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How Caroline Polachek Turned Desire Into an Album of the Year Front-Runner

Catching up with the indie-pop star about her acclaimed new album ahead of her upcoming tour

Aidan Zamiri/Nedda Afsari/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You probably knew of Caroline Polachek before you knew you knew of Caroline Polachek. As the frontwoman for the indie-pop darling Chairlift in the late-2000s to mid-2010s, she got the Apple commercial treatment in 2008 and then went on to make one of 2016’s best albums, Moth. As a solo artist, you might’ve heard her opening for artists like Dua Lipa and the 1975; featuring on songs by Blood Orange, Charli XCX, and Flume; or accompanying TikTok videos. And, oh yeah, she cowrote and coproduced a song for Beyoncé.

Polachek’s quietly prolific career is due to her being one of the most inventive voices working in pop today. Ever since Chairlift broke out in 2008, the 37-year-old tristate native has continued expanding on the sounds in her eclectic repertoire. She’s been known to cite nonmusical media among her influences. She once told Pitchfork that Disney background paintings, Magic: The Gathering, and a ’90s Versace campaign inspired her third (or first, under her given name) solo album, Pang—and that diversity is apparent on her acclaimed follow-up, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, which came out in February. The album also came about at a hectic time in Polachek’s life, as she was going from stage to studio while touring in support of Dua Lipa. “I wasn’t seeing the sun for weeks because the studios and arenas are all sunless spaces in the middle of winter. It was very disorienting,” she says. But her instinct was to embrace the unease. “I decided rather than fighting that, I should just bring that spirit of this whirlwind mash into the music and let that feeling of being in transit, of being caught between moments, just become part of the character of the album.”

The result is the most daring and acclaimed work of Polachek’s career. Made largely with PC Music alum Danny L Harle, Desire ranges from the rapped verses on “Welcome to My Island” to the plucks of a Spanish guitar on “Sunset” to a children’s choir in the outro of “Billions.” It’s all held together by Polachek’s voice, which can soften into an ethereal lullaby or sharpen into a shriek to the heavens. Her voice is the weapon that allows her so much room for experimentation while maintaining the signature flair that connects her to songs like “Bruises” and “Crying in Public.”

Desire is also receiving greater critical attention than Polachek has experienced with the rest of her already-well-received catalog. Early single “Bunny Is a Rider” topped Pitchfork’s year-end list in 2021 and also placed highly on lists by The Guardian and The New York Times, and the record as a whole is the best-reviewed album of 2023 so far. Plus, she recently made her Tonight Show debut with “Welcome to My Island.” Before she embarks on the Spiraling Tour in support of the record in a couple of weeks, Polachek caught up with The Ringer to discuss TikTok, volcano livestreams, and how she made the year’s first great album.

First thing, I gotta ask about the album title: Desire, I Want to Turn Into You. What do you think it means to turn into desire?

For me, the album title is a bit of a riddle. It’s a lyric from the opening song on the album, “Welcome to My Island.” Which, I wrote that chorus really intuitively. The day I wrote that song, I felt extremely frustrated by narrative lyricism and wanted to just do something that was hyper-expressionistic. The whole first 30 seconds of that song don’t even have lyrics. It’s just this really primal howl. And when I wrote those chorus lyrics, it came from that same place. I just sang those words without thinking about it, and it felt so impossible, this pure, demanding, bratty cry. It didn’t make sense, but it felt so right.

It wasn’t until a year and a half after writing that song that those lyrics started to tumble around in my head a bit more in relation to the rest of the record. And I realized that line sort of means three different things at the same time. It means wanting to turn into desire itself, which is of course impossible unless you see desire being like physics or like electricity, that force that pulls us through the world.

But then you could also flip that line inside out and make it, Desire, I want to turn into you, “you” being the object of my desire. Like, this process when you’re falling in love and wanting to just download that person’s memories and opinions and tastes and share clothes and wanting to be so close to them. Impossibly close.

And of course, there’s the third meaning, which is simply, I want to turn my body into your open arms. I want to be held by you. And I just love how those three contradictory meanings all hold space for the album in between them.

