Minneapolis indie outfit Poliça are moving out of the shadows of some of their famous connections and taking on the world on their own terms. Frontwoman Channy Leaneagh talks to Cyclone about tackling new frontiers.
Bon Iver's Justin Vernon created his own alt-R&B by manipulating Auto-Tune for Woods, impressing Kanye West. Now Minneapolis' Poliça, Laneway-bound this summer, have taken things even further. Their stunning debut, Give You The Ghost, transforms contemporary synthy R&B into a digital miasma, evoking Aaliyah's doomy techno-soul. And Poliça have made fans of Vernon (“They're the best band I've ever heard,” he lauded to Rolling Stone), Kanye and Jay-Z.
Poliça frontwoman Channy Leaneagh, a sometime violinist, previously led the folk-rock Roma di Luna. She joined producer Ryan Olson's Gayngs – the not so trad R&B supergroup, of which Vernon is a member, behind 2010's Relayted – and Poliça evolved out of her experimenting with him on the side. Moreover, much of the material on Give You The Ghost was written about the break-up of her marriage to Roma di Luna's Alexei Casselle (they have a three-year-old daughter). Despite Leaneagh's rootsy background, Give You The Ghost is steeped in avant-garde '90s R&B.
“That is a big influence of mine,” Leaneagh affirms. “I've listened to it a lot. That's probably one of the things that wasn't even intentional. I think if you listen to somebody enough it'll kinda be a part of your vocabulary and the way you instinctually sing.” She is “a big fan of Frank Ocean” and rates The Weeknd's illwave House Of Balloons, but also listens to vintage R&B – Etta James, Sam Cooke and Donny Hathaway. Plus Leaneagh loves world music, especially Asian, having briefly volunteered in Cambodia.
Key to Poliça's sound is Leaneagh's use of Auto-Tune. Ironically, just as a backlash to the widespread commercial co-option of the pitch correction technology was gaining momentum, artists like James Blake showed that it could be harnessed for innovative and futurist soul.
“The purpose is not to make the voice more in tune,” Leaneagh reveals, “it sort of distorts it in a certain way that kind of smoothens it out into an instrument, more than just a vocal performance.”
Poliça has morphed into a full band with bassist Chris Bierden and dual drummers Drew Christopherson and Ben Ivascu, though the newcomers have limited artistic input. Still, the response to Give... has taken Leaneagh by surprise. “I've never had a project like this that people liked so much – and I've never toured this much.” Poliça dazzled at this year's SXSW and, stepping in for Tom Waits, performed the gothic Leading To Death, not Dark Star, on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon – adventurous programming. “That was a really good experience. Everybody who works in the sound crew are all really nice.”
Poliça's success has called Gayngs' future into question.
“I think for all intents or purposes, it'll probably become something different than how people saw it before,” Leaneagh admits. “It really is like a project or a collective and a crew. Maybe someday in the future something else will come out of it, but it won't be the same line-up or the same kinda direction.”
Poliça aren't the first Minneapolis act to subvert the R&B idiom – Prince did that back in the '80s with songs like When Doves Cry. Prince reportedly once witnessed Gayngs live at First Avenue, yet Leaneagh has had no direct encounters. “I just saw him in the green room – and that's it,” she says tantalisingly.
Poliça are formidable live. “Our live show is pretty similar sounding to the record,” says Leaneagh, who manoeuvres effects pedals for her voice. “It's just pretty heavy on the vocals and the drums. But usually people say that it sounded a lot like the record with a lot more intensity. So it's a lot more emotionally and kinda physically intense.”
Poliça will be playing the following shows:
Friday 1 February - Laneway Festival, RNA Showgrounds, Brisbane QLD
Saturday 2 February - Laneway Festival, SCA, Sydney NSW
Sunday 3 February - Laneway Festival, Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne VIC
Monday 4 February - Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC
Tuesday 5 February - Oxford Art Factory, Sydney NSW
Friday 8 February - Fowler's Live & UNISA City West Campus, Adelaide SA
Saturday 9 February - Laneway Festival, Perth Cultural Centre, Perth WA