” recalls Rastegar. “That again was snippet of a jam that Scott and I had done that just felt really good. I was on an airplane when I edited it and stopped it where it turns into something else — he starts playing this Paul Motian-y, straight eighths kind of jazz thing, and I just stopped it. it was just fun to write like that.”
Kaveh has previously composed using this jam and chop method, most notably on De La Soul’s 2016 album and the Anonymous Nobody…, which “was a little daunting, because there was so much material to cull from,” he says (the Times corroborates, placing the total at 200 hours). “There were so many people. That was an amazing experience — De La is probably top ten most formative artists in my life. Having done that taught me a lot about doing this record; I was able to do it without any hesitation… There were weeks of jams.”
Other collaborators on Light of Love include Dawn Richard, who adds a subtle sultriness to the dubbed-out “Lavender,” Nicholas Payton and his stately trumpet on “Long March,” prolific Austinite David Garza on the title track, and Amy Kuney, whose Fiona Apple timbre rounds out “Accidents Waiting to Happen.” The constant throughout, though, is Rastegar’s liquid bass playing. I ask him how he developed that voice, heard most perceptibly on closer “Luz Do Sol,” and the answer is reverential, inspirational and sensible.
“I’ve been playing bass for 30 years, and if I look back on it, there have always been these moments of inspiration or wanting to emulate certain sounds. As your ear develops and as your frames of reference develop, you’re able to finely tune what you’re trying to go for:
Right around that time Red Hot Chili Peppers were coming out with their fourth album and Flea was really jumping out onto the scene and it was just undeniable how amazing he is and was. That was the early inspiration. He’s just like a walking billboard for the instrument — if you want to jump into something and make something look exciting and sound amazing, just look at Flea. He did an amazing job of advertising the bass and making it something that lots of people would want to do. I was definitely one of those people.
All these bass players in the early ’90s were just incredible. From there I quickly became a bass player as a vocation — started played in reggae bands, salsa bands, doing different stuff around Denver. I remember when I was studying double bass, there’s a bass player in Denver named Artie Moore –all of my drummer friends liked playing with him– he’s a mentor and someone I’ve always looked up to. My friend was like, ‘Playing with Artie is amazing,’ and I was like, ‘Why? I just don’t understand. What is it about him?’ And then seeing him and his time feel was so amazing; it’s too subtle to understand when you first hear it. It’s not flashy.
“Just hearing more bass players like that along the way. When I first moved to L.A., my good friend Chris Thomas — I would hear him play a lot, and the thing that made him so special was something I didn’t see right away. It’s a deeper thing; the note length, where he puts the beat, the note choice. Hearing Sean Hurley, or Jimmy Johnson — you hear these bass players who have this really good grasp of note choice and time feel and they’re also pretty inspired people. They’re always working on stuff. I’d go into phases, getting into what Paul McCartney was doing, or a big James Jamerson period. Hearing the soloed bass on “Bernadette”… it’s just so buoyant and grooving, and it drives the train.”
That listening and learning journey only led to more creativity. “At a certain point I made a conscious decision to write more, and to finish more songs,” he says. “I had always written with bands I was in, or with Kneebody, where you have a song fully composed and bring it in. When I started really getting involved in writing sessions out here in L.A., one of the things you learn the quickest is to be flexible, to not enforce your writing style on anyone, because a lot of times you’re working with somebody you’ve never worked with before. You’re bringing people skills in addition to your writing skills. There are just so many different ways to write a song, and I can’t stress that enough. I’m definitely of the school that you throw everything at the wall, try it any way you can… I was talking to Pos from De La Soul, and I was so impressed by the way he writes lyrics. He was like, ‘If you’re waiting for that inspiration, for that lightning bolt to hit you, if you’re waiting for that kind of writing style to take over, you’ll probably write like two songs a year. And what you really need to do is open yourself up to all the different ways songs can come.’ As I’ve had more songs, be them songs I’ve written for myself or with other artists, I love looking back at the individual stories about how an initial idea germinated into a song you hear now.”
Light of Love showcases that nostalgic, personal writing style, a production ear that marries in- and out of the box recording technique, and casually confident skill across multiple instruments. Fortunately, it’s only the beginning of this solo excursion, and Kaveh has already completed another album, which will no doubt reveal yet another side of his musical dexterity. With a Kneebody U.S. tour kicking off this week, an album release show in the books and co-production on Sabrina Claudio’s new album, Kaveh has no plans of slowing down. Light of Love is the perfect introduction to a musician who dearly values collaboration, craftsmanship and evolution.