A Sisterly Energy: Interview With Chairlift’s Caroline Polachek
Caroline Polachek has the kind of siren-enchantress vocals that would haul Odysseus off his game. She’s already known as half of the duo behind Chairlift, her band with Patrick Wemberly, and has collaborated with Dolorean and Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes, as well as Washed Out and the now-defunct Das Racist. She also recently made a contribution to the record of an up-and-coming singer named Beyoncé.
And in April of this year, Polachek set out on her own and released a solo project under the name Ramona Lisa. Using solely her voice and her computer, she recorded snippets in transitional spaces (airports, hotels) while on tour, and during a stay at the Villa Medicis in Rome. The resulting record, Arcadia, is a deeply personal project that allowed her to grow independently and to explore solitude in a bold yet delicate way.
Right before her third-ever gig as Ramona Lisa, in Paris, we met outdoors at a café across from the venue. Polachek, who radiates something both vivacious and gentle, spoke about experimenting with language, embracing artistic autonomy, the advantages of extra eyes, and her ultimate vocal crush. Once we’d finished speaking, she and two back-up singer-dancers—each wearing Jane Birkin-style wigs, all-white outfits, black Mary-Janes, and eyeball nail art—killed it onstage.
I overheard you speaking French in your last interview. Are you half French?
No. I mean, technically I do have some French blood on my mom’s side. But I studied art in Belgium from the age of 17 to 18, and I learned French when I was there. Very reluctantly so. I didn’t do a very good job. For the first six months I was very depressed and couldn’t speak to anyone, and then it kinda hits you.
I had an inkling there was some francophone-ness: on Twitter you mentioned you’ll be doing a version of “Dominic” in French.
We’ll be doing it tonight! It’s actually been done for a while but the funny thing is the Japan release wanted a bonus track, and I had been wanting to do that song in French anyway, so I was like, OK, let’s give the Japanese a French song.
And you sang “Flying Saucer Hat” in French as well.
Yeah. I just started studying opera—very, very much as hobby—and for some reason I’ve been gravitating toward French composers, like a lot of Debussy and Fauré. I find it a really sinuous and spooky language to sing in. Italian seems so floral and bombastic, but French seems more anemic somehow, and I like it. Or kind of lunar somehow. I’m into it. It’s also just tragic.
So why did you decide to do this mini Euro-tour to start?
Well, I wanted to so badly. The album’s aesthetics, I think, it wanted to be in Rome, wanted to be in Paris, so it was kind of inevitable that we would come over here. The show is actually strangely portable compared to Chairlift, which is a full band. Now the Ramona Lisa is me and two other girls singing and dancing onstage. There’s a definite play between real and fake in the live show that I think corresponds very literally to the album. All the album vocals were recorded straight into the laptop mic, but all else happened within the computer. Taking this album on tour with a band would be stupid.
So we’re just playing the backing tracks the way they were done, but the vocals are live, and all the three-part harmonies are live. But the same kind of shit quality you get from singing into a laptop mic is beautifully emulated by having a wireless headset mic. So we’re getting that sort of, like, “no-fi” thing happening in a live setting. But the neat thing about doing it with the two girls is bringing in the aspect of plurality of the choreography. Because I can move my two hands across my body, but when there’s six hands moving in unison it does something—it’s almost like a series of instruments moving together. It’s very literal, it’s very musical, it’s very hypnotic. So it feels like the project comes full circle [with] the live show, more than just hearing the album.
Can you talk about the origins of this album? It sounded like you were very liberated, in a way, without the pressures of being in a band. Not having to “turn in” anything to anyone allowed you to tap into something new. How did you get there? How did you decide now is the time to indulge in that feeling?
Well working by yourself, especially when no one knows about it, is totally liberating because it’s very impulse-driven. You work when you want to work. You work when you can work. No deadlines. No conversation. No compromise. No help.
One of the interesting things [for me] was there not being anyone that I have to temper things around. For example, if I’m working around bandmates, I wanna keep things a little more platonic, more fun. But when I’m by myself, if I wanna write about something, I don’t have to explain it to anyone else. And I don’t get embarrassed in front of anyone. And at the same time you discover things: coincidences, or you discover links that you have the patience and silence to discover on your own terms—as opposed to someone else suggesting new things or throwing in new things. It feels a little like self-help! And of course you hit walls sometimes, where you’re like, “Ugh, this sounds terrible,” and the next day you wake up and say, “Oh, this sounds great”—and you have no one to temper that, to say, “No it sounds great!” or, “Ugh that sounds like shit!” So you actually get to know yourself in an uncanny and crazy way when you’re working on your own. But I really did keep this record a secret when I was working on it.
I didn’t even announce it until after it was mastered and already off to the printing press. Which was really exciting, and also so scary too, because I didn’t really have an audience in mind outside a couple of people that I cherish the most: my sister, my lover, a couple close friends that I’m always exchanging music with. I think when I’m writing for Chairlift, I think about looking out into a festival crowd: what will be the most fun to do? And how I want to interact with people onstage. So it was actually very scary to release this record because I didn’t know what context it had in the world. And it was kind of like, OK, well, I made this thing, and if people like it, then they like it, and if people don’t then they don’t like it, but it doesn’t actually change my world at all.
So what kind of room do you have for it now? You were—are—still working on your third Chairlift album as well. Do you have time to tour and explore this how you want to, in terms of performances?
