For our 'Let's Evolve' print issue, Caroline Polachek chats with frequent collaborator A. G. Cook to discuss finding a new sense of freedom, hypnotic hieroglyphics and the evolution of the music industry.
This article originally appeared in ‘The Let’s Evolve’ issue of BRICKS, available to purchase from our online store.
After 12 years and three albums fronting the Brooklyn indie band Chairlift – plus two concept-projects on the side as Ramona Lisa and CEP, and now a critically-acclaimed debut album under her own name – you’d perhaps expect Caroline Polachek to have finished her musical evolution. You’d be wrong.
Polachek’s powerful, iridescent vocals have always been her signature: lithe and airy on ‘Bruises’, her breakout single with Chairlift; saturnine and angular as Ramona; hypnotic and commanding in her latest form. She’s classically and operatically trained, but her experimental sensibilities in production and songcraft would have you thinking otherwise, making beats for Beyoncé and screaming at swans included. Across such a constantly evolving body of work, one thing is for certain – she is inarguably one of the era’s most compelling vocalists.
Her debut release, Pang, in late October last year didn’t get to enjoy the full breadth of touring intended for it due to the unforeseen coronavirus pandemic. And yet, despite the universal pause that many industries have been forced to take this year, Polachek has shown no signs of slowing down. In March, she duetted with Christine & The Queens on sensual smash-hit La Vita Nuova, made a ghostly appearance on Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Long Road Home”, and collaborated with A. G. Cook throughout his back-to-back solo debut albums 7G and Apple.
During a brief moment of pause in their dynamic schedules, Polachek sat with frequent collaborator A. G. Cook to discuss finding a new sense of freedom, hypnotic hieroglyphics and the evolution of the music industry.
A. G. COOK: I like the issue theme, ‘Let’s Evolve’, in general, and I’m wondering if there was a specific moment growing up that sparked your interest in music, or if it was something that happened gradually?
CAROLINE: Music was always so magical and so deeply compelling for me, but I think there was a moment when I realised that not everybody felt that way. That was a bit of an awakening – where I realised that oh, maybe the connection I had with it was a bit special.
My parents put me in piano lessons as a five and six year old, and I had this really cool teacher who played a game with me where she’d have me stand in the corner facing away from the piano, and she would play a C and she’d say “Caroline, this is a C”. Then she’d play any other note on the keyboard and say “What is this note? What is this note? What is this note?” And even as a six year old I could tell her “That’s an F sharp”, or “That’s a D flat”.
I realised that I had a special connection with hearing intervals. That was around the same age that I started banging out Disney songs on the piano by myself when I thought no one was listening, so around that age was my sort of melodic awakening.
This is maybe slightly more about evolution, but about seven years ago when I was first working on music with SOPHIE, we were talking about our vocal production and how it could eventually result in a transhuman modification of our own vocal cords. Your natural, unmodified voice does things that actually sound impossible to me, so I was wondering: if you could make any scientific or magical change to your voice, what would you do?
That’s such a cool question. I think I would just create more ease. You know the way most people feel about when they hear their voice – even their speaking voice recorded – they kind of cringe? I have that reaction whenever I hear myself struggling to hit notes. Whenever I hear myself pushing for something and not quite getting it. The irony with that is I feel like “struggle” is a quality I really seek out in other vocalists, but I have such a hard time hearing struggle in my own voice. So, I think I would give myself more ease.
It’s funny that you mention SOPHIE – she said something to me once which I think about all the time, which is that she is always looking to have as little friction as possible between what she’s thinking and feeling and what she’s making. Making music is where she experiences the least friction. I’ve unintentionally created loads of friction in my work-flow, just because I’m such a tweaker and I really like to get into the details.
I feel very different from SOPHIE as well, because I’m all about friction and struggle and not being fully prepared, while still being pragmatic. Even with collaboration – finding ways to be on the same page, while making the most of any personality clashes.
Totally. When I was a teenager, for a couple of years I was on the ski team and I was racing giant slalom, and a lot of the time this year I’ve found myself slipping into this mindset where I think about the groove of the song as a sort of landscape that’s coming towards me in real time, and as a vocalist I’m jumping across and through it, cutting a path that’s as pleasurable as possible.
