Wonderland.

CAROLINE POLACHEK

Enter a celestial pop fantasy with former Chairlift member talking all things
Pang and upcoming tour.

Caroline Polacheck

Earrings SOFT BLONDE, Body Suit and Leg Sleeve RUI ZHOU

Caroline Polacheck
Earrings SOFT BLONDE, Body Suit and Leg Sleeve RUI ZHOU

Taken from the Spring 2020 issue of Wonderland. Order your copy of the issue now.

Putting the surreal at the forefront of her celestial pop music, former Chairlift member Caroline Polachek speaks to us about creating one of 2019’s most captivating albums.

Life is a series of choices: what you eat, how you look, and whether you listen to Caroline Polachek or not. If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few months, you might have missed the recent release of the singer-songwriter’s pioneering solo debut, Pang, at the end of last year. An event which, by the way, had greater international implications than any impeachment result or celebrity feud. Armed with the eternal stare of a soul who knows all of their past lives inside out, and by name — three of them have already released separate albums, I connect with the multi-instrumentalist while she’s on the road for her upcoming tour, creating her own musical renaissance in the process.“When I approached this body of work, it was with the idea that I wanted to make extremely lean, lyrically driven songs that could be played just on voice and piano,” Polachek tells me of her album’s inception, initially a series of experiments on her solo journey that could have led nowhere at all. At the time, Polachek had just finished her final tour with synth-pop heavyweights Chairlift, a group she had co-founded with Aaron Pfenning (and later Patrick Wimberly) during her sophomore year at Colorado University in the mid-00s. After relocating to New York and putting out their first EP, the band gained serious traction, even soundtracking an ad for Apple’s iPod Nano. The rest, as they say, was history…

Caroline Polacheck
Caroline Polacheck

Top SAMANTHA DIORIO, Skirt GAUNTLETT CHENG, Ring TUSA, Shoes GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI

Caroline Polacheck
Top SAMANTHA DIORIO, Skirt GAUNTLETT CHENG, Ring TUSA, Shoes GIUSEPPE ZANOTTI
Caroline Polacheck

Things took a different turn after she ended up in a writing session with producer and composer Danny L Harle — a.k.a. Huge Danny, Danny Sunshine, and MC Boing — in the summer of 2017, or as Polachek’s words dictate, “threw a monkey wrench” into her plans of orchestral domination. The pair had already collaborated on boisterous banger “Ashes of Love” a year prior, a track born out of their mutual obsession with 80s Miami freestyle and wanting to make something bratty and hot-blooded. Although a far cry from the dreamy ambience of Ramona Lisa and CEP, Polachek’s other distinct solo alias’, it soon became clear that their exceptional studio chemistry was worth pursuing way further than one single

Their next reunion created an entirely new palette for the multi-instrumentalist, one dripping with futuristic possibility, and they emerged from the studio that day with “Parachute”, the album’s magnetic and forceful final breath. With Harle trading in the exuberant and hyperactive sheen of Eurodance for a murky, electronic ambience, and Polachek moving to a more balladic and classical writing style, the track cautiously traverses a dark underbelly of pop that’s not quite utopic, but still ultimately surreal. It’s about making peace, discarding your fears, and putting as much drive and passion into singing about treetops as shedding your emotional baggage.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; this was only the beginning of their journey. The two then booked off two weeks in London to get the project off the ground, a moment Polachek describes as “pivotal” for realising the record’s artwork and forming the base of its abstract pop DNA. It was here Harle introduced her to the PC Music collective, whose host of members including A.G. Cook and Hannah Diamond would all lend their ears and advice to the slowly advancing project, along with the label’s graphic designer Timothy Luke, who was tasked with magnificently capturing the surrealist romanticism that binds the artist with her work. Perhaps unaware at the time, Polachek would end up becoming a powerful figurehead in the label’s second wave, helping push their sound away from its roots in glossy pop pastiche and cementing it in a darker universe entirely. When I ask her if bridging the gap between the pairs’ respectively distinct sounds was hard at all, the singer answers with a warm but dismissive no. “We weren’t interested in compromising; we were looking for something new,” she explains, recalling the excitement the duo felt about surprising their audiences with this departure from expectation.

Caroline

Body Suit MAISIE WILEN, tights MISSONI, ring CAROLINE’S OWN

Caroline
Body Suit MAISIE WILEN, tights MISSONI, ring CAROLINE’S OWN

What came next was the task of defining this passion-stuffed entity. The name “Pang’ actually lent itself from a series of adrenaline surges Polachek had experienced over a short period in her life, and the internal sensation that fight or flight mode brought on. “Beyond that, I realised that pinging and panging was a quality in music and art I’d sought out my whole life,” she elaborates, “this private twist in desire and sadness. I started taking that more seriously as a genre and dedicated the rest of the album to that feeling.” The album’s various inspirations began surfacing from vastest corners of the singer’s mind, fusing the haunting ethereality of Enya, the open and wild structures of Bollywood composer AR Rahman, and the groggy and experimental sounds of JPEGMAFIA and Travis Scott into an abstract melting pot. The importance of these styles were trumped only by the album’s underlying fixation on the emotions of human life in their most complex and raw states. But Polachek doesn’t dwell on this, like some tragic poet. Instead she makes light of life’s cruel jokes, penning “New Normal” about a near-death experience her and Harle had one sunny L.A lunchtime, letting us in on the joke that life is just funny like that, throwing adversity, and swerving SUV your way at every turn.

