STANDING IN THE kitchen at a house party in Rome not long ago, Caroline Polachek heard a song that struck her deeply. “Ti Sento” (“I Hear You”), the 1985 single by Italian pop group Matia Bazar, is peak Eighties Europop kitsch: sparkling synth-pop paired with big, operatic vocals.
Polachek thinks a lot about divas (she loves Celine Dion for “how she exists as an icon, and how pure and comforting and solid that is”), and the performance by Matia Bazar’s singer, Antonella Ruggiero, became a major touchstone for her. “She’s just giving everything, and the song climbs up higher into these other keys,” Polachek says. “There is this feeling in her vocal performance that her eyes are gonna fucking pop out of her skull, it’s so intense. It’s like she’s being electrocuted. That song kind of became a flashlight for me in terms of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to try.”
Polachek hopes to have her own diva moment, of sorts, with her upcoming album, Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, due February 14. Polachek wanted to create something physical, songs that can spread through your whole body and make you feel the way she felt when she first heard Matia Bazar. “I want to push back against ephemerality,” she says.
Polachek is on the third — and arguably best — act of her career. In 2008, her group Chairlift struck indie-pop gold when their single “Bruises” was featured in an Apple spot. The singer later set out on her own, releasing cerebral solo experiments and writing for stars like Beyoncé. Polachek’s first album under her given name was 2019’s Pang. It’s become the most celebrated work of her career, for good reason. She partnered with producer Danny L Harle, an early signee to label and musical collective PC Music. As the label carved out a space for pop’s true maverick weirdos, Harle became notable for his classically pristine pop production, evident on collaborations with Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen. Working with Harle, Polachek operated on the outskirts of pop trends, showing off her nearly operatic range amid catchy hooks and experimental production.
Pang almost fell victim to horrible timing: It came out in late 2019, and Polachek was just heading out on tour as the pandemic struck. On March 11, 2020, she played what would be her last show for a while, at London club Heaven. “I came down with Covid two days later, before lockdown even began,” she recalls. “By the time I was well again, travel was impossible.”
Polachek and her boyfriend, the artist Matt Copson, ended up living in London for a year and a half. As luck would have it, Harle lived there, too. Polachek considers Desire to be a major partnership with the producer, with few other collaborators in the mix. “I realized very quickly that all I needed for the album was just me and him,” she says.
A new problem arose: In mid-2021, her immigration lawyer called to say that the Manhattan-born Polachek was at risk of what she calls a “pretty serious overstay” in the U.K. Naturally, she resolved the issue by taking off to Spain with Harle and Irish Scottish producer Sega Bodega in tow. They recorded at a studio she knew of, basking in the “incredible atmosphere” of a freshly reopened country. She even made a new friend, Arca, the Barcelona-based experimental pop artist who’s worked with Kanye West, FKA Twigs, Rosalía, and the Weeknd. Arca and Polachek would attend raves together. “Suddenly, the world of the music had become fused with my reality,” she says.
That new musical world Polachek was building was one driven by feelings, first and foremost. The title Desire, I Want to Turn Into You, she explains, has a dual meaning. “One, it can be read as being about the ‘you,’” she says. “We all know that feeling of falling in love, of wanting to obsessively learn from and become that person. But on the other hand, maybe desire is the thing you want to turn into itself.”
For a while, Pang and Desire had a bizarre coexistence. Although Pang is more than three years old, the album has had a long, steady run with her growing fan base. When she finally hit the road in the fall of 2021, the venues had doubled in size from her previously scheduled dates. Then, Pang single “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings” became a sleeper hit, thanks to a viral TikTok dance where fans re-created the soft choreography from its video. “I feel like I connected with my listeners so deeply during [the pandemic], and I can’t even explain why,” Polachek reflects. “I feel like a key turned at that time.”
Polachek released Desire’s lead single, “Bunny Is a Rider,” in July 2021, before her Pang tour even began. The sly, sexy bop became a fan favorite, at once slick but extremely fun. Effervescent track “Billions” and flamenco-inspired stunner “Sunset” followed suit this year. While opening for Dua Lipa for six weeks this past winter, Polachek and Harle rented studios along the way. They would start recording at 9 a.m. and go until she had to perform. “The funny thing was, that on that tour, I was like, ‘I don’t know if what we’re making is that good. I don’t know if this has anything to do with the album,’” she says. “And then, in hindsight, that’s my favorite stuff.”
Polachek had a string of dates scheduled for this fall that she ended up postponing to give the album all of her attention in its final stages. Life in the waiting period has nonetheless been nonstop. Before our evening interview, she had been in band practice all day. The day before was fittings for future tour outfits. Two days ago, she was in mixing sessions. “It’s been a real whirlwind,” she admits. “I feel like I haven’t entirely gotten to catch my breath for the last year.”
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Polachek wrote the triumphant “Welcome to My Island” with Dan Nigro (who co-wrote most of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour) toward the end of the Pang sessions, making it the oldest song on the album. Polachek left the song off her previous album because it represented a whole new character (“brash and bratty and funny and chaotic and manic,” she says) that she’s only become ready to show off now.
“Welcome to My Island” marks the official, long-delayed end of two albums’ worlds colliding. But Polachek let that experience open her eyes to a whole new universe of creative potential. “It feels like a more contemporary way of working,” she says. “Rather than disappearing, you stay present and let people in on the evolution.”
Photography Direction by Emma Reeves. Produced by Joe Rodriguez. Hair styled by Anthony V Ronquillo. Makeup by Leo Chaparro. Styling by Kat Typaldos. Styling assistance by Ashley Weiler Sandoval