I think your audience is only starting to realise and appreciate your role as a producer. Do you find that working – or specifically interacting with a computer – changes how you think about music and songwriting?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m such a linear songwriter, so I tend to stay in the “left to right” mode of Ableton rather than breaking it into the interchangeable modular loops which is a more classic electronic way of working. But that makes sense given that I was a songwriter first.
The longer I spend straddling the producer/vocalist/writer hybrid, the more it all gels into one, to the point that I have to be careful if I’m writing songs in front of the computer because I’ll start modifying my voice as I’m writing – using effects as a writing tool. I’m sometimes paranoid about that process slowing down the writing, or watering it down. Not that it has, per se… probably just my own paranoia.
I learned I could have six songs recorded at any given time, but if I wanted to make a seventh song, I’d have to delete one or record it onto my secret tape cassette recorder. That put me in a very ephemeral mindset, where the final form was on a dead-end cassette tape that no one else would hear.
I think that paranoia is really valid. You were saying you were writing songs way before you were doing what you would consider production – I assume you were still using a computer in some sense, right? Did you self-record before you self-produced?
The first instance of that was I had this Yamaha PSR that had six song banks that you could work in, and within those song banks, you had six layers. So, I learned I could have six songs recorded at any given time, but if I wanted to make a seventh song, I’d have to delete one or record it onto my secret tape cassette recorder. That put me in a very ephemeral mindset, where the final form is on a dead-end cassette tape that no one else hears.
For me, that is production, right? Even before you were interfacing with something like Ableton or Logic, you already had this limitation where you were doing these tracklists, and then it resulted in what you call the ‘secret tape’. Sort of exec-producing your own early songwriting, just because of the technology.
Absolutely. If I was thirteen years old now doing that those songs would be online in some form, which I would infinitely regret ten years later! Having a private place to learn is really important.
Thisgoes back to what you were alluding to before – I felt particularly inspired by the campaign setting for Pang, especially with it being a debut album, because it felt like a very open-ended form of world-building. It’s not something heavy and high concept that ties all the music down… It’s almost dreamlike, where there is always a suggestion of something just around the corner or behind the next door. Did that world come to you quite intuitively, or was it something you had to work hard to flesh out?
I took a long time writing Pang. From the beginning of writing to when it was released, it was actually a three-year process. I was very rigorous about organising imagery as I was working on it and a lot of things didn’t sync up with each other at the time, but I was patient with that. All these motifs started coming up; greyhounds and keys and plaid and the colour green and wrought iron shapes and gothic typography, and a lot of other things too… like eggs and crop circles, which I later decided had nothing to do with the mental map of Pang. The more I started really paying attention to these motifs, that visual world became a filter through which I saw the finishing of the record.
Putting it all together at the end was a long process. I was very inspired, format-wise, by how Rosalia laid out the El Mal Querer artwork, with a single image for each song on the album. When I saw that I was like Oh my god, I want to do that with each song too!
Collaborating with Hugo Comte on the photography was a really interesting process because we were flattening things so much. Creating these photos that were very dynamic but also extremely flat and spatially distorted, because so many of my references were illustrations and paintings and I kept coming up against that. Like, okay – how do we make a photo that feels like an illustration, without it being an illustration?
All these motifs started coming up; greyhounds and keys and plaid and the colour green and wrought iron shapes and gothic typography… the more I started really paying attention to these motifs, that visual world became a filter through which I saw the finishing of the record.
That’s really cool. What you were saying about a key and a greyhound and not knowing how they connect, I think that becomes a vital part of it being unique in the end, because now – even though they may have once felt random – I associate those things with Pang.
I’m just so attracted to looking at music imagery as hieroglyphics, especially in a digital space where things bleed into emojis and typography and narrative. Using symbols like that is great because they are already so loaded and people have such rich associations with them already, so it’s hyper-efficient. I remember seeing an interview with Lana Del Rey – I think it was Rolling Stone, like five or six years ago – where she said, “I choose my symbols very, very carefully.” I just love that – you see her with a crucifix pendant and a Jackie-O hairstyle, and it’s so much information embedded in so few pixels.
