One evening during the fall of 2017, Caroline Polachek found herself on the cliffs of Palos Verdes in Los Angeles, staring at the Pacific Ocean and tripping on mushrooms. At the time, she was a decade into a career as the frontwoman of the now-defunct band Chairlift, whose experimental mix of pop, R&B and rock thrilled indie tastemakers and industry heavyweights alike: The band’s 2008 track “Bruises” appeared in an iPod ad, while Polachek and bandmate Patrick Wimberly worked on Beyoncé’s self-titled 2013 album. “The industry has set up this assembly line where anyone who’s doing anything remotely different is fast-tracked toward chart pop,” she says.
Polachek, 34, had flown out to L.A. for writing sessions with electronic producer Danny L Harle during a break from touring in support of Chairlift’s final album. But that night on the beach, she recalls, “I had this revelation that I shouldn’t be working on anyone’s music but my own.” When she emailed Harle to cancel, he wrote back, “Why don’t we just write for you instead?”
The next day, they made “Parachute,” a ghostly synth-pop ballad that inspired some of Polachek’s rawest lyrics to date. “It was a defining statement about risk and trust,” she says, “and the kind of resolution that can only happen when you give yourself over to something.” Which is exactly what Polachek did next. The self-described classic Gemini (“Always cheating on my own projects with other projects I start”) discarded the music she had written on tour; packed up her life in New York, where she had lived for 12 years; and spent the next 18 months chasing the feeling of that first song as she traveled between L.A. and London, where Harle is based.
The result is Pang, the forthcoming album on which Polachek — who writes, performs and produces almost every sound in her work — releases music under her own name for the first time. Though she has fearlessly zigzagged among genres in the past, Pang, due in October, is her most ambitious mosaic yet: ethereal strings, clanging beats, twangy slide guitars and, of course, her elastic voice, which can cut through dense soundscapes with scythe-like precision and at other times erupt into an almost ecstatic yodel.
That may seem like an unlikely approach from someone signed to a major label like Columbia Records. But as Charli XCX and other artists have shown, there has never been a more viable time to be a fringe pop star — the kind who can attract a hyper-loyal fan base and shape the sounds of the Billboard Hot 100 without necessarily appearing on it. “I’m a very different artist than most of their roster,” says Polachek. Yet when she played Sony Music CEO Rob Stringer an early version of the album, his main note was to just keep going. “What I aspire to at this point is building a new planet, rather than going to the same one,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever cared less about the idea of pop than I do now.”