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Caroline Polachek on her latest album, 'Desire, I Want to Turn Into You'

MILES PARKS, HOST:

Caroline Polachek's new album, "Desire, I Want To Turn Into You" starts with a howl.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO MY ISLAND")

CAROLINE POLACHEK: (Vocalizing.)

PARKS: And a declaration.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME TO MY ISLAND")

POLACHEK: (Singing) Welcome to my island. Hope you like me. You ain't leaving. Desire, I want to turn into you.

PARKS: It's a fantastic pop album that doubles as an experimental look at some of our most basic human instincts - desire, faith, lust. And the artist behind it, Caroline Polachek, joins us now.

Hi, Caroline.

POLACHEK: Hi, Miles. Thank you so much for having me on today.

PARKS: And thank you. Welcome to my island, NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

POLACHEK: I love it.

PARKS: I want to start with that opening song. That top section - I keep humming it to myself. It's so catchy. It's also really funny. And then it has this line right after - desire, I want to turn into you - which is the title of the album as well. I'm wondering if you can just tell me about that lyric and what it says about the record as a whole.

POLACHEK: Obviously, there's a total comedy in it - like, to open the album with this, like, full Tarzan mode and then immediately snap into this quite '80s phone-operator voice. A lot of the comedy in this song comes from the kind of code-switching within it. But the chorus lyric, desire, I want to turn into you, came completely intuitively without me thinking about it. Wasn't until a year and a half later that I really started thinking about what those lyrics meant and how there's a sort of paradox built into that phrase. All the sort of different meanings that you could take out of that line kind of hold the entire album within it.

PARKS: Well, you mentioned Tarzan, which I feel like - when I was, like, writing notes for what I was going to talk to you about, I...

POLACHEK: You're like, don't mention Tarzan, don't mention Tarzan.

PARKS: (Laughter) No, no, no. No, no. I wrote the word, like, primal. So much of this album...

POLACHEK: Yeah.

PARKS: ...Feels very, like, getting back to, like, our basic human instincts. Let's listen to a little bit more of it. I want to turn to the first single off the album "Bunny Is A Rider," which Pitchfork named the best song of 2021 when it was first released. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUNNY IS A RIDER")

POLACHEK: (Singing) Bunny is a rider. Satellite can't find her. No sympathy. Ain't nothing for free. Bunny is a rider. No sympathy. But I'm so non-physical. I do, I do feel like the lady.

PARKS: I mean, so this song kind of centers on this central character, this Bunny character. Who is she?

POLACHEK: (Laughter) I guess the idea of Bunny in this song is just - it's about being on findable, elusive, playing by your own rules, not picking up the phone. Yeah. I kind of almost cosplay a bit a version of myself in which I'm much harder to reach than I actually am.

PARKS: The way you kind of walk this line between pop music and experimental music feels so unique on this album. And I want to play a little bit of a song called "Pretty In Possible."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY IN POSSIBLE")

POLACHEK: (Singing) Time's running out, innit? Pity the mayflies in the swimming pool at dawn. But down in the deep end, I can't be left alone. Sweet Eliza's on the court. Potential is the drug. They never knew. You never tried. But you see it in my eyes, and that is bae.

PARKS: So I kept playing this song on repeat. And the more you listen to it, it, like, has catchiness like a pop song, but it doesn't really have a traditional refrain, right? I mean, was that intentional, or did you go into thinking about this album that you wanted to play with kind of traditional song structure more?

POLACHEK: You know, I'm such a student of classic pop songwriting, and I, of course, still feel like there's more for me to learn. And, you know, you use the words experimental and pop as if they're at odds. But, you know, for me, quite frankly, I think a lot of music that calls itself experimental is very traditional, is using ideas that have been around since the 1950s, 1960s, even the same techniques. Whereas pop music - all these definitions just feel completely ridiculous to me. I guess I just make the stuff that excites me and that I want to hear.

PARKS: Let's listen to a little bit of "Butterfly Net."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTERFLY NET")

POLACHEK: (Singing) There you were with your mirror, shining the world all over me. There I was...

PARKS: Your voice does so much on this album. And I wonder how you feel like your singing has grown throughout your career, how you've kind of worked on it and, also, how you were thinking about the production on your voice on this album, because it really feels like it is an orchestra in and of itself.

POLACHEK: The production always, always, always obeys the melody. And, you know, I'm the only person who ever edits my vocal - it's called comping, where you kind of take the bits you like from different takes and put them together into this patchwork of what becomes the final take. And for me, the comp is, like, a big, big part of singing. I almost have a very visceral response, like, in my body as I'm comping. I can kind of feel what the version in my head is trying to do. And often, it's only on the comp that that version comes together.

But then, of course, then you have the huge challenge of then learning how to sing it live. And then you have the thing that happens when after touring it for six months, you go back and hear the album version. You're like, ah, I wish I could have recorded it the way it sounds on tour because you develop so much style with songs as a vocalist. You learn how to, like, you know, ricochet off little corners of things and little ski jumps to jump off of. And that's one of the most fun things about live, is just very organically developing style.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTERFLY NET")

POLACHEK: (Singing) There I was with my butterfly net, trying to catch your light.

PARKS: But now we're getting into, like, a little bit of audio nerdery. But just indulge me a little bit...

POLACHEK: Sorry.

PARKS: ...Because I'm like - I've always actually wondered that, about how much of an individual take are you - on this album am I listening to as you're kind of moving through this? How does the, like, kind of mix of comping?

POLACHEK: Comping. Yeah, that's what it's called. Yeah.

PARKS: Yeah. How does that actually work in practice?

POLACHEK: Well, you record each take. I mean, depending on the song, you can record start to finish, and then you go back - and I like to go line by line - and check out each line. And the cool thing is, once you sort of get halfway in the song, you start noticing patterns. You're like, I'm using a lot of take five. A song like "Butterfly Net," which we just listened to, for example, because it does have this croonery (ph), balladeer kind of feel, I wanted that one to be quite raw and leave big, big chunks, whole sections of that song untouched by any edits. Whereas a song like "Bunny Is A Rider" that's so percussive, so rhythmic - I want each breath cutoff, each syllable cutoff to be exactly right. And that doesn't always mean right on the metronomical grid. It just has to be right where it feels right. So a song like that that's really rhythmic, I'm going to get pretty microscopic, yeah.

PARKS: So, Caroline, you have just started a U.S. tour. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about how touring kind of shows you new aspects to these songs. Do you find that playing them live, you discover new things, or how does touring or playing these songs live change them for you?

POLACHEK: A handful of these songs on the album, I actually started touring long before they were out, and the live process actually shaped what they became on the album quite a lot. I don't know. It felt kind of like an old-fashioned way of working in a time when productions can be so crystallized in the studio and then interpreted live. But, also, you know, my audience loves to sing, and I feel very lucky for that because, I don't know, not only is it extremely fun for us, but they also just sound great. Like, I love the audio aspect of all these voices joined in on the music. So shoutout to everyone coming to the live show.

PARKS: And I can imagine specifically on "Billions," like, that part...

POLACHEK: Yeah.

PARKS: ...At the end probably is, like, so epic live.

POLACHEK: "Billions," and then there's a song called "Blood And Butter" that has this big anthemic chorus to it. And that one, sometimes the audience is louder than me on the chorus of, which is so fun.

PARKS: That's Caroline Polachek. Her new album, "Desire, I Want To Turn Into You" is out now, and she is on tour as well. Thank you so much for joining us.

POLACHEK: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BILLIONS")

POLACHEK: (Singing) I never felt so close to you. I never felt so close to you. I never felt so close to you. I never felt so close to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.