Caroline Polachek’s Magic Kingdom

Caroline Polachek’s Magic Kingdom

Exploring the unusual inspirations behind Caroline Polachek’s fantastical new pop album.

Exploring the unusual inspirations behind Caroline Polachek’s fantastical new pop album.

Photography: Karolis Kaminskas

Text: Erica Russell

Caroline Polachek is like her own surreal species of Disney princess. We can imagine the raven-haired singer perched in a worn, ivy-covered tower in the center of an otherwise sleek metropolis, her ethereal trill beckoning otherworldly creatures and conjuring portals to other dimensions amid the urban bustle. Her spellbinding voice holds that sort of power. It’s a magic that can be witnessed on the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter’s enchanting new solo album, PANG (out October 18 via The Orchard, under the artist’s imprint Perpetual Novice). Polachek’s voice is like a wizard’s wand, casting hypnotic incantations as she ruminates on anxiety, existential suspension, and the delicious agony of love on mesmerizing tracks like “Door” and “Parachute.”

The album is also a far departure from the eccentric synth-pop and indie rock of Chairlift, Polachek’s former band who split amicably in 2016 and marked their dissolution with a farewell tour the following year. Musically, Pang is a Fantasyland of hypnotic, hyper-emotive gloss-pop that, securely anchored by Polachek’s elastic vocal style, draws confidently from a diverse archive of sonic influences, from wavy Baroque pop (“Hey Big Eyes,” which was “written during a manic, ecstatic moment”) to honky-tonk (the slide guitar-featuring “New Normal,” which Polachek describes as a “cartoonish, extreme” song that “begins and ends in LA”). Polachek’s spell book also contains a chapter on immersive visual worldbuilding, a skill she adeptly deploys in the video for “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” her synthy, ‘80s-evoking latest single which finds the artist quite literally trapped in her own private hell, complete with electric blue fire and watercolor red brimstone.

“I wanted to set something in hell for a long time,” she shares. “I choreographed the whole video myself and it was so hot in the studio. I was drenched in sweat the whole time, but you’re not supposed to be comfortable in hell. We had to do it on a pretty limited budget, which made for a lot of fun challenges. Like, how do you build hell on a budget? It’s a very modern question, isn’t it?”

The video also features a wonderfully peculiar nod to The Little Mermaid, evoking the sequence in which the sea witch Ursula captures Ariel’s voice by siphoning it into a Nautilus shell necklace. In “So Hot…,” the physical manifestation of Polachek’s own voice billows out in glowing green swirls during an electrifying guitar-style vocal solo.

“The scene in The Little Mermaid where Ursula pulls Ariel's voice out of her throat was terrifying to me as a child, and feels kind of related to how Jim Henson imagined the ‘essence extraction' in The Dark Crystal,” Polachek muses. “I love these magical tactile visualizations of things that are otherwise invisible, like a voice or someone's essence.”

Below, Caroline Polachek reveals the unexpected Disney influences behind her new album, how working with Danny L Harle stretched her sound to glistening sonic frontiers and the prolific artists who inspire her most.

What was it like working with Danny L Harle and branching more into that PC Music space for this record?

It was so natural, actually. The first time Dan and I worked together was for a single called ‘Ashes of Love,’ for his catalogue. Working with Dan was a revelation. It was the first time I had worked with someone who I felt was working at my speed. We cared about the same things, and we didn’t care about the same things. We could accelerate and slow down. Our brains were totally in sync with how we wanted to work. We really pushed each other.

He pushed me to be maximally expressive, vocally. We actually got into a big fight working on [a song on the album called] ‘Insomnia.’ We were writing the vocal melody and I was improvising—that’s the way we did a lot of writing together—and then we’d go through it together, see which bits we liked, try stringing them together, and then fill in the gaps. But he kept pushing me, saying, ‘Make it more fraught. More intense.’ At a certain point, I left the room, I was so angry. I think he was trying to push me to an emotional place. When I came back into the room he said, ‘I’m sorry, I listened back to everything and it’s all completely amazing.’

So you pushed each other into spaces you may not have ventured otherwise?

I pushed him really hard as a producer. My standards are quite high. Very often he loves working quickly and making broad strokes, that’s part of his genius. But I like getting into the details and finessing things. I definitely pushed him in that regard.

We were both experimenting with each other. He was trying to experiment as a producer, both psychologically and fluxing into a new kind of pop. With his previous stuff, he was always working with electronic pop. With me, he was getting the bass out and actually playing—for which he went to college, by the way, nobody knows that! He’s a classically trained bassist! It was about him branching into a much more organic palette and me branching into a much more virtual one.

Is there a track from this album that was particularly challenging for you?

