In person, Caroline Polachek is a subdued but powerful presence. When she looks at you she is really looking at you; it’s a glare that confronts any mortal present at a Williamsburg studio on a bright, frigid day in her hometown of New York. This is the musician’s first photoshoot since Polachek and her longtime collaborator Patrick Wimberly dissolved Charlift, the indie-pop group she had co-operated since 2005. Polachek, visibly chilly yet stoic in brick-red eye make-up and a sleeveless white gown, her long hair in precise waves down her back, seems quietly aware of the significance. The little chatter that erupts is mostly hushed. A string of Julia Holter and Mr Twin Sister songs flow steadily from a speaker as the sun stretches to reach us through wide windows.
Contrary to the centripetal force that she commands on set, Polachek is effusive on the art of being behind the scenes when she calls me from LA the week before. “It’s almost like theatre, like writing a screenplay or something,” she says of the multifaceted collaborations that have marked her output since Chairlift. “You have these characters that are established, and you’re writing something for this world. I feel like this huge pressure gets taken off because it’s not me. It is really liberating.”
2017 was a renaissance year for Polachek, establishing her as a multi-talented producer, singer and sometimes-director beyond the reaches of her former outfit. Complex and genre-blending as Chairlift could be, it had come to a point where, Polachek and Wimberly felt, they’d never progress past listeners’ association of the band with ‘peak indie’. (As Polachek once complained to Pitchfork, “There’s an indie ghetto.”) In January of 2017 Polachek released an earthy, ambient synth album called Drawing the Target Around the Arrow under her initials, CEP. She finished the last tour with Wimberly, and proceeded to work with a heaping handful of talents. “I’m now the one bringing people in,” she says. “It feels like a whole new candy store for me.
”The collaborations have come thick and fast since then, and together demonstrate how switching gears is second nature to Polachek. She admits she’s been “lucky enough to be in rooms with a lot of heroes in the past year”, from her work with soundtrack composer Mark Isham to “Togetherness”, a stunning song and video recorded with Fischerspooner. (In the latter, she sings “I get what I want” with sultry assurance, like an affirmation.) Polachek also wrote for a male voice for the first time last year, contributing a clutch of tracks to the debut album from Superfruit, the pop project of two singers from a cappella stars Pentatonix. “I was inspired by the idea of writing for a boy band,” she explains. “That’s the kind of format I grew up with, *NSYNC and Backstreet Boys. I guess we’ve had One Direction (since then), but I do feel there’s a kind of void now and a lot of room to play.”
Working with different artists is always a learning experience, a new skill for the tool belt, says Polachek – even when it’s more about realising what doesn’t work. Being in the studio with close friend Charli XCX, for instance (she’s in LA to play a show with the singer), pushed Polachek to let go of her more analytical tendencies, to “throw things against the wall and decide later”, and “save filtering for a second stage”. Polachek used to go through her material with a new collaborator, but now she’s scrapped the preamble: “I’m ultimately the one in control, I’m the one who is filtering and controlling the palette in real time. I don’t leave it up to someone else. It’s actually more and more liberating to just get in and start making stuff.”
Polachek would prefer to build her own world, thank you very much, and she vehemently resists definition by others. Further proof of her position among the current generation of in-control musicians came with her appearance alongside Kelela, Dev Hynes and Kindness in a recent Calvin Klein campaign, co-starring and curated by Solange. “I was so in love with this place,” she says of the shoot, which the group styled themselves. “Fake ranches, fake barns, fake stables – I just wanted to sneak out of the trailer and camp out and spend the night in that fake place. It seemed like the most perverse teenage dream. It was like Edward Scissorhands. A very postmodern situation.” And, it seems, another affirmation.
