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Polica's Experimental Beginnings

Singer Channy Leaneagh says group was formed to 'escape to a different reality'

Channy Leaneagh of Polica.
Cameron Wittig 
February 17, 2012 4:15 PM ET

This time last year, Polica didn't exist. Now the Minneapolis-based band finds itself garnering praise from a Grammy winner. In a Rolling Stone interview following his win for Best New Artist, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon name-checked the psychedelic R&B outfit as a band for which he’s head over heels. "They're the best band I've ever heard," he said.

Polica's frontwoman, Channy Leaneagh, whose heavily distorted vocals stretch across dreamy atmospherics on the band’s debut album, Give You the Ghost, can't help but laugh upon learning of Vernon's oversized compliment. "I hope that we don't let him down," she says quietly, with a chuckle.

Leaneagh’s modesty may stem from the fact that Polica (pronounced POE-LISA), for all intents and purposes, began as an experiment: The project was a means by which she and friend/producer/collaborator Ryan Olson could see if their individual talents had any business merging. The two had previously worked with one another in 2010 when Olson, the founder of Minneapolis neo-soul collective Gayngs – a mega-band of which Vernon was a member, likely explaining his outsize fandom – recruited Leaneagh for vocal contribution to the band’s debut album, Relayted. Shortly thereafter, Olson would invite the singer to join Gayngs on a West Coast tour. It was during this string of Gayngs shows that Olson says he first saw Leaneagh coming into her own. He needed to hear more. "I wanted to see what she could do when it was all her," he says.

Leaneagh was similarly in the mindset to try something new. After splitting with husband Alexei Casselle, the singer left her old band, folk-rock outfit Roma di Luna, of which Casselle was also a member. "I was going through a really rough time," Leaneagh says, while driving cross-country from Minneapolis to Polica gig in Seattle. "I was looking for an intense release and a creative release to get away and escape to a different reality.” 

That escape would come in the form of her musical partnership with Olson. In the wake of her personal tumult, Leaneagh had written a slew of songs, which she played for Olson during their first joint recording session; he similarly played her some older tracks he had never put to use. The two’s musical bond was instantaneous. "I just listened to [Ryan's tracks] and freestyled over them," Leaneagh says. “I fell in love right away."

The pair decided to record a batch of songs with Olson's funky, synth-driven background tracks serving as the foundation. They’d be completed in short order; all of Give Up The Ghost, Leaneagh explains, was put together over only a handful of recording sessions. Leaneagh's heavily Auto-Tuned vocals quickly became the central focus of the project, and it was the singer’s willingness to expand her musical horizons that Olson says most heavily attracted him to the project. While Auto-Tune might seem an unlikely choice to be utilized on a former folk-rocker’s album, Leaneagh had first been introduced to the vocal-correction tool while in Gayngs and was mesmerized by the way it allowed for experimentation. And the evidence is in the music: On the album’s lead single “Dark Star,” Leaneagh’s altered vocals fizzle for miles while opener “Amongster” finds the singer’s voice floating between the gaps of the ominous synth undertones and gunshot drum beats.

After the basic framework for the tracks had been finished – which Leaneagh describes as originally "straight R&B” – Olson, who ironically is not considered a member of the band, suggested they’d sound best fleshed out with bass and drum parts. As such, he recruited two drummers and a bassist/vocalist from the tight-knit Minneapolis music scene to essentially back up Leaneagh. Despite the reality that her bandmates were guns-for-hire – Leaneagh describes their relationship as “a working” one – the singer and her new bandmates quickly jelled. Olson attributes this to the fact that he made sure to find musicians Leneagh would connect with on a personal level.

Polica, however, have had little time to perfect their chops. Olson had hoped the newly acquainted foursome could play smaller shows to build their collective rapport. But the instantaneous buzz surrounding the band has forced any musical bonding to occur onstage. “We're getting to know each other,” Leaneagh says. “It’s been a really wonderful time performing.”

In the live setting, Leaneagh acts as Polica’s maestro: She uses several effects pedals to alter her vocals so as to replicate the album’s Auto-Tuned effect. And in doing so, the singer has started to view her voice as its own instrument. “I'm using my voice more like a guitar,” she says.

Polica may still be getting a foothold on perfecting Ghost’s songs, but Leaneagh is already looking ahead; the singer says she has a slew of new tracks ready to record. "I love the last record but I'm really excited about this new stuff," she says. "You can’t relax. You just gotta keep on moving.”

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