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Caroline Polachek
Caroline PolachekPhotography Karolis Kaminskas

Caroline Polachek’s year of Pang

A year after the release of her spectacular first solo album, the musician tells us about finding inspiration at home, her lockdown hobbies, and her new 10-minute version of ‘The Gate’

Celebrating the anniversary of an album in a year that had very few temporal markers is a disorienting experience, both as an artist and a fan. A year ago, almost to the day, Caroline Polachek was playing a solo show at London’s Hoxton Hall following the release of Pang, her highly anticipated first solo album. It feels both a lifetime ago, and like not enough has happened for a one-year mark.

Pang is a balladic, elfin album with an immersive visual and lyrical universe where every song feels like a single. It fast became a cult favourite with fans and critics alike (it topped Dazed’s annual albums of the year list), and Polachek decided to dedicate the week of Pang’s anniversary to “giving it a new life”. Starting with an extended release of “The Gate”, Pang’s opening track, she collaborated with Ezra Miller (the artist, not the actor) to create an AI-assisted music video for the song. “Ezra is someone who finds beauty important”, she says, “and since my world is so full of symbols and recurring motifs, I thought it would be an interesting challenge working with someone whose whole world is non-figurative.”

The extended release, created with Danny L Harle and Oneohtrix Point Never, is “collage-like”, borrowing from Pang’s “Door” and “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” throughout its 10-minute runtime. “Medleys are the domain of musicals and film scores, usually in a pretty cheesy way, but I’ve wanted to do one for years”, Polachek explains. “It wasn’t until I was halfway into the rework that I found myself humming lines from these other songs that fit right into it like puzzle pieces. As an artist it feels odd to move on from a work, especially in a year like this when music doesn’t get to live on stage, so weaving the songs together was sort of a way to say goodbye to them and look towards what’s next.”

Let’s talk about the year since Pang. Did you always know you wanted to make The Gate into an extended mix? Why did now feel like the right time to release it? 

Caroline Polachek: Ever since I made the original track, which is only about a minute long and was recorded all in one go in my apartment at 4 AM, I knew I wanted to expand it into some sort of megamix where it could morph into way more minimal and maximal sections, but very very slowly. My original pass of the edit was actually even longer, but I thought it would be cool to make it exactly 10 minutes, so that the audio could sort of be used like a 10-minute hourglass.

With all the outpouring of pain around both the pandemic and the BLM movement, and this universal sense that both state and society had failed to give so many people either freedom or safety, I kept thinking about the lyrics of this song. Because in the original, the lyric “There’s no need to wait / We will be okay / ’Cause finally there’s a way / To be both free and safe, is what we’re perpetually waiting to hear, but never do. So the extended version is a sort of alternate ending, a temporary sanctuary, where not only do those words come, but at least for ten minutes they’re true. 

Tell me a bit about your collaboration with Ezra – what was like to work on the video together? 

Caroline Polachek: We ran a series of experiments where Ezra modelled a 3D landscape based on his perception of the music. We started talking about painting because up till then, my relationship with landscape has always been painted, whether it was backdrops for music videos, or painted clouds on album covers. Ezra was using Unreal Engine, which is what a lot of video games are modelled in, and it creates a very different look to everything I’d been doing. He had the idea to use a neural style transfer algorithm which he trained on a dataset of Turner and Tanguy artworks, so all these 3D landscapes were fed through to turn into impressions of paintings. But the really cool thing about Ezra is that he insists on working in a very performance-driven way. He set up different algorithms so that he can play them like a controller while listening to the song. He would send me different versions of the video and be like, ‘Check out this new performance of it.’ And as we progressed, his having learnt the music and my having learnt what he was doing felt like a really musical collaboration. 

I think what I’ve felt this year, like many other artists, was that putting work out was actually a distraction from more important things, and that my job was actually to step back” – Caroline Polachek

I thought the fact that there are no figures in the video made it interesting to watch as apost-lockdown’ piece. It reminded me of when all the streets emptied of people – it doesn’t mean it’s stripped of beauty, it’s just a different point of view.

Caroline Polachek: For such a vocal record where I’d been so present, it was really interesting to make a piece of music where my voice was relatively absent. And while working on the video, I was thinking how cool it was that I wasn’t in it, but then towards the end of the process I realised, ‘Oh no, I am in the video; you’re just inside my head the whole time.’ This whole thing is POV.

It’s a very meditative experience to watch. How do you think your creativity has changed over this unexpected, strange time? 

