By Robert Moran
What do you call a song that makes you swoon and laugh at once, balancing chaotically on that fine precipice between affecting and cringe? I don’t know, but it’s probably made by Caroline Polachek, the superstar musician described as “alt-pop’s reigning heady diva”.
At 37, Polachek’s career has been steady. From 2005 to 2016, she was the lead singer of Brooklyn indie-pop band Chairlift, perhaps best known for their 2012 single I Belong in Your Arms. Her solo debut, 2019’s Pang, featured two breakout songs, So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings and Door, that defined her impish, outre-pop tendencies.
But her new album Desire, I Want to Turn Into You is her best yet, playful and poetic, and sonically steeped in a pastiche of gloriously hammy signifiers from the adult contemporary side of ’90s and ’00s pop. The song Pretty in Possible, with its emotive yodelling and skittering synthetic beat, comes across like Enya covering Enigma’s Return to Innocence. Fly To You resurrects ’00s- balladeer Dido and teams her with avant-pop eccentric Grimes over a trip-hop beat. Hopedrunk Everasking just reminds me of that sad kissing song from the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack.
That’s the vibe we’re dealing with here, which makes Polachek’s work prone to being misunderstood - at least by me, as you’ll see.
You were supposed to tour here last year, play a few shows with Flume [Polachek featured on Flume’s 2022 single, Sirens]. But the album took precedence, understandably. Do you still have plans to tour down here?
I sure do. I haven’t announced them yet, but I am working on some Australian dates right now.
That’s good. I remember reading that you and Flume (and possibly Grimes?) had a regular Magic: The Gathering game night together.
Yeah, I’m not gonna name names, but there’s a whole squad of us here in LA that play Magic. It’s fun. Unfortunately, so many of us are touring and travelling these days, but I have infected my whole band with M:TG so we play it together.
Who’s the most competitive?
Oh, Flume was definitely the most competitive, 100 per cent.
It’s been over a month now that Desire has been out in the world. At first I was drawn to the humour of it, all those cheesy ’90s and Y2K musical nods you use - the Euro house, the Spanish guitar, the Earth Mother-era Alanis vibes, the trip-hop, the Dido - but then I was listening on the bus, just gazing through a rain-streaked window, and it was quite emotional. What sort of mood were you chasing with it?
Well, I forget what publication this was for but an interviewer recently called me out on the fact that throughout my entire career I’ve written about the state of being overwhelmed. I was like, “F---, I’ve just been read!” I guess this album is true to form in that way.
That’s an interesting thing to deal with in an interview, someone just uncovering your subconscious preoccupation.
Yeah, but I found it quite beautiful and spiritual as well, like that feeling when you look at the stars and you can see them but you can’t understand them. That’s the state I’m always aspiring to. At the same time, there’s a lot of humour on this record, and it’s a kind of humour that I really enjoy painting with, which is, like, it’s a bit sly and a bit absurd and a bit psychedelic and a bit sexy, as well.
Do you think people underestimate the humour in your music? There’s a perception of you as this kind of whimsical, eccentric, new age-y kind of artist.
I think whimsy and quirkiness are terms that get pinned on women, whereas those terms don’t get thrown at men so much. But I guess the way I see it is if people get it, they win; if they don’t, that’s fine. Like, I don’t care.
Getting Dido on a track, for example. To what extent was that a joke, a flex, completely sincere? Was it all of that?
[awkward laugh]... I mean, how insulting! To imply that getting Dido… How dare you!
Wow. But, I mean, the idea of Dido as a pop star in the early 2000s…
Artists that invent the sounds of normality can never be seen for what they are in their time. I think it requires the status quo of normality changing before you can see clearly exactly what they contributed and what they invented.
So that was a totally sincere move on your part? You were like, “I know what Dido represents in pop music and that’s what I need for this song.”
I know what Dido represents as an archetype and what she represents to people whose childhood and early teenage years, like mine, were so tinged and comforted by the sound of her voice in these important moments in our youth. I know how healing and emotional and grounding her music has been to so many people, and I also know that she did this thing that I’m also doing, which is kind of combining folk music vocal inflection with very forward-thinking electronic music.
Yes, okay. So were there other artists in that vein you felt you could’ve potentially tapped into to lend that feeling to your songs? Say, an Imogen Heap or a Nelly Furtado or someone else from that era?
