Lovers Lane
Copernicus Center

Cover Story – Caroline Polachek

| February 1, 2020

The relationship between art and its attendant inspiration has been analyzed countless times over the years. The French painter Henri Matisse, for instance, said that the main impetus for creativity was simply courage, while author Jack London believed that you had to hunt it down with a club. Renowned acting coach Stella Adler posited that “Life beats you down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.” A great point. But leave it to the late advertising executive, Leo Burnett — creator of such memorable campaign icons as the Marlboro Man, the Maytag Repairman, and Tony the Tiger — to summarize it best with, “Curiosity about life in all of its aspects, I think, is still the secret of great creative people.”

And ex-Chairlift singer Caroline Polachek (who just played a sold-out show at Lincoln Hall in Chicago) could not agree more. Otherwise, she never could have made Pang, her first official solo album, whose generous 14 songs fly in the face of chart-safe convention and run an eclectic gamut that’s daring, demanding, and ultimately downright dazzling. It’s instinctually experimental music that she is driven — or creatively compelled — to make.

The disc opens with “The Gate,” with textures reminiscent of Enya, whose Celtic catalog Polachek’s parents regularly placated her with as a rambunctious child. Next comes the title track, an Atari-pinging thumper, which segues into a jittery pedal-steel augmented “New Normal,” an acoustic jangler called “Look at Me Now” that Celine Dion would be proud of, the conversely sleepy syllables of “Insomnia,” the Far East filigrees of “Go as a Dream,” and a playful, finger-popping self-admonition dubbed “Caroline Shut Up.” Before it closes on the plush keyboard etudes “Door” and “Parachute,” the set dips into the bouncy, wah-ooh-peppered current single, “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” whose video features some truly idiosyncratic choreography of the cowboy-booted star — part line dance, part Bangles/“Walk Like an Egyptian.” It might not make sense initially, but it’s how the 34-year old physically interprets her own music.

If you study this New York-born artist’s career, she’s been pursuing the Muse down every last rabbit hole since childhood, when she grew up in Japan and became intrigued by that country’s more complicated musical scales. She took up the synthesizer and flexed her voice in various choirs, and formed Chairlift (originally a trio, later pared down to just her and multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly) while attending the University of Colorado before moving back to New York. Before its breakup in 2017, she would release two separate albums, Arcadia as Ramona Lisa, and Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, as simply CEP. Along the way she dove into other interests: she did an artistic residency at the Villa Medici in Rome; penned runway music for several fashion designers; scored dance music that eventually accompanied a piece by the Dutch National Ballet, and became so enraptured by opera, she recently began attending serious classes with a vocal coach. She also added her lissome voice to cuts by SBTRKT, Blood Orange, and Charli XCX, and even got her song “Take Off” into the animated feature Duck Duck Goose.  By Pang, working with PC Music mainstay Danny L. Harle, she was ready to cut loose and bravely forge new sonic frontiers. And — as she explains below — a lot of heart, soul, intellect, and good artistic taste went into it. No Jack London clubs required.

ILLINOIS ENTERTAINER: Aesthetically speaking, when did you first notice as a kid that you saw and heard things differently?

CAROLINE POLACHEK: I think I started realizing that there were things that I saw or heard — actually, mostly visual things — that I wasn’t able to express to people. I started realizing that at a very young age, like eight. And, I saw links to those kinds of feelings in films, and in art, and books, and these relationships between them and things that I had experienced in real life that were kind of on the edge of dreams. And the way that they could be accessed reminded me of things that I’d seen in films and art and stuff like that. And that was the beginning of me realizing that there was something very special about what art was able to do.

IE: How did it assimilate within you and then come back out in your own art?

CP: You know, there was never a moment growing up in which I realized that I was capable of doing that for people. I think it took me a really long time, like into my mid-twenties, when I realized that I was capable of doing that myself. Until that point, there was an array of images and experiences — a lot of which were aesthetic experiences — that became very precious to me and something that I held onto internally, but not something that I was able to give to other people because it seemed too… well, out of reach.

IE: You seem to oversee every aspect of your work, even down to the Pang cover photo, where you’re climbing a rope ladder. You could be an aerialist on the way to work, or someone being rescued by helicopter. You’ve mastered the art of expressing yourself through all these different mediums.

CP: Ha! I haven’t heard the helicopter one yet — that’s great. But thank you. I feel like I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m getting closer every year.

IE: When most people watch the Lars Von Trier film Antichrist they’ll probably never view a millstone the same way again. But you saw it and picked up on the operatic score.

CP: Yep. That opening sequence? The music was so amazing that I just had to go and find it.