Caroline Polachek: I guess it felt like an extreme 180. Because while building the world around Pang I sometimes felt like a sponge that was just being squeezed. Whereas when everything ground to a halt with lockdown I felt the opposite. Rather than being creative I felt like I was in absorption mode, soaking up as much as I could. And I don’t think I was alone in that. Everyone I knew was glued to their screens, not because of social media addiction, but because so much was happening so fast and it was so important to stay in tune with each other. Not just in terms of watching the news but staying in touch with each other’s coping mechanisms. I felt deeply uncreative but I didn’t question it at all. It felt like every single day was a form of emergency. 

I think it’s interesting that this open-source, crystallised information exchange and sharing of resources felt quite new and different, while at the same time, I don’t think this was a creatively productive time for most people. Is there anything from this period you might draw inspiration from in future projects or do you think of it more as a reset, an opportunity to start afresh?

Caroline Polachek: I think in a lot of ways it restored my belief in culture and arts and music as a genuine force for good. I think with the hyperspeed things were going at before, I found it easy to lose touch with how I felt about music as a teenager: that it was the most important thing I woke up for, the thing that made my life exciting and beautiful and special. I think what I’ve felt this year, like many other artists, was that putting work out was actually a distraction from more important things, and that my job was actually to step back. If anything, I realised how much I appreciated the work that other people were making this year. The albums that people were releasing just hit me so hard. I stopped taking these things for granted I guess, and that recharged me in a major way. 

Are there any particular albums that stand out? 

Caroline Polachek: Eartheater put out a great new record. Perfume Genius, A. G. Cook. There are so many.

What would an average week in lockdown look like for you? 

Caroline Polachek: That’s quite a difficult one to answer because there were so many chapters, do you know what I mean? Every week felt like a year. On a visceral level, it probably wasn’t very different to most other people’s. I set up a little studio space in a bedroom and worked for myself which in a lot of ways was a luxury. I obviously got quite into cooking and then I would get completely repulsed by the idea of it for weeks at a time. You know, everything just felt quite extreme. I guess I got quite into playing frisbee. 

Oh, okay! 

Caroline Polachek: I just found it to be quite a cool sport! A cool thing to go and do outside. It’s something you can do at a distance. But it’s also one of those quite psychedelic things, where thinking about it doesn’t make you any better at it. You can’t make your body do it by paying attention. I enjoy how the mind-body connection is so invisible in something like frisbee. And also how it kind of feels like singing a little bit. 

In what way? 

Caroline Polachek: Oh you know, just like, a line in space. 

It’s interesting to do something without the aim of getting better at it. You know, a lot of people were like,If I don’t come out of lockdown with five new skills it was a waste of time’, when in fact you can spend time on something without the obligation to master it. You’re allowed not to do things for output. I wonder if this time has changed the way you research or gather inspiration in any way? 

Caroline Polachek: It was actually a bit of a difficult time in terms of my relationship with inspiration, because rather than having encounters with ideas out in the world, it would be imagery coming through the phone. And there’s this sense right now of everything online being a shared experience, and in that sense, feeling like all these ideas are familiar to other people, that they are already public property. Or finding things I’m inspired by online and feeling a weird sense of unoriginality to images that might otherwise excite me. I guess it just feels like a lot of artists and creative directors are looking at the same thing. So I started getting more inspired by very small things in my physical reality. Like I have this Victorian locket and over the course of lockdown I got more and more obsessed with this small object and started collecting them, because things like that felt – although not a direct line to future work – at least like a private thing. I think that idea of the private experience became more important to me. 

There’s this sense right now of everything online being a shared experience, and feeling like all these ideas are familiar to other people, that they are already public property. I think the idea of the private experience became more important to me” – Caroline Polachek

Pang was very much about the vulnerability of a really intense, vibrating feeling. But that was a very personal vulnerability, and I was wondering if there’s been a shift at all for you, with coronavirus and the US political situation – these big external forces that are causing a shared, collective vulnerability rather than an internal experience. 

Caroline Polachek: Yeah. Absolutely. I think there’s been a sort of disillusionment in our idea of a safety net, that I think is so ingrained in the American consciousness. Whether that takes the form of an idea of justice (which we all knew was fucked), or public resources or social security. I think this year has been a total reckoning with the absence of that. But I don’t feel as though I have an original or unique perspective at all, because what needs to be said is already being said and loudly by a lot of people. So for the most part I’m just listening. 

How are you approaching the loss of connectivity with your audience that was previously made possible by real-life performance? 

Caroline Polachek: I suppose I’m just living in the contradiction right now. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so reclusive. But at the same time, I’m working on the most extroverted, spicy music I’ve made, so… I’m just enjoying it. I’m enjoying the contrast.