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Caroline Polachek:

The Slow Burn Superstar.

  • Music
  • Issue 50

Words by Tara Joshi. Photography by Nedda Afsari. Styling by Mindy Le Brock. Production by Michael Zumaya. Set Design by Elise Jonke. Hair by Lisa-Marie Powell. Makeup by Leonardo Chaparro.

Caroline Polachek is careful about what she gives away. “I think we’re taught to not be mysterious,” says the 38-year-old singer, songwriter and producer. She’s reflecting on her experience in the music industry but you’d be forgiven for thinking she was talking generally about life in the social media age. “We’re taught to reveal everything, to do behind the scenes, then do behind the scenes of the behind the scenes.” 

Polachek is speaking via video call from her London apartment, the sunlight catching on the bleached part of her dark brown hair. Though she is affable and erudite when discussing her career, the Connecticut-raised artist seems most comfortable steering the conversation down tangents that allow her to open up while still being mindful of what she’s sharing.

“I really try to make an effort to hang on to my early impulses toward mystery and all the magic that is contained in the craft of things,” she continues, sharing a piece of advice learned over her long, successful career: “Once you’ve taken the time to create [something], don’t undo it. Don’t undo it by overstating your case; let it be what it has aspired to be.”

It’s a mindset you can hear in her work, notably in the two sleek, beautiful albums she released under her own name: 2019’s Pang, and 2023’s Desire, I Want to Turn Into You. Both invite listeners into expansive, chaotic worlds that do not conform to typical pop-music tropes or themes. The production is rich and complex—the latest album, which ranks as one of the best records of the year,1 features bagpipes, “itchy and primitive” drums, warm bass and choirs of children—but it’s Polachek’s voice that makes these records astonishing. She flits between quasi-cyborg Sprechgesang (a combination of speaking and singing), mellifluous pop and an operatic howl. If you catch her live, there is a collective joy and hilarity in attempting to sing along with what she calls her “hyper-expressive vocals.” 

For Polachek, just hearing her voice take center stage can feel like she’s revealing too much. “The thing that eats at me a little bit is how subjective my music is.” She adds, “It’s very main-character-y, you can’t get away from ‘Caroline Polachek,’ and sometimes I do have these longings to make more instrumental music or less narrative music; music that allows the listener more space to project into rather than being so beholden to what I’m saying.”2

For now, though, she accepts her current sound. “I can’t really help but make songs in that way, [and] that have a lot of heart, and really describe myself,” she says, adding with a laugh, “even if I’m sick of myself.”

( 1 ) Desire, I Want to Turn Into You received an average score of 94 on Metacritic, which assigns a rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics. Polachek’s score indicates “universal acclaim.”

( 2 ) Polachek released an instrumental music album, Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, in 2017 under the moniker CEP—her initials.

“I learned to have very little faith in the music industry.”

Polachek was hardly an unknown entity when Pang was released and her trajectory has been well-documented: In 2005, while attending the University of Colorado, she formed the indie synth-pop group Chairlift with her friend Aaron Pfenning; they put out three records between 2008 and 2017 (their song “Bruises” was famously used on an iPod Nano commercial). She also released two solo albums in 2014 and 2017—via the monikers Ramona Lisa and CEP, respectively—but the first record under her own name brought a marked shift to a more personal, more intimate approach.

“I think I learned to have very little faith in the music industry with Chairlift,” she says. “And not just the label system, but also music journalism. Because we were based in Brooklyn, we were ‘making indie rock,’ and by our third album we were absolutely not making indie rock.”

Being signed to a major label, she also experienced the shift in the industry toward a more data-based approach, fueled by social media metrics and streaming figures. “Suddenly A&R was based on stats, not a perception of trends or what a good song was supposed to be. All of it completely dissolved my faith in these institutions… which was kind of perfect.”

Polachek released her two most recent albums on her own label, Perpetual Novice, and she seems more grounded in her career these days because of it. “I’m willing to take a financial risk on myself because I believe in it,” she explains. “I will communicate [my ideas] with more depth, and not subconsciously rely on a team around me to convey the beauty and importance of these things. I think feeling that I was on my own, and that I was financially on the line for all my own decisions, is really a big reason for why this solo project ultimately found its feet.”