I wasn’t really lusting after that era specifically, which is why I brought Grimes onto the song as well, because I think she’s also doing that, although she has a much more academic and aggressive way of existing as an artist. But I think ultimately, you know, all three of us are really interested in beauty and aesthetics and our voices just sound amazing together, so we did what had to be done.
You seem to have a reverence for these pop sounds that have been maligned or, like, not given their due. Is that how you’re using these references, with the idea they can be embraced with both irony and affection?
Um. There’s no irony on this album.
None at all?
So the humour for you, those sly winks you mentioned, come from where?
Well, the humour for me is embedded in the lyrics, but also in the spirit of the music itself, the twists and turns, the unexpected structures. But I’m doing it all with total sincerity.
So when you use a reference like that Spanish guitar on Sunset, that is a sincere move? Like, you just love the sound of that thing and it’s not meant to evoke, like, Jam & Spoon or the Lambada or something? Because when I hear that, I kind of giggle because it’s cheesy but I also appreciate it as a reevaluation of pop history.
I think you’re trying to force your vision of irony onto mine.
I’m not trying to force anything, I’m just wondering.
Well, I’m going to keep giving you the same answer, over and over and over again. And I don’t know who Lambada is.
You don’t know the Lambada?
No, and I do love the way it sounds! And, for me, being evocative is not the same thing as being distancing. I mean, we’re all postmodern beings at this point. And I think there’s more meaning in reference than there is in sound at this point, and in combining things in different ways. I like walking on this sort of, like, tantric edge of taste, I guess. But I resist all these accusations of irony.
But you can see you’re walking on this line of taste, so you understand that there are things that are considered “bad taste” and you’re kind of playing with them, or even forcing people to look at them in a different way.
I don’t know. I’m a big lover of fashion, and I feel like what’s happening right now in fashion is doing a lot of the same thing. I think it’s all one big dialogue.
I know you wrote for Beyonce [2013’s No Angel] and other artists in the past. Are you still interested in that side of the industry, like dipping your toe into the machinery of it all?
Well, at the time, that was all Beyonce, that was her bringing us into her very high-powered personal machine. It was a huge honour and a thrill to be invited in, but I haven’t put writing for other artists as a priority really since then, mostly just because I’ve been so focused on doing my own stuff. But it’s definitely something I’m open to, and I’m actually doing a bit of it this week, although I can’t say for who.
Interesting. Do you enjoy that work, or does it just feel like something different you like to apply yourself to?
Yeah, I do enjoy it. I mean, if even just for the sake of making me realise how different my own way of existing in the industry is from other artists or, you know, just how deep the rabbit hole goes really in the way different people work. But I get off on the challenge of it, and I’m also just so inspired by other people’s personas and personalities that it’s a really fun kind of escape from Caroline Polachek.
Do you ever see Caroline Polachek as a persona?
No! Maybe that’s the problem.
I saw a quote in an interview where you said you enjoy being off the grid, but then, recently, I watched a whole five-minute Instagram video of you eating spaghetti and meatballs. What’s the thinking of posting something like that?
I mean, simply, I went to take a selfie and I was like, “You know what? Let’s just go live”, so I went live. But the problem is then I had to finish the entire spaghetti and meatball plate, and I probably normally wouldn’t have finished it but, you know, once you’re on camera you have to finish the whole thing.
As a public person, what’s your approach to social media?
I think, as a musician, there’s so much going on in the calendar that you have to post about, and so I’m finding it a struggle to want to post anything about my personal life online because even just keeping up with the professional posting is enough for me. But I’m sure once that kind of posting starts to quiet down, and once I get on the road, I’ll inevitably start foolishly posting my personal life again. But for now, it feels like there’s a quite clear separation for me and I’m kind of enjoying it.
Look, I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t offend you earlier. I enjoy the music, and I think that even if I find some irony in it, I guess, you know, the listener finds whatever they find in the work, right?
100 per cent. It’s funny because my last interview that I just got off, the writer was very interested in this narrative of, like, me having this kind of orgasmic catharsis just by the act of singing, which I was like, “No.” [laughs] So I’m just really appreciating the very masculine and feminine takes on the same body of work. You’re like, “Well, certainly you don’t mean it?” and she was like, “You must really mean it!”
I’m like, “I love this cheesy music too, but surely you know it’s a bit cheesy!”
You know what, I think you’ve just revealed what your agenda is: you just want to know that I know, and my answer is “I don’t know.”
That could be it. I just want to know that we’re in on the same joke.
Yes, but it’s just… I’m just not blinking.
Caroline Polachek’s Desire, I Want To Turn Into You is out now.
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