I almost gave up on ‘Door’ so many times. I couldn’t crack it. It started out as a simple song with just a chorus-verse-chorus. I felt like it needed to transform more. I’d written the structure with Dan Nigro, but I wanted to combine it with the world that ‘Parachute’ and ‘Hey Big Eyes’ exist in. It’s more dreamscape. Making the production work was so difficult, the original vibe sat more on an indie rock palette. I was trying so hard to push it into something that felt more magical, and it felt like it was switching palettes too much, or the dynamic was too jumpy, or it didn’t have a solid enough core. The production of that song took about a year from start to finish.

I remember having to step out of the studio at one point, sobbing. I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this. The idea in my head isn’t possible. I’m trying so hard to make this work, I can feel what I’m going for, but it’s not working!’ The two collaborators on that one were also mystified as to what exactly I was going for, but when it finally clicked, we all had this moment of, ‘What did we fucking do?’

Would you say that track is the one you're most proud of on this album?

In some ways, yes, just because it was the biggest challenge. In other ways though, ‘Parachute’ is actually my favorite, because I think as a writer, I crossed over into another level of writing. It all felt so honest and organic the way it came together. It’s about trust.

The track ‘I Give Up’ is a sad, truthful look at the things we don’t often admit to ourselves when a relationship begins to break down. Why do you think people cling so desperately to relationships that aren’t working?

I’ve definitely been in that situation many times—staying in a relationship longer than I should. I think there’s so much of your identity that comes from a relationship. Your social identity, your personal identity… even how your time gets structured. A lot of people don’t realize that relationships form a huge part of their logic and how they manage and make sense of time. Separating yourself from all those structures is really difficult. It’s delicate and painful. I think a lot of people hang onto the structure, beyond the person, and at a certain point don’t want to give up that part of their lives.

That song was written about a breakup from 2012. I had written that [song] in a notebook and I found it and went, ‘Oh, these lyrics really cut.’ There was a piece of music that was being born around the same time I found those lyrics and it really fit. But that song is also about apathy, which is another emotion we’re not really supposed to have.

We often view breakups as tragic or deathlike. Do you think it’s possible to reframe a breakup as a moment of opportunity or rebirth?

Definitely. I think that’s a big trope in pop music: the blaze-of-glory breakup. It’s not one that I particularly identify with, but it’s definitely possible. We’ve gotten a lot of good songs out of that, like Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Getting Back Together.’ That’s an amazing song.

‘Ocean of Tears’ is about an agonizing long-distance relationship. Do you think it’s possible to survive a long-distance romance? Or are they inevitably doomed?

I think it’s the worst of both worlds, because you’re either in pain because you love someone you can’t be with, or you’re wasting your time. I think there has to be a natural end to it. I don’t think I could be in one perpetually. I always think about wartime relationships and how that worked.

What inspired the pirate theme behind the ‘Ocean of Tears’ video?

I had a color palette and temperature in mind for that video. I wanted it to feel icy and bleached out. I felt that it needed to live in a craggy, icy world. I went to Disneyland for the first time this spring with Matt [Copson], who co-directed the video. He took me on the Pirates of the Carribbean ride, which is his favorite artwork in the world because it tells a story of greed in reverse. It starts with the skeletons, the dead, and it works its way back to the pirates—seeing them looting and pillaging. The set design of the ride is so amazing. I turned to him and said, ‘How has a rapper not done a pirate video?’ Because rappers and pirates want the same thing!

Matt was like, ‘You should just do it instead.’ ‘Ocean in Tears’ had the same kind of tenacity that exists in both [the song and the ride]. It’s relentless, which fit the pirate imagery. Also, we just found it so fun and funny to go there. It’s very tongue in cheek, but also very beautiful.

What did your mood board for this album look like?

At the beginning, I approached the mood board conceptually, but then it evolved into ‘Shit I Like,’ which is where you want to be, anyway. But I was looking at a lot of early Disney animatics—the concept designs and early sketches for the environments. Sleeping Beauty in particular is one of the images that popped into my head—the medieval, angular landscapes.

I ask myself why I’m so attracted to that stuff right now and I think a lot of it is because how [it parallels] my personal life at the time I was making this album. All these themes of guilt, passion, fear—they’re all so beautifully represented visually, like a wall of thorns or an impossible tower. Ruins, but done in an angular ‘60s way. It started to feel like psychology, actually. These are psychological landscapes. I think that’s how I approach music and production.

You recently revealed that you approach singing like drawing and that you studied drawing in college. Do you still draw today?

I don’t anymore and it kills me that I don’t. I used to obsessively draw. I was really good at it. There’s a weird intersection—as you get older where your standards go up, but the amount of time you give to practice goes down because you’re so busy. So you end up at this weird point where you’re displeased with your art because you’re not giving it enough time because your standards are so high. And that’s why teenagers have an amazing window. That’s when youn can really find your footing as an artist because you’re giving it that time and your standards are lower, so you’re really pleased by what you do in a way that can push you forward in a very real way.

What kind of things would you draw?

It was people and things, it wasn’t abstract. I loved calligraphy pens. That was my medium. I loved the articulation you could get making the lines feel gooey and dynamic. I also got off on the precision of it, because if you fuck up and smudge the ink with your hand, you ruin your drawing.

