How Chinatown at Dawn and Beyonce Inspired Chairlift’s New Album, 'Moth'
Courtesy of Columbia Records
It's been ten years since Caroline Polachek and Patrick Wimberly transported their fledgling avant-garde pop group, Chairlift, from the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, to the bustle of the Williamsburg waterfront. The past decade saw the band split with its third member, release a handful of much buzzed-about records, and collaborate with Beyoncé on "No Angel," one of the more elegant tracks from the artist's most recent album. Now based in Greenpoint, and surrounded by a vastly different Brooklyn arts scene, Polachek and Wimberly are set to release a new Chairlift LP for the first time in roughly four years, a project colored by the atmosphere of the city that helped raise them.
"For us, it's more that the [songs] are inspired by the energy of New York City, rather than trying to imitate every sort of genre that could be recognized as New York music," Polachek, who was born in Manhattan and raised largely in Connecticut, tells the Voice. "I've always known that I was going to live in New York, ever since I was a little kid. New York lights a fire under your ass in terms of motivating you and making you work. It's not like other cities where you can be very creative but not have to hustle."
Tracked at a converted pharmaceutical factory near their homes in Brooklyn, Moth — out January 22 on Columbia Records — is the closest the duo has come to creating a mainstream pop album. Resounding yet ethereal, Polachek's voice cascades over Wimberly's densely layered arrangements, producing something that's melodic, hook-driven, and exceedingly danceable. And even though Chairlift's rise to prominence is often linked to a kitschy iPod Nano ad featuring one of the group's early singles, the new record, in many ways, feels like a conscious departure from the strange, Eighties-influenced synthpop that dominated much of 2008's Does You Inspire You and 2012's Something.
Today, Chairlift credit Beyoncé with expanding their definition of what pop music can mean. Beyoncé's younger sister, Solange, had been a Chairlift fan since the early Aughts; she fell in love with their dazed, mid-tempo single "Planet Health" almost eight years ago and later collaborated with Wimberly for a performance at the MoMA. Taking a break from working in the studio — and actively searching for a fresh source of inspiration — Beyoncé came out to the show and wound up asking the duo to pen a track for her new record, a project still cloaked in secrecy at the time. Released without warning in the winter of 2013, the self-titled album would also feature songwriting credits from the likes of Frank Ocean, Sia, Justin Timberlake, and Miguel, among others.
"It made a big impression on the writing of this record because it made us realize how open the world of pop music is right now," explains Polachek, who released a solo album under the moniker Ramona Lisa in 2014. "It's funny, because the only instruction that we were given was to not write for Beyoncé. In general, I think that people aren't interested in repeating themselves and aren't interested in formulas. Change is an exciting thing.
"It sort of made us leave all our preconceived notions of what we were making behind," she adds. "These different worlds are colliding."
And worlds do indeed collide on Moth. The album art features a glowing silhouette of the Manhattan skyline, and Polachek and Wimberly say they were inspired by the many juxtapositions found while living in the five boroughs, the stark contrast of hypermodern skyscrapers standing next to rows of dilapidated, "Third World–looking" buildings. The album's title — taken from the infectious anthem "Moth to the Flame" — is meant to symbolize the "innocence and vulnerability" that comes with being "a soft thing in a hard place" like New York City; the band count Moth as their most exposed and introspective project to date.
"This is our most personal record, so I guess New York did a lot of the work for us," Polachek explains. "For this record we wanted each music video to dramatize a different environment of New York — all of the different places that we walk through and that we know — and to sort of shine a light on them in our own way."
In the weeks leading up to the release of Moth, Chairlift debuted videos for "Ch-Ching" and "Romeo," two of the LP's strongest cuts. Choreographed by Jamaican dancehall guru Korie Genius, the "Ch-Ching" clip features Polachek draped in a flowing orange shawl, winding her body frenetically through some of New York's most industrial-looking expanses. For "Romeo" — a song inspired by Greek mythology's Atalanta — Polachek is seen sprinting her way through the tortuous streets of Chinatown after dark, singing longingly into the camera from behind the bangs of a black wig. In the story of Atalanta, the heroine agrees to marry whichever man can beat her in a footrace, only to murder those who lose with the blade of her spear. "I'm gonna run till you give me a reason to stop," Polachek promises, chasing her lover down shadowy avenues and alleyways.
"The night that we filmed that music video will probably go down as one of my coolest memories ever," Wimberly says. "Being there and seeing the passing of the full night in Chinatown is just kind of bizarre and a really special thing to experience, because it doesn't ever actually shut down. There's all this activity going on in the different hours of the night. It's a beautiful thing. And then we saw the sun come up and the city come back to life. There's nothing like that."
Back in 2006, when Chairlift were still finding their footing in New York, every self-professed indie band seemed to be making Brooklyn its adopted home, cashing in on the impending hipsterization of Williamsburg, Bushwick, and beyond. Today, on the verge of releasing their third studio album, and having rooted themselves firmly in the Brooklyn arts scene, Polachek and Wimberly have turned New York into not only Chairlift's home base but also the band's primary muse.
"Obviously [Brooklyn] has changed a lot. I think a lot of artists have said it's dead and it's over, but really it's what you make of it," Polachek explains. "After you've lived here for ten years it starts to feel like home. We feel like we've carved out our own way of living here."
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