Exploring the jarring contradiction of being both a new artist and an established one, she says she was afforded the “indulgence of a clean slate” with the release of Pang. Initially, she felt her fan base fell into two distinct groups—the indie Chairlift fans who had stuck with her, and the newer PC Music fans (many of her collaborators as a solo artist are from the eclectic London-based label).3 Now that her second album is out in the world—made in partnership with Danny L Harle of PC Music—Polachek thinks her fan base feels “much more mysterious and exciting.” At the shows, she sees “multiple cultures happening at once: the more serious listening culture, the girls in their bedrooms writing their dissertations and crocheting, the people actively and very creatively interfacing [by] making fan art, making edits, being active on Reddit and Discord, and then… you know, the people who are just on Twitter.” 

It’s an ever-growing group of listeners, not least because of Polachek’s time on the road, sharing her music with new audiences. When we speak, she is coming to the end of two years of almost nonstop touring—midway through our call, she has to pause because a courier arrived to pick up the last of her festival circuit wardrobe. It concludes a cycle that saw her supporting Dua Lipa on the US leg of the Future Nostalgia tour, collaborating with Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens on the glorious “New Shapes” and, of course, releasing the highly acclaimed Desire, I Want to Turn Into You. She says the tour helped her express the record in a new way, and made her more aware of its physicality and intensity. “I’m sort of figuring out how to be a normal person again,” she says, reflecting on it all.

When she does get some downtime, Polachek likes to spend it in nature. It’s a dominant theme in her work; in Desire, I Want to Turn Into You—both in the lyrics and in the music videos—there are lush vineyards, undulating blue oceans, ants crawling in sheets and, perhaps most notably, reference to volcanoes, ashes, dust, the cracked earth. She sees it as an acknowledgment of “a sort of faceless, chaotic vitality, and also societal breakdown and personal regeneration, looking at the textures of things that feel ambiguously ancient […] keeping things feeling always very physical and a little gnarly.”

( 3 ) PC Music is a loose collective of songwriters, producers and singers known for creating pitched-up pop music. Its founder, AG Cook, produced Polachek’s songs “Ocean of Tears” and “Hey Big Eyes.”

She explains that this is in part a response to feeling that people have lost touch with nature. “We’ve protected ourselves from it with technology [and] what’s left of our relationship with natural symbolism is so deep in our unconscious […] the nonhuman world, we’re not privy to it,” she says. “The landscape of the soul and human desire is the new environment.” Accordingly, she uses her art to explore the contrast between the natural world and the egotism of human melodrama, poking fun at what she describes as her own “stupidity” and “narcissism.”       

Polachek recalls listening to Radiohead as a teenager and feeling that “they had created an aesthetic set of answers to being lost in the world.” She hopes her own work will have the same effect, becoming an oblique form of communion between Polachek and her listeners. “It’s interesting because it almost becomes a form of shield, this music becomes a barrier that answers a lot of these questions for you as a listener. That’s what makes it art, not just music; it’s grappling with bigger questions, rather than just ‘How do we make your ears feel good?’”  

She says she’s been reflecting on a story she heard about Miles Davis from her tour drummer, Russell Holzman, whose father played with the legendary jazz musician. “Someone asked Miles, ‘What’s the thing you’re best at?’ and Miles thinks about it for a second and responds, ‘Knowing who to pick.’ Rather than saying he’s a great musician or a great trumpet player or whatever, he’s a great curator—and I think you see that with everyone from Kanye West to Beyoncé, knowing who to pick.4 I really felt that transform my life for the last seven years, being surrounded by incredible musicians who I also felt this deep kinship with on the road.” 

In much the same way, Polachek seems to have found a balance between a desire for mystery and magic in her work and the need to open up to connect and collaborate with the people around her.

“I think in this world where we’re taught that everyone is an artist with a capital ‘A’ and everyone is an island with a capital ‘I’. That’s not exactly how it works.” Through her music—chaotic, self-satirizing and almost instinctively beautiful—Caroline Polachek is going some way to remedy this.

She wears a vintage T-shirt by REPLIKA VINTAGE, a vintage scarf by ANN DEMEULEMEESTER and her own trousers.

( 4 ) Beyoncé asked Polachek to produce several tracks for her self-titled fifth album including “No Angel,” which made the final cut.

She wears a vintage T-shirt by REPLIKA VINTAGE, a vintage scarf by ANN DEMEULEMEESTER and her own trousers.

( 4 ) Beyoncé asked Polachek to produce several tracks for her self-titled fifth album including “No Angel,” which made the final cut.


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Fifty

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