You mentioned your primal howl at the beginning of that song. That’s something I really like about your voice: the way you’re able to contort it. Another song I think of is Charli XCX’s “Tears,” where you make that screech in the background. How do you tap into that?

I think it’s just, these are emotions that everybody feels that are very universal. And we have our speech, and the sounds we make in just daily life are expressive, whether it’s like AAAAH or the wails we make when we’re laughing. I think these are universally shared vocabularies, actually. And the cool thing about music is we just push it one step further. I love blurring the lines between singing and these expressive human animal sounds.

I noticed on the album there’s a lot of juxtaposition and contrast in the lyrics. One example that comes to mind immediately is “Blood and Butter.” Was this something you were conscious of when you were making the album?

It’s something that has been, I guess, part of my music since day one. And it’s not intentional, actually. I just have such an omnivorous appetite when it comes to the stuff I listen to. I’ll listen to rap or bagpipe music back-to-back with classical music and ambient music and pop music. And I think that’s not particularly unique to me. I feel like now that music is essentially free for everyone to listen to, everyone’s musical tastes have exploded into a million fractured genres. So I think the way I make music is similar to the way I listen.

Was there anything specific you were listening to when you were making this record?

This record was made over the course of years, so there was no one specific point of reference. But there was a song that was actually quite pivotal that I heard when I was at a party in Rome. I heard this song called “Ti Sento” by Matia Bazar, which is an Italian ’80s dance-pop band. And there was something about hearing this woman’s voice in this context and standing in a kitchen at 3 a.m. in Rome and it feeling like her voice was just tearing through this song, through these epic key changes, pushing itself to the max. It just felt so incredibly extreme and yet so traditional at the same time.

And I was really interested in that, in tying together these traditional music forms with something that just feels so unhinged. And that was something I tried my own hand at, whether on songs like “Welcome to My Island” or “Pretty in Possible,” or even songs like “Billions” where I’m using my own voice to make these guitar solos. This diva expressiveness was something that I definitely leaned into on this album in particular.

You get creative with language on the record. How did you come up with the word “Wikipediated”?

I guess just out of a failure of the English language to have a word that describes someone’s relationship with research or someone’s obsession with knowledge. One thing I really admire about Shakespeare is when he needed a word to exist that didn’t exist, he would just invent it. So I got to find a few opportunities to fill in some gaps on this album.

How did the features from Dido and Grimes on “Fly to You” come about?

Grimes and I have been friends for ages. We’ve been crossing flight paths since 2009, 2010, and we’ve been wanting to work on something together but never had the right opportunity. And when I began “Fly to You” with the cowriter and coproducer, Danny L Harle, I immediately thought, This song sounds different than the rest. It has this ethereal, high-speed, high-tech kind of feel to it that’s also very delicate. And I thought Grimes’s voice would sound amazing on it. So I sent it to her just over Instagram DM, and she was immediately excited about it and started throwing ideas around. A few months later, we met up at her house and recorded her verse and her other beautiful vocal pads, just the two of us.

And then over a year later, I realized how exciting and unexpected it would already be, me and Grimes collaborating. But I asked myself, Wait a minute, what about bringing one more iconic voice onto this song and just making it even more of a moment to interweave? So I wrote Dido this letter. I’m a lifelong fan of Dido’s voice and her writing and her whole sensibility. And I thought it was a one-in-a-million chance that she’d even read it, let alone respond. But a couple days later, she FaceTimed me, and a couple days after that, I was over at her house, just the two of us recording and writing. Then “Fly to You” as we now know it was born.

I think “Sunset” was one of the most surprising songs on the album. How did you land on the Spanish guitar sound for that one?

So that song was actually written over a textured rhythm guitar loop that was just the background, scuffy, percussive guitar. And when I wrote that melody, my coproducer, Sega Bodega, and I were sort of laughing to ourselves about how flamenco it sounded just at its base. And so he said, “You know what? Let’s push it one step further.” Also, at the time, composer Ennio Morricone had just passed away, and I’d been thinking a lot about his music. He scored a lot of the iconic spaghetti Westerns.

