Channy Leaneagh: my first band died but Poliça is an amazing job

Debut came together in two weeks, with the Gayngs man who recruited her staying at home to pull the strings. 'Compromise can make the worst decisions,' they tell us

142 Rue de Montmartre is a fairly innocuous-looking building on a fairly innocuous-looking Parisian street. There's no facade, no neon logo, no clue as to what happens inside; just a black wall with a door, next to a 24-hour supermarket on one side and a key cutters on the other. It's basically a multicoloured beaded door curtain away from looking like a Soho sex shop. What it is, in fact, is Silencio: Paris's first private members club, designed by David Lynch, and based on the club that appears in his 2001 cinematic headfuck, Mulholland Drive.

"We are a very long way from home," whispers Poliça frontwoman Channy Leaneagh, surveying her surroundings from a stage framed in gold and bookended by blood red velvet drapes. She means it literally – she lives in Minneapolis – but also metaphorically. Just over a year ago, Channy and her band (bass player Chris Bierden and drummers Ben Ivascu and Drew Christopherson) barely knew each other; Bon Iver was yet to call them the best band he'd ever heard; SXSW had yet to fall completely in love with them; and Jay-Z hadn't premiered one of their videos on his blog.

Recorded in just two weeks and written instinctively following the demise of Channy's marriage, Poliça's debut album Give You The Ghost is a sometimes violent near-celebration of the end of something monumental, all wrapped up in guazy, claustrophobic post-rock R&B. It's not hugely surprising that the lyric Channy couldn't get out of her head when writing the album was "don't fuck with me, don't fuck with me" from Jai Paul's BTSTU; that track's similar mix of fragility and aggression is at the core of Poliça songs Form and the crushing Happy Be Fine.

"It sort of makes me feel vulnerable and maybe embarrassed to sing those songs, but it was a really dark time in my life," Channy says, enjoying a cocktail before the show. "I was feeling pretty shitty and very sad, so I think that although these songs aren't necessarily biographical it's more the feeling of being confused about who is the enemy and who is the victim and really wishing that the person you've hurt would just kick you in the face so that you could maybe even things out a little bit." Blimey.

The split was compounded by the fact that Channy and her husband, local musician Alexei Moon Casselle, were also both in Roma Di Luna, a successful folk band that grew out of the pair's early days spent busking in Minneapolis. "We started the band in 2006 and during that time I had a baby," she explains. "That meant our marriage became the band, and it was my first time being in a band and my first time being married." As their success grew, the band's dynamic shifted. "My husband was always more of the performer. I toured with him, I drove and sold merch. Then all of sudden more and more I was becoming the frontperson. It was a strange switch in roles and it sort of screwed things up a little bit."

As the relationship and the band were coming to an end, Channy was encouraged to work with local maverick Ryan Olson who was assembling a troupe of musicians – 25 to be exact – for his latest project, Gayngs. Olson had been a fan of Channy's for a while and was keen to get her to add backing vocals to the album he was masterminding. Having been pushed to the front with her old band to the detriment of her marriage, she jumped at the chance to fade into the background. "It was a place where I could learn a lot and not really be noticed," she says. "I remember some guys would be like, 'Oh, is Channy still in the band?' It was a place for me to slip back and observe."

'We got stuck in the snow in the mountains in Colorado… There was no phone service. The guys all pushed and I was just sat crying in the corner. It was scary'

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But Olson had other ideas. "I was singing a lot of back-up in Gayngs and then he said, 'I want you to sing this song by yourself.' I think he knows when people are ready for things and who they fit well with." Encouraging Channy to start a new band, he played her some old beats he'd made that hadn't ever come to anything. Channy picked her favourite 12 and started writing melodies, instinctively coming up with lyrics in his tiny studio-cum-living room. Having recorded using a vocal processor called a Helicon 5 in Gayngs, Channy was keen to continue experimenting with it, it's ghostly effect giving her songs a strange otherworldliness.

Much has been made of the use of vocal effects on Poliça songs and Channy bristles slightly when I suggest that the vocals become another instrument rather than something to sing along to. She sighs: "I don't pronounce my words when I'm singing. I'm not a singer-songwriter. But the lyrics are so important because they help me have the right emotion on stage."

Give You The Ghost was written and recorded during a heatwave and mainly at night, a clammy, nocturnal feel seeping into the fabric of the songs. "The album's night as hell for sure," the laconic Olson tells me from his home in Minnesota (he doesn't travel with the band and rarely gives interviews). "Channy would come over at about 9pm and she'd stay until about 2am, which for her is like being up for 48 hours. She's definitely a mum, and I'm trying to stay as sterile as humanly possible." Once the framework for the songs was finished, Olson personally hand-picked the rest of the band, selecting local musicians he admired. It was his decision to not include a guitarist because he reckons they're "just embarrassing".

With gigs booked almost immediately, there was little time for Channy, Chris, Ben and Drew to get to know each other. When did they start to feel like a proper band of friends? "Definitely when we got stuck in the snow in the mountains in Colorado on the way to a show," Channy remembers. "We were hugging each other, like 'Oh my God, we survived!' We had to push the van out and there was no phone service. The guys all pushed and I was just sat crying in the corner. It was scary."

In many ways, Poliça are a manufactured band, assembled by a svengali-like figure who gets final say on videos and sends his devotees off to tour the world while he stays at home. "I think it's helpful," Olson says of his governing role. "There's a thing that can happen in bands where compromise can make the worst decisions, where no one's happy." So, is Channy happy? She finishes her cocktail with one last slurp. "It's an amazing job," she beams. "The other day I danced for 12 hours to shoot a music video. I was like, 'What kind of job is this?' It's crazy."


Michael Cragg

The GuardianTramp

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