IE: And then you took it to the next level — you studied opera.

CP: Well, it was actually pretty simple. I’d always been repelled by opera — so much about it really turns me off. I think the more bombastic, floral quality that a lot of it has, I just find to be over the top. But there was just something about that piece that made me think, “Wow — this is what I’ve always been looking for, and I’ve finally found it. Who wrote this piece, and where’s the rest of this good shit? And how do I find the good shit just by Googling these couple of words that I found?” And to be honest, I found very few pieces that put me in that particular state of that recording. But it made me actually go and study opera because I thought, “Well, maybe I can do the thing that I like about this.”

IE: And how does one go about this?

CP: For me, it was very easy, and I was very lucky. I’d studied opera as a 14- or 15-year old, but not because I was interested in opera, but because I was auditioning for these choirs. And counter-intuitively, part of the audition process was singing opera arias, which is so stupid because choral singing has no vibrato; it’s not about that kind of performance. I wanted to get into these choirs, so I was taking these opera lessons just for the auditions. And I still had my opera teacher’s phone number from when I was a teenager. So I just called her up, 12 years later, and I was like, “I’m sure you don’t remember me, my name’s Caroline Polachek, and you taught me 12 years ago.” And she said, “Honey! How are you? Get back over here — let’s work!” And since then, she’s become kind of my mentor, beyond just singing, but in life. Her name is Pamela Kuhn, and she has revolutionized the way I’ve sounded since 2012.

IE: What did she teach musically, and spiritually?

CP: Well, musically, we kind of push each other a lot. Like I was saying, I don’t like a lot of the traditional opera repertoire, so I’m picky about what I’ll sing. But I also don’t bring any of my own music to her — that’s a very clear-cut boundary. I never work on my own stuff with her — I strictly do opera, and in a very traditional style, as well. So it really functions as cross-training for me. But on a more spiritual level, it requires such a tight connection with your body, a kind of connection that I had brushed off and had not maintained. And you just can’t lie when you’re singing that kind of music — you can’t fake it. It’s either there, and you hear it, or it’s not, and you can’t hear it. So she taught me about bringing my honesty and bravery into singing because that’s what it really requires.

IE: So how did that affect Pang?

CP: Well, on a really formal level, I knew that I wanted it to be the most extreme music that I had ever done before. I put my own name to it, but that felt like a very obvious decision at this point after leaving a band. But on a songwriting level, I really wanted to push myself and get away from abstraction and make the most direct songs that I could. And the most personal songs as well, but not in a cheesy ‘This about me and my life.’ I wanted it to be about exposing something that I was potentially uncomfortable with. Because that’s how I think you know that you’re doing something new.

IE: You went through a divorce, too. So I guess there was a lot of emotion ready to be tapped, songwriting-wise.

CP: Yeah. That’s correct.

IE: Was it difficult revealing more personal things?

CP: Well, it was all intentional. Definitely.

IE: And you weren’t afraid to use Autotune. Or was it a vocoder?

CP: There’s a little bit of vocoder in the song “You’re So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.” But there’s no real Autotune on the record. There’s one song that has pitch correction, which I did very intentionally, and that’s the song “Go As a Dream.” And I did it because I wanted that song to feel very inhuman and crystalline. But I think a lot of writers mistake the way I sing for Autotune, which I am endlessly amused by. I’m not perfect — if you were to bring my vocals into a pitch analyzer, you would see that I’m very often out of tune. It’s just that my note transitions are really quick, so it just makes it sound like it’s Autotune.

IE: And the best thing about all this, you’ve kept it all fun. Intelligence without a sense of humor to ground it is just wasted.

CP: I totally agree.

IE: Was this the ASMR tour you were Tweeting about?

CP: That’s a funny one. I was on this tour last week in Poland; I was getting a tour of these salt mines that were extremely deep underground. And because they’re so deep underground, the reverb is crazy down there, and you very often can’t see your guide. So they have you put on these earbuds, and the tour guide speaks to you through the headset. So you hear this person’s voice in your ear, as you’re walking around, and I was thinking, “This is such a cool format — I could be a tour guide around New York, which is the place I know best in the world.” I think it would be a really interesting exercise.

IE: Since your interest spans so many mediums, what are some of your favorite books, movies, and paintings?

