The name for Caroline Polachek’s new record came to her late one night from deep within her body. It was the summer of 2017, a few months after indie-pop group Chairlift’s farewell tour. She was in London for a writing session, and experiencing strange surges of adrenaline. One such rush woke her up, and Polacheck tried to decipher the sensation: “Wait, what does that feel like?,” Polachek remembers asking herself. “It feels like a pang, a hunger pang. That internal, urgent kind of twist was a very succinct way to sum up what I had been seeking with music.”
PANG, the former Chairlift member’s first solo effort will be out this Friday for everyone to experience in all its gut-hitting fury. Sitting across from Polachek at an empty Italian café in Manhattan’s lower east side one September morning, I get the sense that the record is coming at a re-defining moment in her decade-long career, one that she’s taken the care to plan all the way down to the littlest details. An example of that dedication: she shows up to our interview in a plaid green skirt — the same one she wore to an album listening party five days prior, the same one she (also) wears in the “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” video.
“I’m approaching [PANG] as a distillation of the Caroline that was already there,” she says, sipping a glass of carrot-ginger juice. “The DNA for this album can be traced back to a lot of other projects. It has the twisty sense of humor of Chairlift, the fantastical element of Ramona Lisa, and the futuristic relationship with synthesizers of my ambient project, CEP.”
Experiencing PANG’s rippling concoctions — co-produced by PC Music’s Danny L Harle — does indeed feel like watching light bounce off the various sides of an ultra-refined Polachek. Lead single “Door,” with its hypnotic, spiraling hook and kiting howls, is the record’s hyper-glossy exterior, but the rest of the record lands with a subtler flourish. “Hey Big Eyes,” a harpsichord-filled Tim Burton-esque serenade, is a strange but sweet thing; “Go As A Dream,” a foggy, and delicate reverie held together by the pluckings of a guzheng-like instrument, nearly evaporates from its lightness.
“I wasn’t thinking about pop in terms of any specific sound or structure, I was just thinking about it in terms of clarity,” Polachek says. “It’s time for the essential Caroline now.”
What do you like about Danny’s production style and his work at the PC label?
I really like how bold it is. He’s not really interested in subtlety. For him, everything is like a very big, bold move. He also works very fast, which is kind of part of how that sound happens but, at the same time, he’s so committed to this really beautiful kind of euphoria, so the thing I really love about and the thing I really cherish about his work is in some ways it spans the entire emotional spectrum.
Everything from like really bombastic, like hard-hitting, quite mean blasts of sound and then this like extremely articulated, beautiful, delicate melodies that our happening that are just woven throughout it.
When did you know that you had a finished piece of work?
I thought I had a finished piece of work in January, and I played what I thought was a finished record for Columbia Records and it was mostly there. I met with my mentor there, and he said, “This is your best work to date — hands down. You should be proud, but you need to keep writing.” I was so confused and angry because I didn’t know how I could do anything that was better than that.
There was about a month when I was actually really depressed, and I didn’t know what to do differently. I went back into the studio and wrote “Pang,” “Caroline Shut Up,” “Ocean of Tears,” and “So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings” and “The Gate.” Those five songs knocked out songs that I also loved but will be saved for something else now, because the body of music is so much clearer with those [new] songs added. In the end I’m so grateful that they did push me.
Do you feel nervous at all sharing this record?
No. I’m so excited about the music and I don’t think I’ve ever been prouder of a body of music. The weird thing I do feel the most nervous about is how to exist as a person in all of it? Because I feel like the world in which music lives now is one that’s so virtual online, and I adjusted myself to that idea as I was working on [PANG]: thinking so much about how it would exist in images and how people would live their lives to it, and the worlds the music would build for people. Now, suddenly as I’m approaching the moment where I’m about to go on tour and you know, even putting myself in videos...
Do you mean like reconciling with a public constructed persona of some sort?
Just like how to exist as a person in a world that feels so intangible. What’s real, what’s not real, and also this constant anxiety that I’m gonna let people down or something because the world that [PANG] builds is so virtual. I also know that’s a really stupid fear, but I imagine it’s one that a lot of musicians think about; you step out on to a daytime festival stage and you’re just a person. I think that’s maybe one of the most beautiful things that music can remind people of. I saw a picture of Liz Fraser playing onstage in California last week, and it was like, Right! Cocteau Twins to me feels like a whole kind of storm cloud, but at the end of the day, they’re human beings.
The writing on PANG is very straightforward compared to your previous work. Do you feel this is like some of your most honest storytelling?
With each project I’m always pushing for clarity. It’s definitely honest and a big part of that comes from not filtering the stories and the experiences through the idea of being a duo. [It’s] finally just being me and the challenge of articulating that.
In a previous interview, you said something about how you never let yourself write love songs. What made you want to write love songs for this record?
Well, it was just what was happening [Laughs]. Also, you know, as you grow up you become more sentimental. [You have] this writhe of experiences that are all connecting to each other in these wild ways — tiny, insignificant things reminding you of huge, significant things constantly, and so your world becomes kind of loaded with emotional symbols and interconnecting threads. So, anyway, I think the format of love songs for me stopped becoming about people and started becoming about life.
You’ve been in the industry for a minute now and pop’s position in the cultural landscape has changed so much in the past decade. What’s your understanding of what pop is right now?
When I came up in a band — not just in a band, but a kind of underground DIY community — there was such a clear cut distinction between what pop was and what not pop was in very simplistic terms. One of the things that makes [the differentiation] so confusing now is how everybody’s using such a similar palette. Everyone is using the same toolkit and artists who are working in the underground are using the same toolkit as you’ll find on the biggest-selling pop records, and because it’s so easy now for artists to appear out of nowhere and have a single, massive hit that blows up, the boundaries between even the industry structure around pop and what’s not pop are falling away as well.
Those walls started breaking down in 2012 to 2015, when like, quite small artists were getting picked up and siphoned into these big collabs with Kanye, or the same way that I got brought to the Beyoncé collaboration [“No Angel”]. That moment was really exciting and now it’s all kind of just relaxed into this soup and I try not to think about it actually.
Now, there is such a thing as underground pop, which is like, what does that mean? I think there are people who are religious devotees of this certain kind of extreme pop. I think artists like Charli XCX, for example, are like pushing what a lot of people want out of pop music to an extreme, but then there’s a lot of stuff on Top 40 radio that doesn’t sound like pure pop.
Would you consider yourself in the underground pop wave?
No. I kind of think about myself like not up or down, but sideways. I’m trying to just broaden the spectrum rather than think about what I’m doing in a hierarchical system.
Pop really has lost any sort of rigid definition.
But that’s great! And thank fuck!
PANG is out 10/18.