And I was thinking about this really folkloric eternal tone of the music that got brought into those spaghetti Westerns. The scene of riding into the sunset, for example, being the ultimate film cliché. And what are the musical requirements for a scene like that? And I think it’s quite beautiful, actually, that epic tone. So we wanted to make “Sunset” feel like that, to feel cinematic and epic, but also exist in this Spanish, Italian, 1960s way.

You’ve really developed your own visual language as well, with very striking art styles in your album covers and music videos. Are there any visual reference points that have influenced that?

Yeah, absolutely. First of all, the underlying principle of this album was really catharsis and vitality. Coming out of the pandemic, I felt this real understanding that an artist’s job is to remind people of our vitality, of our ability as humans to be sensual, funny, creative, and energetic and to hold contradictions inside of ourselves in this way that makes us precisely very human. And so I was looking for ways to bring that feeling into the visual world. And one thing that I was really, really inspired by was the films of Pedro Almodóvar.

I love, especially, his depictions of women as being very dimensional and holding all these conflicts within them. Plus, I think it’s very rare to see comedy and sexiness really combined the way he does it. I felt quite seen by that. And I wanted the album’s visuals to exist in that way as well, where there’s this very slippery relationship between sexiness and absurdity, and to develop that kind of sense of humor on the album as well.

I was also very inspired by being in Italy and Spain in the summer of 2020 and 2021, especially being around active volcanoes. That just felt like such an appropriate metaphor for the faceless natural disaster and yet vital undying heat and chaos. And so I became quite obsessed with watching volcano livestreams on my computer. I always have a couple tabs open on YouTube, keeping eyes on Mount Etna or on some Icelandic volcanoes. I found them just really emotional and beautiful to see at different times of day. The color palettes of those volcanoes definitely influenced the color palette of this whole album cycle: the reds, the browns, the blacks.

And I was very inspired, as well, by my deep collaboration with photographer Aidan Zamiri, who I feel like has the same sense of playfulness and research that I do. But he’s just so good at making images that feel electric and focused and really cool. And he’s just become one of my best friends over the course of making this album in all of its visuals.

I know “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” had a moment on TikTok in 2021. So as someone who’s experienced that, what do you think about how TikTok and going viral is impacting pop music these days?

I think it’s having a really unfortunate impact of denying young artists a deep relationship with their listeners because it puts focus on songs and not artists, or 30-second snippets rather than songs, let alone albums. I think it’s made it a really difficult landscape for young, new artists because all the ideas have to be contained in a 30-second snippet. Or if they do blow up, their career and identity get reduced to that one little thing. I also don’t think that this model is going to last very long. I feel like we’re going to see something else come along.

I feel like this doesn’t really apply to me so much because at this point, I’m 15 years into my musical career, but I do really feel for younger artists trying to find a foothold in this landscape because it’s very difficult. But on top of that, I do think it’s amazing how democratic TikTok is, how there’s no major labels or radio stations the way there used to be in the music industry. It’s like, you can go viral completely organically. Or even weirder, you can go viral years after a song comes out, or even decades, like with “Running Up That Hill” or with Fleetwood Mac, these songs that have been around for ages that see a completely new place in culture. I think that’s amazing. It’s like some kind of strange form of lottery or something, but it is driven by people’s love for music. So there are good and bad sides to it for sure.

Right. And you mentioned you’ve been doing this for 15 years, going back to the Chairlift days. With everything you’ve accomplished as a solo performer, what’s it like to look back on Chairlift now?

I think Chairlift was actually quite ahead of our time in terms of how plural our music tastes were and how many references we mashed together into one album, which maybe at the time wasn’t really the way people worked, but it kind of is now.

I also look back on that time as an instrumentalist because music production as we know it now existed in a different way. We would actually play all of the instruments in those sessions. Now, I work much more with plug-ins and software, not only because it’s quicker, but because you can have thousands of tools at your fingertips instead of 10. But I think having that really restricted palette and playing everything by hand was the most amazing way I could have ever learned to write and arrange and produce. So I’m just very grateful for all those years with Chairlift, and I’m proud of the music we made.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.