“Door” was the first taste of what was to come from the pair, a purposeful decision on all counts. “[It] includes a lot of the elements I wanted to introduce people to on the album,” the singer explains, describing the romantic slow burner as the album’s most exciting entry point. Dealing with feelings of resolution, closure, revelation and joy, an addictive pop melody slowly lures you into the world of this sonic fantasy, trapping you in its clutches before the first chorus swallows you whole. Though it wouldn’t do much lip service for its transcendental soundscapes and ineffable lyrical beauty, in some ways you could even call it the album’s blurb. Flying the nest shortly after was Pang’s initial hit “Parachute”, cementing the album’s ethereal foundation one synth at a time, a necessary precaution to take before the arrival of “Ocean Of Tears”, which would take the soft and dramatic foregrounding of its sibling tracks and continue its construction with a dark pop exterior. Club-like elements creep into the mix with an unusually eerie presence, oscillating between fleeting gabber breaks, metallic clanging and an unforgettably delicate pre-chorus: “The only thing that’s separating me and you tonight / (Ah!) is an ocean of tears…” After Polachek’s sizzling delivery sends the track into an explosive frenzy, we’re left reeling, scrambling to prepare for the next sonic siege.

Caroline

Earrings Y/PROJECT, GROSCERA.

Caroline
Earrings Y/PROJECT, GROSCERA.

But therein lies the point: to keep us at our wits end. No one would assume the mythic serenity of “The Gate” would somersault into title-track “Pang”, with its surging twists and emphatic single word chorus. The graphic imprisonment of an unsuspecting butterfly juxtaposed against a cheery melody is exactly why pop will always reign supreme: it celebrates sadness, sometimes pretending it doesn’t exist while flaunting it in your face, like a sonic oxymoron. “I Give Up” is seemingly the last hoorah to the sombre, existing on the flip side of “Look At Me Now”, which could have easily been given to a 00’s-era Kelly Clarkson for its teen movie naivety and distorted folk guitar. It’s a reaffirmation of resilience that runs straight back into the depraved heart, because none of us are perfect, right? Things continue to look up in the album’s second half as “Hey Big Eyes” acknowledges pushing through this pain and internal conflict, pieced together like a mismatched jigsaw with old school hip-hop beats and harpsicordal production that, in my mind, would perfectly soundtrack Game Of Thrones’ unexplored Highgarden. The idea of it brimming with contradictions that unearth some hidden truths upon each new listen has it well and truly soaking in the record’s essence.

This precludes the album’s alternate ending, arriving at a sort of sexy confession of emotional instability, comprised of lyrical earworms like the song’s title: “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings”, and the oh-so-millennial aside: “can’t deal!” Between the mythical video that inspired a TikTok dance, and a totally nonsensical (or entirely explicit) bridge about bananas, Polachek’s playful side rears its grinning head, replacing her tears for a drooling lust of phallic fruit. “It’s made me emotional knowing how this album has accompanied people through different levels of change in their lives,” Polachek admits. “That stuff means so much to me.” Whether it be a replayable comfort to a lonely soul in a busy new city, or the antidote to an earth-shattering break-up, the fact that it strikes any chords at all is evidence enough that the album has done its job. What Polachek has bottled up, in essence, is the irresistible and addictive feeling of euphoria. It echoes through the stark and surreal lens of Hugo Comte in the album’s captivating artwork (an ode to female surrealists Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage), cuts you deep with the shrapnel of her explosive vocals, thrusting themselves out of all the album’s cracks and crevices to make you feel Pang’s beating heart, and, finally, takes a bow centre stage in her theatrical live shows.

Polachek fondly recalls the first time an audience sung back to her the damning title of “Caroline Shut Up’’, an instance she believes to be the most surreal of the entire experience. Both on the album and in the flesh, the track represents this pinch-me-I’m-dreaming moment, a confirmation that her newfound bliss is real and here to stay. “I think it’s something everyone should experience in their lifetimes,” she beams: “A room full of people singing for them to shut up.” Although it’s not exactly my idea of a good time, I get it. The contrast of such a damning sentence chanted by a crowd who couldn’t want anything less is, perhaps, the ultimate pang of them all.

Photography
Lindsey Ellary
Fashion
Marissa Baklayan
Words
Bailey Slater
Hair
Kelly Peach
Make-up
Amy Strozzi
Manicurist
Naoko Saita
Production
Federica Barletta
CAROLINE POLACHEK
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