In relation to this, I’ve been thinking that pop music is intrinsically dreamlike. Even the most banal song or music video is sort of fragmented and condensed, or it has these sounds or lyrics that repeat and loop in hypnotic ways. Do you think music, and especially pop music, affects us subconsciously?
I’ve had a couple of experiences on psychedelics where, if I’ve been moving in a repetitive way for a while, like walking or dancing, for example, the second I stop it feels like death setting in, and I realise how deeply comforting the movement became. Pop music gives us those very comfortable loops to settle into.
I think [pop music is] operating on that same kind of economy we were talking about with symbols as well, because in a typical “pop song” you don’t have more than three minutes to work with, so in order to make something that’s really beautiful and compelling there also needs to be a certain level of familiarity in order to direct people’s attention as fast as possible to the main idea.
I’ve been wondering if it works the other way round too, in a way. Maybe pop songs are so short because they are trying to be repetitive, and it couldn’t really go on much longer without, you know, either falling apart or making you not want to play it again. It’s a two-way street.
Yeah, true – especially with lyrics. So many of the purest pop songs have totally nonsensical lyrics, which taps into something way more animal, and abstract, and yummy.
It sort of backs up the idea of it having a dream logic, right? It is just narrative enough, like how things feel in a dream, but not narrative enough to really write down on paper and explain to anyone at all times.
Maybe the thing that makes it pop is that it’s a good dream. It’s like… sexy and pleasant. Music that genuinely evokes a bad dream is usually not considered pop…
I’ve had a couple of experiences on psychedelics where, if I’ve been moving in a repetitive way for a while, like walking or dancing, the second I stop it feels like death setting in and I realise how deeply comforting the movement became. Pop music gives us those very comfortable loops to settle into.
That’s a really nice aspiration for it. Now, having released your solo debut album to the world, do you feel a new sense of freedom? And do you feel like you have evolved since that moment?
I actually feel a massive sense of freedom having it out, having done it exactly the way I wanted to and having taken the time to do it that way. Mostly, because I feel way more understood which will allow me to go where I want to go next already with a lot of context.
Also, a feeling of a new community. So many new friends and collaborators entered my life over the process of making that record who have inspired me so deeply, including you. It’s changed the way I make things and given me a sense of creative home which has given me a big sense of not only safety, but excitement.
You originally signed to a major label in the late 2000s as part of a band in the middle of the golden era of major label indie, whatever that means!Pangwas released in a more independent way that feels reflective of how artists operate now, and to me, it feels more personal as well as more transparent. Do you feel optimistic about the evolution of the music industry?
In some ways, it feels like music is returning to some kind of medieval folk medium where we are kind of like bards again, self-promoting in the streets or taking the occasional commission from patrons. I feel like this is going to lead to the personalisation of music. But I really worry about the lack of new scenes with actual geographic specificity. That has been so important for me as an artist, having IRL groups of musicians that are sharing space and time and influences with each other and lifting each other up and collaborating and playing at each other’s shows. Ultimately playing to each other.
That scene-ness was essential during this quote “golden age” of indie, and it definitely feels very much the case now, despite us existing on this hyperloop between LA, NYC, London. But sometimes I worry for brand new artists, very young artists, feeling kind of awash in a digital sea without a sense of IRL community context. The streaming companies benefit from that, of course, cause it makes genre-playlists more definitive, like an algorithmic sorting hat. But maybe my worry here is irrational and musician communities have evolved past the need to share physical space.
Music itself is a flexible art form and it has survived so many mutations over the centuries, in a way that I think is kind of hilarious and has all these anachronisms in it. This is sort of cheesy, but what do you think music might, or could, sound like in a hundred years?
I don’t think we will be listening with our ears. I think it will be going straight to our nervous system. It could even be auditory information and a sort of body-high emulation coming through the same signal. It’ll be rhythmic still, and vocals will probably feel like you are singing them yourself, rather than listening to them. Like, there will be music that sounds like it’s coming from inside your own body. Maybe there will be technology such that our whole body becomes a resonating surface, so you can be the speaker.
Let’s say music did get to somewhere like that – it would make our current consumption of music look even tackier than it is, in a funny way. Having to be tied to speakers, headphones, club systems. You can almost feel how archaic that is right.
It’s true, but the archaic always becomes precious and nostalgic in time, so who knows.
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