Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.

The Sound of Songwriting: with Caroline Polachek of Chairlift

8 min read

Caroline Polachek imagines each of her songs as if it was an excerpt from a film. Behind the music there is a fictional world with characters and dialogue that get framed in the shot. We don’t get to hear their entire story and rarely is there literal narration, but it’s as if Polachek is your guide, she taps you on the shoulder and says, “Come here with me, I’d like to show you this.”

An old adage in the film industry goes something like, “Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression.” Chairlift’s music is full of these moments of visual expression: the food pyramids and desert of vitamins on “Planet Health,” the frozen strawberries in “Bruises,” and the scene in “Garbage” which consists of, as Polachek describes it, “a heap of garbage under the moonlight. All these things that have passed through people’s lives in a very personal way just sitting there ignored and decaying.”

Polachek’s lyrics aren’t always intended to be understood in the literal sense. She told me that, when it comes to Chairlift, she doesn’t believe in the singer as a narrator. Reflecting on my question of dialogue and narration she explained, “Sometimes [while watching a scene from a film] I can’t understand exactly what is going on in the conversation, but I love that scene.”

Chairlift just returned home from London where they were recording the follow up album to their celebrated debut “Does You Inspire You.” It turns out that a great deal has changed in the band’s approach to songwriting since that first album:

In 2006 Chairlift, a duo consisting of Polachek and Aaron Pfenning, had relocated from Colorado to a Greenpoint where they shared a practice space with fellow Brooklyn band Grizzly Bear. Patrick Wimberly joined in 2007, adding drums for the first time, but for the most part Polachek and Pfenning did the songwriting together.

Pfenning left the band back in October to pursue his role as frontman of Rewards. So the new album will be a writing collaboration between Polachek and Wimberly. And as opposed to the irregular songwriting schedule and geographic wandering, which at times comes across in the occasional unevenness of their debut, the duo spent many days and months writing together in a single location: a spare room in the back of Brooklyn antique shop.

I met with Caroline Polachek at one of her favorite Polish restaurants in Greenpoint – not too far from the band’s original practice space. She shared some ideas for combating lyric-writing fatigue. One such idea: consulting fans on Chairlift’s Facebook page (allegedly the helpful fan has been credited by having his name included in the background of the song).

We also discussed the writing process on the new album and an upcoming Chairlift song (or “scene”), accompanied by two five-years-olds: she describes the song as “A Dali painting tracked with happy Disney chords.”

Do you find that you have some kind of regiment for writing new songs?

I always imagined it would be like that, but it wasn’t like that at all. Patrick and I got this little room in the back of an antique store to write the new album. It already had a piano and a couch, but that’s all. We brought in our own equipment and literally all we had to write this record was a grand piano, a drum kit, a synth and a bass. But regarding regiment – our only regiment we had was that we’d show up at the room everyday at noon.

How many hours did you spend in the room each day?

Until someone had an obligation. And we’d do this for months and months of just going to the room everyday. Some days we’d come up with ideas for a new song, but for the most part we’d just work on songs that we’d been working on previously.

Months and months of playing everyday? I wonder if your fans understand how much time and energy goes into writing an album. Were there any rules?

We did have one rule actually: we couldn’t work on one song for more than three days in a row, because we noticed that if we did it’d start getting worse. If you get to know it too well you lose perspective and you start forgetting what the whole song should do because you’re too busy fixating on what the little details should do – and that’s never a good sign. This leads to what we refer to as ‘demo-itis.’

What is “demo-itis”?

“Demo-itis” is when you’ve listen to the same thing 500 times so that you can’t like it any other way – because you become used to it. At that point you might not even think, ‘Oh it has this cool thing about it.’ You can’t because you’re programmed to think that is how the song should sound.

What comes to mind, is if you were to have a lyric that you weren’t so sure about during the demo-itis phase. Then it gets stuck in your head until you think: I hate that lyric but it’s the only way this song sounds good?

Yeah! Exactly. We actually had a whole song where the chorus is like that. The lyric means nothing at all. Yet no other lyric, no matter how good the pun or the other lyrics we tried [worked], we all missed the old one. So we’re actually going back to the old one.

What is the lyric?

[A long reluctant pause] Well… the line is “In your direction,” but in context it just means nothing to repeat that line over and over again.

You write the lyrics for Chairlift?

Yes, I do almost all the lyric writing

Do you do it before the song exists or after the music?

It’s different for every song. Sometimes a riff will inspire what the song should be about – like the way it sounds.

For this record I’ve been writing what I call lyric sets. Cos it’s not poetry; a set of lyrics is like no other kind of writing. It’s not a list, it’s not a letter, it’s not a diary entry, it’s just a lyric set. It’s just a mental world and you just write what should be spoken in that world. It’s closer to writing a script than anything else.

So, ideally, when you are writing a new song you are hoping to weave the lyrics and the music around the same time? Instead of trying to force lyrics at some later stage in the writing process?

Yeah, that’s lucky. It’s always easier if I have some kind of concept in my head. Like on this record we have a song where I was like “I want to write a song about running someone over with my car.” And from there all the lyrics were obvious, and all the sounds were obvious too. And the song came together in one day because it was such an obvious literal thing.

