Ramona Lisa is the name Caroline Polachek has chosen to work under away from her day job as part of dream pop duo Chairlift. She recently releasing her first album Arcadia, a collection of love songs set in a pure and natural environment she’s termed “pastoral electronic”, the very Arcadia of the album title. It’s completely apt as she’s brought together a collection of songs that despite being recorded entirely on a laptop in hotels, airports, bedrooms and backstage before Chairlift shows, are completely harmonious and organic - yet modern, electronic and forward-looking at the same time.
It’s one of those records that’s an immersive experience; you have to listen from start to end, no interruptions, to truly get what Ramona Lisa and Arcadia is all about. It’s, dare I say, the very definition of bucolic. We managed to grab a phone call with Caroline recently to talk Ramona, privacy and the pastoral…
I wanted to start by asking you where Caroline ends and Ramona begins…
Well, Ramona Lisa is a format; she’s not a person, she’s more like a genre or maybe more like a screenplay. It’s like a set of images, motifs and shapes that kind of all work together for me.
So it’s not you simply using a different name?
No; there’s a lot of Caroline in there but the Ramona Lisa character is a way of presenting this feeling that I started having a year and a half ago when I was experimenting with writing music on my laptop, and I noticed some of the songs had this feeling, or this world – and those were much more interesting to me than the others so I started making those Ramona Lisa because it felt different to everything else I was working on and it wasn’t right to call it Caroline [Polachek]…and so that’s when the language started to come together.
It’s quite a personal and feminine record, and I couldn’t imagine it made with a band - did you always intend for it to be solo?
Yeah, some of it was difficult though. “Backwards and Upwards” has this winding bass line that was very tempting to perform it with a live band; the same with “Dominic” but in the end there’s an expression in the songs that I don’t really wanna to explain to anyone while I’m working on them.
So it’s almost a selfish way of working?
Yes! I don’t want to work things out with anyone, I just wanna do it exactly the way I feel…
You’ve also created a genre to go with the vehicle/persona and the natural world - “pastoral electronic”. Do you feel like the sound that’s found on Arcadia reflects the tag?
I would say so! I think some people are confused about the word ‘pastoral’. For me, ‘pastoral’ is a setting where something happens; it means technically that it’s happening within nature – but it means that something human is happening within nature.
Exactly. I thought of Ovid and Horace and the poetry they wrote and the subjects they addressed, even farming!
Yes, that’s true. Whether it’s loneliness, or adventure, or death…or there’s farming – it can be very mundane. All this can happen with the backdrop of this impossibly perfect natural landscape. All the songs on this record are love songs that take place, in my mind, in this setting.
You recorded Arcadia entirely on a laptop whenever you could on tour, which meant you were almost always surrounded by people…was this a completely new way of working?
Yeah it was very new; actually, the limitations the laptop presented were not difficult to work with; in fact I don’t think the record would have happened if I didn’t have those limitations. When you have something that feels restrictive, you play with it. It’s like a toy….you say ‘oh maybe I can get this out of it, or maybe I can get this out of it’ so it was a really enjoyable sort of challenge in trying to get expression out of that format.
So you embraced it? Even the extreme public parts of the recording process?
The hardest part of it for me was the issue of privacy, because I wrote a lot of this record while I was touring. So quite often there was someone sitting next to me, or sleeping in the bed next to me…or someone would start soundchecking on the drums while I was in the dressing room. So there was never, ever a moment of privacy that I had. I think a lot of artists say, ‘oh you need to get away from the world’, and get holed up in a cabin somewhere, but this was the exact opposite! I was surrounded by six to ten people constantly. I’m actually a really private person, so the record was the only way for me to find privacy, ironically. I was able to be completely in my own world.
How did people react to you recording a vocal sitting waiting on a flight in an airport terminal?
Well, I probably annoyed a couple of strangers! But strangers annoy me all the time so I just saw it as revenge. But the fun thing about it was that it completely changed my relationship with Chairlift; after doing something which was so on my own terms, collaboration became much more interesting and much more fun than it would have been otherwise. You can leave things open, there’s more surprise and of course after making a record on a laptop I was very excited by not using and by having everything hand-played, spatial and beautifully recorded instead of having this no-fi virtual thing to it.
That’s interesting, because I was going to ask how it’s changed your relationship with Patrick [Wimberly, the other member of Chairlift] inside and outside of the band…
Well, Patrick definitely understands where I’m coming from because he mixed the record; he got the chance to really see inside it and I think I gave him a different view of who I am as a producer. I think he’s taken the role in the past of the one who’s running the computer, and it definitely made me approach him on this record [the new Chairlift record is being recorded at this moment] as the guy who’s not running the computer but actually being an instrumentalist, and being a writer. So it turned the tables on both of us in a really interesting way.
I won’t ask about how Beyonce came to record “No Angel” but I was interested in how that has impacted on you and Chairlift; have you been asked to write for anyone else?
I’ve been approached as a top-line writer since then yes, definitely. At the moment Chairlift is what I’m working on studio-wise these days…but there are a couple of surprises coming out later this year.
Can I tempt you into saying any more?
I will say….[I’m writing for] an English electronic artist. I will say that’s what’s next.
Finally, I feel like we should end on place, given that dominates Arcadia alongside the love songs…so, how important was Rome to the creation of the record?
Rome was definitely the most important place for me working on it; I began and ended the record in Rome, spaced exactly a year apart. I travelled the world twice – literally like two laps around the planet – in between with Chairlift. And I think I was always in Rome in my head.
Arcadia is out now via Pannonica, part of the Bella Union family. You can download the title track for free from here. Check out our photo gallery of her first London show (from last night) here.