[This] is the craziest year of my life by far. I have zero time off. The new Chairlift record is pretty much done; it’s in the early stages of mixing. I’m gonna squeeze in as many Ramona Lisa shows as I possibly can between now and when we start touring Chairlift. Then Chairlift is gonna be the main event.
But I’ve learned a lot of lessons working on Ramona Lisa that I’m going to carry into Chairlift. My relationship with dance and costume has completely changed while working on Ramona Lisa, and as Patrick [Wemberly] has learned, my relationship towards production completely changed on this record—in a way that he can sit back and let me run sessions sometimes.
At what point did you know you wanted to be a musician? Has that always been the dream?
Well ever since I was young, I knew I had the knack for it, that my ear wasn’t normal. But I never imagined that I could ever have a career in music. I always thought it was like a mafia, that you had to sell your soul and know the right people and be in the right place. It just seemed that there was this mysterious initiation process in order to be a professional musician that I would never come into contact with. But I had a band anyway, and we rehearsed in our spare time between work and school. And I didn’t ever think it would get further than that, but I enjoyed it, I loved it; it was really the thing I cared about the most. And I imagined I would always do that and be playing at stupid coffee shops and just be that girl. And I guess it was when Apple offered Chairlift the iPhone commercial that all of a sudden, I didn’t have to work anymore. And we started touring full-time, and then as soon as we came back from touring I was writing full-time and I still didn’t have to get a job. It’s a little bit maddening and terrifying because I always wonder if, OK, game’s over! Now you have to be a grown-up! But it just keeps working. It’s amazing: the conversation keeps getting more mature and interesting, and my skills keep getting more developed and it actually seems like I can do this for my whole career. So fingers crossed, you know?
Well it seems more than fingers crossed! You’re also doing interesting collaboration; you’re becoming part of the fabric of what’s happening, of what’s being produced, especially since you’re modular.
It’s true. One thing I’m really interested in getting into is writing for other people, but especially writing for men. I feel like when I’m writing for another woman, the identities get too mixed up. But if I’m writing for a man’s voice, it’s a more interesting identity switch for me. And I think it also puts me in a sort of headspace that feels really liberating, and really exciting. And kind of sexy, too. So that would be something I’d like to get into more. You know Carole King wrote for a lot of male artists at the time, so maybe I could be like her.
Who would you pick if you could choose a token male musician to write for?
If I could write for anyone…probably Scott Walker. I love his voice so much. I can’t listen to him in the subway anymore because I just start crying. It’s really bad! And then I run into someone I know and they’re like, what’s wrong?! And I’m like, I’m listening to Scott Walker! His voice is so milky.
What about the visual side of your project? I love your nails, and you paint on that second set of eyes…
Yeah, like the way fish and insects have a false eye, as a defense mechanism. It’s proper makeup.
So how is that symbolic?
I used to do it before Ramona Lisa even existed, when I was just going out at night, to go to parties—and not even costume parties, but just regular ones, because I enjoyed how it changed my conversation with people. Because I would forget it was there, but they wouldn’t, and it would kind of scare people off their guard a little bit. I really enjoyed that. And then when the Ramona Lisa project started coming together, I found myself gravitating toward outfits that were much more feminine, and much more kind of era-ambiguous than the way I would dress normally. Much less street, more formal. But at the same time I didn’t want to be a little lady onstage either, I wanted something that would say yes, there’s this elegance, but you’re walking on edge with this dream space too. And I thought putting the eyes with that outfit makes it like the music.
It kinda makes me think of the guy—well, creature, really—in Pan’s Labyrinth who holds the eyes up in his palms… it’s very jarring, but in an interesting way.
That’s what I’ve always been attracted to, since I was a kid: things that are mysterious and sexy and a little bit biomorphic.
So how did your show last night go in London?
It was good. The crowd was great, it was a sold-out show. I was so nervous.
Are you nervous because you don’t have bandmates onstage? Is it related to what you’re performing, or you’re a jittery performer?
No, with Chairlift stuff I’m always very relaxed before I go onstage. But for the
Ramona Lisa shows I’m absolutely fucking terrified if we’re going onstage. Completely terrified. This will be our third show as a trio.
Third show! You’re babies.
Yeah! The trio show is so exciting. It’s really cool to have this sisterly energy for going onstage, it really does feel like we’re the three muses. Interestingly, one of the instructions they gave the girls for choreography was that they know something that I don’t know. You know in Shakespearean stories there will be the wise character who knows more than the main character? In a way, they’re the narrator and I’m the protagonist. Or I’m the one who falls into folly and you’re watching her on her adventures and meanwhile the two girls are kind of standing above it and you see their shadows lingering over it. They’re that to me.
How much does what you’re listening to end up influencing what you’re producing yourself?
There’s definitely a dialogue, but funny enough I found myself seeking out music that sounded like Ramona Lisa. It became this exponentially spiraling-inward thing. I discovered artists that sounded like this, walking around cities while I was traveling, which allowed me to see differences [between their work and mine]. And at the same time, seeing differences. By the time I was done I had a playlist that almost feels like a Ramona Lisa record—all of which I discovered while working on the record. Some of it’s ‘60s pop, some of it’s doowop, a lot of it is instrumental, some of it’s actual classical music. It’s almost like a genre that doesn’t otherwise exist. Like an Arcadia genre that I started seeking out.
Sarah Moroz is a freelance journalist and translator living in Paris. She writes for various publications about pop culture, photography, fashion, and art. She often wears striped shirts, as is requisite for every France-dwelling person. Follow her on Twitter @SarahMoroz.