On the cusp of the release of their newest album, Declan Moran chats with Channy Leanagh of Poliça to discuss double drummers, autotune, and Jay-Z
As a band that relies mainly on its rhythm section, Poliça are a band for whom beats count for a lot. Their 2012 debut, Give You The Ghost, pulses with a lithe and dynamic funk, over which singer Channy Leaneagh’s otherworldly vocals are added in evocative, weirdly altered layers. If your tastes tend more towards B.B. King, you might be pleasantly surprised by this flagrant delight.
Leaneagh puts the band’s R’n’B nous down to their birthplace. “Where we come from in Minneapolis there’s a lot of history. Even though it’s a northern state, kind of like Ireland, on the top of the American map. Prince is from there, and Mint Condition, The Time, and there’s a history of R’n’B and hip-hop.”
This isn’t a band that honed a cover of Purple Rain. Poliça is concerned, first and foremost, with originality. An idea that is simple for Leaneagh. “You don’t want to get the Poliça sound, that’d be a dumb idea. You want to get your own sound.”
This independent-mindedness certainly brings rewards. Eschewing electric guitar left Leaneagh and producer/synth wizard Ryan Olson with an entire sonic midrange to fill with an intricate texture. “As a singer, and the bass player too would say this, when you don’t have a lot of melody lead instruments, the singers are free to just wind all around. I get to do the guitar solos.”
Leaneagh does this sort of vocal extemporisation well, with a bit more mystery than the ‘Great Gig in the Sky’ approach. With a band comprising of two drummers, the opportunites for improvisation become more complicated. “It’s like you’re pretty much playing off of rhythm all the time. So then the leads are kind of syncopation, more dub-influenced singing and delays and all those kind of things.”
The topic of vocals brings up another intriguing part of Poliça’s sound. The artistic use of vocal processing. Leaneagh uses voice alteration to create ethereal harmonies and echoes.
This began with the TC Helicon voice processor, during Leaneagh’s tenure with Midwestern critical darlings Gayngs. “All the singers were using this vocal effect. So I started using that, and when Ryan and I started working on Poliça songs I just automatically turned it on. It was just carrying on what we were excited about, and I was excited about at the time.”
It was a bold move; Leaneagh is an accomplished singer without any gadgetry. Before the band, she fronted the delightful Roma di Luna, playing sweet and airy Americana. If Poliça is the soundtrack to some ominous futuristic cityscape, Roma di Luna is more the sound of Appalachian mountain streams.
She shares that she feels her change in style is a result in her maturation as a vocalist. “I definitely sing a lot differently now than I used to. Even in folk music, because I’m old and the years have been hard on me.”
The shift in register prompted Leaneagh to change her singing technique. Singing through effects is “trying to create a wave that’ll react to the hardware that you’re using. So you’re singing in a different way, and you need to be in tune for both.
“You can be a little bit more out of tune when you’re not using hardware. You can kind of fly around the notes a little bit, and when you’re using hardware you need to be a little more precise.”
Certainly, their distinctive sound is garnering praise in high places. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver described them to Rolling Stone magazine as “the best band I’ve ever heard”, while Jay-Z posted the video to their single ‘Lay Your Cards Out’ on his blog. An appearance at SXSW last year even had The Guardian calling them “the band of the festival.”
Leaneagh is wary about all this praise from different corners of the music industry. “I try to ignore it, I guess. I don’t really know. You don’t want to let it go to your head, nor do you want to take it too seriously or let it guide your career.” Again, there’s a touch of the musical maverick. “Compliments come and go, and you don’t want to follow them.”
Unassuming about her music and describing why Poliça’s tracks have been used to soundtrack fashion shows, Leaneagh casually and swiftly interjects that it’s “something girls can walk down a runway to I guess.”
Leaneagh’s level-headedness is refreshing in a genre where artists get carried away appealing to fans who desire an apathetic star to idolise. There’s no need to worry about Poliça getting carried away with themselves any time soon.
Poliça’s second album, Shulamith, is to be released in autumn of 2013 by Memphis Industries