Culture / Music

Caroline Polachek on mushrooms, trapdoors, too-much-ness, nerds and her upcoming Australian shows

caroline polachek

When we speak Caroline Polachek has returned home to LA, and with refreshing honesty for an artist, confesses that she wants to sleep, restock the fridge and not wear makeup for a little while. The ever-evolving musician that cut her teeth in the 2000s indie scene in her band, Chairlift, has been steadily crescendoing into a holistic artist of great curation and consideration. Ahead of her show at the Sydney Opera House, we spoke to Polachek, our conversation even featured fan, friend and collaborator the "naughty rock man", Kirin J. Callinan.

Often, artists speak of how touring can be gruelling, closely followed with various strategies to maintain their sanity. However, Polachek affirms that she loves her bandmates, so doesn’t necessarily need those strategies.

My whole touring crew are all so close, and we really take great care of each other," Polachek said. "So you know the morale is always very high, even if the day's a drag." With an infectious joy, Polachek explains how she likes to make the most of her time alone, keeping her body and brain in check by visiting museums and parks in-between shows.

I wonder if it's her diverse interests and commitment to nourishing her creative self that leads to prolific outpourings such as we've witnessed? The artist admits that lack of "inspiration has never really been a problem” for her. Rather, the key to her work is time. “I really like to let ideas incubate for a long time until I really feel like I can see something from both sides, and know how to execute something.”

Polachek shares that she found making her most recent album, Desire, I Want To Turn Into You, to be challenging while touring her former album, Pang, which had been delayed due to the pandemic. “It created this sort of domino effect. Each thing had to be released while the next thing was being made, even down to the singles and music videos. So, it was very rushed and, in a way, I decided to lean into the messiness. It’s part of the aesthetic of the whole album.”

Polachek reflects on her latest release and its reception. “It feels like such a massive thing, and I guess it's because I'm thinking about the music. I'm thinking about all the places it's taken me; all the different images that have sprawled out of it, all the different looks I've been through on it, all of the fun collaborative moments – from remixes to performance guests – that entered its expanded universe. It's evolving still. It feels like a mushroom that's growing infinitely.” I ask if, like a mushroom, it’s growing in the dark. “Always in the dark.”

Polachek is grateful to her fans for the reception of her work, which she describes as an “eclectic album that doesn't really fit a lot of the parameters of contemporary pop music". She's no stranger to the industry and is paradoxically placed at once as a ‘new artist’ and a ‘career artist’. I ask if there is a unifying thread, or voice, through her various projects, or if it is a rebirth each time? "In some ways, I feel like I'm the last person that could ever see that clearly," Polachek says. "My manager always has to remind me of that. When I ask if a certain piece of music is incoherent with another one, he’ll say 'Caroline, you're singing on it, it's coherent'."

"But, on a more artistic level, all these projects I got to do before (Chairlift, CEP, Ramona Lisa) and all of the collaborations (with Beyonce or Dev Hynes) have been so formative and have given me glimpses into other ways of working," she continues. "They always end up feeding back into whatever I do next.” Polachek finds every session inspiring, evoking Dory Previn’s Lady With the Braid as she explains how it's like “braiding each thing into the next".

There's a stark shift in the lyrics between Pang, which seems more open and direct, to the mysterious and perhaps more obtuse Desire, I Want To Turn Into You. It feels as though different poets have been writing, and I ask if the latter intentionally has more focus on the sound of the syllable and provocative phrasing?

“I think that's everything that I wanted people to subconsciously experience, but you've hit the nail on the head actually. So, spoiler alert here – but yes.” Using Billions as a reference, Polachek expresses that the whole process had a feeling of “overflowing and too-much-ness”, and that these were guiding principles for everything – from the graphic design to the title. Had Polachek not been writing and recording simultaneously, she suggests she would have liked to push the record even further.

When asked about the role of Celine Dion and the acid trip in making this record, she was drawn in by the form of simplicity. “There's nothing aesthetically interesting about this. It's just pure soul. And in a way, that's an extremely courageous and extremely effective thing.”

Having come through the indie-rock scene, where everything was “so self-effacing and so layered”, Polachek is intrigued by the honesty and simplicity of what we might call ‘pop’ music. The other touchstone for her was taking a “90s approach to rhythm, both in hip-hop and in dance music. That was happening at the time. There were no big dynamic jumps, no big explosions into choruses and drops into verses, you just enter the song and you're flowing. The beat doesn't change once from start to finish.” Polachek found these organic rhythmic patterns so much fun to sing over and far less “like musical theatre.”

It's here that Kirin J. Callinan joins the conversation, jumping in with conceptual questions of his own. He discusses portals and moving between realms, citing Polachek’s song Door as a great example of world-building. Polachek thoughtfully responds, saying:

“The term word ‘world-building' has been thrown around so much in pop music for the last five years and I think it was a word that really applied specifically to the last album I made, Pang. That was an exploratory time in my career because I was in contact with all these artists in the PC music collective. To me, PC music is actually like the multimedia art collective – not just a music collective because of the way they used imagery that's so related to advertising, and imagery that is inherently untrustworthy and commercial looking."

"But, they were using it with a completely different philosophy, turning it inside out, and making music that was subversive and underground," she continues. "It was very optimistic and future-forward as well. So I was in the midst of this collective and looking around at the way they're using visual media, but at the same time making an album that was so coded with antiquity and the idea of pastoral music. I was telling these very personal stories through a formal lens so it was this really exciting challenge for me to invoke world-building where I made my own version of what I felt like artists like Hannah Diamond or A.G. Cook were doing, but with a different kind of language.”