CP: Well, I think the first movie that ever bowled me over, that really put a hold on my brain, was Mulholland Drive by David Lynch. I rented it randomly; I had no idea what it was — I was just bored with the video store, and I’d seen everything else. So I thought, “Hmm…what’s this?” And I had no framework for how to watch it, but it still did everything that he intended it to do. It made this bridge between dream logic and mundane reality, the sexuality, the tension, the campiness – and without the kind of visual stylization that I’d previously associated with aesthetics. And that just changed the way I saw everything. And paintings? Let me think. Well, a painter that I’m currently obsessed with now is this guy, Eyvind Earle, who was one of the key concept designers at Disney in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He developed this look that became Sleeping Beauty, this kind-of hyper-formalized, very modern kind of look that is also fused with mythology and Renaissance painting, and it was just so smart. And it translated into every detail, like the costuming, the landscape, the architecture, the flags. And I’d been looking at a lot of his work while building the Pang world. There was this book last year that I loved, called Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson. She’s incredible. She’s a Greek mythology historian, but rather than just translating, she translates them — archetype-wise and spiritually — into novel form. It’s absolutely incredible what she does — I can’t even fully describe it. She gets the essence of what these myths are trying to [say] but takes them completely out of context.

IE: Underneath all this, I think you were just born curious.

CP: I think everyone is. Maybe with some people, it just gets channeled to more self-serving things. But that might also be my fatal flaw — I get kind of enthused about anything, so I seldom walk a very straight line. It’s a very zig-zaggy line, my career so far.

IE: What’s your guiltiest pleasure?

CP: I don’t think I’m ashamed to be into anything, but I think the one thing I am ashamed to admit is that I’m very domestic. I really like cooking and cleaning at home, which maybe isn’t so in line with being an artist. But I do get a lot of pleasure from it.

IE: How is your apartment appointed? Lavish or Spartan?

CP: I have very little. But I decided to camp out in L.A. for a year and try it out, so I put most of my stuff in storage and just brought my absolute favorite things to this very tiny apartment that I am currently living in. The most significant piece of art in my apartment is a poster from 1973 from an expo at the Villa Medici in Rome. I bought it from an Etsy vendor in Romania, who had been keeping it in his kitchen, so it’s completely water-stained, the corner of it is burned-off, and it looks fucking amazing. And I bought it for $10 but spent way too much on the frame because it’s so big. It’s a large classical tower, and above it, there is a sun with an older man’s face and many small rays coming out of it, and then behind that, there’s a landscape in a kind of tweaked-out Renaissance perspective, where it doesn’t entirely make sense. Then, there’s a man holding a clock over his head. But, the whole thing has been exposed to so much sunlight and water damage that blue is the only color that comes through. It’s this faded blue thing that’s just beautiful.

IE: Like Alexander weeping because he had nothing left to conquer, what fields do you have left? Movies?

CP: I would absolutely love to. But I have so many ideas for potential records that I want to make; I’m just looking for the time to get on to them. I have two concept records that I would like to make, but it’s all about figuring out the order of events. I also have a lot of material from around the time of Pang — it isn’t rejected material, it just feels like another project, so I’m looking to get into that, as well. And I don’t paint, but I do draw. I really love drawing, and it comes in handy — I end up sketching a lot of concepts for costumes, set design, cinematography. I can be a perfectionist, but I think more than anything, I’m able to communicate with other people just what I’m seeing.

IE: Like, “I’m wearing cowboy boots and dancing like an Egyptian in this “So Hot” video, and that’s that?”

CP: I have a story about those cowboy boots, actually. They’re not a fashion item — they’re thrift store cowboy boots. And I rehearsed in them but planned on getting nice ones the day before the shoot. So I took an hour-long Uber to the biggest cowboy boot shop in the Los Angeles area, outside the city, and I got there, and I didn’t like any of the boots as much as I like my shitkickers. So I was like, “Alright — I’ll take another $40 Uber ride back, and I’m just gonna wear my shitkickers.” But, as I said, I was just traveling around Poland, and I visited Auschwitz while I was there, which is important to me because my family is from Hungary, and they left just before WWII. So I was wearing these boots because they’re warm and comfortable for this day-long trek around Auschwitz, all the different parts of it, and I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. But these boots started falling apart while I was there, and it was because we were walking through a lot of mud, and it was raining that day. But the boots just started disintegrating, and I got back to my hotel room that night, and they were just covered in mud from Auschwitz. And I couldn’t stop thinking about what was in that mud — there must be ashes of human remains in there, some trace of Zyklon B. It made me really think about what the fuck I was doing. These boots were worn in this music video, which was a very lighthearted depiction of something that was supposed to be hell. And then these boots actually go to the very real vision of hell that we have experienced in the last century. Those boots had been to hell, and then to hell again.

IE: Humanity is living through its own hell right now. Please keep making art to divert our attention.

CP: I know. And that’s world-wide. And who knows if great art is just diverting your attention? But I’ll do what I can. I’ll do what I can.

-Tom Lanham

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