Caroline Polachek on ‘So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings’ and Why Crying Inspires Her
Caroline Polachek has lived many different musical lives.
Polachek first broke through as part of indie band Chairlift, whose 12-year lifespan included the release of three albums spanning pop, alternative and R&B genres, as well as the success of 2008 single “Bruises,” which was aided by a placement in an iPod Nano ad.
In 2013, she caught a taste of the pop big leagues when she co-wrote and co-produced "No Angel" for Beyoncé’s self-titled album alongside fellow Chairlift member Patrick Wimberly. The year after, she released the self-produced Arcadia under the pseudonym Ramona Lisa, an album she's described as "pastoral electronic music." Then, following Chairlift’s split in late 2016, Polachek released an ambient instrumental album titled Drawing the Target Around the Arrow in 2017 under the name CEP––a moniker comprised of her initials. (Her middle name is Elizabeth.)
Now she’s gearing up to release her third album and solo major label debut, Pang (out October 18 via Columbia Records). It’s her first to be credited to her own name, a decision that was tough to call: “I wanted to make it easier for my fans to keep track of what I'm doing, just on a very practical level, and then on the other side, I felt like this project is––without me really even trying––kind of the most essentially me work that I've ever made,” she explains.
On Pang, Polachek lets listeners into her head through lyrics that articulate everything from physical pains to intimate conversations with herself about love and fear. The album, a culmination of her years balancing between the experimental and mainstream realms, is laden with futuristic production from herself alongside Danny L Harle and A.G. Cook of the PC Music collective, as well as collaborations with hitmakers Andrew Wyatt (Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper’s "Shallow") and Teddy Geiger (Shawn Mendes’ "In My Blood"). Her ethereal vocals move as seamlessly over the guitars on her Geiger co-penned new single "So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings" as they do on the creeping electro-pop title track, proving that the work on her well-rounded resumé has paid off.
Below, Caroline Polachek opens up to PopCrush about "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings," making Pang, collaborating with PC Music and why she’s so inspired by crying.
Why did you decide to call this album Pang?
The name was the best way to describe this feeling that I'd been having for a couple of months at the beginning of writing the album. I was having...I don't know what you call it, like adrenaline surges? Adrenaline overloads? It was happening at really inconvenient times. In the middle of the night I would wake up with my heart palpitating, unable to sleep, and it was like my body was trying to tell me something, or shifting gears somehow without me knowing it.
I woke up in London one morning in the middle of an adrenaline surge, and I was just lying there––the sun was coming up––trying to think of the best way to describe this feeling, and "pang" was the only word I could really use to describe it. And as I was lying there, I was thinking about how "panging," that kind of intense, urgent kind of internal hunger, was actually kind of a quality that I've always looked for in music and that connected all my favorite music that I've loved since being a child. Not a kind of bombastic, dramatic kind of emotion, but something very internal that kind of pricks you emotionally from the inside. At that point, I realized that I needed to dedicate the rest of the album writing process to unpacking all the ideas connected with that feeling, everything ranging from a pang of hunger, pang of desire, pang of guilt, pang of nostalgia, all these kind of interconnected feelings.
How did you get involved with the PC Music collective?
I first met Danny L Harle when he reached out to me in 2016 to write together...we wrote this song called "Ashes of Love," which is really this kind of manic, over the top, Miami freestyle track, or at least an homage to '80s Miami freestyle. I loved working with him so much, because I felt like we had the same kind of velocity in the studio. We really like working fast and slowly on the same kind of things, and I'd never really felt like that with anyone before. We were shifting gears and just working at the same speed, and at the same intensity, and we knew we wanted to do some more stuff together after that.
Then when I started writing my own album later on, I wanted to really experiment and try a lot of different collaboration. Dan and I wrote this track called "Parachute" in a couple of hours which kind of changed the trajectory of our lives from the time that we wrote it, because we were both so surprised by the results of that collaboration, and we knew we had a lot more work together in a much more serious way. But by working with Dan, I one by one met all the other artists in the PC collective including A.G. [Cook], and Felicita, and Charli [XCX], and Sophie just by proximity and just kind of engaging in a really amazing conversation with all of them.
Was it a conscious decision to work with a mix of experimental and more mainstream collaborators on the album?
No, it all happened really organically. I actually tried out a lot of different collabs for this record, most of which I ended up cutting, because this stuff was just my favorite and felt like it was opening all sorts of unexpected doors.
You've spent a lot of time alongside other musicians, like in Chairlift and in collabs with Charli XCX and Blood Orange. Why did you end up making the decision to be the only artist featured on Pang?
I think I felt like I had a lot to say, and I really felt like it was important to establish my voice before splashing out to other features. I also felt like in 2019, everyone's record is like a show of feats, and I thought it would be a really bold statement to not do that and commit to this just being a really singular statement.
Yeah, I feel like it comes very directly as what you want to put out there, especially because you're credited as a writer and producer on every single track and co-director on the videos. What does it mean to you to have that kind of creative control?
I mean, I can't imagine not having it. I went to art school, and I studied drawing and video art, and I've always approached music so visually as a result that I found it really difficult in the past to kind of hand off music to another director, 'cause it just ends up being this kind of mid-zone where it's nobody's vision, really. Everything I've done that I'm proud of is everything I've been the most hands-on with, so I'm just following that, really.
Why did you feel like "Door" was the right introduction to Pang?
Well, "Door" is so full throttle. First of all, it's almost six minutes long, and I think on a very structural level, it does kind of what I want to do with the record. It's extremely personal, but also really vast, and sweeping, and environmental, and you enter that song so simply. It's two simple verses, two simple choruses, and then you get kind of swept into this kind of beautiful, cosmic, warm journey for the back half of the song, and I think that's exactly how I wanted to invite people into this new body of music.
You posted a meme on Twitter a few days ago connecting your songs "Crying in Public," "Tears" and "Ocean of Tears," emotionally. What about crying inspires you so much?
Oh my God. Well, I'm just a really sentimental person, and I just get leveled by things so easily, like from films, to personal interactions, to memories, to music. I'm just very deeply affected by things, and I cry so often––not even when I'm sad, but just by things that are really beautiful or really meaningful. I used to always make fun of my mom growing up because she'd cry at every single movie, and I didn't understand. I just thought, "What's wrong with you? You're an adult, keep it together," and as I'm getting older, I'm experiencing the same thing. I guess I'm just leaning in.
"So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" is probably one of my favorites on the album. Can you tell me a little bit about how you met Teddy Geiger and created the track?
It happened in such a random way, actually. I'd been working with Dan Nigro, and Dan and I are really great writing partners. We have such different impulses. We kind of fight against each other in the studio in a really productive way that just yields the best results, and we're always trolling each other, which I love as well. Dan wanted to try seeing what it would be like to bring a third person into the studio, and I'm a fan of Teddy, just her whole wild energy, and she showed up. We didn't know each other at all, and we just spent six hours together writing this track, which most of it was just us laughing so hard that we were on the floor. Nothing even related to the song––she's just so funny, and you can feel in the track that it was such a fun session.
I think it's so interesting to explore physical attraction as offensive.
Oh yeah, to be honest, I had that line actually before I even came into the session. It was something that I'd said to someone weeks prior, and I just kind of stuck with the idea. But I will tell you a secret, which is that in the bridge, underneath the vocal solo––which by the way is the first guitar solo I've ever done with my voice––there is the lyric "Show me the banana," which you can interpret that one however you want.
I love that. Can you hear it, or do you just have to know?
Oh, you can hear it, but you have to know to listen for it. You'll never be able to un-hear it now that I've told you.