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Interviews

Caroline Polachek Explains her High Concept DIY Project Ramona Lisa

The Chairlift singer dons a wig, paints on a couple of extra eyes, whips up an interpretive dance storm accompanied by "pastoral electronic" tunes.

Let's start with this: Caroline Polachek is awesome. If you need a recap on why this is, here are five reasons…

1. She’s the cofounder and singer of the band Chairlift, one of the most enduring and best-loved bands to come out of the mid-00s Brooklyn indie explosion.

2. She wrote a song called “Amanaemonesia.” What does it mean? Literally nothing. She made it up. She is the only person ever to use that word and it's now a song whose video has over 1 million hits on YouTube.

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3. She is a crazy good dancer (see aforementioned video, above.)

4. She sings on Blood Orange's “Chamakay,” probably the pop song of 2013.

5. She wrote and produced the Beyoncé song “No Angel.”

Last year, Caroline also wrote and recorded an album for a new solo project called Ramona Lisa. Titled Arcadia, the newly released LP and is an exploration of the modern technological world via a collection of pastoral, baroque pop songs written and recorded entirely on a laptop, with midi sounds, and vocals recorded on a computer microphone. I can't really think of anyone else who would try and create an Arcadia-like world using midi, but then this is the girl who wrote “Amanaemonesia.”

Ramona Lisa shot by Guy Eppel. I really love Arcadia. It's special, boldly-executed, and occasionally really weird (see track “The Lady's Got Gills”). Caroline recently performed a Handel aria at an event in Tulum, Mexico and her interest in classical composition clearly comes through in the music, while her other passions can be seen in the project as a whole. When I met her at the shoot for this piece, she told me that Ramona Lisa, the character, is “directed by Caroline Polachek.” Caroline is the auteur of the whole thing: she directs and edits the videos. Live, she’s backed by two identically dressed backing singers (one of them is her sister)—same wigs, same pared back attire, same Ramona Lisa eyes daubed on their cheeks. The intricate dance routines and elaborate light show are all conceived by Caroline, each element an essential composite of Ramona Lisa.

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When you watch her dance, listen to the album, or watch the videos, with their peculiar mix of idealistic natural scenes and creepy reptiles and insects, you are entering her world. Basically, you are living in her idea.

Sidenote: I would 100% move from where I live now to Caroline Polachek's idea, and I'm assuming that when I get there I would be gifted with a pony.

Since her vision and execution of Ramona Lisa is so metriculous, instead of a traditional interview, I asked her to send me a few words about the making of the album and its influences. Here’s some stuff I learned about Ramona Lisa's Arcadia, in the words of Caroline Polachek.

ARCADIA WAS WRITTEN IN AN ITALIAN VILLA
Arcadia was started and finished at the Medici villa in Rome. After I fell in love with the place during a show Chairlift was invited to play there, I went back to stay as an artist in residency for two solitary sessions to work on the album, and was really haunted by all the contrasts of the place. So much history it's almost hard to breathe sometimes—so rich with epic ghosts. And yet the economy is crumbling and the history is treated foremost like a tourist attraction. I felt as if I was there to wave a tiny insignificant goodbye to the last century that saw Western European empire as the center of the world.

THEY LIKE TO BLAST RIHANNA IN ROME
The villa is an incredible building; the only one higher than the Vatican in Rome, which was no small gesture back in the 1500s! On the street side it's an imposing, plain facade, but on the protected side it reveals itself as a frieze-covered palace with sprawling lavender gardens and vineyards sectioned off into quadrants by hedges, fountains, and obelisks. I was given a studio at the far end of the garden to work in, so I could be as loud as I liked at all hours of the night. It was summer, and with no air conditioning in the studio, I could only work at night or in the early evening. But the upside was that I was pretty much the only person on premises, as none of the other residents could tolerate the heat. Stepping outside for air or the occasional cigarette at sunrise, there were bats, cicadas, and booming subs from the nightclub down below that would bounce off the walls and make amazing echoes, "We found love in a hopeless place" ricocheting around the headless statues.

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“PASTORAL ELECTRONIC” IS A THING
The work Virginia Astley did with Ryuichi Sakamoto in the 80s was my most direct influence [investigate the album Hope in a Darkened Heart]. Their combination of bucolic English countryside lyrics with this mechanica crystalline sound became a sort of guiding path for me in wanting to make a pastoral electronic album. Chinatsu Kuzuu was also a huge inspiration, with her translations of medieval poetry set to her primitive MIDI composition, back when MIDI was a new frontier. I really admire people's interactions with technology that aren't tech-centric but use it as a tool. I also wanted to bring in elements of my favorite 60s vocal pop too, like Francoise Hardy, Honey LTD, and Priscilla Paris.

Life-wise, meeting Ian Drennan (who I was a big fan of prior) towards the end of making Arcadia also hugely shaped it, because we were in constant dialogue about field recording and ASMR which made me more conscious of how these techniques can tie nature and sensuality together. Songs like "I Love Our World" and "Hissing Pipes At Dawn (They're Playing Our Song)" owe a lot to that dialogue, and are also informally dedicated to him.

CAROLINE IS WORRIED ABOUT KIDS 100 YEARS FROM NOW
The roles that both nature and technology play in the album and imagery are really just trying to get at human feelings, which is kind of ironic. What made it feel timely though is the terrifying and recurring thought that 100 years from now the average 18 year old won't be able to make the connection that a lyric like "as a nestling on the bough" is talking about taking a deadly, but compulsive risk. So I feel this funny urgency to play with those things while it's still a shared language. Maybe that's weirdly pessimistic? Maybe I'm accidentally taking the POV of a homesick music teacher in a second generation Mars colony classroom. Who knows! It's all romance.

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ARCADIA CONTAINS A LOT OF REFERENCES TO DRIVING AND ROADS
I was on the road while making most of this record, but the portability of the whole thing living on my laptop became part of the piece. In general though, traveling, or at least the experience of looking out the window as things pass is my favorite way to listen to music, so perhaps it came full loop in the subject matter.

ARCADIA LOOKS LIKE…
Rectangles. A lot of skinny rectangles moving by. Kind of like this:

ARCADIA MEANS…
A pastoral idyll, an impossibly perfect view of nature as shown in the work of urban artists, with allegories and symbols for different spiritual states embedded within the landscape.

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