On Friday, Oct. 30, the Horn Gallery presented a virtual performance by multi-genre musician Caroline Polachek. The fourth in a series of concerts streamed through the Horn’s online platform Horn @ Home, Polachek’s candle-lit show was followed by a Q&A session with attendees.
As a substitute for in-person concerts on campus, the Horn Gallery has organized virtual shows through their new website. Previous performances this fall have included indie-pop band Beach Bunny and alternative artist Kate Bollinger. As an increasingly popular artist, Polachek’s performance comes as a major addition to the Horn’s fall 2020 musical guest lineup.
Polachek’s music crosses over the boundaries of several genres, including indie pop, ambient and classical music. Her songs spotlight her “operatic, hauntingly beautiful voice,” in the words of Horn co-manager Emma Spivack ’21. With nearly 900,000 listeners on Spotify and over 17 million streams of her song “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” Polachek is best known for her unique voice and synthesizer-based compositions.
“In addition to Caroline’s versatility and unique aesthetic, I think what I find so cool about her is the intentionality behind her music and the meticulous thought that goes into everything she puts out,” said Spivack. Polachek’s many collaborations with other artists, beginning with her involvement in her former band Chairlift as a junior in college, have contributed to her growth as a musician, she explained. Polachek has also written material for prominent artists such as Beyoncé and Travis Scott and has worked alongside experimental musicians such as Charli XCX and Blood Orange.
Polachek’s Horn set featured just her and a keyboard, as she informed her audience that her quarantine setup consists of piano versions of her typically more electronic work. Polachek performed a series of eight pieces in the virtual set, seven of which were from her debut studio album Pang. Her setlist opened with “The Gate” and ended with “Door,” a deliberate tribute to the track sequence of Pang. A rendition of a recent, unreleased collaboration with musician Oneohtrix Point Never entitled “Long Road Home” was also included.
In the Q&A session, Polachek described Pang as “very much a narrative record.”
“I guess the best way to describe the story that it’s telling is we start out at a sort of equilibrium and then things just go downhill,” she continued. “The second half of the album is leaning into surprise, beauty and finding new openings — the ways that love opens new pathways in your life that you never knew could exist.”
Polachek said that, in many ways, Pang reflects her life during the period it was written. “A lot of structures in my life started falling apart; I was really questioning who I was and what I was doing, and I think you can really feel that in the music,” she said.
She wanted Pang to be both emotionally and visually appealing. “A lot of sounds build a visual picture for you, and I felt like the record — the sonic landscape — was really internal, really psychological,” she shared with the audience. She cites the influence of her primary album collaborator, producer and composer Daniel Harle, who advised her that “music is a landscape of the mind.”
Polachek also commented on her journey as a musician and her musical influences, ranging from her childhood and adolescent choir experiences and vocal training to the visual points she drew from early Disney background illustrationist Eyvind Earle.
In describing some of her inspiration for Pang, she mentioned a specific green, plaid outfit that she consistently wore to the studio during the album’s production. “I felt like it was a way of wearing the album,” she said, discussing how this style manifested into the ideas behind a lot of Pang’s visuals. She shared that much of the process carried a “lost student mentality” for her, as she felt she embodied that role while creating the album. Many of Polachek’s songs have accompanying music videos, into which she has directed her background in visual art and her own aesthetic flair.
Developing several solo projects during her time as a member of Chairlift was key. “[It] was actually really formative, first and foremost because it let me start to trust myself as a producer,” she said. “I would learn that the decisions that I would make at 3 a.m. in my headphones were in fact the right decisions, that I shouldn’t necessarily be doing things the ‘right’ way or the technically correct way, but the way that felt right in that moment is actually what I should be loyal to.”
Polachek provided advice to audience members as well. In discussing her occasional voice training, she said, “I’d highly recommend it, even if you’re not considering being a professional vocalist.” She added, “It’s essentially therapy. When you’re singing, you can’t hide your relationship with your body.” She emphasized the importance of this boldness, and the value in listening to others’ voices. “It’s like vicariously getting to live inside of their vehicle.”
Polachek’s performance is archived and accessible on the Horn Gallery’s website, as are other fall 2020 performances. Upcoming artists include George Clanton on Nov. 12 and Choir Boy on Nov. 13.
The entire fall 2020 lineup, in addition to show recordings, posters and more, can be found at hornathome.com.