Nine Songs: Poliça
The key songs in Channy Leaneagh’s life are as unexpected as they are diverse, yet they’re all connected by a common thread - the power of memory and transition.
As we grow up and grow older and wiser, we remember the music we first fell in love with. How it shaped us, how we wish to revisit and become inspired by it all over again. As an artist who has been a covers singer, collaborated with a string ensemble on Music for the Long Emergency with s t a r g a z e, as well as fronting Poliça, Leaneagh’s musical discovery has seen her move through distinct but connected genres of music.
When we meet in London, she explains her musical initiation started with Gospel and Folk, a staple of her family home when she was growing up. “My dad was a songwriter and my parents were very religious. We listened to people that had finely crafted their sound or had a gospel tradition, like Joni Mitchell, Tracy Chapman or Aretha Franklin’s live album Amazing Grace. Those records are kind of my childhood.”
As a teenager Leaneagh made her own tentative steps into discovering her own musical identity, where watching the film Love Jones would prove to be a pivotal part of her musical education. “It started when I was 14 or 15, when I got into R&B. I had my own job and I had the ability to get music, instead of the past when I was listening to the stuff my Father was playing.”
She met her husband Ryan Olsen when she joined his twenty-five strong collective, Gayngs, that included Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon amongst their alumni. From there, Poliça was born, completed by Chris Bierden, Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson. They released their fifth record When We Stay Alive in January, that saw the five-piece moving on from their project with s t a r g a z e but learning some key lessons in the process, that refined the subtleties in their creative collaboration.
Leaneagh is refreshingly honest about her anxieties, and as we talk through these songs she returns to the nitty gritty of her own life. As well as falling off a roof during the making of When We Stay Alive, she had to leave her children at home for the first time to go on tour in Europe. Leaneagh explains that a coping mechanism she’s discovered is maintaining a strict diet of drinking cabbage juice, to help to ease the pain of the stomach ulcer she’s developed from the stress of leaving them.
To discuss the timeline of her musical life is discover her shift in tastes, and the moments that define Poliça’s sound to what it is today.
“I grew up listening to The Soul Stirrers, which was the band Sam Cooke was in before he went solo. I used to listen to their music in the mornings when my Dad would put it on.
“My Dad influenced my writing style quite a bit. He was a songwriter too, so I think about the wisdom that he passed down to me about ‘What’s a good song?’ and ‘What isn’t a good song? I felt instructed by him - as well as my other music teachers when I was growing up - to not add any filler words to your music; ‘Unless it’s worth that space, then don’t write it.’
“At one point in the beginning of my career I was known as a cover singer and “Bring It On Home To Me” was a song that got requested a lot. People were drawn to it and it has this heartache with a gospel feel. It’s one of the songs that starts right at the beginning of my timeline.”
“I’ve always been drawn to singers and songs where you can choke up and get that choking feeling, where you feel goose bumps and emote so strongly that an electrical charge comes to your heart.
“I first felt that intense feeling at church and I associate it with that. Even though I don’t practice religion anymore, as I lean more towards atheism I believe more in that connectivity of spiritualism, that we are ‘something’. There’s a spiritual connection that’s like a shiver down your spine and the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up.
“I feel that when a big choir is singing or a few people are harmonising perfectly. I can relate it to a traditional flamenco singer; they have a genuine sound where you can feel it’s from a different time and there’s a connection from somewhere deep down. You really feel that sound and can connect to it, even if it's unexplainable. The human experience overall has this sort of bridge, I don’t understand it, but I feel it.
“What’s so amazing about “Mary, Don’t You Weep” is listening to it as a live version from the album Amazing Grace, I really feel it inside of me. The small vocal imperfections and the small cracks in the voice that you can hear so clearly make it so authentic and lovely. I still go back to those older records; I was just in my room feeling a bit ungrounded and I tend to revisit these older tracks to gain a sense of reality again.
“There's also the Aretha Franklin film Amazing Grace. I watched it on the plane and ended up reconnecting with it. It made me think of my children and what their experience would be of hearing it for the first time.”
“There’s a deep connection when it comes to Joni Mitchell. I’ve covered “River” quite a bit and I feel that everyone can relate to that song, it’s heart-breaking and a perfect holiday song without meaning to be. I also love “Free Man in Paris”, I really love the melody of that song.
“With “Free Man In Paris” the lyrics are so powerful. When I was growing up and feeling those feelings of being loved, it helped me to build a framework to write something which is deep and has meaning - this idea of burying your soul - and Joni Mitchell is a great example of that.
“The idea of burying your soul always comes back to me when you’re putting a record out. Maybe you get some bad press and then you begin to question ‘Why am I even doing this?’ It’s this feeling of being vulnerable and letting yourself go, the same way that Tracy Chapman does, I can really relate to that.”
“As well as Joni Mitchell’s records, Tracy Chapman was also on in the house all the time. They were like a background noise and I sang those songs repeatedly. My Dad had “Fast Car” on a cassette, but I love the idea of owning and seeing physical records, I really connect to being able to physically hold a record and see it in its truest form.
