The face and voice of Poliça, discusses the demons, success and life as a reluctant star

Heartbreaks and Exorcisms

Should you be in any doubt about who’s running the great pop racket these days, take a look at the lineup for the iTunes Festival, currently mid-run at Camden venue The Roundhouse. It features Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys and Elton John – a 30-day siren that honks ‘WE’RE IN CHARGE!’. And in case you didn’t hear that, the tickets are all given away for nothing. Still, when you’re turning over 4.3 billion dollars per year, it’s kinda disappointing that they’ve not managed to reanimate Elvis for it. Maybe think of that number when you next hear about how Apple is on its arse since Steve Jobs died.

Backstage at iTunes everyone seems pissed off, and it’s only the second day when we arrive. Tonight’s headliners are Sigur Ros, who, granted, are not Gaga, but their next London show is at Wembley Arena, and you have to buy tickets for that one. We’re more interested in the other half of this evening’s bill, anyhow, Poliça, although we can’t say that they’re all that interested in us. On account of her acute shyness, band singer, founder and lyricist Channy Leaneagh loathes interviews and press distractions. Today’s engagement has been on, then off, then on again, off again, 100% on, definitely delayed, and now, photos on but words off, probably. End of tour fatigue doesn’t help a situation like this, nor do the nerves of the festival, which although a cubbyhole show for Sigur Ros is a pretty big deal for their opening act.

So we briefly liberate Channy from the iTunes ‘Artists’ Village’ where no one talks to each other, share some muted conversation about sound-check, the 5:2 diet that we’ve both only just been told about and the weather (always the weather), photograph her in some selected local spots and agree that while there might well be enough time, it’s probably best if we meet the following day for the interview. We then return to the iTunes Festival to join our fellow nonpaying customers where we are reminded of why it is that we’ve spent the last year so enamoured by this future RnB group from Minneapolis.

Poliça look odd on stage, like the irregular band they are, with too many drummers and not enough guitars. Rhythm is so central to their bruised dub-pop and trip-hop that it’s the only section they have, Chris Bierden on bass and Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson on duelling drum kits – a spectacle in themselves. Channy does the rest, her voice an auto-tuned robo flutter once she’s triggered each track’s pre-programmed electro elements (deep sounding synthesisers and more, processed beats), as provided by Poliça’s sleeping partner and producer Ryan Olson.

It was Olson and Channy that started the project while on tour with Olson’s 24-strong soft rock collective Gayngs, and it’s the two of them that are largely considered Poliça’s whole. But considering Olson refuses to tour with the band, foregoing any press junkets or photo shoots also, it often boils down to Channy is Poliça and Poliça is Channy, which is how the group’s most introverted member has been lumbered with explaining herself to people like me.

After last night’s show, the band minus Channy celebrated the end of their tour at London’s Groucho Club, which explains why I find them the following morning watching a Sky channel called, simply, ‘Food’. “It was a late night,” says Christopherson. “Like, late.”

Channy, who seems infinitely better off for having missed out on the Groucho, pulls up a chair at the dining table of Poliça’s rented apartment. Pleased is definitely too strong a word, but she does seem happier to see me than she did yesterday. She lines up a couple of paracetamol, a mug of green tea and a note pad of her own that dwarfs mine, which she’ll doodle on as we speak, especially when she finds herself struggling for the right words, like we’re chatting on the phone. That’s how we last spoke, ahead of Poliça’s debut album, ‘Give You The Ghost’, in April of last year. Since, Channy has toured the world and her first record has been solidly adored by fans of progressive RnB and electro pop for the broken hearted – people who already own ‘Dummy’ by Portishead. So when I ask her how it’s been, I mean it as little more than an icebreaker; an official hello.

“Errm. I guess we’re doing fine,” she says, a little suspicious.

Are you enjoying it, I ask.

“Hmmm. I don’t know. Right now you’re catching me at the end of what seems like a very long tour. In Europe especially, we have such a great group of people that we work with here that I feel really well supported.

“I don’t enjoy festivals,” she says, “and that’s what we’ve been doing. I think in general they are a really depressing situation, as far as the amount of waste that’s being created. When you look out from the stage and I just see a field of plastic bottles, you feel like you’re a part of that. There’s so much waste that it’s gross.”

“In terms of the band… for us, it’s… y’know… it’s like… you have to…” Channy begins to sketch a pair of glasses. My glasses, perhaps. “…I have to work hard to enjoy it most of the time. I love performing and I love making music with people; I don’t like not having any stability and not seeing my daughter. So…,” she says with a deep breath, “… that’s that.”

