Before Poliça, the last act to secure an endorsement from both Jay-Z and Bon Iver was Kanye West. While West certainly didn’t need the help, this big-name fan base has pushed Poliça, an outfit of friends from the esoteric Midwest soft-rock circuit, to the international cachet they currently hold—all in the short time since their debut album, Give You The Ghost, dropped last December. In an industry that is quick to praise genre bending—a term it throws around liberally—Channy Leaneagh and her band have managed to move beyond buzzword pandering and create a sound that is genuinely sui generis. It has its roots in folk, soul, world music, R&B, pop, electronica, noise, New Wave, jazz, soft rock—a set of diverse and distinct references that produce an unexpectedly singular style.
Give You The Ghost is infectious, but not exactly catchy. Leaneagh’s vocals are never easy to understand; even at those rare moments when her wording is clear, its meaning is staunchly obscure. It’s that ambiguity, set against the more expressive measure of her voice and backed by Ryan Olson’s creeping beats, that listening to Poliça such an emotional experience. It could be this all-bases-covered approach that’s made them such a hit with MCs and acoustic guitarists alike: their sound is distant and urgent—depressive and danceable—all at once.
When we caught up with her between stops on the group’s ongoing tour, Leaneagh was happy to demystify the phenomenon that Poliça is quickly becoming. It comes as a surprise to hear her voice unaffected by Auto-Tune or a helicon; she is soft-spoken but deliberative—fitting for one of indie music’s best-kept but soon-to-be well-known secrets. Our conversation, shortly before her performance at the Black Cat in D.C., touched on recurring dreams, computer crashes, and the importance of sounding foreign.
ZACK ETHEART: With all the distortion and ambiguity, sometimes I wonder whether there’s one fixed story behind each of your songs.
CHANNY LEANEAGH: Each song does have a narrative. It’s sort of my reduction record as a writer, in the sense that it’s the simplest ideas to tell the story, and with somebody that you maybe can’t communicate with because you’re afraid to talk to them about it. When I’m trying to talk to somebody about something that’s uncomfortable, I never give enough information and they can’t even understand what I’m talking about, you know? But I’m trying to kind of give them hints. And that’s sort of the narrative in the songwriting on this record: these hints.
ETHEART: Who are you hinting at?
LEANEAGH: Each song is a different story; they’re not all about the same person. Songs like “I See My Mother”—that one is this recurring dream I had as a kid. It’s the only recurring dream I had, it’s not like I was a big dream person or anything, but I was sitting on a tile floor, in a—I don’t want to say a drug house, but one of those houses we’ve all been in where shit is really dark—just kind of being there and being at my lowest point on this bathroom floor, and seeing my mother. And she would actually kind of disown me and turn away. I had that as a teenager. It might have been when I was starting to use stuff, but before I’d really gotten into any trouble, but that dream has always laid heavy on me. So it’s things like that that kind of get integrated and woven into a narrative.
ETHEART: Your blog is vaguely poetic, too. Would you ever consider writing anything but music professionally?
LEANEAGH: I haven’t really. I do like to write a lot, though. It’s funny because I think that the only people who read it are journalists, but I do that because when you’re on the road a lot and you’re only with four people, I start getting self-conscious talking to them too much about myself, because you realize how insignificant you are or how maybe you’re boring them. But when I’m home, I talk to my mom, not even about myself, but just talk and have a conversation, and I’ll talk to my daughter and my friends and catch up with them. And the blog is sort of replacing that on the road sometimes. It’s a way to kind of unload excess thoughts in your head so that you don’t explode on your band all the time about all the random personal information that you wanna get out. So I think that’s been really helpful, that voice. I have a great band though, so it’s not like they ever tell me to shut up.
ETHEART: Your sound is so complex. When you set out to write a track, where do you start?
LEANEAGH: I’m not completely sure, but I do believe that I start with a feeling, and I’m often trying to sort of heal something or decrease pressure somewhere. First and foremost, it’s pretty therapeutic. Even if the song isn’t necessarily about me, I’m trying to resolve some kind of feeling. And I think it’s also half that and half just the melody in my head, when you’ve got something that’s just caught in your brain that you wanna put down. That’s when I just write songs on my own, but when I’m working with Ryan, it’s really a back-and-forth kind of call-and-response. It’s like, here’s this beat, and I’m kind of like, “What does that make me feel?” And that becomes work in the best way. You’re stimulating yourself.
