Caroline Polachek finally feels understood
One of the greatest musicians of our time reflects on her world post 'Pang' and why gigs are (were?) the ultimate places to work through shit.
All clothes and jewellery Caroline's own
Caroline’s story originally appeared in i-D's The Faith In Chaos Issue, no. 360, Summer 2020. Order your copy here. For context, our interview was conducted the day before the WHO declared the Covid-19 outbreak a global pandemic.
“If you wanna create a moment of relief in a song, you have to create something that’s gonna disappear.” A car alarm has been going off outside the window where Caroline Polachek and I are sitting in London with tea and an attention-seeking whippet for about five minutes now. It stops. The sudden silence reminds her of a technique one of her collaborators, producer Dan Carey, uses. “He’ll add this really subliminal track of white noise that builds and builds and then you just take it away. And you can’t tell what just happened but it’s like when that alarm stopped; it just creates this calm.” I ask whether she’s implemented this in her own work. “Me? Relief? That’s not my genre,” she laughs. “I’m all angst!”
After 11 years and three albums at the helm of Brooklyn synth-pop band Chairlift — plus a handful of releases under solo side projects Ramona Lisa and CEP — at the end of 2019, the classically trained musician released an album in her own name for the very first time. This is the most her her music has ever felt, she says. “There are aspects of my personality and my taste that I got to live out in other projects, even in collaborations, but this fuses all of those impulses together.”
The critically acclaimed Pang beautifully explores apathy, taking risks and letting love change the course of your life. It was named after the intense feelings experienced at the time of writing it, feelings that she describes as so much deeper than anxiety. “I was having adrenaline surges that were actually really unpleasant. I was unable to sleep, I lost my appetite, dropped a bunch of weight and was constantly wired.”
When it landed last summer, lead single “Door” blew minds and set the tone with a surreal kaleidoscopic video of Caroline flanked by two greyhounds, the album’s spirit animal. “I’ve always been very attracted to how earnest and beautiful and nervous they are,” Caroline says, looking to the sighthound in the room. “When the album was coming together, it kind of hit me that a greyhound embodies that: it looks like how adrenalin feels. They’re kind of the embodiment of the flight or fight response, and their sharp linear quality felt so synced up with the melodies and the textures and the intention of the album.” It’s a novel thing, to assign a spirit animal to a body of music, but it’s something that Caroline almost always does — Chairlift’s last album was called Moth, and Ramona Lisa’s Arcadia used cicada imagery and sounds throughout. “I thought it was this romantic idea,” she remembers. “Being buried underground for seven years, then you come out and have one summer to find your mate and die. I was just so obsessed with the gothic romanticism of that lifecycle.”
Caroline describes her vision for Pang as “expressionist storybook goth”. At first glance, a mythical fantasy world; look a little closer and you’ll find something deeper than that. “I’ve forever been a fan of surrealism and the way that psychology and mental states got turned into landscapes, objects and situations,” she says. “Particularly by the female surrealists, who were so overlooked... artists like Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage and Leonora Carrington. Dali and Magritte get all the hype!” The album’s three music videos, which Caroline co-directed with her artist boyfriend Matt Copson, who — when not accidentally quarantined in London — she lives with in Los Angeles, embrace this fully.
“At that time I felt so polarised: I felt like there was my inner world and then there was my lived experience which was, like, me in a sweatshirt in a studio, which is not what the music felt like. The music was coming from this other place.” And so they created it. First there was “Door”, with the aforementioned greyhounds, yes, but also an infinity mirror, an endless corridor of doors and a swirling wormhole hanging outside her bedroom window. Then came the “Ocean of Tears” surrounding Caroline’s pirate ship. Forewarning that “this is gonna be torture” in the opening line, she feels the distance as she looks to her beloved through a telescope from up in the crow’s nest, the wordless chorus a siren call. Finally there was “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”, in which a cowboy-booted and school skirt-suited Caroline line-dances through the fire pits of hell.
Much of the album was written and produced in collaboration with Caroline’s good friend Danny L Harle. “I remember, prior to everything, my manager reaching out to me to say that Dan wanted to work with me and that, ‘Yes, he’s part of the PC Music collective, but he’s not like the others!’ As if I had internalised some kind of stigma... which I hadn’t. But he was right — Danny L Harle is not like the others. But to be fair, none of them are like each other. They’re a crazy constellation.” Track three, “New Normal”, is actually a song about her friendship with the British producer, which she describes as having a ‘brother she never had’ sort of closeness. Set across seven chapters, the lyrics are a literal and surreal step-by-step walkthrough of their relationship over production that starts out country and ends up pure wonky percussion.
Caroline is loving her post-Pang world. “There’s this amazing feeling of being understood that I guess I didn’t realise could exist,” she explains. “I’ve got friends sending me things all the time like ‘This is so you!’ and there’s a new collaborative energy, too; people I really admire are reaching out to me to work together, which is really exciting.” A very special collaboration — and a fan favourite — came a couple of months ago the form of La Vita Nuova, the title track of a chaotic, queer, Dante-inspired EP and dance film by Christine and the Queens. Caroline serenades Héloïse in Italian across the Opéra Garnier before the latter turns into a vampire and sucks her blood. “Oh it was amazing,” she says. “I was told very little about what they wanted from me performance wise, then when I got to Paris to rehearse I was told that I was actually going to be playing the love interest in the final chapter of the video, which obviously I was very up for. There was this funny moment in rehearsal where Christine asked very nicely: ‘So, is it OK if, in this moment, I lick your neck? It’s OK if you say no!’ and I was like, ‘No, it’s great! Absolutely! Go for it! People are gonna die.’” And die they did.
Collaborations aside, I wonder whether, for someone who was part of a band for so long, it feels particularly vulnerable to perform alone? “Even when I was in a band, I always felt so vulnerable,” Caroline says. “If someone else would mess up on stage, I always felt like it fell on me, like I was the face of the entire thing. That might have just been my ego, as a front person.”
Conversely, she finds the amount of control she now has over the live show, knowing exactly what’s gonna happen, very relaxing. “And I think that kind of vulnerability that you’re talking about is actually the most rewarding thing; when you can really offer that and the people watching meet you there as well. One of the most special things about concerts is actually how vulnerable the audience is, too. I feel like for half the time at a gig, people aren’t really listening, they’re processing their own shit: what happened to them that day, a fight they had with someone, or this thing that means a lot to them. And so the concert becomes this amazing place where hundreds or thousands of people are standing in a place together, working through their own shit, while simultaneously really opening up their senses to sight and to sound and to thinking about art. And I think that’s an extremely holy place for us to do that communally, in one place, without even having to talk about it. I space out and think about my own shit at every gig I go to.”
Photography Ian Kenneth Bird
Styling Bojana Kozeravic