Caroline Polachek has spent a lot of time limiting herself. To be fair, the fruits of those limitations have been wildly successful: She popped into the zeitgeist in 2005 as a member of critical darlings Chairlift, the alternative indie-pop project that built a cult following for more than a decade before Polachek and bandmate Patrick Wimberly called it quits in 2016. On the side, she filtered her solo work through the lens of monikers Ramona Lisa and CEP, all the while co-writing and producing with heavy hitters like Beyoncé, Travis Scott, and Charli XCX. All opportunities to stretch her creative wings — but always within the rules.
And as she explains it, these conceptual boxes she's willingly placed herself in — Brooklyn-flavored indie pop princess, experimental synth queen — allowed her to hone her own creative strengths. "I think in the past, those limitations have been extremely useful for me to remember what I'm doing and how to do it best," she tells MTV News.
But now? Allow Caroline Polachek to reintroduce herself. "I think I finally felt ready to take off all of those limitations and just say what I have to say," she reveals. Pang, her long-awaited album and the first under her own name, is available today (October 17). It features one of the year's best pop songs in "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings," an ironically quirky declaration of being painfully, hopelessly in lust with a flame just out of reach. The feeling it owns is so deeply relatable, yet oddly specific, it's easy to believe that this is Polachek at her most honest. "I knew I wanted this music to be more direct than anything I'd ever done before," she explains, "and forcing myself to finally use my own name felt like a way of stating that very clearly."
MTV News: I have to talk about "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings," as I just think the world of it. Tell me everything about how it came together.
Caroline Polachek: So, "You're so hot, it's hurting my feelings" is something I'd actually told someone a week prior, and the phrase just kept playing on my mind. I had a session set up towards the very end of writing this record with a couple friends of mine, and the first melody that came was the melody that's now the beginning of the song. There's something kind of classical about it, but it also reminded me of "Video Killed the Radio Star"-era '80s pop. Just something about the quality of the jumpiness of it. And then I thought, wait a minute, this is kind of the perfect vessel for that lyric. So [I] just started writing around that idea.
MTV News: Just that line itself, it has these elements of lust, desire, pain, jealousy. This person, who was so hot it hurt your feelings... which emotional directions did that come from?
Polachek: Well, when someone's hot, and is just not actually attainable... we kind of have this idea that maybe if you hold them or get some kind of promises from them or have sex with them, there's some kind of satisfaction that can be attained. But, the fact is there isn't. When you're that attracted to someone, there is this kind of thing about them that you can never truly have or possess, and it's that kind of frustration of wanting it and never being able to have it. It's also, more generally, a song about long-distance attraction. I don't know if it just needs to be a relationship; I think in 2019, so many people are experiencing relationships through their phones, even if they're not living that far away from each other.
MTV News: I've also been listening to "Door," and there's a really lovely line in the song towards the beginning: "10 laps around the planet to prove what I wasn't."
Polachek: Yes, exactly. For me, that lyric was very specifically about my twenties. I think, and I feel this is pretty normal, that a lot of my twenties [there] was this kind of desire to prove both what you are and what you're not, and kind of entering into another later chapter in my life now, that kind of need disappeared. You get more confident. You know yourself more.
MTV News: When you hear "So Hot" and "Door," as well as songs like "Ocean of Tears," these songs on Pang aren't songs of total bliss, nor do they feel like songs of complete misery. They dive into these moments of murkier emotional tension, whether it's with a lover or within yourself.
Polachek: Yeah, that's a good part of what Pang means to me, both as a sensation and as the title of the album. Panging is the kind of sharp pain you feel inside when you're reminded of some kind of unattended need or something that you've neglected. Whether it's nostalgia or hunger or envy or regret, all these ideas come from addressing a lack that's been ignored. And a pang is ultimately private. It's not a thing that gets broadcast to the world; it's a kind of internal alarm that sounds when something has to change and it has to change fast.
MTV News: This being your first album with your name on it, is there anything you feel like you're saying now that you may not have been able to say before?
Polachek: It's all just more unfiltered now. I'm definitely getting into aspects with my personal life that I probably wouldn't have dared to get into before, but I think that's just coming from kind of a new desire for things to feel very clear.
