• About A Girl: Caroline Polachek

    All hail Caroline Polachek! The Chairlift frontwoman is a veritable force, from her recent side project Ramona Lisa to her killer fashion sense to her no-nonsense attitude about making music that is right for right now. We took a walk with her through Brooklyn and talked about her white wine and chocolate backstage rider, drawing inspiration from Chinese hand-dancing techniques, and the art of creating a mood that generates the "right amount of disorientation."
    Photos by Claire Cottrell

    Ramona Lisa October 13th in NYC at Le Poisson Rouge

    Has going out on your own been liberating? What freedoms — and challenges — come out of performing solo?

    Definitely, it was a strange sensation to just be able to make something and perform it without really conferring with anyone. The first Ramona Lisa show, I played with Marissa Nadler and Elysian Fields, and they let me join the bill as Ramona Lisa to try out this new thing without having a clue what I was doing or what Ramona Lisa was. The day of the show, as I got dressed up to sing fully in costume with the — still rough — choreography, I was actually concerned that I'd totally lost my mind. The nice thing about being in a band is you have other people there who understand and keep you grounded, but I had really not told anyone what this was. I just had to trust in the music and images and be led by them. 

    How do ideas for songs strike you — do you work first from lyrics and then develop music to fit into them, or vice versa? 

    Every song is different, but most often it starts with a melody. I usually catch myself singing a tune and then record on my phone, and then later build the arrangement around it, adding lyrics last, which is always very hard. Lyrics are very difficult for me, they take the longest, since i'm so picky. Sometimes a lyric comes first, which has it's own rhythm and melody just to the way it's spoken, and then the rest of the song comes very naturally out of that. And then sometimes i'll be playing around with a sound or instrumental progression, and then almost 'hear' the melody and lyrics in it, like with "Arcadia," so it's more a matter of deduction.

    You've discussed how you don't see Ramona Lisa as an alter ego, but rather as a way to express a certain set of ideas and directions. Now that you're looking at the project in hindsight, what are some of these themes and thoughts that come through repeatedly? 

    Seasons, fate in the form of biological clock, like the feeling of something happening that's bigger than you but also inside you, telling you what to do, and how love is like all of those things. Ramona Lisa sets up a way for me to look at that either from the inside, in expressionistic songs like "Izzit True What They Tell Me" and "I Love Our World" or from the outside, on songs like "Dominic" and "Lady's Got Gills," which take advantage of a sort of classical tradition and humor. 

    How is the choreography developed? What is the inspiration there? 

    The choreography started as an interpretation of the lyrics and music, because sometimes the lyrics might be too discreet or inaudible, so I wanted to have them be accessible from multiple angles. There are also moods or states in the songs that aren't possible explain with lyrics, so sometimes dance can put it more plainly. Because I need my hands free, I sing into a microphone on a stand, and so my feet are generally stuck within a pretty narrow radius of the mic stand. This lead to an interest both in Chinese hand-dancing techniques, which is very beautiful in a sort of alien and plant-like way, and the poses in Egyptian hieroglyphics, which are expressive even without movement. So the vocabulary of the dances started to take on that implacably exotic sort of feeling, even while our costumes are distinctly European in style. I didn't want it to feel like "fusion," but just a very essential dream feeling. 

    How did the idea for the face-painted eye as a symbol develop? 

    The additional pair of eyes on the cheeks came from the "false eye" that insects and fish evolved to deflect predators. I find it really beautiful and hypnotic, so wanted to try it on my own face, and indeed it had the same effect. Even though I had come up with it outside the context of Ramona Lisa, I decided to use it to define the project because it gave just the right amount of disorientation to the more traditional or ballet-like elements. 

    What about wardrobe? In the performances we've seen, you and the other onstage singers have been in all white. Is there a story or particular idea there?

    We're all wearing muslin, which is a sort of slightly transparent off-white color because it's unbleached cotton. It's the fabric used by designers for making their prototypes, or rough drafts of a garment before making the real thing in expensive fabric. When I was working with designer Valentina Kova to make the trousers for Ramona Lisa to perform in on stage, I saw her muslins and immediately fell in love with how raw they looked, sort of antique and futuristic at the same time, which completely fits the tone of what I was doing with the project. 

    A lot of this album was written on the road during the Chairlift tour, and you've talked about how it developed out of writing music that you thought was for Chairlift but it evolved into its own project: have you had any of the same moments now that you're within this new project? Is the next step forward from this a continuation of Ramona Lisa or something else? 

    Just in the same way that I was working on Ramona Lisa while finishing tour with Chairlfit, I've been working on the new Chairlift record while finishing the Ramona Lisa album and performing it live. The new Chairlift record is in a way a reaction to working on something so digital and compact; it's a much richer sound, and I wanted to go for a sort of live-performance feel, with very clear vocals and nice recording quality. That record is almost done now; we've been working on it for a year and a half...but that's normal for us. We always take our time. 

    What is on your backstage rider? 

    For Ramona Lisa, just dark chocolate and white wine (so it can't ruin an outfit by getting spilled). With Chairlift it's bigger and funnier, among the more usual things we ask for a pack of black socks! For a while when we were first getting going we asked for "one VHS tape," because we were touring in a van that played videos. We ended up with a pretty huge collection, everything from Jurassic Park to workout tapes to weird home videos. 

    What is something you are good at?

    Men's haircuts. 

    What is something you are bad at?

    Playing guitar.

    When you're not traveling, what is your daily routine like? 

    I wish I had a daily routine, but every day is totally different! I think my only daily ritual is coffee. All else is subject to change. 

    Can you describe some embarrassing past personal fashion or beauty phases?

    I think my freshman year of college look was the most embarrassing, as "funky 70s girl." I would straighten my hair and wear about ten big chunky plastic vintage necklaces at a time, and occasionally wrap my hair into a turban. Oof! 

    What is the worst job you've ever had? 

    I'm generally very grateful for every job I've had, but for a while when I was 20 I worked as a hostess at slick restaurant in Soho, which was run by a couple involved with the Persian mob. They'd have "private events" there for which I worked the door list, and these persian guys with personal drivers and massive wristwatches would show up and get very pushy with me when I wouldn't let them in, and that was hard to do because generally I'm very sensitive to aggressive confrontation. When one guy cursed at me and spit in my face, I threw my clipboard on the ground and quit on the spot. I was in that neighborhood recently and saw the restaurant doesn't exist any more. 

    What is your personal style like, day-to-day? 

    This week I've worn the same thing every day: oversized scrubs from a medical uniform store. I got black ones, and have been wearing the shirt as a tunic with jeans and knee high combat boots. Generally I prefer higher collars cause I feel too casual otherwise. I've been wearing a mint colored velour turtleneck underneath to keep the neck fitted. 

    What are three things that have been recently interesting to you?

    Apple picking season

    What are three things that are always interesting to you?


    See Caroline's last performance as Ramona Lisa October 13th in NYC at Le Poisson Rouge

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