Caroline Polachek has been in the pop game for over a decade.
Her band Chairlift (with Patrick Wimberly) released their first album, Does You Inspire You, back in 2008, and the early, lilting single “Bruises” became ubiquitous when it was featured in an iPod commercial, you know, back when iPod commercials could dictate popularity. Going on to release 2012’s Something and 2016’s fabulous and completely underrated Moth, the duo officially called it quits later that year, with a final tour in 2017. And though Polachek has been collaborating elsewhere and release solo material all along — 2014’s Arcadia as Ramona Lisa, and an experimental EP under her initials CEP in 2017 — last year’s full-length, Pang, was the first release under her own name.
Currently on tour behind the record, an album about the process of change, which can be incredibly painful or joyful at different turns, Polachek took some time out of traveling around the country to discuss the record, and her live show. From functioning as a solo artist for the first time, to collaborating with Danny L. Harle of PC Music, and how the old world cinema of LA influenced her live show, after striking out on her own Polachek is more articulate and passionate about her craft than ever. Read a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.
I’d love to start off discussing the visuals at your live show and some of the production elements that went into that, because it’s so much more than just the songs.
Well, starting when I was making the album, I was really kind of in my own head about what the live show was going to look like. The last twelve years I’ve toured with a band, so the understanding of what a live show would be was way more straightforward. But this time around, the record is so electronic that it didn’t lend itself to being hand played. In fact, I think it actually was really bad for the music to break it apart like that. What I was most excited about, musically, was just singing it, and letting the vocal performances be the number one dynamic piece of it. So I tried thinking: ‘What is my experience with this music? What does it feel like to me?’ And for me it feels very dreamlike and very environmental and fantastical. So I wanted to be loyal to those ideas for the live show and bring people into the worlds that I was living in musically, as much as I could.
The first big point of connection was working with backdrops. Because, as you might’ve seen the music videos, I’ve been working with a lot of painted backdrops, which gives things this mysterious, old school Hollywood feel. It’s like a little bit uncanny because it’s not CGI, but it’s not real either; it’s an in-between space. Now that I’ve moved out to LA, there are so many incredible old school cinema resources out here, and these backdrop companies and costume rental houses, which I’ve never had access to and I was living in New York. I wanted to continue that thread from the music video to the live show and work with this idea of there being this mutating, morphing backdrop that’s not a projection screen. I didn’t want anyone to feel like they’re watching TV. I wanted to feel like theater, like people are in the set that it’s just continually evolving.
That’s definitely how it felt. And I think that it does tie together into the other images that I really stuck out during this cycle, like the album cover and the single artwork for “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.”
I think I wouldn’t have worn the thong bodysuit from that single artwork on stage for the show… but maybe one day? I mean, I have no regrets about that decision, but you have to have a little more coverage.
That song, “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” was definitely one of my favorite songs of 2019. There was a sense of relief and playfulness after working through some of the heavier songs on record, so I’m wondering how it played into the whole narrative of the album for you?
All the things you just said, about feeling like it’s a kind of catharsis towards the end of the album! That’s exactly the way I approached it. Actually, that song was written right at the end of the album process and it’s written in what I call a sneeze — like it all came out really fast at once in the studio. That’s versus songs like “Door,” where I was very involved in the music and I worked on it for like over a year. But the album has this trajectory to it: We start out in this neutral observational place and then start working through apathy, shades of nihilism, regret, sadness, neglect — and then it opens up into a reflective, euphoric state and into kind of humor and joy towards the end, before finally landing on its feet with different kinds of closure at the end. Or an opening. But “So Hot” is definitely in a curve where humor factors into it, and I think it’s really necessary, actually.
I know you’ve talked about naming the album Pang many times already, but I was also thinking about it as a short, sharp title in an era of sentence-long album names. It was nice to just get a small word as a representation of so many bigger feelings. How does that word shift for you over the different songs? Because it seems like it can have both positive and negative connotations.
Yes, it absolutely can. I guess for me “pang” always comes down to this lack. I think that’s what connects all the different definitions of “pang” — a word that we use to describe hunger, regret, energy, nostalgia. Hunger is the most obvious one, but all of these feelings are connected by desire, and desire that’s really internal and private, not one that’s being broadcasted, necessarily. But it’s this bodily reminder that there’s something missing. I think that “pang” as a bodily reminder is just so key, and it being a musical idea as well. Because it’s this thing that you’ve maybe consciously neglected, that your body is forcing you to reckon with.
A lot of the experiences that I was writing from on this album do have to do with different kinds of like alarms that were going off inside of me at the time. “Pang” is so musical, and I love thinking about “panging” as a verb, and what that sounds like. Whether that’s a sharp little sound or whether that’s like a void pulling you in. While I was working with Danny Hall on the production, we would often talk about sounds very like literally in that way about, certain chords or drum sounds being “pang.” And we had this really amazing new shared understanding of what that meant.
