The Metamorphosis of Caroline Polachek

In December 2008, when Caroline Polachek, then a member of the indie-pop group Chairlift, opened for Vampire Weekend at the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon, it was by far the biggest show she had ever played. “I was terrified,” says Polachek. Nearly 15 years later, it’s one of the smallest rooms she played on her solo headlining tour in support of her critically acclaimed latest album, Desire I Want to Turn Into You. Still, it was one of the most special.

“The crowd both nights was just completely feral,” Polachek tells VF over Zoom. “People were even talking about it on Twitter the next day, like, What the fuck is wrong with Portland audiences? But I loved it. The energy was really, really crazy.”

I first meet Polachek in late March, for breakfast in New York’s East Village, a month after the release of her sophomore album under her real name and a month before the US leg of the Spiraling Tour is set to kick off. Sitting across from me, sipping an iced coffee with oat milk, Polachek wears a gray sweatshirt that aptly reads: “Your time as a caterpillar has expired…Your Wings Are Ready.” Polachek’s recent evolution from supporting act to headliner seems to match that sentiment. She’s been touring consistently since August of 2021, after the pandemic delayed the tour for her 2019 album, Pang, and she opened for Dua Lipa during last year’s Future Nostalgia tour. She admits that’s something that has been “really tough” on her personal life and sense of home. “I take solace in knowing it’ll never happen again,” says Polachek of the grueling schedule. “But at the same time, I don’t regret it at all. I feel like I’ve learned so much.” For one, she doesn’t find herself experiencing pre-tour jitters. “After you’re on the road for a while, you just get used to it and it just feels normal,” she says. “Thankfully, I don’t have to go through that sort of recalibration process.”

Nonetheless, there is a process to bring the music to 22 cities across the country. There are choreography and production rehearsals and meetings with her musical director, plus vocal training, mood boarding for styling, and the list goes on. “I love the business of all of it. These bizarre environments that fully exist backstage,” says Polachek. “I love all the lingo and all the technicality and the walkie-talkies and the kind of sense of family inclusion and all the tension that builds.”

Though Polachek, 38, has a quiet confidence about her, before the tour even begins, she is already fixated on what she can improve. “I feel very strongly that the devil is in the details,” says Polachek. A string of shows in the UK and Europe have given her a peek at what the rest of the tour can be, and she wants to push herself to get it there. She will “go back into the lab” to tinker with elements of the show, like her body language, visual cues, set list, and transitions, until she gets them just right. “The way you want things to feel and what you want them to mean goes all the way down to the tiniest details,” she adds.

This all culminates on the last date of the US tour, in late May, before she begins the festival circuit this summer. Before the performance, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, two large screens on either side of the stage project prophecies such as “the earthly cord was cut, and we are orphans in the universe” and “lightning is no longer a moralizing missile,” like a postmodern megachurch. The set, mountainous and hazy, welcomes you to her island with warm, pulsating colors that look like those of the sun setting on another planet. Emerging from the fog, Polachek, wearing custom Acne Studios, launches into a performance that is both fluid and exact all at once, much like her music. Her strength, both physical and mental, is on full display as she moves through the set list. But it’s the precision of her voice on tracks like “Crude Drawing of an Angel” that puts the audience in a trance. “I never thought I’d get to play this stage,” says Polachek while getting emotional between songs. “I’m so grateful.”

When we speak again, over Zoom in late June, Polachek is in her hotel room in Cork, Ireland. She has been on the road for almost 10 weeks, and that night she will open for the 1975. After surrendering her production over to audiences (“The crowd carries you so much. I’ll feel completely dead walking out onstage, and then the second you see the crowd, it’s like, bam, a light switches on.”) across the world, how does she feel now? “It’s the kind of tour I’ve always dreamed of having,” says Polachek of the community and catharsis that her shows help to foster. “I stopped trying to anticipate when things would be good or not and just let it happen,” she continues. “Sometimes when you go into something knowing, Well, tonight’s going to be a bit of a write-off, you somehow give yourself permission to be a bit freer somehow.” Like a living, breathing thing, the show evolved, and with time, so did Polachek. But she adds: “It’s like playing a video game that you’ve played before. You start to really learn how to hug the curves of the racetrack.”

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