ETHEART: How did that relationship start?
LEANEAGH: We met in Gayngs. He says that he came up and said hi to me a few times and I never answered him. [laughs] But he finally asked my husband if I would come over and sing, so that’s how we met. I just drove to his house and we very slowly got to know each other. I didn’t really talk to him much until we got on the road for Gayngs.
ETHEART: How would you describe your music? I’ve heard it categorized a million different ways.
LEANEAGH: Well, twice yesterday people asked us at restaurants and we said electro-pop. It does change for us a lot. We’ve been called R&B, but I’m not really comfortable using that word for myself. That’s maybe what I’m influenced by, but I think that’s really just for the singer. That’s not what the drummers are doing and that’s not what the tracks are really doing. So it’s interesting to hear what each of us calls the sound, because our drummer Ben, who’s into the Thee Oh Sees and New Wave and has been in hardcore bands his whole life, he calls it pop music; to him it’s super poppy. To me, because of the two drummers, it’s noisy, and it’s kind of aggressive, because I came out of the folk scene. [laughs] So to me it’s kind of like electro-noise music. Maybe no one thinks it’s that noisy, but we usually all kind of go with the easiest term. I think it does have some folk or world music sensibilities, maybe the way I sing—I use Auto-Tune to emulate that gypsy, spooky feeling. So it’s a collage of some kind.
ETHEART: You guys have had a pretty meteoric rise since your album dropped 10 months ago. Does this time last year feel like it was yesterday? Or does it feel like it’s been eons?
LEANEAGH: It’s very kind of un-grounding. We just counted; I think we’ve done like 128 shows since the band started. Sometimes I can’t remember the show that I did two nights ago, but you just can’t imagine all the places we’ve seen and the experiences. We just played at Radio City, which I don’t think I even realized was a big deal to me until after I finished. I’d never felt so exhausted, because I was actually so nervous, but you have to deny that nervousness until you get off stage or you would probably just combust. So when I’m on the road like this—it’s been a week and a half—it feels like I’ve been gone for months and months and months. People at home are like, “Eh! It’s going by pretty fast.” Time really is different on the road. You do so much in a day, and you’re up for so long, so it does feel like we’ve been on the road for a very long time. It’s good to remember that we actually haven’t.
ETHEART: How did it feel to hear “Violent Games” as the soundtrack to the Chloé runway show in Paris last March?
LEANEAGH: It’s funny, I’m not a very fashionable person, because I think it makes me uncomfortable to dress too nice. But I do love the art of fashion. I love Chloé, I love Helmut Lang, I love it as an art and I think it’s really beautiful, so I’ve been really happy that people like that have reached out and have used our music, because that’s really special. I thought I wanted to go to fashion design school when I was a kid. That didn’t happen, but I used to love looking at all the runways and drawing pictures. So that’s kind of serendipitous. I’m not really involved in that world, but now my music is being used for it, and that’s really special to me.
ETHEART: There are a lot of different stories floating around about your name—some about a computer malfunction, some about a Polish translation. Can I get a definitive story about where it comes from?
LEANEAGH: [laughs] Yeah, it really was a situation where me and Ryan and different people would have late nights. It was like naming a baby. We’d have these long sheets of paper in Ryan’s room with all these different names down, and all of us throwing out ideas. And that one finally did come from a computer thing: my computer crashed and this file came up, and it was like “Poliza//,” and a bunch of crazy numbers. And I was like, “I like this name!” And we kind of changed it around, and Drew [Christopherson] was the one who had the “ç.” So it was really just a vetting process. It is Polish, but it’s not in reference to anything. I did always say I kind of wanted a foreign-sounding name because it was foreign-sounding music. It fits.
ETHEART: Yeah, I have to admit, when I first heard you back in December I thought you were Brazilian. No idea why.
LEANEAGH: Yeah, my favorite thing Justin Vernon ever said to me was when we were playing at a festival in Belgium, and afterwards he was like, “I was watching you guys and you looked like a cool German band. Like, you weren’t my friends, you were just a cool German band.” And I was like, “Thanks, that’s my favorite thing you’ve ever said.”
ETHEART: Even better than when he said you were the best band he’d ever heard?
LEANEAGH: [laughs] Well, yeah, because that was super nice, but you know, it’s just not true.
POLIÇA WILL BE PERFORMING AT WEBSTER HALL ON SATURDAY, OCTOBER 6. GIVE YOU THE GHOST IS OUT NOW.