Caroline Polachek on Bunny is a Rider and collaborating with Danny L Harle
Last night (14 July), Caroline Polachek returned with brand new music.
The US singer, songwriter and producer’s latest single, Bunny is a Rider, is her first release since her cover of The Corrs’ Breathless, which was shared officially on a remix project released in April. The record also featured a string of reworks of tracks from Polachek’s immersive 2019 debut album under her own name, Pang. Bunny is a Rider finds her working alongside close friend and frequent collaborator Danny L Harle, whose baby daughter adds a vocal cameo – her first, of course – to the bass-driven summer bop.
We caught up with Polachek ahead of its release to discuss the creation of the track, her musical dynamic with Harle, and how the pandemic has affected her creativity.
How did Bunny is a Rider come together?
This track began right before the pandemic. It was part of a 48-hour manic spree of writing that I did with Danny L Harle back in January 2020. I was in between shows and it was written right before a show at the El Rey in LA. Dan has a secret history of being an absolute bass shredder – he went to conservatory for jazz bass – and he never puts in use. Live bass has always been my favourite instrument, besides the human voice. I love writing for bass, I love a bass hook and I love what it does to your body. So, I was keen to write something that was really bass-led. We wrote this song that was just really based around this groove. Almost immediately, I heard this kind of stream of consciousness, dream-like chorus for it.
And then what happened?
I got swept up immediately into touring, but I was really excited to return to this song. However, I got sick with Covid while touring. While coming out the other end of the Covid tunnel, and finding myself in lockdown in London, I didn’t want to touch this music. It was part of body of music that included a handful of other songs that I was actually writing for my festival show at the time. When it was clear that festivals weren’t going to happen in 2020, rather than trying to force this music – which was really bodied, really fun, and quite spicy and sexy – I was like, ‘I’m completely not in a headspace where I can be loyal to this music right now’. Rather than trying to force it, I just put it on ice.
It wasn’t until about a year ago that I felt kind of woken up again, by the summer and things beginning to open up a bit in the UK and Europe. [That’s when] I finished the lyrics for it. It’s a very minimal production, but Dan and I really got into detail with the sounds; we had a lot of fun with the sound design for this one. We did take our time with the details, but I’m very pleased that it’s finally coming out, and also that it’s going to be a summer song.
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Talk me through the track’s title.
The title comes from the refrain that carries the song. The song itself is about freedom via disappearance. You know, we’re all so available and beholden to each other. I wrote the chorus without thinking about it, which is kind of how I do a lot of my initial lyric writing, and then I go back and unpack it and usually discover that it meant something – which is how this chorus happened. It’s really just about being unavailable and being slippery and the power of non-response, which is [a] freedom that we rarely have. It’s also about the sexiness of being mysterious and being unavailable. Bunny is all of us in that way, at our most slippery.
Is there a particular environment or set-up that you feel it would be best enjoyed in?
I would love for Bunny is a Rider to be played at parties and people’s cars, or on people’s shitty Bluetooth speakers in the park.
What draws you to Danny as a collaborator?
The first time I ever met Danny L Harle, I immediately felt like we were related, like we were secret siblings or something. I felt that I felt as if I’d known him my whole life, actually. But Dan and I have a similar sense of eclecticism. We both love different sources of inspiration that are really far-flung and disparate, and we both have a really similar sense of musicality. Also, we’re also both sentimental and we really push each other and we really kind of get off on challenging each other. Me with pushing him into sounds and different kinds of chords that he hasn’t gotten to explore, and him with pushing me into different kinds of experimentation and bold approaches to pop.
I come from a kind of more indie, experimental background, and I think he has a really interesting relationship with contemporary pop and [brings] those ideas to the session. Also, we both have a background in classical music, which we actually so rarely discuss, but it does really flavour what we do together, that shared kind of knowledge and appreciation.
In general, what qualities do you look for in collaborators or even remixers?
No two collaborators are going to be the same. There’s this interesting thing with creative chemistry – someone you vibe with as a friend isn’t always going to be the best collaborator, and so I learned to actually stay quite open-minded. Like, someone you meet at a party and find to be kind of boring might actually be someone you have incredible writing chemistry with. Vice versa, as well. So, it’s a really fun surprise to discover what works. In terms of picking who I collaborate with out of the blue, I guess I just go for a real sense of bravery and a real sense of self in the music.
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Has your songwriting process changed at all during the pandemic?
It’s changed massively. But I guess, for musicians, it’s impossible for it not to have changed, just because we lost our live stage, started existing more online, and we were separated from each other. My creative process went through two major shifts. The first was that I got really drawn into working with people remotely. I don’t know if it was very successful, but during the middle of the pandemic one of the things that kept me waking up in the morning was collaborating with friends and artists that I really respect who were remote.
Who did you collaborate with?
So, I did a couple tracks with OPN, I started a track with SOPHIE that may never see the light of day, same thing with Beck and Grimes. At the end of the day, it wasn’t even about finishing things. They were a form of playdates, almost, like really beautiful ways of spending time with friends.
