Rising up like an electro-pop phoenix from the ashes of local folk-rock outfit Roma Di Luna, Polica finds the belated band’s former front woman Channy Leaneagh (néeCaselle) reinventing herself as a heavily auto-tuned siren backed by aggressive beats and sleek synthesizers hatched by Gayngs mastermind Ryan Olson. The bold musical makeover hasn’t gone unnoticed. Multiple tracks from Polica’s debut album, Give You the Ghost, have broken into heavy rotation on taste-making MPR station 89.3 the Current and the band’s already lined up a national booking agent and played to sold-out East Coast crowds as the openers for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Not bad for a group whose album didn’t technically see the light of day until a Dec. 20 digital release that was moved up from February of next year due to pent up demand. Prior to Polica’s CD-release gig Feb. 14 at First Avenue, Leaneagh talked with The A.V. Club about handling burgeoning blog buzz, collaborating with Ryan Olson, and the ups and downs of auto-tune.
The A.V. Club: Roma di Luna was a band that worked very hard and gradually won a strong local following over the course of several years. By contrast Polica very quickly became a sell-out draw in the Twin Cities and has already built up an enviable level of blog buzz nationally. Do you allow yourself to stop and appreciate the band’s rapid ascent?
Channy Leaneagh: We’re certainly incredibly grateful for the speed at which things have happened for the band. At the same time it’s one of those things that makes you feel like it’s important to just focus on your band and your community. It’s never a good idea to pay much attention to buzz because it all comes and goes so quickly. I really appreciate that people are coming to our shows and excited to hear the record because we’ve worked very hard on it, just like Roma Di Luna worked very hard. I do sort of feel like you have to take advantage of those moments when things are going well to sort of build yourself up in preparation for the times they won’t. I feel like you have to work the hardest when people are listening.
AVC: The band certainly hasn’t been afraid to dive directly into the deep end. Did you have any jitters taking Polica out on the road so early in its life as a band? [Ed. Note: after just three hometown gigs the band opened up a string of sold-out shows for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah in major east coast cities]
CL: It was a huge gift getting to open up those sold out shows right away. At the same time it was definitely nerve-wracking as we’re quite a different band then Clap Your Hands Say Yeah are. The first night we were all completely shaky, though that might have been from the special vodka backstage [laughs]. I’m extremely grateful for all of my previous experiences both in Gayngs and Roma Di Luna because I feel like I already got some of those rough stage experiences out of my system early on. I like to think that some of the worst things that could happen to me on stage already have [laughs]. I practice for Polica a lot on my own and I always want to feel like I’m working on improving my craft so that when big opportunities come I feel like I’m ready for the them. In many ways I feel like that whole Gayngs experience and some of the big shows we played groomed me for what’s happening now in Polica. I feel like I still have a long way to go sometimes with my performances, but I’m comfortable up there on the stage. I feel like where I’m at right now is what I’ve been working towards all along.
AVC: I’ve come around, but initially I found Polica’s heavy use of auto-tune on your voice somewhat off-putting. Over the course of your recent live performances the sound of your voice is continuing to evolve and change (to my ear it’s sounding markedly less machine-manipulated). Is auto-tune’s role in Polica still in flux?
LC: I personally like using auto-tune and I’m not going to try and convince anyone to like it [laughs]. That’s up to them. I definitely have gone through my trials and tribulations with it. There have been times where I felt like it was too much or wasn’t quite coming across like I wanted. That being said, I love having a tool that I can evolve with and continually adjust even during the course of a show. Ultimately I just like the sound of it.
AVC: Roma Di Luna was a highly collaborative band, yet after its dissolution you chose to dive right into another highly collaborative musical relationship, writing and recording the Polica record jointly with Ryan Olson [Ed. Note: Olson is not a part of Polica’s live lineup, which features duel drummers Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu alongside bassist Chris Bierden]. Did you ever consider going solo?
CL: I don’t want to do things on my own because I enjoy collaborating so greatly. With Polica I love the contrast between my lyrics and Ryan’s beats, my vocal melodies and his instrumental melodies. They balance each other out in a nice way. We work really fast and well together and it’s just a completely different experience than Roma Di Luna was because I don’t have to start playing chords on the guitar or piano to build a song. I can come to Ryan with a vocal melody and then we can build the beat around that or he will have a beat written and I can just write to that. It’s a really natural process that feels very liberating for me right now.
AVC: The Polica record was written during a time of personal upheaval for you [the ending of Leaneagh’s marriage to Roma Di Luna co-founder Alexie Cassele] and much of the lyrics read as darkly confessional (“It seems that we'd be fine / But I know when I leave we’ll die / I need some time to think about my life without you/ The hardest part is knowing I'm happy”). How personally cathartic is this set of songs? Did you ever hesitate releasing some of them for public consumption?
CL: I write without a lot of conscious thought about who will be listening or any thought of censoring it. I would never say it’s autobiographical but it certainly is cathartic for me, and hopefully the listener as well. My songs are always based in reality, with my personal life as the starting point, but that doesn’t mean the songs are all about me. I often write songs to my friends or try and assume the perspective of other people. I’ll find I wrote a song to try and comfort someone else, but then it’s comforting for me. It matters most that my songs are meaningful to people beyond just myself. I’m definitely an openly emotional songwriter but I think that’s mostly driven by the fact that I feel like that’s what leads to the kind of songs I perform well. The lyrics are more about fitting the melody and serving as a vehicle for the emotion I want to communicate than about my personal life. I realized I do have to be careful what I write in my songs. Because I feel like whatever I write, even if it isn’t about me at the time, eventually it will be. For the past five years all my Roma Di Luna songs were about leaving. I couldn’t tell you if that was what I wanted or if I was just kind of writing about it and then that took over my headspace. What I sing really affects me so I’m definitely more careful now about the things I write.