Whereas we came up with another [song] that had a really good bass groove, chord pattern and melody – all of which we loved [without lyrics]. So at that point it’s kind of like overhearing a muffled conversation and having to piece together a melody to make the whole conversation make sense. But in order for it to feel like a good conversation all the lines have to work with the previous lines, and with the tone and the mood. It’s really like writing a conversation over these sounds.

Your voice is part of this “muffled conversation”?

Yeah that’s how I feel about writing lyrics for music that already exists. If all the music is there, and especially if all the vocal melodies are there, I’m fucked. Like it’s really hard for me to write lyrics [at this point]. If there’s just instrumentals it’s easier, but if there’s a vocal line and I have to think of words for it, it takes forever.

We have one song on the new record – the same song I was just telling you about actually – where I literally wrote six complete sets of lyrics for the song until one stuck. And the ones we went with, it’s a complete nonsense song; it acknowledges the fact that none of the lyrics make any sense. It’s kind of like Dr. Suess or something.

On the topic of lyric writing, I feel like some songwriters attempt to convey a feeling, and other songwriters attempt to tell a story, but with your lyrics, maybe you are somewhere in between the two extremes? For example, I can get a sense of meaning on some Chairlift songs, but it’s easy to get lost when listening to others.

I always see lyrics like being what a person says in a movie. So it’s not the director that’s speaking to you, but you have your shot. And in the shot there’s a character saying this line. If what the character is saying doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t mean that the movie doesn’t make any sense, it just means that is what the scene is.

And it’s up for the viewer to interpret the scene?

Yes, or just to enjoy it.

I’d like to name a few Chairlift songs and get your response:

Don’t give a Damn
Well that song is sort of a spaghetti western cartoon where the cowboy is walking away to the wind. We don’t actually have Western accents, and we don’t say things like “I’ll saddle up soon and be gone”. We were listening to a lot of Hank Williams and living in Colorado while we were writing that songs. We just wanted to make a short western song, but we didn’t think we needed to be a country band to write a country song. Kind of how Ween made a country album just because they wanted to.

A lot of people ask us if we wrote Garbage for environmental reasons, if we are really concerned about the environment and wanted to get the word out there about recycling. At the time when I wrote the song while living in Boulder, Colorado I was probably the biggest hippie I’ve ever been. I was pretty hardcore about recycling, but I was more obsessed about the permanence of objects. That this thing (holding her iPhone) passes through your life in the most vulgar and meaningless way will actually outlive you.

Evident Utensil
Evident Utensil is a joke from start to finish. I started singing those lyrics in the shower, something like “I’ve got every colored bath product. Every colored kitchen utensil” (she sings these words over the song’s melody). It was just this stupid consumerist jingle. And then I came out of the shower and wrote down some of the lyrics. Aaron was hanging out with me and we drew a picture of a Tucan and it had a big speech bubble and some of the lyrics were coming out of its mouth. I remember we spent a whole afternoon at Patrick’s, jumping up and down on his bed and laughing our asses off in his Bushwick apartment.

The beat actually comes straight off this Yamaha keyboard that my mom gave me when I was ten years old. It’s a demo, it’s copyright free and was made to be played over. We always thought it was hilarious, this 90s kind of house beat – none of us were really into house at the time, which is funny because now I am and we’re not really making music like that. But I thought it was so funny to put such stupid lyrics over this big flashy beat.

Can you talk about one of the new songs you’ve been working on?

There is a new song called “Spoon Eyes”. It’s not going to be on the new album, but it’s going to be a B-side. I had an art piece up a while ago at this gallery, and the guy that was helping me install the piece was like, “Oh I heard you’re in a band and you make music. Well my little girls sing too” And actually I have a song on my iPod that they sang yesterday if you want to hear it.” And he plays me this song, and these weird little angelic voices come out and it’s like, “I’m walking down the street with two spoon eyes” (she sings the melody).

So I asked him, “Do you think your girls would want to come over and record this song with us?” And he was like, “Yeah, they’d loose their minds. Absolutely.” So a couple of weeks later he dropped them off at our antique shop and actually it was a little hard to get them to sing, I had to convince them to act like Hanna Montana and that actually worked.

So I wrote a little chorus for them and they sang it, and we tracked it all over very basic happy Disney chords. Then we slowed the whole thing down and changed all the instruments under it, while giving them a little pitch correction on their vocals. And then I sang under it.

We were kind of trying to go for that kind of atmosphere with the song – it got really syrupy and dreamlike.

I wrote that song the first night I brought home my Nord. I started reading the manual and I got a little bit overwhelmed, but then I kept going through it and found a sound I liked. I found myself singing over this one sound and then I stood up and banged my knee! It hurt really bad, so I went over to the fridge to get some ice – and there was a pack of strawberries in there, I guess I was planning on making smoothies or something. So I was sitting there icing my knee with the frozen strawberries, singing over this little melody. At the time I didn’t really think anything of it, but somehow the song came together.

I was watching a Nirvana documentary a few months ago and I heard Kurt’s manager say, “Whenever we wanted Kurt to write a new song we’d just give him a new guitar”. And I totally feel that way – that night I brought home my new synth (she presses her fingers on the table as if she is playing the piano). There it is!

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Chris Castig Co-founder of Adjunct Prof at Columbia University Business School.