Step Into the Surreal New World of Caroline Polachek’s First Solo Track

Liam Hess

At the beginning of the video for “Door”—the lead single, out today, from Caroline Polachek’s first solo album—we see the singer through a window. She’s on a tiled roof in chunky Mary Janes and thigh-high socks, looking up to the stars. Lit by moonlight, she could be the girl sneaking out of her bedroom at night in a classic ’80s high school flick, or something more literary: one of the haunted girls stalking Shirley Jackson’s Gothic novellas, or Cathy’s ghost in Wuthering Heights, tapping on the window and begging to be let in. (Didn’t another off-beat pop artist with acrobatic vocals immortalize that character once before?)

But while the visuals reflect the cryptic lyrics she wrote as one half of indie-pop duo Chairlift, where song titles included “Amanaemonesia” and “Polymorphing,” this time the music is heading into more personal terrain. “With this record, I was really pushing myself to be more honest. Looking back to the first Chairlift record, there essentially weren’t any love songs,” Polachek says. “I remember thinking that writing love songs was stupid and cliché, and that my job was to not write love songs, because there are enough of them. I guess I’ve gotten older and more sentimental, and I’ve realized that the love song is just the modern equivalent of a devotional.”

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music

It’s been more than three years since Chairlift disbanded, having risen to accidental ubiquity via their sleeper hit “Bruises” that infamously soundtracked an iPod advert during the late-’00s indie boom. Perhaps lesser known are the two critically acclaimed follow-ups that never quite got the commercial attention they deserved: the eerie, ’80s-inflected synth-pop of 2012’s Something, then 2016’s Moth, a glossy, euphoric record about life in the city. Today, the Brooklyn-centric indie scene where they first made their name has largely faded away, but Polachek sees it as a blessing in disguise. “I think there was a real lane built for indie bands during the time when Chairlift came up,” she says. “I felt a little bit trapped in that lane in some ways. For better or worse, that lane has disappeared. I don’t feel like I have a clear lane in the music industry right now, which is actually very exciting.”

If there is a new lane for artists like Polachek today, it’s one she had a hand in paving. Post-Chairlift, she’s been quietly working on this first solo record, due out later this year, while, on the side, making music in whatever form felt right at the time: an experimental, peripatetic career model that musicians as big as Miley Cyrus are now moving to adopt. Over the past few years, this came largely by way of sporadically released collaborations with the cream of avant-garde pop, from Fischerspooner to Charli XCX to Danny L Harle of the agenda-setting alt-pop collective PC Music. And in an unlikely twist of fate, Harle ended up being one of her closest collaborators, coproducing around two-thirds of the forthcoming album.

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music

“I did a one-off single with Danny [2016’s “Ashes of Love”], and we had some sessions booked to write for other artists in L.A. I had this kind of revelation the night before—actually, I’d done quite a lot of mushrooms,” she laughs. “And while tripping, I thought, my time here is limited and I should be focusing on my own music. I emailed Danny at one in the morning to call it off, but he said, ‘Let’s just write for you then,’ which hadn’t even occurred to me. We got in the studio and made a piece of music that was so unlike anything either one of us had ever done before. We were both really taken aback by it, and it was really clear that we had a lot more work to do.”

The testament to the strength of Polachek’s creative vision is that Harle’s noted instincts for heavily processed vocals and crunchy synths never overwhelm the star of the show: Polachek’s classically trained voice, which can move from guttural growls to the rippling purity of birdsong within the space of a single track. “When we finished our first session together, it felt new because it was so minimal instrumentally, but so extreme vocally,” she says, “I knew straight away I wanted to follow the thread of a magical, almost folkloric tone. I really did push myself to kind of do the most expressionistic singing I’ve ever done.”

Photo: Nedda Afsari

And where Chairlift’s final two albums viewed love through a prism of misty-eyed wonderment, Polachek’s solo venture is bracingly candid. Across the album, she plumbs the depths of heartbreak and romantic frustration—and, on the penultimate track, “Door,” undergoes a kind of emotional rebirth—to address her personal life in heart-rending, honest terms. Why, then, did she choose to lead with “Door,” one of the record’s more enigmatic, slow-burning moments? “I was actually really stunned that my label suggested ‘Door’ as the single to lead with, as it’s such a long and winding song,” she adds. “But the more I sat with it, the more I felt that, yeah, this is a really good introduction. There are songs on the record that are a bit more twisty and moody. And this one feels like, no pun intended, an open door. It feels like an invitation.”

Though the video—codirected with visual artist Matt Copson—references female Surrealist painters like Dorothea Tanning and Kay Sage, it’s still very much Polachek’s story. In the span of five minutes, she transforms from a girl idling on her rooftop to a mandolin-strumming siren in an Arcadian vortex to a washed-out set of facial features hovering over an endless corridor. “With most music videos, you shoot four scenes and cut them together at extremely high speeds, but we decided we wanted to do the opposite: to have nothing repeat, so you enter one scene, you really marinate in it, and then you move on and never see it again,” she says. “We wanted the song to feel even longer than it is, so you’ve really been on a journey.”

Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music
Photo: Courtesy of Sony Music

It’s no mere journey, though, but a full-on trip. “I do think about music a lot as rollercoasters,” Polachek adds. “I think of myself as a rollercoaster builder. Pop, in particular, does that very consciously: it sets up dips and rises for people. I cared a lot about the ‘ride’ while making the new music. In that respect, ‘Door’ is a pretty accurate taste of what’s to come.”

But behind all of the acid-laced visuals, the song and video represent the core message at the heart of Polachek’s record—and it’s surprisingly modest. “It’s really just about how a person can enter your life and change its course. Love sends you down paths you never could have imagined, and new worlds open up within that, then new worlds within those.” Now, Polachek is finally ready to open up her door to express both the heartbreak and romantic renewal of the past few years of her life: to her cult fanbase, and those far beyond.

See the videos.

Originally Appeared on Vogue