However cult, the role of pop star is not one that sits comfortably with Channy, and yet while she never feels more awkward than when talking about herself, she never shuts down; she’s never rude. She always listen closely to the question and then, through prolonged pauses and splintered thoughts, sure, she gives it a go, almost as if she’s doing it for herself as much as you; to know the answer and have a better understanding of the way she is. Basically, she’s not David Longstreth, who hates interviewers the moment they enter a room and lets them know about it by making everyone look bad. Channy seems conflicted and cursed, in that she doesn’t like to talk but feels she has to say a lot to reach the point she’s making, and most of what she does say propels the conversation in a wicked vicious circle that keeps the questions coming. After all, shy people are usually far more interesting than the guy with his cock out shouting, “look at me!”.

“I think as the more interviews I do I realise that what I really want people to do is listen to [our music],” she says. “I’ve already explained everything in the lyrics, and the music is pretty self explanatory. So I think the more I do it the more confused I get as to why we have to explain what we just did. It’s almost as if people don’t believe that we wrote it, and that we’re on trial, like, ‘oh my gosh, how did the band form? Errm, I think on November 26th…’ and then you start to get hot sweats and are like, ‘oh my god, I don’t remember how anything happened!’

“As a child my mum and dad said that I worked for the FBI, because I would constantly avoid answering questions for no apparent reason,” she laughs. “Like, ‘how was school today?’, or, ‘what did you do?’, y’know? ‘I’m going out with friends’, ‘who are you going out with?’, ‘oh, it’s nobody you know’. It wasn’t like I was ever doing anything horrible, I just didn’t want anybody to know anything about me – I just wanted to exist in my own little world. I’d just be going to the store, but I didn’t want anyone to know. So I think in interviews I have a lot of anxiety about over sharing for some reason.”

It is not lost on Channy that over sharing is to a Poliça song what misogyny is to Robin Thicke. Telling all was ‘Give You The Ghost’’s raison d’être. A self-confessed breakup record, it featured diary confessionals like “Falling in and out of love with me / Spare me the misery” (from ‘Form’) and “I need some time to think about my life without you” (‘Happy Be Fine’). “But it’s completely different to talk about it compared to singing,” says Channy. “It’s why I do a lot of interviews and I’m like, ‘well, I don’t really know how to explain any more about it, because it’s very clear in the lyrics.’ There’s way too much information in there. So I’m way too shy to sing or do karaoke in front of people, for example, or talk to people, but if I’m on stage it’s an appropriate place to do it.”

New album ‘Shulamith’, she says, is equally as cathartic as ‘Give You The Ghost’, “but where the first one was me comforting myself and licking my wounds, the second record is more trying to make me strong. It’s an amour record. There are songs like ‘Basketball’ and ‘Vegas’ – not ‘Basketball’, it’s called ‘Torre’,” she says, jotting down the names and circling them. “When I sing them they make me feel how I do when I listen to rap music. I feel like I’m being assertive and I’m telling somebody something that I needed to say for a long time, and I feel tough, and I feel not like a victim at all. It’s like I’m putting my foot down. The first record is like, ‘I’m a bad person’. I know, right?” she laughs. “It was a little more depressed, and this one is more like I’m putting my foot down. And then also topically I think the words I’m saying are a little stronger, not necessarily in quality but just I’m a little more confident, maybe.” She pauses. “But there, I’ve done it again, where I’ve over explained things and gotten lost…” She trails off and scribbles out the glasses.

Channy beats herself up at moments like this, when she feels like she’s said too much where others would have simply given a non-committal fluff answer. She says she can be “obnoxiously moody and goth for no apparent reason,” while Ryan Olson she describes as having “a lot of quirkiness” and “being very joyous as well as being very dark, and I can hear that in our beats. I can also be really silly, but I’m like, ‘this is the worst thing ever, but we’re all going to get through it everybody’,” she says with faux Summer Camp Leader cheer.

“But you could say that this is also a breakup record,” she continues, “and perhaps every record I write will, unfortunately, be a breakup record. I probably won’t be writing a love song any time soon. It’s not really my thing. So I guess it is dark, but this record is really a little more fucked off; instead of being ‘I’m heartbroken’ it’s like, ‘forget you’… I think that’s what’s going on.”

Channy attests her past life as a folk musician – playing fiddle and singing ‘It Ain’t Me Babe’ rather than ‘I Got You Babe’ – to the personal, spurned songs that she writes today. “[Folk] was like going to school,” she told me in 2012, “but once I got to sing my own songs, RnB was the first thing I wanted to sing.”

