Caroline Polachek can relate to the current funny TV commercial in which a squabbling dinner-table family is calmed by Kraft cheese and the serene sounds of Celtic thrush Enya’s classic “Only Time.”
A rambunctious imp growing up in Tokyo, then Greenwich, Connecticut, she was soothed only when her parents played Enya records.
“It’s a true story. Enya was just essential, and that music is therapeutic for people. That’s why they feel an intense personal connection with her,” says the ex-Chairlift anchor, who in October released a vocal tour de force of her own, her first solo album “Pang,” which she’ll promote in The City this week. “I never thought about it as being healing at the time, but I definitely associated her with adults, like, ‘Oh, this is what grownups listen to!’ It was a vision of adulthood that I was very down with.”
That’s when Polachek, now based in Los Angeles, began to realize she heard and saw the world uniquely. She took up synthesizer, joined the school choir, began drawing and eventually formed the alt-rocking Chairlift at the University of Colorado before relocating to New York.
After she and bandmate Patrick Wimberly parted company in 2017, she went on to compose fashion runway music, score music for the Dutch National Ballet, croon on songs by Sbtrkt, Blood Orange and Charli XCX, and do intricate covers like The Corrs’ “Breathless” and Everything But the Girl’s “Missing.” She was also so inspired by the soundtrack to Lars Von Triers’ “Antichrist,” she decided to study opera, and looked up her choir-days vocal coach Pamela Kuhn, with whom she continues to study. “She taught me about bringing my honesty and bravery into singing, which is what it requires,” she says.
Her layered, often acrobatic performance on “Pang” is so polished that critics have mistaken it for Auto-Tune, which she finds endlessly amusing. Only two tracks deliberately feature Vocoder, she adds — the Enya-ethereal “Go As a Dream” and the bouncy, wah-oohed single “You’re So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.”
“But I’m not perfect,” says Polachek, who is planning two diverse concept albums. “If you were to take my vocals in to a pitch analyzer, you would see that I’m very often out of tune.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Independent, 628 Divisadero St., S.F.
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31
Tickets: $15 (sold out)
Some singers are born with a rafter-raising bellow, like gifted Mattiel Brown, whose band Mattiel (with Link Wray-ish guitarist Jonah Swilley) appears in San Francisco this week to promote the Devo-quirky sophomore recording “Satis Factory.”
But she didn’t find the courage to unleash her voice until a traumatic set of circumstances left her with no other alternative. She explains: “We all have an adrenal gland that produces cortisol, but by taking steroids in any form you can teach your adrenal gland not to make cortisol anymore, and your body can become addicted to steroid cream. That’s what happened to me, and then I had to withdraw from it, which took two and a half years. I was in absolute hell.”
She was soothed by hours-long oatmeal baths and writing songs as therapy, one of which — the Blondie-esque “Count Your Blessings” — summarizes the experience. Around the same time she started recording she met Swilley and they bonded over a shared love of Outkast, The Beastie Boys and The White Stripes, whose frontman Jack White was so stunned by 2017’s live-recorded “Mattiel” debut, he invited the group to play his swank Third Man Records shop in Nashville.
White and his daughter watched the concert, standing right next to her mother, says Brown. “And my mom said, ‘Is that your daughter?’ But he didn’t answer. And my mom pointed to me and said, ‘That’s my daughter, up there!’ And he laughed and said, “Oh, she’s great!’”
Soon, White asked Mattiel to open several dates on his solo tour. “I got a crash course in performing arts, because I got to watch him every night,” she says.
Brown claims she hasn’t become the anti-Oliver Twist, shivering at a bowl of gruel. “Now I just eat it,” she says, laughing.
IF YOU GO
Where: Cafe Du Nord, 2174 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 1
Tickets: $15 to $18
Juliana Hatfield, also known for inventive originals, momentarily has waived them for covers projects, which began with 2018’s “Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John” and continued into last year’s “Juliana Hatfield Sings The Police,” augmented by a colored-vinyl reissue of her old outfit The Blake Babies’ “Innocence and Experience.” She also maintains a busy cottage industry selling her skeletal sketches on Etsy, which serves several purposes. “I have all of this artwork,” she says. “So this is a way to pass it on, make a little money to pay the bills, and to help the animal causes I’m involved with,” she says. “So it’s good for everyone, I think.”
Why Olivia Newton-John?
Olivia was on my mind because I’d just bought tickets to see her. I hadn’t seen her in concert, and I’m at the time in my life where where I’m trying to do things I never did because I might never get the chance again, you know? But she ended up canceling all the dates because she got sick, and that’s when I decided to make the album. I wanted to pay tribute to her, because of how much I loved her music growing up. What a beautiful thing it was in my life, all that music.
And The Police?
The Olivia record was just so rewarding for me, personally, that I realized that I should continue this quest back into my adolescence and the music that was really important to me, which gave me the strength to become my own unique musician. And The Police and Olivia Newton-John both had unique voices; neither Sting nor Olivia sounded like anyone else, and all the singers that I love are like that, like Paul Westerberg and Exene Cervenka. I knew that I had a weird voice, too, that didn’t sound like anyone else, and those singers gave me the confidence to believe in my own vision.
Have you selected your next subject?
I have. I will say that I was contemplating Tom Petty. But now I have a better idea. And overall, I feel like once you make it to a certain age, you’re like, “I made it to this age, so everything else is just gravy after this. I’m here, I’m not dead, so everything else is a big cherry on top!”
IF YOU GO
Where: Slim’s, 333 11th St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: $20 to $25