Polachek notes that other mainstream artists, like Lady Gaga, were also interested in this world-building. She was “less interested in mapping a terrain,” and that her record “has a lot of trapdoors, and it's trapdoors lead to really inconsistent, asymmetrical, sometimes random and sometimes incredibly connected places.”

Callinan is keen to understand how an artist like Polachek reconciles her interior and exterior world. “I personally struggle with remaining creative, let alone inspired and focused, while also being connected to the world or worlds online, writing my best works, and being at my most emotionally vulnerable and intuitive, when offline. Perhaps I’m a luddite or a heathen, but even to write these interview questions for someone I genuinely admire I had to delete my Instagram, disconnect, get out of the house and go sit in the park. It’s a little bit embarrassing," Callinan confesses. "You strike me however as someone who remains engaged, interconnected, informed and online, yet also incredibly focused, hard working and inspired. Have you had to reconcile these worlds, and if so, please tell me how?”

Polachek quickly quips an honest response to this question of reconciliation, saying that she “absolutely has not!” Yet delves instead into podcasts of Jungian analysts on fame. “They said something that shook me to the core. These brilliant, older analysts were speaking about youth – about how modern contemporary culture, like pop culture, is really all about youth.” She continues by saying that with the focus on our phones, visual culture is more easily rewarded than other forms (like being a great songwriter, or making a good joke). These appear to have less of a reward than for those that can manifest as JPEGS or suit the needs of the platform, which makes its own demands and can determine what kind of artist will succeed.

Whilst Polachek notes that this has always been the case, it "lit a fire under her ass". It inspired a revelation: “Wait a minute – I need to use these visual forms, these flat online visual forms, as ways to lead people elsewhere into physical spaces.” Whether cerebral, imagined, or a physical space, Polachek’s goals do not have a 2D barrier. 

Self-confessed hopeless romantic, Callinan, wants to delve into the emotional bonds Polachek has with her collaborators, her fellow world-builders, and her inspirations. “I know you regularly work with a bunch of artists and producers, Danny L Harle, Salvador Navarrete (aka Sega Bodega), photographer, director and creative powerhouse Aidan Zamiri. These people clearly makeup your team but they’re also, evidently, your neighbours, your friends and your family. I see it time and time again – people working in writing rooms or paired up with big name producers – but rarely do I see vital, combustive work come together like I do from collaborators with an emotional bond, corresponding frequencies or proven simpatico, like you and yours.” Polachek explains that the proof of her collaborations is in the pudding. 

“I did a lot of experimenting right around the time I first went solo, and at the time I was with a major label so, of course, I had an A&R who was putting me in rooms with top liners and Producers with a capital ‘P’. But at the same time, I was also completely broke. So, I would do any session I could for any other artist.”

Polachek explains just how much work goes into these sessions, that maybe only one song out of ten sessions would get used. She cites her relationship with Danny L Harle, with whom she wrote Ashes of Love, as one of her most successful creative unions. “We both felt this sense of synergy in the studio, and we're like, 'Hey! I think we have more. There's more here that we should try out.' The second song we wrote together was called Parachute and that closes my last album.”

Polachek explains that writing Parachute shoved all other “LA-style collabs to the side”. It evidently moved her, saying, “I said 'This is what I live for, making music that feels this honest and exciting'. I think that just kind of woke me up to how I wanted to work, and more importantly, how I wanted to live. I want to be surrounded by nerds [laughs]. Surrounded by dreamers and nerds and people who are extremely curious and who are making things that I admire.”

Like most artists who fall in and out of love with their work as they create it, Callinan wants to know what qualities Polachek places above all else. What makes a song, idea or moment for you? What quality do you place above all else in your work, for it to stand your personal test of time. And conversely, is there a recurring feature in your work that you wish to eliminate or do away with; a defensive trope or trait that perhaps makes something feel disingenuous, forced, flawed, cringe, under-baked or unrealised?”

Polachek responds, “Well, as I'm in the studio and ideas are nascent, there's definitely a crush-like quality that can happen where you have a crush on something that is like, hiding within a sketch. It perfumes your life with this new flavour of this thing that maybe you could turn into.” Polachek explains that there are already ideas in her mind and heart waiting to bloom, yet listening to the piece of music 2000 times whilst working on it can kill the crush. It can slip into a fizzled-out long-term relationship – and only with time you can look back on the work, appreciate it, and not even recognise yourself in it.

It is reassuring to aspiring artists that even those we admire hit roadblocks and occasionally get frustrated – and Polachek is no exception. She confesses that there is one thing she is “endlessly annoyed by” in her own stuff, which is not letting things breathe enough.

“I think it's something I've learned a lot more in this last album, but cramming things too full of sounds and too full of gestures," she says. "I think right now especially – maybe it has to do with getting older – I'm learning the power of open space, both in a song and in a composition.”

“Yesterday, I was at the LAX baggage claim, zombie-mode waiting for my suitcases under the fluorescent lights, and that Ed Sheeran song [Polachek sings Thinking Out Loud] played. I was like, 'Those pauses between lines are so expressive'. I think the older I get and the more I make music, the more I'm learning the power of distance and space.”

Ever-learning and growing from chaos, we conclude our conversation with Polachek and eagerly await to see what is behind the next trapdoor.

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