Poliça frontwoman Channy Leaneagh has led a fairly colorful life to date. It has included a stint at the Ramsey Fine Arts school in Minneapolis, forming the acoustic Folk/Rock duo Roma di Luna with former Oddjobs member Alexei Casselle after graduating high school, becoming an art teacher in Cambodia for a year, marrying Casselle, giving birth to their daughter, expanding Roma di Luna to a full band and crafting a handful of acclaimed releases.
When Leaneagh and Casselle’s marriage fractured, so did Roma di Luna, so Leaneagh sought other means to express her creative impulses, including a fortuitous gig as a backing vocalist for producer/performer Ryan Olson’s Gayngs project.
Impressed with Leaneagh’s abilities, Olson worked with her on some musical sketches and then persuaded Leaneagh to record the resulting songs in 2011. Olson placed the songs in a Synth Pop/R&B context and then heavily filtered her vocals through Auto-Tune, eventually bringing in bassist/vocalist Chris Bierden and drummers Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu to help flesh out the sound.
“It wasn’t so much hiring as asking them to throw down their talents into the music,” Leaneagh says by email in the midst of Poliça’s current tour. “It wasn’t very business minded. And very much like I just woke up one day and was in London for the ninth time in a year, things just happen and life moves where it wants and takes you with it if you pack your bags light enough.”
Although Poliça coalesced organically and without the intention of being a band from the start, the foursome quickly gelled into a formidable performing unit on the tour to support its debut, 2012’s Give You the Ghost. That process continued throughout the tour cycle for Ghost and into the sessions for the band’s sophomore album, last fall’s highly regarded Shulamith, and it progresses on the current circuit for the new album.
“We are more aware of ourselves as being a band,” Leaneagh says.
“Instead of wondering what it would be like to play live together, we are looking for ways to make our live show better. Instead of being in the ‘getting comfortable playing together’ stage, we are trying to be less comfortable-sounding onstage and challenge each other and ourselves more.”
That construct is certainly woven into the fabric of Shulamith, which was at least partially recorded at the studio of Bon Iver frontman Justin Vernon, a strong Poliça supporter from the beginning whose guest vocal appears on “Tiff” from the new album.
“Drew and Ryan grew up in the same town as Justin,” Leaneagh says. “It’s a close knit community. Drew and Justin were fans of Ryan in high school and would go to see Ryan’s bands perform in the high school auditorium for battle of the bands and so on. They’ve known each other for a long time, so that’s where it all began, in Eau Claire, Wisc.”
Leaneagh’s creative presence is plainly evident in both Give You the Ghost and Shulamith, but the two albums are very different sonic animals. The major difference between the two is the lack of Auto-Tune filtration on the new album, a vibe that dominated Poliça’s debut. Leaneagh insists that there was little in the way of deliberation when it came to utilizing and then sidestepping the vocal treatment.
“There was actually little to no intentional decision on Give You the Ghost,” Leaneagh says. “It was all fly by the seat of my shorts. I was experimenting every time I opened my mouth and was using vocal processing for the first time. Shulamith was a natural progression from Give You the Ghost. I had learned from my experimenting on Give You the Ghost and I was slightly more aware of the way I wanted to sound on Shulamith. (On stage) I’m still using Auto-Tune. I use more or less depending on how I feel that day. It’s like ochre in painting; a little more, a little less, depending on my mood and what the song needs that day.”
Although Poliça has been name-checked with everyone from Prince to Portishead to La Roux, Leaneagh is adamant in crediting Olson as the most prominent musical influence on the band. Clearly he’s had an impact as the co-writer of many of the songs and he is directly responsible for the actual composition of the band, but Leaneagh recognizes his vital role as she clarifies her ideas about influences in general.
“As the producer and composer of the songs from their infancy, Ryan is our main musical influence,” Leaneagh states emphatically. “I rarely can pinpoint or extract a musical influence in my music. I assume that everything I’ve ever listened to that I liked or disliked has influenced me in some way. I’ve heard other influences people relate Poliça to that sometimes makes sense, but I would say my main influences are personal experiences and musical training as a kid. I draw a lot from the melodies I studied as a kid playing violin and the emotion in my voice from life experiences.”
Leaneagh has also cited the writings of late feminist Shulamith Firestone as influential in her life, as an artist and a woman. She named the new album after Firestone, who passed away last year. But don’t look for clues to Firestone’s philosophies in Poliça’s new album; if they are there, it’s because Leaneagh shared a similar mindset with Firestone before ever reading her work.
“I didn’t hear about her until after I finished our Shulamith record, so it was more a reflective influence,” Leaneagh says. “After reading her book, The Dialectic of Sex, I saw the things I was trying to say in my songs clearer through her words. I learned what my mistakes were in my thinking patterns as a woman and the habits I wanted to kill off after writing Shulamith. You have to read the book to answer this question in full though. That was one of my main points, to turn people to her.” ©