None other than Bon Iver folk superhero Justin Vernon has declared this bunch his favorite band in the world, and at last weekend’s Dour festival, electro pop duo Poliça added a few festivalgoers to their fan list with a captivating performance. Their charm owes a lot to the bewitching voice of the lovely Channy Leaneagh and after the gig we had a chat with the frontwoman about debut record ‘Give You the Ghost’, the joys of being a back-up singer and the close-knit Minneapolis music scene.
You just released your debut album with Poliça earlier this year. How did the project start?
It started from a relationship that was created when I was a singer in another band called Gayngs. The producer and I knew each other and each saw how the other worked, and I asked him if he would help me build some songs that I was working on. He decided that it might be better if we just tried to work with some beats that he already had. So he gave me 11 tracks to play with and the first time we just got together in his bedroom studio (he records a lot of people in Minneapolis in his bedroom) it was really hot, the same time of year as now, really late at night, and I would just listen to the tracks and sing over them and it really rocked. I just followed my first instinct. Then I went on tour with Gayngs for two weeks and we met again when I was back and polished the songs. At that point, we didn’t quite know what it was going to be: just a project, an experiment? But once we got those 11 songs done it was really clear to Ryan Olson, the producer, that we needed these specific drummers and this specific bass player… and that we needed to form a band. He had quite a big vision for the live performance and I was quite new to electronic music. I was kind of under his mentorship.
So it was quite different from Gayngs?
Gayngs is slow rock, basically – a bit electronic, and it had 25 people in it. It was a collaborative project. Justin Vernon was in it, that’s where I met him, and that’s also where I learned how to use the helicon and sing. It was my first time in a band.
Did you start Poliça because you found back-up singing too boring and wanted to do something more creative?
No, Gayngs was coming to an end. I absolutely love backup singing, it’s a great way to try out a lot of stuff that you cannot do in the front. You can just play with harmonies and also just learn from people and listen. But when you’re the frontwoman you need to be a leader and have a vision for the band. With Gayngs I could just sit back and blend in and observe.
So Justin Vernon calls you his new favorite band. How does that feel?
Oh, I’m sure he has a new favorite band now. He has to. He comes from the same music community as us and we’ve worked together quite a bit. Strangely enough I opened for him five years ago with a folk band when the first Bon Iver record came out. But I didn’t know him then. One of my drummers went to high school with him and my producer is from Eau Claire just like Justin. So it didn’t come as a complete surprise. He’s someone we look up to.
Do you think it helped you to be part of this music community?
Yes, it’s very helpful. It’s a community where someone like Ryan Olson exists who, as a producer, picks out people that he wants to work with and sees their potential. When I broke up with my previous band I was planning on not touring anymore and going back to school, but he sort of picked me up and helped me realise I should be performing and gave me confidence. It’s a very supportive scene, a scene where everyone works really hard and it’s a viable job – you can make a living being a musician part-time and working another job.
Your band name is Polish. Do you have a Polish background?
No, not at all. When I was naming this band it was the same experience as naming my child. It’s quite similar – you bring a lot of different names to the baby’s father and he’ll be like ‘No, I don’t like it’ and you debate back and forth and finally I found Poliça. It just fits the mood and has this musicality.
When I saw you play it reminded me a bit of Portishead. Who are your influences?
I listened to a lot of Portishead in high school. I love Frank Ocean, lots of old soul singers like Donny Hathaway and Etta James. A lot of gypsy singers, also. Just people who really use their voice. Like Justin Vernon for example, he really pushes his voice to this very emotional level and brings things out of people, brings emotions out by the way he sings. That’s hard to pull off.
If singing is something so emotional for you, is it difficult to pull it off at every single gig?
I’m pretty quiet in normal life and kind of subdued. So it almost seems like I save all this energy for the stage and I try to approach it differently each night. I try to have a balance between being emotional and in control, or just on the verge of being out of control. And to feel the music like the very first time I heard it. Really feel it and to be in the moment.
Do you prefer to play at festivals or in clubs?
I used to not like festivals. The soundcheck is always really quick, you drive forever, and you just want to clean up but all you have is a porta-potty – oh man! So I usually don’t dress up at festivals. But now I’m over it and just enjoy myself. I really love all the music.
Did you discover any other exciting bands?
Yes, last night I saw Yeasayer, that was really great. And I saw Bon Iver. But my band is much more knowledgable about modern music so they take me to gigs and tell me which bands I have to see.
What has been your favorite so far?
Last night at Latitude, Bon Iver was really the best I’ve ever seen him. I think it was because there are no sound restrictions and it was so loud and powerful and the lights were going… it just sounded amazing. And I really fell in love with Yeasayer yesterday. They are so good.