She grew up in Minneapolis listening to Common, Lauren Hill, The Roots and Aaliyah, all of whom can be heard in her heavily effected vocals, and in Ryan Olson’s electronics also, which, on ‘Give You The Ghost’, were nothing less than leftovers intended for two other synth pop groups that never were.

A would-be Federal Agent, the shy and secretive Channy has always felt most at home on stage. It’s even there where she had her first kiss, in the roll of Emily in a community production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, as if the pressure isn’t enough without a live audience gawping at your dry lips and confused hands. She was 12 and says that she didn’t kiss anyone not onstage until she was 17 or 18. “Always more comfortable on stage,” she says quietly.

To announce the forthcoming ‘Shulamith’, Channy acted once again, in the video for lead single ‘Tiff’, featuring Justin Vernon of Bon Iver (and also Ganygs), who introduced the world to Poliça when he called them “The best band I’ve ever heard” at the 2012 Grammys. The video is NSFW, which means you’ll probably want to watch it now. It’s not the sexy kind of NSFW, though, if that’s what you’re thinking – it’s brutally violent, featuring scenes of Channy torturing herself, not metaphorically or internally, but actually breaking her own fingers with a hammer. It’s horrible. “It actually scared me at first,” she says, “because I was in it but when I watched it I was like, ‘Urrgh! Nobody should probably watch this, definitely not my mum and my little brother.’ I was like, you’re not allowed to watch this one.

“The Director [Nabil Elderkin] called me the week before and he was like, ‘this is going to be a really difficult video’, because he wrote the treatment – it was really his vision – and he was like, ‘are you going to be up for this’. I was like, ‘well, I did some acting classes as a kid…’

“It would be unfair to say that it was something that came from my sick mind; it came from someone else’s sick mind.”

I tell Channy that I’ve always been most shocked by scenes of torture, avoiding films where I know they feature. “My most recent favourite movie is Irreversible and that’s got some very brutal stuff in it,” she says of the Gaspar Noé film centred around the pitiless and graphic rape and beating of a young woman in Paris. “I don’t watch those movies all the time, but I do watch those films and I’m interested in how people deal with suffering. I think what I enjoy most about music and performing is pushing yourself, and the ‘Tiff’ video was a challenge for me.

“It might not seem like it sometimes, because I don’t like interviews, but I do absolutely love this band and I’m proud of the music, and I just wanted to do a really good job, so I pushed myself really hard. I wanted it to be sincere and it was probably a little more up my alley than if I had to act as an Elizabethan; I’m super good at cutting myself down and not liking myself.”

Shulamith Firestone became Channy’s muse the same year she died alone in her recluse’s New York apartment, in 2012. A radical feminist who became an outcast (even within the feminist community) due her extreme views, Firestone wrote The Dialectic of Sex in 1970, 42 years before Channy was passed a copy by her brother.

“I just inhaled it,” she tells me. “I was so moved by it I’d tell everyone all about it. Similar to the song ‘You Don’t Know Me’ by Lesley Gore – I heard that song, and it was like 2-minutes and it had everything I was trying to say in all songs – and similarly that book was, like, ‘this is what I want to remember’.” Yet while an ode to a forgotten inspiration, Channy insists that ‘Shulamith’ is not a feminist statement.

The Dialectic of Sex mapped out its author’s plight in equality for women, including an extremist stance against childbirth that saw her ousted from her traditional Jewish family, but it also features plenty on parenthood and relationships in general.

“It’s not just a feminist book but one that comments on society,” says Channy. “And this is certainly not a feminist record. I have no problem with feminism, but I’m not making any statement. This record, now looking back on it, I feel like it’s almost selfish, because I do have these other three guys, and Ryan, but because they’re so gracious they just let me name the record whatever I wanted to.

“I wrote it really for myself, in terms of the lyrics, and that name, ‘Shulamith’, fit. It has tons of significance to me – all those things that I read in there that were exactly what I needed to hear – so it’s not a statement for anyone else except for myself.”

Channy writes down ‘Shulamith’ on her pad, followed by the word ‘myth’. She nags herself some more, about the inevitable question she’s going to be asked for the next 6 months – “why did you called the album ‘Shulamith’” – and while I assure her that it’s not something I’m interested in, over the next 20 minutes she keeps returning to the point, each time concluding that it just felt right.

I do ask what it is about Shulamith Firestone that she relates to most, and there she returns to the activist’s existence as an outsider. “It’s so easy to get confused by what kind of artist you want to be,” she says. “Y’know, you can get really caught up in how you look. Are you going in the direction of Solange? Katy Kerry? Are you trying to sell out stadium shows? Are you just trying to maintain what you have? Yes, I’m a woman, but I’m really just a musician, and I want to keep it in our hands artistically and visually. We’re never going to be pop stars and I never want us to try to be. I just want us to keep on making music that we care about, and maintain our sound and a love of playing together. I want us to stay as outcast weirdos, and where we’re comfortable, and [Shulamith Firestone] reminds me of where we’re comfortable.”