Then, in the summer of 2020, I felt a big kind of tectonic shift both inside me and also in the world. I realised that I wanted to make music that was no longer narrative, at least for a while. My last record was very personal and very narrative, and I realised that the stories that I’d have to tell in 2020 would be the same as everyone else’s. This didn’t mean that they weren’t worth telling, but I wanted to go deeper and get into a more dream-like flow with lyric writing where things didn’t need to make sense on the surface, but they just needed to make sense in my body. I started getting really into the idea of this dream-like stream of consciousness writing – but not having it be psychedelic music per se. Bunny is a Rider is maybe the first of that manifesto of new writing for me.
Will Bunny is a Rider and the other songs created during the same period, for your festival show, form a future project?
Yes, they will.
During lockdown what inspired you the most creatively: the songwriting side of your work or the production side?
I went through so many chapters. For the first few weeks I got really deep into trying to become a better drum producer. For me, that’s always been my Achilles heel. I feel so comfortable and confident with synths and vocals production and sound design. But when it comes to beats, I’ve always had this chip on my shoulder and I’ve always had a bit of imposter syndrome. I figured, ‘Okay, this is a good time to do it’. Then I realised I was driving my boyfriend crazy in the house and I got a bit restless. I moved over to piano because I’ve always been a synth player rather than a pianist, which means that I’ve always had a transpose button on the keyboard. I’ve never actually had to learn to play any keys besides C. So, I started just drilling scale exercises and actually got quite a lot of dexterity with it. In terms of lyric writing, I embarked briefly on this experiment that I will one day go back to, but I didn’t actually finish during the pandemic.
What were you working on?
I wanted to make an instrumental mixtape in the [same style] as the original hip-hop mixtapes, which had rap over instrumentals you didn’t have the rights to or you didn’t have the clearance to use. The mixtape [format] has since evolved into just an album without a campaign, but I wanted to go back to the original idea of the mixtape. So much of my favourite music over the years is instrumental music; everything from film soundtracks to Brian Eno to more beat-driven, electronic music. I thought it’d be really cool to make a mixtape where I write songs over my favourite instrumental music. I got about halfway into that and then put it on ice. But that’s definitely something I’m excited to finish one day.
Let’s talk about Breathless. Why do you feel so many fans connected with your reimagining of the song? Did you expect such a positive reaction?
Honestly, I didn’t. I was actually quite nervous to release a cover at all during the pandemic, because I didn’t know what the atmosphere was going to be like. Breathless is one of those beautiful songs that retains this magical, nostalgic, pure pop place in people’s imaginations – even people who were too young to experience that song when it first came out. I was like a kid in the backseat listening to that song when it was on the radio in the 90s, but it still triggers this beautiful feeling for me. It was written by Mutt Lange who did a lot of the Shania Twain hits. I think, for that reason, a lot of people think it’s actually by Shania Twain. I absolutely idolised her, so I love that it’s even mixed up in Shania extended universe.
I think that song was one of the first times I ever heard anyone do kind of vocal flipping between registers, which has become something that I use really heavily in my singing, and something that people associate with me as a vocalist. I thought it’d be kind of fun to cover a song that actually requires that, as a sort of homage. I also wanted to see if I could update the production, because as much as it’s a perfectly written song, when I listen back to it now, through the ears of a producer in 2021, the production sounds extremely dated and flat. To me, that’s a great opportunity to cover a song: when it’s perfectly written, but the production could be updated.
When did you record the cover?
That cover was originally produced with Danny L Harle for Charli XCX‘s Pop 2 afterparty. It was really impulsive. We were in New York, I was going to perform with her that night and Danny was in town. I was like, ‘I really want to cover the song in the afterparty.’ And he was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ And I downloaded a really basic production of it, send it to Danny, and then he sauced it up really hard. We performed it that night and people lost their minds. At that point, I was like, ‘Okay, this needs to come out’.
You’ve always been someone who revels in connecting visuals, aesthetic and music together. What drives that side of you and is there anywhere you look for inspiration?
Well, I guess I’m just a major fan. I love the world-building that’s been happening in pop since, like, David Bowie; like these ideas of crafting a world and character around an album. I remember some of my most kind of magical, transformative experiences as a kid were watching Björk videos, Marilyn Manson videos or Busta Rhymes’ Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See. These visual experiences that take you into other worlds were always just the most compelling thing that existed to me as a kid.
On the other hand, the more I do it myself – at least, to the best of my ability – the more I realise that this is actually what culture is: building these places that people can live culturally in the world with with a set of things. So it’s not just pictures and music, it’s actually setting up a cultural space. It’s a way of living in the world and dreaming in the world. It’s a way of harmonising yourself as a fan even with all the ugliness and violence of the world. It’s being like, ‘Well, there’s this culture pocket that exists, and there are other people that like this, there are other people that get this’. I can go to the gig and I can look around, and the people around me, who I’ve never met before, are in this pocket with me and dreaming this dream with me. I think that’s a really deeply beautiful thing.
Bunny is a Rider is out now via Perpetual Novice