Brooklyn synthpop-cum-R&B duo Chairlift is barreling full steam ahead, firing on all cylinders. In the last three years, Caroline Polachek (vocals, synths, drum machines, arrangements) and Patrick Wimberly (drums, bass, keyboard, guitar, backing vocals) have simultaneously collaborated with several other musicians — most notably Beyoncé — worked on a solo record and written and recorded their third album, Moth, released in January. Perhaps it’s no surprise Moth features a Greek-mythology-inspired running song.
This week, Chairlift played three shows in three days at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival. Today is their travel and rest day, followed by three more shows in three days in California, capped with a show at The Independent Monday. But on Wednesday morning, Polachek and Wimberly were facing more pressing matters as they awoke early to talk about Moth, coffee in hand.
“I just want you to know that as we chat, I’m making chilaquiles for everyone,” Polachek said, deep in the bowels of their temporary Austin abode. “A lot of important things going on over here.”
Moth is the duo’s most adventurous album to date and the farthest they have strayed from their roots of minimalist “Bruises,” the song from 2008 debut Does You Inspire You, which Apple picked for an iPod commercial and first raised Chairlift to the national consciousness.
The genesis of the record, which the two refer to as its groove, began when they concluded the tour for 2012’s sophomore album Something. Polachek, 30, temporarily moved to Montreal to clear her head. Within two months they were ready to write again, and Wimberly, 32, had found an ideal studio that he built from the ground up, a former pharmaceutical factory. That’s when Beyoncé’s team reached out to them with a request for a song that would end up on her 2013 self-titled surprise album.
Suddenly, their album was on hold for several weeks while they worked out of Beyoncé’s studio in Chelsea. The duo wrote several songs together as well as individually for Queen Bey before returning to work on their own record. Beyoncé later recorded “No Angel,” for which both received writing and production credits.
Meanwhile, Wimberly was still mixing and producing other artists, and Polachek was halfway through what would become her debut solo album under the moniker Ramona Lisa, a collection of earnest love songs.
“That was a really crazy time for us,” she said. “It was at that point that we got our groove with writing. In the past, we had written conceptually. This time, with all our gear in the actual space where the record was going to be recorded, we started improvising more than we’d ever done before. We started using beats as a foundation for songwriting instead of melody and chorus, which was new for us.”
Everything that came before Moth went on to influence it, which is par for the course for Chairlift. The studio experimentation led to new sonic arrangements that incorporated strings to songs like “Ottawa to Osaka” and horns to lead single “Ch-Ching” and elsewhere. As Wimberly explains, the addition of brass instruments was a happy coincidence after he ran into a college buddy in New York.
“We used to have a jazz quartet about 10 years ago. I played vibraphone and he played saxophone,” he said. “We gigged several nights a week when we were in college. I hadn’t seen him in eight or nine years. One day we got together as an experiment. Half of it was I wanted to try out some new microphones we were using, and I wanted to hang out and show him the studio. On that day we recorded all the horns we used on ‘Ch-Ching.’ It became something we kept on coming back to.”
The friend, Danny Meyer, will join Chairlift on tour playing sax, along with a guitarist, turning the live band into a quartet. “Ch-Ching” most clearly marks the duo’s directional shift to R&B and heavy hip-hop influence, with syncopated beats, rough bassline and the aforementioned horns. Polachek, targeting the misdirection of arrogance, sings, “Getting what you want can be dangerous, but it’s the only way I want it to be.”
Both Polachek and Wimberly grew up listening to R&B and hip-hop; everyone from Janet Jackson and Destiny’s Child to Busta Rhymes. On Moth, they wanted to capture the essence of their New York City, and associated that music with their city.
“Almost all of these (Moth) songs; their first little breath of life (came) when we established what the groove was,” Wimberly said.
The album’s other pillar is “Romeo,” the running song with lyrics inspired by the ancient Greek mythology tale of Atalanta, who outran all suitors for her hand in marriage, who were then killed, until one cheated to beat her.
“Romeo” is one of four album tracks that came out of an assignment the duo gave themselves to write one song per day for one week. It differs, however, in one important way.
“All of the other songs came from (Polachek’s) personal experiences, and that one stands out on the record as more of a storytelling song,” Wimberly said. Once the hook, with a deeply distorted synth and racing bassline was recorded, the two knew they had a running song. Because had no personal running experience to write about, Polachek looked for inspiration.
“All the best stories already existed in Greek mythology; that seemed like the most elemental place to start looking for lyrics,” she said.
The song, which shares the pure pop wrapped in barbed wire aesthetics of Grimes’ “Flesh without Blood,” as well as “Ch-Ching,” are just half of the album’s push-pull dynamic. They are the supercilious, over-confident statements, while much of the rest of the album deals with Polachek’s vulnerability on tracks like “Crying in Public” and “Moth to the Flame,” the de facto album vision.
The duo has described their current spirit animal as a metaphor for something that is both vulnerable yet determined by flying right at the light, even to its death. They wanted to make something both exposed and honest.
Polachek had already started down that path with her Ramona Lisa album, on which she wrote confessional love songs that were shrouded in allegory. She wanted to open up even more on Moth.
“I wanted to continue writing songs that were more personal, but remove the distance and need for metaphors,” she said. “It was a challenge to see how much of myself I could put out on the table; how much of my own life I could expose.”
Follow editor Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.