There’s little doubt Channy’s presumption that she’ll soon be repeatedly quizzed on “her role as a feminist” are accurate, and it recalls how Jenifer Lopez recently dealt with a particularly dated line of questioning. Asked if she was a feminist, she replied, “Isn’t everybody?” After all, if you’re not into equality for women, you’re a misogynist. It’s like asking someone if they’re pro black people.

Channy agrees that the term ‘feminist’ continues to be vilified, although that’s not why she doesn’t want it following her name around since naming her new album ‘Shulamith’ (“feminist dub pop singer Channy Leaneagh”, etc.). It’s because she doesn’t want to mislead anyone into thinking she knows more than she does.

“I’m pro women,” she says, “and I am a woman, I can’t be considered a feminist expert, but I’m certainly a feminist. I couldn’t tell you about the famous feminists, I couldn’t tell you about the 5 most important stands in the 1960s feminist movement.

“In Poliça I have these three men – four including Ryan – who are a huge part of the music, but I’m the voice and it’s always been strongly the voice of a woman. It’s very feminine from its perceptive, dealing with a woman’s perspective of love and dealing with the world around her, but I don’t think many of my lyrics are very progressive. I’m not even setting a great example of a woman, in terms of being a strong woman – I make tons of mistakes; I’m not very assertive. Certainly to ask a woman if she’s a feminist is a strange question. Of course I’m pro-woman. I want the best for women and the best for my daughter, and I want this issue to be disposed with… So I think that’s the best answer to why I called the album ‘Shulamith’,” she says, returning to the point once again.

“To tell you the truth, when you’re writing and you’re caught up in the world of creating, you don’t think about answering press questions, and now it feels like I have to do that,” she continues, “and now I’m kicking myself and I’m really disappointed in myself, because I don’t want all of this to take away from what the guys are contributing with the music.

“The music industry can be really upsetting because I feel like you can’t make the right creative decision because it gets picked apart so much, and then you’re like, ‘oh, shoot, I just totally ruined the path of this record’, and I didn’t mean for it to make a statement. It’s like when people ask me why I named my daughter Pelagia. Well, I had tons of reasons, but if I explained them now they’d sound stupid. She was just Pelagia, that was her name.”

During our morning together, Channy and I rarely speak about the music of Poliça. It’s her least favourite topic of conversation, and although she wouldn’t have Longstreth’d me had I’d wanted a blow-by-blow account of ‘Shulamith’’s themes, anyone can get those from the band’s website, where lyrics have their own page and where ‘Shulamith’’s have been posted months before the album’s release. For the flourishing twin drums, the dub bass and the electronics that can make you dance, cry and lick your wounds simultaneously, you need to talk to Ryan Olson, but he refuses press interviews. That, Channy says, is not an option for herself, however uncomfortable the situation makes her.

“When I fantasise about that I think that I’ve chosen to work with other people to put this record out. We’re not putting this out ourselves, and a lot of other people have worked hard with us on this. I’m a team player to the fault. I don’t like to say no to people. I don’t want to be difficult. I don’t want to be disagreeable. I have said no to some things lately, but I’ve chosen to work with a label and part of their job is to the sell the record and part of that is doing press. If I was to say I’m not doing interviews anymore am I sacrificing the success of the band just because I don’t want to talk to people? These three guys, this is what they want to do for the rest of their lives. Ryan does not do interviews, but he can do that because he’s a producer. I don’t think it’s fair for me to do that to the other people I work with, I guess that’s what I’m saying. If I keep on talking like this in interviews maybe they’ll be like, ‘no, no, no more interviews for you’,” she laughs.

“It’s good to remember that we’re all working together, and if I don’t want to work together and sell this record, I should just stay in Minneapolis and play small clubs and sell my records at shows and do it purely for the love of it. I don’t have to do this forever, I don’t have to always try to be a worldwide musician, but I have made a decision to work with people. I just don’t really know how to do interviews, because I am very much a daydreamer. I’m not angry at my label or anyone at all, I’m more angry at myself that I can’t articulate what we’ve done.”

Channy, overly hard on herself to the end, lays her pencil on her pad and shows me out. “You’ll have to interview me at the beginning of the tour next time,” she says. “It’ll be like meeting an entirely different person.” I hope it isn’t.