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Wed 26 Jun

Harmonising with the World

Caroline Polachek on the Art of Pop Music. Image Credit: Caroline by Polachek by T15 Media.

By Always Live

Caroline Polachek is not your typical pop star. For her, pop music is a cultural force that harmonises listeners with the world around them.

In a conversation with Brodie Lancaster at Melbourne’s Capitol Theatre during ALWAYS LIVE 2023, Polachek delved into the creative process behind her latest album, ‘Desire, I Want to Turn Into You.’ This discussion explored the transformative power of pop music and provided an in-depth look at Polachek’s artistic journey. Here, we capture the highlights of that conversation, which you can listen to in full on the ABC RN Big Ideas podcast.

Visual Language

Polachek defines pop music as “potent music culture” rather than a specific sound. For her, pop music generates both visual and social culture, distinguishing it from genres like experimental or classical music. This makes the visuals for an album a central part of her creative process – so she was glad Lancaster started there.

Polachek explains that the cover for Desire, I Want to Turn Into You – depicting her crawling on a subway floor with headphones on, moving towards something unseen – represents the album’s themes of transition and connection. "I feel the most overtaken by music when I'm on the train. I think I've cried the most times listening to music there," she shares. It’s spaces like the train, she continues, that make her feel like the main character of her own life – so, expressing this idea visually was important for the record.

“I felt like this album spilled into the world, with some songs and fragments of visuals emerging long before I officially announced the album,” she explains.The collaboration with British photographer Aidan Zamiri to produce the cover evolved from tightly composed single artworks to a broader visual narrative, marking the start of a new chapter. “The release of the album cover, for me personally, marked the moment: this is it. We're in this.”

Crafting Soundscapes

Polachek’s music is known for its unique soundscapes, and acoustics are a key part of her songwriting. Working with co-producer Danny L Harle, she focused on creating distinct acoustic environments for each song. “We'll talk about reverbs as being bathroomy or woody or impossible, often evoking impossibly vast spaces or underwater,” she explained. This approach helps her navigate the infinite possibilities of digital music production, grounding her work in tangible, textured spaces.

She admits to being a slow lyricist, often taking time to find the right words to match the emotional weight of her melodies. “It takes me a really long time to get lyrics in place that I'm happy with,” she shared. Her dedication to preserving the integrity of her initial melodic ideas, even when they require specific consonant sounds or vowel shapes, showcases her commitment to authentic expression.

Desire and Catharsis

The album’s title track, ‘Desire, I Want to Turn Into You,’ captures the theme of longing that permeates the record. Polachek wrote many of the songs just before the pandemic and experienced a creative lull during the early months of lockdown. A transformative trip to Italy, where she witnessed the eruption of Mount Etna, reignited her creative spark and influenced the album’s exploration of disaster, spirituality, and human resilience.

“The first thing I think of is catharsis because I began these songs weeks before the pandemic hit,” Polachek recalled. “Something about being in Italy felt so connected to the ancient history of disaster.” 

Songs like ‘Sunset’ reflect her newfound perspective on love, acknowledging the imperfections of life and relationships. Polachek wanted to convey a sense of acceptance and resilience, celebrating the enduring nature of love despite its ups and downs. She highlighted this sentiment in the lyrics of ‘Sunset’: “So many stories we were told about a safety net. But when I look for it, it's just a hand that's holding mine.”

Collaborative Spirit

Collaboration is central to Polachek’s process, a theme she emphasised throughout the talk. She highlighted the collaborative efforts that have produced some of her most memorable work. Her first official collaboration on one of her own tracks was with Grimes on "Fly to You," a song created in a spontaneous, caffeine-fueled session in Grimes’ home studio. “We just hung out in her room, writing her part and recording it together,” Polachek recalled.

Her collaboration with Dido, recording on Dido’s porch with a makeshift studio rig, was similarly impactful. “Hearing Dido sing just out into the open air. It's Dido. She sounds like that.” 

Both experiences underscored the organic, visceral nature of her creative partnerships. “Hearing these cultural worlds that these artists have built come so simply out of their mouths was incredible,” she noted.

Pop Music’s Role

Polachek concludes by reflecting on the role of pop music in contemporary culture. She believes its role is to “harmonise you with the world around you,” whether that means giving you a confidence boost, providing an aesthetic that makes you feel like you belong, or offering a narrative of shared experience. “It's a way of harmonising our insides with the kind of brutality of the world we live in,” she explains. “Your hurting is okay. I'm hurting too.”

As her ALWAYS LIVE talk and performance demonstrated, Polachek is a testament to the power of pop music as an art form, capable of profound cultural and emotional impact. Her innovative approach continues to push the boundaries of the genre, inviting listeners to explore new depths of musical and personal connection.

Listen to the album below

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