Caroline Polachek is surrendering to chaos
Trapped in London, an ocean away from her US homeland, Caroline Polachek spent some of her pandemic-induced isolation going down a Pedro Almodóvar “rabbit hole”.
“I was taken by the humanity in his work,” she reflects, staring aside as if scenes from the Spanish auteur’s films are flitting across her eyes. “How he creates space for women to be deeply intelligent, ferocious, unhinged, comedic, sexy and an absolute mess. I found that all very liberating. This was the hot-blooded, chaotic-but-soulful, emotional undertone for the album.”
The album is Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, a pop fantasia every bit as surreal and dramatic as an Almodóvar film (and, fittingly, releasing on Valentine’s Day). Describing it as a record “about leaving yourself”, it reaches towards unbridled experimentation, contorting her compositions into unpredictable shapes and shrouding lyrics in ambiguity. Polachek has, ironically, never sounded more confident in her vision.
It’s morning in Los Angeles when she calls me from her home studio, a white room bathed in sunlight, warning that she may lack articulation with only a little coffee in her system (a precaution which proved to be entirely baseless). Strapped into a pair of over-ear headphones and speaking into a microphone which occupies half her screen, her setup reminds me of the first time we met: squatting among a mountain of gear in the studio where her former band Chairlift recorded their final album. That day, she determined the fruit that best embodied her personality was a persimmon. Over seven years later, sitting just as serenely at her desk, she is now a passionfruit: “I love how different it is on the inside than on the outside… how fragrant it is.”
Desire… arrives, arguably, at the peak of Polachek’s popularity. The legions of Chairlift fans, now of a certain age, have been joined by an entirely new audience in recent years, as Polachek has aligned herself with the major players of hyperpop. By the time Pang, her solo debut under her given name, was unveiled in 2019, she could claim a fanbase who had never known her as anything but an accomplished pop diva. It was on this wave of surging interest and acclaim that So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings – Pang’s showstopping single – crested to its highest streaming numbers over two years after its release. Polachek’s choreography in the track’s video inspired a TikTok dance challenge which turned the song into a runaway sleeper hit. Her rejoinder to the viral moment, posted on TikTok with the caption “oops it’s me ♡”, has nearly two and a half million views at the time of writing (a million less than the second clip she posted, in which she hums, Disney princess style, to a horde of park pigeons before unleashing a terrifying squawk, sustained for 15 seconds).
While Polachek’s aesthetic has always been grounded in classically romantic notions of nature and beauty, she has, from the get-go, been an artist wholly in tune with her presentation in the digital world. “I’m an absolute nerd when it comes to being hands-on about graphic design, photos, styling,” she says. “I edit my own videos. I’m so [involved] in the mechanics of how everything gets made. That’s always been very important to me.” This, of course, extends to her very memeable method of dance. When asked to describe her style of movement, Polachek chuckles that “it’s very bless this mess. I have no background in dance at all, as dancers in the comments keenly point out.”
Nonetheless, she felt comfortable enough to forgo the aid of backup dancers when she embarked on Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia tour as a supporting act last year. With the exception of Chairlift once opening for The Killers (“Oh wow,” laughs Polachek as she processes the memory), her shows with Lipa were the biggest she had ever done, and gave the artist who began as a “scrappy indie band playing warehouse gigs in Brooklyn” an unprecedented level of exposure. “The adjustment period was crazy,” she recollects, her eyes widening at the memory. “The first week I was having a full-on panic attack. But the cool thing was that a month into the tour, it felt like walking into my own living room. I felt so unfazed by it.”
In the eyes of her fans, Polachek’s musical career has been a steady stream of success, but she has only just begun to accept this version of reality. “I was living with this sense of suspended disbelief where I thought that, at any moment, the other shoe would drop,” she says. “And honestly? That lasted for the first ten years of making music. It’s only recently that I wake up without any doubt that this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. It takes a long time to not feel like an imposter.”