If your album were a painting, what would it look like?

It would probably look like one of those landscapes we were just talking about, from Sleeping Beauty. Vast, but with bits of broken architecture—maybe some wind turbines, solar panels, and burned crops. There would be a glowing line through it, to represent the singing.

Did you grow up watching animated Disney films?

I watched Disney films on loop ‘cause we didn't have a TV in the house, but like most kids, I was totally spellbound by them. While I'm not particularly nostalgic, I have a huge admiration for the richness and beauty of those ‘60s-to-‘90s films, and the passion that Disney's teams had, both in the animation and the music. And because so many people grew up watching the same films, it's this amazing shared experience we all have that's so deeply ingrained in our subconscious.

People often say my music reminds them of something and yet they can't figure out what it is. I think I've always been interested in that weird connective tissue of collective nostalgia, but not for the sake of doing anything retro - only to find a shortcut to somewhere deep inside.

Which vocalists do you admire most?

One of my all-time favorite vocalists is Paddy McAloon, from the band Prefab Sprout. They were known in the UK in the eighties, but not so much so in the US. He’s my favorite lyricist. But what I really love is his sense of vulnerability and giving. He’s just so generous as a vocalist. He doesn’t have a virtuosically amazing voice, but he’s always giving. I also love this Japanese pop/jazz fusion singer from the ‘80s—she’s one of my biggest influences, actually—named Mishio Ogawa. I’ve really sought to imitate, in some ways, how she stretches her notes. It feels like liquid. Her songs are on another level.

I think another really big one is Indian composer A.R. Rahman. He’s the biggest musician in the world, we just don’t know who he is over here [in the US]. His catalogue is massive. He’s got hundreds and hundreds of albums from the biggest Bollywood films. He writes vocal melodies that have completely changed the way I write and sing. They’re so spontaneous and so generous. And also, one of my favorite current singers is Kim Petras. I think she’s got the most insane rhythm. Like, her voice carries the beat so hard.

Why did it feel right to release this album under your full name, and not one of your previous nom de plumes?

It was tempting to do that, but Ramona Lisa felt like such a sealed vault. That was a one year project that was very intentionally supposed to exist for one year. I approached that the way a director would approach a short film. It was a little parcel and that parcel was sealed and closed. I definitely took a lot from that project, but I wanted this to feel bigger, more raw, and more essentially me, not in costume. That was a costume project.

I also felt like I, as Caroline Polachek, had dipped my feet into so many different cultural zones that all were interestingly far apart. Whether it was working with Beyonce or Charli XCX, or coming on as a curator in a classical space in New York, I’ve laid out a bread crumb trail that’s delightfully confusing for people. I wanted the satisfaction of this project answering all those questions very effortlessly.

Are there any other artists, bands, or composers on your collaboration bucket list?

I’d love to make a video with Post Malone. God, I love him so much! I would love to score a feature with him one day. Not right now, but soon. I have a big music crush on Bryan Ferry from Roxy Music. I’d love to do a duet with him at some point. There’s Young Thug as well... I’m just listing guys. I’ve got the girl box checked off all by myself! I love male voices. I feel like there aren’t enough of them.

What is your relationship with Chairlift today? Did you share the album with Patrick when you were working on it?

I showed him the album in a much earlier state. Half the songs I played for him didn’t even make the cut, but generally, I was very secretive about this album. I didn’t play it for very many people while I was working on it. I’m really proud of everything Patrick’s done since Chairlift. I’m really rooting for him. Chairlift was rewarding but in a weird way, it was also holding us back from doing what we’re best at. Since we broke up, we’re both doing our thing better than we were able to before.

‘Pang’ is such a visceral, rarely used word, yet it’s so encompassing of a very specific set of feelings. In what way did it feel representative for this body of work?

I was having adrenaline surges right around the time I was starting to work on this music. I was traveling constantly and my personal life was about to become totally uprooted. One morning in England, I was lying awake at 6 AM, watching the sun come up, and had an adrenaline surge for no reason. My heart started beating really fast—that fight or flight adrenaline response you can feel between your ribs. It’s like you’re being pricked from the inside. I thought, ‘How do I describe this feeling? It’s a... pang.’ Then I started thinking about that word. It’s only really used to describe a feeling of lack. We use it to describe hunger, envy, desire, nostalgia and jealousy — all those things that are forms of hunger.

Then I started thinking of pang as a sound. Not as an onomatopoeia, but what ‘panging’ sounds like. I realized that all of my favorite music since I was a kid, has a pang to it. It’s not the stuff that’s super happy or celebratory or bombastic. And it’s not the stuff that’s reveling in its own angst, either. It’s something in the middle—lunar, private, and internal. Even the way the word looks, it all just felt right. And a lot of people have never heard the word before, which I just love. So, I start thinking as ‘pang music’ as a genre and I dedicated myself to that idea. I cut quite a few songs because they just didn’t ‘pang’ for me.

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