MTV News: I have to ask about "No Angel," the Beyoncé song you co-wrote and produced. To me, it's another song that's not bliss, but not misery. It's this in-between of two people wrestling with the reality of who the other is.
Polachek: Yeah, exactly. The song is kind of about reconciling in a salty way with your partners and professions and asking for compromise and also asking that your own imperfections be taken as well. That song was written about a year and a half before Beyoncé even reached out. It was a song I wrote right at the very beginning of experimenting by myself as a producer for Ramona Lisa. That song is about kind of the end of a bickering match with someone you're in love with, and no one walks away a winner, but ideally both walk away still in love.
MTV News: Back then, as a songwriter, was there a way that you decided what songs were for you and what songs were for other people? And has that changed now in any way?
Polachek: "No Angel" was definitely written for me, but the thing is, I usually write my best when I'm writing for myself, [and] anything's up for grabs. I kind of think that's the best way to operate; even when I'm in sessions writing with other artists, I'm always pulling from the kind of emotions that are the most raw in my own life and offering them up in the studio. I'm not that precious with music when I write it.
MTV News: I think about Julia Michaels, an amazing singer-songwriter, who has spoken about her first single "Issues" and feeling like it was the first song too personal to her to give to someone else. And that song wound up being a Grammy nominee for Song of the Year.
Polachek: Oh, Julia Michaels is such a legend... OK, if we're being honest, there are a lot of songs on Pang I would absolutely not let go, no matter who wanted them.
MTV News: Which ones would you say those are?
Polachek: "Parachute," for one, I would never give that song away. It's so close to my heart. I would enjoy seeing anyone else sing "Caroline Shut Up." That would be interesting. I would give that one away, actually, which is funny, even though it's very personal. "Door," I would never give away. This one called "Hey Big Eyes," that's right at the top of the b-side of the album, that one's also just so extremely personal to me, I could never let it go.
MTV News: So what can we expect from Pang?
Polachek: Well, Pang has a narrative thread that kind of runs loosely through it. The first side of the album is kind of an unraveling, narratively. It's a kind of descent into self-questioning, doubt, structures falling apart, fear, confusion. And then the second half of the album is kind of making sense of it and rediscovering humor and rediscovering trust kind of in my own life.
MTV News: Was that narrative thread something that you set out to do initially, or was it the way the music came together?
Polachek: It wasn't the order that they were necessarily written in, but they're all kind of taking place at different parts of the same thought process. So structuring the record was very, very easy in terms of the internal logic of it. But it did happen afterwards as a second process.
MTV News: Was there a point, or a song in particular that you finished where after it was done you felt like, "Oh, I have an album here."
Polachek: Oh, that's such a great question. Yes. Actually, that song was "The Gate." "The Gate" ironically opens the album, and the first track that was written for the album closes it, which is "Parachute." But "The Gate" was written at 4 a.m. in my apartment and recorded in that moment as well. That's the take. It just felt like a finished thing when that song got added, and I knew immediately it was going to be the intro to the album. That song kind of serves in a lot of ways like the kind of overture or the forward in the book, kind of, if you will.
MTV News: Got you.
Polachek: And the song ends with this line, "I come here every day just to hear you say, finally there's a way to be both free and safe." And, I think the whole album proceeds from there, this impossible combination of freedom and safety, trying to find it in my own way.
MTV News: Which one do you think you're leaning more towards now, as a person?
Polachek: Well, I'm always out of balance. I think right now, a part of my conception of safety is taking care of the things I've made, but I'm probably leaning a little bit more towards safety this week, because I haven't really been taking great care of myself this week. I've been working so much on getting this record ready, but I think that's fine. These are the sacrifices we make for things that we love and keeping them safe, right?
MTV News: You could say that when you were an artist under another name, you gave yourself parameters with which to feel safe, and it feels like coming out on your own name and your own terms, there's a freedom to it.
Polachek: Yeah, exactly. I hadn't thought about that, but it's true.
MTV News: So which do you think you'll feel when this comes out?
Polachek: Well, there's a freedom in being understood, isn't there? So I think I will feel more free. Hopefully. Let's find out.