With such an operatic command of her voice, it’s hard to believe that Polachek hasn’t undergone rigorous formal training. A gift from her father to dissuade her from “being disruptive” on the family piano would have the most profound impact on her musical development: “My dad was very sensitive to noise, so I was given this little Yamaha keyboard that I could play in my room,” she says, proudly admitting that she still has both the instrument and her first “very secret” recording demos. “I didn’t know what a synthesiser, kick drum, snare drum or hi-hat was. I had no idea what the physical analogue to any of these sounds was. But I learned how they construct a beat, so at a very young age I had the basics of how a pop song is put together without even fully realising it. It changed my life.”
“It’s only recently that I wake up without any doubt that this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. It takes a long time to not feel like an imposter”
Choir became her chief pursuit as she got older – “When I was 17, I was singing in five choirs at once – wow!” – in addition to opera and singing in not one, but two nu-metal bands. During her sophomore year of university in Colorado, she met Aaron Pfenning and formed Chairlift, relocating to New York City in 2007 and adding Patrick Wimberly to the line-up. Music had always been Polachek’s passion, but it was not long after her move that its viability as a career dawned on her. “I was at my final exam when Apple first ran the iPod Nano ad,” she says, referring to the tech company’s use of Charlift’s Bruises in an international campaign. “I was sitting in the computer lab, refreshing the page over and over again, literally running late to the exam. I was like, ‘No, this is not real.’ Within months, all the major labels put deals in front of us, we had a record, and went on our first tour. It all happened very fast and I was totally unprepared for it.”
Pfenning left Chairlift in 2010 before their watershed 2012 project Something, a record in which Polachek crystallised the sound of her vintage-inflected synth-pop. Her singing, marrying classic melodrama to the dynamism of power-pop, dazzled critics and made her one of the era’s most in-demand collaborators, most notably co-penning No Angel for Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, which netted her a Grammy nomination. The following year brought Polachek’s first solo album, a collection of “pastoral electro” she released under the moniker Ramona Lisa. Chairlift split up in 2017, and another instrumental solo album followed, billed by her initials, CEP.
How does Polachek look back on this formative era? “Being in the studio [with Chairlift], hand-playing all those synth parts, doing a hundred takes of an arpeggio – I didn’t realise but I was training the shit out of my ear. These projects all trained different parts of me as a musician, and you can feel them in different ways. The interiority and futurism of CEP, and the playfulness and theatricality of Ramona Lisa, is still very much alive in my work.”
The dissolution of Chairlift allowed Polachek the space for new collaborations, and in 2015, she received a call from a figure now vital in her story – former PC Music wunderkind producer, Danny L Harle. “The first time we met I had this weird, immediate feeling that I’ve known him for a long time,” she recalls. “Our history of working together has been pushing each other in a brotherly-sisterly way, sometimes very viscerally, out of our comfort zones. We have so much faith in each other. We trust each other’s sense of sentimentality, beauty and humour. I feel so lucky to have found a real partner in this era of music.”
Harle co-executive produced Pang, and the experience was so fruitful that Polachek would have asked him to step into the same role for Desire… had she not already started writing it. Deep into recording Pang in 2018, Polachek found herself with a song she instinctively knew wasn’t right for the record she was shaping. “But it did set the tone for where I wanted to go next,” she explains, thoughtfully tapping the stem of her microphone. “[Somewhere] much more rhythmic, including a lot of spoken vocals, playing heavily with abstraction, and an expressionistic, non-lyrical approach to singing.”
Filing it away for a few years, that song has now emerged as Welcome to My Island, the triumphant introduction to a new chapter in Polachek’s story, and serving as both Desire…’s album opener and the source of its title. Well aware this track would set the project’s mood – “That howling, 40 seconds of vocals at the top is a bit of a manifesto for where we’re gonna go” – she is quick to label it the “brattiest” song she’s ever written. “‘Bratty’ as in the perfect intersection of irrationally entitled and angsty, and maybe a bit destructive,” she muses, her face lighting up with glee. “It’s about simmering in your own ego, not getting out of your own head and spiralling.” In her telling, this “deep, emotional spiral” is the nexus of a sort of ego-death; a necessary starting point in a journey towards the freedom of losing one’s self. It’s the reason it had to kick off the album.