“I would have been around three or four years old during that time. I loved the story that Tracy Chapman was a street busker in Chicago, and she was homeless. I was fascinated by that as a child. Her story was intriguing, and you can feel that in the way she sings.”
“The Sweetest Thing” is from a movie called Love Jones. I was obsessed with that film and I wanted to discover all the incredible music that was from it.
“This was also at the point where I was experiencing music in many different ways; I would go out dancing, just feel to it and I was going to way more parties than I do now. By the time college came I was studying hard and playing classical violin. I studied in South Dakota and it was different, it was a really small town and I wanted to get away. There were no clubs there and I was in a hermit period of my life.
“I really loved the movie at the time and the whole ‘90s R&B sound and songs in my teens up until my twenties. Strangely enough, that’s the sort of sound Ryan doesn’t like. When it comes to Poliça it’s this meeting in the middle of my heavy influence of folk and ‘90s R&B and the rest of Poliça. In his teens Chris was listening to his own strange collection of pop hits - which he doesn’t listen to at all now - whereas Drew, Ben and Ryan were more into the harder stuff, hardcore punk and ‘90s rap. So Poliça became a blending of the sweet and harsh, a mixing of genres.”
“Amel Larrieux was on the Love Jones soundtrack. This was the moment I first started buying my own music with a Colombia house membership. It worked how the old Netflix did, renting CDs and getting them in the post, you’d pick a genre, discover it by yourself and it was exciting. That was the first time I was discovering everything by myself.
“I worked at a bagel store and I got a CD player for the holidays. I was able to explore my own tastes and interests and Amel Larrieux was someone I gravitated to, because it was this modern interpretation of R&B. At the time people were sampling Joni Mitchell and Tracy Chapman, on one record that I listened to “Fast Car” was sampled. There was a lot of that going on in terms of what I was listening to and coming back full circle
“I met Ryan and he was doing his project with Gayngs, he saw me singing a Sam Cooke song in a club in Minneapolis, which was how he was first introduced to my voice. He asked me to be in Gayngs and I was introduced to whole array of genres that I’d never heard of or experienced before, but Amel Larrieux was that pivotal moment of self-discovery and full autonomy over the music I was seeking out.
“I ended up seeing her in a club in Minneapolis and it was really small, crowded venue. Everyone was sweaty and I was captivated by her. As I began to get older her music has influenced me more, her record Infinite Possibilities and the song "Sweet Misery" on that record really inspired me.”
“One of my favourite songs lyrically, that I’ve listened to over and over again and put on at parties to be awkward is “Changing Opinion” from Phillip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days.
“Coming out of doing a collaborative record with a string ensemble, I liked how Phillip Glass put a theme out for the musicians. The lyrics have parameters to follow - this repetitive melody that appears throughout the record. An assignment that the lyricist has to follow was the sort of idea Ryan had when he asked others to do that for Gayngs. It’s like a jumbled up, school-type of assignment to see what would come out.
“I discovered “Changing Opinion” through a random internet search; you know how it is getting into an internet wormhole, I ended up listening to it on repeat and I really got into it. I loved how beautifully the lyrics melded into the music, but they’re also very dense and describe the story really well. The way it’s done makes me feel really uplifted, whilst also feeling the heartache in his voice. There’s a lot of music where the story and the music almost sit on different levels and you can separate them but here they’re weaved together as one, which I find really interesting.
“I like the way with classical music, especially modern classical, that there’s a variation of a theme and multiple people trying to do different things. You can compare one to another and solve it like a math problem in a way.”
“We played this song at our wedding, right at the end of the ceremony. We had this crash and burn, theatrical ceremony which involved us doing all the different ceremonies that we could think of, like hitting a wine bottle over a boat, a tea ceremony and all this wow stuff.
“We didn’t do the whole ‘I Do’ thing, but as it ended we played “Our Wedding.” We played a bunch of stuff and the last song we played, the outro, was also by Crass, “Berketex Bribe” from Penis Envy. “Our Wedding” is the final track on that album and it’s kind of mocking the idea of marriage and the establishment.
“Crass became a big part of Poliça and touring. As I didn’t really know about Crass before and had little knowledge of Punk music until I started touring with the band, the guys would play me all sorts of music, including Crass. So Penis Envy as a record had a big impact on me and having my Punk face in my twenties!”
“At present, I predominantly listen to instrumental music. I’m doing the bands taxes’ right now and you need to focus on numbers, so I can’t listen to vocals because I get easily distracted.
“I really enjoyed the soundtrack to Chernobyl. I watched the TV series first, and ‘enjoying’ is probably the wrong word for it, but it’s something that’s hard-hitting. It’s fucked up, but the story, the acting, and being able to educate myself on the disaster made me love it.
“Sometimes when you’re writing you don’t want to be too influenced by artists and listening to their words, so I listened to this soundtrack a lot. We used to play it before shows too, to give a different vibe to the room before we came on.
"Music drives narrative, so I wanted to discover the soundtrack in my own time. I love instrumental music that feels like it’s cleaning your brain. and that soundtrack allowed me to focus. I keep returning to it all the time.”