Chairlift (photo: Tim Barber)
All the people who describe the music of Chairlift as operatic — which is not a bad descriptor for the two-piece Brooklyn synth-pop group — probably didn’t realize just how close they were to hitting the truth.
That’s because Caroline Polachek, whose elastic vocal range gives the band a unique emotional bandwidth, prepped for Chairlift’s latest tour by undergoing an unusual training regimen: She took opera lessons.
“I realized I was at risk of permanently damaging my vocals by singing these songs every night,” said Polachek, who makes up Chairlift alongside fellow multi-instrumentalist Patrick Wimberly. “I wanted to get some classical training to make sure that my technique was healthy. It worked out great — I really learned so much.”
Polachek’s clear, ringing vocals have always been the hallmark for Chairlift, who will headline this year’s Phono del Sol Music Festival. But for the group’s latest album, Moth, which was released in January, her voice stands out even more prominently.
Songs like “Ch-Ching,” a swaggering, sauntering track of self-empowerment, and “Romeo,” which flits between fuzzy electroclash and glassy pop production, are perfect vehicles for Polachek’s vocal acrobatics. She even feels free enough to get a little campy on the album, embracing her inner Whitney Houston for some soprano flourishes on the jaunty, ’80s R&B-inspired “Show U Off.”
Polachek said she was inspired to push herself vocally on Moth by a pretty unlikely source.
“I actually had a moment when I was listening to ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and I realized that Bono was going so hard on that song, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve never tried that before’,” said Polachek. “I feel like, having this human instrument, I should definitely see how far I can push myself. It was a learning process, but the songs have so much energy and so much emotion built into their arrangements, so I didn’t feel like I had to manufacture this effort — it was already there.”
While Moth has plenty of bombastic moments, the album is also brimming with quieter, weightier numbers. “Crying in Public” has Polachek lifting up the entire veil — few songs are as self-effacing as that standout number— and “No Such Thing As Illusion,” is another creation about coming to terms with loss and regret. The topography of the album is daunting — it’s brimming with expressive peaks and valleys.
“I think that’s part of the journey, that just how life is,” said Polachek. “No one is all swagger, and no one is all cute, and in way that feels more honest — that represents both sides of us.”
That all-encompassing philosophy could also be applied to the band’s approach to music in general. There has been much waxing philosophically about the blurring boundaries between indie and pop music, and Chairlift stands squarely in the middle of that debate.
The group cut its teeth among the indie rock community of New York in the 2000s, and its music is still probably too non-conforming to become an FM staple, but Chairlift’s sound is unabashedly and unapologetically pop. Both members of Chairlift make no bones about their love for music currently on the radio, and Polachek helped pen a song for Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album.
Wimberly and Polachek said they paid little heed to what kind of genre their album might fall under when recording Moth, instead opting to make a sound that contained everything that celebrated living in a multicultural metropolis like New York City.
“There was a lot of embracing for this new album, and not a lot of avoiding,” said Wimberly.
Whatever label it might fall under, it’s undeniable that the music of Chairlift makes people want to move. The group has expanded its live setup to include two more multi-instrumentalists, allowing the band to more faithfully recreate the layered musical arrangements found on Moth. Polachek said this has been the most interactive tour the group has ever experienced.
“One thing I notice about our shows now is that everyone want to sing and dance along with these songs,” said Polachek. “It’s been pretty amazing.”
The group is eager to perform at the Phono del Sol Music Festival on July 9. Wimberly said that the Independent is one of his favorite venues to play in the country and the crowds of San Francisco always faithfully turn out for Chairlift shows. Having played just three months ago in the city, the group said they might have some tricks up their sleeve for their headlining appearance at Phono del Sol.
“We could have a few surprises,” said Wimberly. “But we can’t say what they are now. Otherwise they wouldn’t be surprises.”
Phono del Sol Music Festival
July 9, 2016
$20 – $250 (all ages