A few months after Pang’s release, Polachek continued to follow the trail of creative breadcrumbs left by Welcome to My Island. She developed Smoke – a sing-song, high-energy ballad and Desire…’s penultimate track – and Bunny Is a Rider, a track she described as a “summer jam about being unavailable” when it was dropped as a single in 2021. It was our first taste of this new era, and its reception was fervent: Pitchfork named it the best song of the year, an honour even the accolade-hesitant Polachek says was a “shock”.
‘Bunny’ is a character whose mutability exemplifies the energy of Polachek’s new work, and, as she told Crack Magazine in a 2021 interview, is derived from a “stream of consciousness, dream-like chorus”. When asked to expand on these comments, Polachek becomes highly animated, the words tumbling out: “[I like] being loyal to the tone of the song without telling a literal story. I feel like culture in general is suffering from a need for everything to be literal. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that’s never why we were interested in art in the first place. I’m a deep believer in what lies behind the story, so not only did I get back into that relationship with abstraction, but I pushed it further than I ever had before.”
Mere weeks after the studio session which produced Bunny came the pandemic, and with it some personal blows. Polachek was among the first wave to catch the virus, as was her father, who ultimately succumbed to it and passed away in April 2020. “Saying goodbye to him over FaceTime was one of the most painful experiences of my life,” she revealed in an interview the following year, and in the aftermath she didn’t write “for ages”. When her creative impulse returned, and forced to leave her then-home of London due to visa issues, she headed to Spain with Harle in tow. In between writing sessions and raving with Arca (“My favourite DJ in the world,” she gushes), she took inspiration from her surroundings, bringing a flamenco guitarist into the fold for Sunset, a bright, rhythmic track that incorporates palmas over a legato bassline.
Polachek’s continued explorations on Desire… morph synth-pop, glitchcore, balladry and classical instrumentation into joyous moments of unpredictability. The immersive Blood & Butter floats on an acid house groove before climaxing with a bagpipe breakdown, while album closer Billions cedes the song’s finale to a children’s choir. Polachek shares how Balearic stomper Pretty in Possible, the song she is “most proud of”, was born from a “cool experiment where Danny and I were like, ‘OK, let’s write a song that has no verses or choruses – where you just enter the song and flow.’”
Billions is the pinnacle of this experimental process. Over tectonic beats, she pushes her voice to extreme registers while crooning dreamlike couplets about lust and abundance, coining the magnificent word “cornucopeiac” and wielding a Horn of Plenty in the accompanying artwork. Even before the choir arrives, the song feels holy, sacred.
“I feel like culture in general is suffering from a need for everything to be literal. It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that’s never why we were interested in art in the first place”
Polachek is understandably reluctant to provide overt explanations for her work, but my sheer enthusiasm for Billions inspires her to open up: “I hate this word with a deep passion, but it’s tantric,” she begins slowly, choosing each word with precision. “Really sparkly, yet kind of stoned. Pupils dilated – moments of total openness.” She later describes it, in earnest, as an “extremely emotional song that has zero story whatsoever”. It also becomes clear, after a handful of listens, that the song has no discernible chorus. Polachek smiles and concurs. “I wanted the listener to feel lost inside the song.”
Polachek is witty and effusive in conversation, all too eager to analyse and dissect the reference points of her thoughts. It is perhaps why, aside from the joy she radiates when discussing her new album, she seems most animated when breathlessly telling me about her Debussy obsession – specifically, a trinity of songs depicting an erotic lesbian coming-of-age story: “There’s this scene in one of the songs where the protagonist just had sex in a swamp and is realising that her mother is going to call her out for being late. So she’s trying to come up with a lie about losing her belt in the swamp, and the piano starts imitating the sounds of the frogs and crickets as she’s spiralling… It’s just amazing.”
Polachek has perhaps unconsciously returned to the notion of “spiralling”, but it is no accident. This pitched emotional terrain was, after all, what led to Desire…’s conception, and – tellingly – ‘Spiraling’ is also the name of her upcoming headline tour where she will present the album to the world. These shows will be a chance for Polachek to extol the virtues of being impossible to pin down, submitting to the chaos of the unknown and revelling in the truest sense of self. “I feel ready to find everything I’ve been interested in,” she says with clear-eyed determination, “and explode the structure.”
Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is out on 14 February via Perpetual Novice