I was going to ask you about working with Danny, how that relationship came about and unfolded in collaborating on the album?
It kind of came out of an accident. At first, we had a very quick opportunity to write together in LA a few years ago, and then, we were both in a sudden reactionary mood and wrote “Parachute,” but very fast and without the lyrics, just with just the music and a vocal melody. And both of us were so shaken up by it. It just had a different sound than anything either of us had ever done before. It also made us excited about writing other stuff that felt related to it, so we knew we had to do a lot more work together.
So I flew to London a few weeks later and we started writing a much bigger body of music that actually completely changed the course of the album as we worked more and more together. I hadn’t planned on him being the primary collaborator on the album, and in fact, I’d actually decided that after coming out of the band I wanted to explore the opportunity of writing with a lot of different people instead of just doing everything with one collab. But more and more it just felt like he and I had this very deeply shared understanding of the kind of beauty we were interested in crafting in this music. It felt like the collab was the beating heart of the album.
About a year into it I asked him more officially if he would come on as a co-executive producer with me to help make the rest of the decisions in the finishing process for this album. And he said, ‘Of course, yes.’ It’s actually very sad finishing the album because I’d gotten so used to working with him on it and for the rest of the visual process. But we still talk almost every day, we’re such good friends.
This was the first album that you did under your own name, how does that feel connected to the end of Chairlift and the other different eras of your career?
Well, the decision to use my name felt like a pretty natural one. Somewhat, I guess, because I already had a couple other aliases. I did solo projects under the name Ramona Lisa and my initials CEP, a few years back, both of which I’m really proud of. But those projects were definitely treated like, you know, side projects, not the main home for my music. And I thought maybe adding another pseudonym when there’s so many pre-existing would just be way too confusing at this point. I had already done so much work under my own name just as a writer and a producer and a collaborator with other artists that I was just thinking, ‘Look, I think it’s time to connect all the dots for people who’ve been following what I do.’ So I made this just as simple and straightforward of a next chapter as possible.
You’ve been doing solo work all along, but has this felt different now that Chairlift is officially finished as a collaboration?
Yeah, it feels very, very different. Obviously because this album was much more me, but the workflow is just very different. And sometimes I miss being in the band and being able to make those kinds of decisions hyper-collectively. But, for the most part, I feel that my loyalty to my own imagination and my own ideas is just stronger than ever right now. So, that’s felt really amazing.
I was thinking about the other sort of like classic divorce albums that people might have in mind. Everyone thinks of Marvin Gaye, or Bruce Springsteen maybe. But I was wondering if there are any women in the canon that you look to when you realize you would be writing about this big breakup, and all shifts that happen with that?
That’s an interesting question. This album, to me, is first and foremost about change. It’s about navigating change, and that can take so many forms for people. I imagined that people might be listening to this album in situations like… following a death, or a move, or a change in identity. I wanted to keep it as open for people as I possibly could despite the songs being really personal. But yeah, change can be a deeply terrifying thing that requires a lot of bravery and strength. So that was the grounding principle for me. And there are so many artists who are able to discuss like change and courage so beautifully. Like Joni Mitchell, Prefab Sprout, or Sufjan Stevens as well. I was listening to [Stephen] Sondheim last night, too, and considering the way he’d capture these extremely adult tensions so simply. I’m definitely inspired by those kinds of writers.
“Door” is actually my favorite song on the record, I love the lyrics “back in the city, I’m just another girl in a sweater.” I think you’ve always talked about the tensions of loneliness, escape, and anonymity that a city can bring, but I just wanted to talk a little bit about this song and what it represented for you.
It’s such a paradox actually, because the verses and the choruses, at least to me, felt totally disconnected as I was writing them. But, I kind of loved that. How the verses were doing, just like you were saying, this kind of solitary pensiveness, and then the choruses open out into this really beautiful euphoric lyric that is very much like singing to someone else. So, it doesn’t make much sense that like in the verses, you’re by yourself, but in the chorus, it opens out into this more directed thing. But I felt like that contradiction… I don’t know… makes it feel all the more real. Like, that’s kind of what thinking is like, kind of what memories are like as well. You get these disjointed pieces that fit together in an intuitive way. So, “Door” is a bit of a puzzle box like that.
It’s also sort of like the feeling of being in a city — you’re alone, but you’re never alone.
Exactly. In the verses, you’re in this very small urban landscape and in the chorus you’re launched into this internal world of the mind.
Pang is out now via Columbia Records. Get it here.