Another major event shifted the public perception of Polachek last year, an affirmation in the guise of controversy. In December 2017, she pulled out of Moogfest 2018, after the US festival rolled out an advance lineup highlighting its all-women and non-binary performers. “Furious to be (without approval) on an all-female & non-gender-binary announcement list for @Moogfest,” Polachek tweeted. “Gender is not a genre.” For many it was a confusing choice, especially when non-male performers made up less than 15 per cent of the lineups at a cross-section of US music festivals surveyed by Pitchfork in 2017. As Baltimore musician Suzi Analogue rejoindered on Twitter, “Solidarity Counts, Girl.” There’s a fuzzy line between championing underrepresented artists and coopting political moments for PR, and it’s only getting more muddled as music becomes more commodified. “I believe anyone who wants to be positioned that way has every right to be and they should go ahead and do it,” she says now. “But to do it without the artists’ permission is exploitative. I like to operate in my own world where music is made by women and it’s made by men. In some people’s minds this isn’t a productive way of acting, but I essentially just reject situations that don’t fit into that worldview whenever I can.”
Polachek’s hope is for a “trickle-down effect” from Moogfest’s PR misstep, and an end to lists of women being used as a branding tool. “What’s really going to move things forward is not people putting women on an exclusive pedestal, but positioning them as equals that don’t need a prefix, that don’t need (the epithet) ‘woman musician’. They’re musicians.”
Furious to be (without approval) on an all-female & non-gender-binary announcement list for @Moogfest. Gender is not a genre. I don't need a sympathy pedestal, esp from a male curator. Take my name off this list and put me in the pit with the boys. pic.twitter.com/6XWcWgldZC— Caroline Polachek (@carolineplz) December 6, 2017
While we’re on the subject of women’s agency, she has concerns, too, about the high standard that’s set for female producers in the music industry. Women, not just in music, still have to be everything at once – yes, even in the #MeToo era. “Sometimes I worry that artists like myself or (FKA) twigs or Grimes putting ourselves out there as producers sets an example for young girls that if you want to be a producer you also have to be a singer and songwriter, and you have to be comfortable on camera. Men don’t have that triple standard to live up to,” she says. Society expects visibility and eternal flexibility of its women, a presumption that carries over into the industry. Polachek argues that the way to measure progress in the business is by how many women are hired as producers and engineers. “I see a lot of women hire women but I don’t see men hiring women to work behind the scenes,” she says, wavering between optimism and cynicism. “There are girls learning Ableton Live as 13-year-olds and we’re going to see the results of that really soon, of a whole new generation entering the field. I really do believe this is only the beginning.”
It’s only the beginning for Polachek, too. While staying in LA, the musician finished up a few tracks for her new album, which she’ll release sometime this year under her own name. It will be a first for Polachek, who, in addition to Chairlift and CEP, also unveiled a decadent synth-pop solo project under the moniker Ramona Lisa in 2014. She says that using her own name feels like she’s “being reborn”.
That said, Polachek also admits that there are elements of everything she’s done in the past manifested in the new music. A self-confessed archivist, she has been tracking the thread of her work since Chairlift began. “Organise your references, imagery and ideas in ways that you remember them by,” she asserts. “Take them really seriously. Once you start seeing it all in one place, you start seeing threads.” Perhaps it’s this urge to make her own connections and ‘honour’ her work as an artist which means that, even with the ultra stripped-down Drawing the Target Around the Arrow, you can still catch a glimpse of the drama of Chairlift, the sweetness of Ramona Lisa and CEP’s disencumbering.
Polachek has always been vocal about ownership, but it’s clear from our conversation that she’s becoming herself in a new way. It’s as if she’s sculpting herself more clearly into the world every day, with each piece of work – real name and all. “It does feel like the most honest thing to do,” she professes. “Using my name helps illustrate for people that this is the thread that has been running through my whole career. This is it.”
Photography Bibi Borthwick, styling Emma Wyman, hair Marki Shkreli at Bryant Artists using Marki Haircare, make-up Kanako Takase at Streeters using Chanel Les Beiges, talent Caroline Polachek, photography assistant Alexandre Hertoghe, styling assistant Devante Rollins, make-up assistant Kuma, production Jesica Levy at LXT Studios